Compassionate Behaviour: a challenge to researchers of animal behaviour

It’s time for researchers of animal behaviour to develop ethical methods for studying animal behaviour, and move towards a framework of ‘Compassionate Behaviour’.

Behavioural research is perhaps one of the most fascinating areas of science because it explores our presence and interaction in the world. From communication to cognition and personality to pain, behavioural research captures our imagination and increasingly shows us that non-human species have behaviours that are as complex as our own.

Behaviour is studied in various ways including relatively innocuous observational methods, where an investigator sits and watches a study subject for hours, days, weeks and sometimes years; think Jane Goodall watching chimpanzees. If the investigator wants to test a particular aspect of behaviour they might manipulate the natural environment and see what response the study subject has (e.g. study shows bees have map-like spatial memory). However, there is a darker side to behavioural research that is not often discussed.


The Problem

There are invasive techniques in behaviour research which have a significant impact on the individuals being studied, including methods that manipulate the life history of individuals in the wild, as is done in brood size manipulations, or trapping wild individuals and bringing them into a laboratory. Of individuals brought into laboratory conditions many will be killed once the research is completed.

Finally, some behavioural studies will breed individuals for the sole purpose of conducting behavioural research, in which case they will live and die in the laboratory.

Ironically, behavioural research has helped us understand the incredible nature of non-human animals and has fostered movements that promote greater moral consideration for them (see 12). We now recognise that many species have incredibly complex social systems, excellent cognitive skills, individual personalities and can form friendships. That they are individuals who have an interest in self determination and freedom from interference.


Unfortunately our understanding of animals has not stopped us from purposefully subjugated them to tormenting conditions. In our pursuit of knowledge we have ignored the rights of non-human individuals to be free from unnecessary use.

This was particularly evident at Behaviour 2015, the 34th International Ethological Conference held in Cairns (10th – 14th August 2015) and where over 800 delegates from all over the world presented, discussed and planned all things behavioural science.

I was lucky enough to attend the conference and see dozens of talks on current animal behaviour research. A large number of talks involved studies that used captive individuals and many ending with the study subjects being killed. Despite the considerable cost to the individuals being studied I didn’t hear anyone question the ethics of what was being done. In fact, there seemed to be a generally accepted assumption in animal behaviour research that it’s OK to use and kill animals if it is in the pursuit of knowledge.

I would like to challenge this assumption, and argue that it is unethical to use invasive methods during the course of animal behaviour research.

Our Faulty Logic for Using Animals

Animals are used in experimental research simply because they are not human. This is evident by the extensive limits on human research but not non-human animal research. The distinction between human and non-human animals is based on species membership, whereby being a Homo sapien grants one greater moral consideration. However, species membership is a morally irrelevant characteristic because it is based on a difference in physiology, and physiology shouldn’t matter when deciding how to treat an individual. For instance, whether someone is male or female, Brazilian or Chinese does not matter how they should be treated morally. This is because the randomness of being born a female in Zimbabwe does not mean you are any less worthy of ethical treatment than any other person in the world. Biology does not matter when deciding what is morally acceptable, therefore taking away the freedoms of individual based on their species is unethical (see 3 for a more extensive discussion of this idea).

Some people argue that certain human traits make them superior to other species and justifies the human position to treat non-human animals as we like. This thinking is problematic for several reasons. First, it is incredibly bias to a human view of the world because superiority is based on exceptional human traits, e.g. intellectual capacity. If superiority were judge on the ability to fly, or swim, humans would be considered inferior to many other species. Second, behavioural research is finding that humans are not as exceptional as we once thought! An argument of superiority is illogical and does not give us cause to use non-human animals how we want.

The Challenge

I suggest that behavioural scientists look at the emergence of Compassionate Conservation as a guide to how ethics concerning the individual can be used in scientific research. Compassionate conservation seeks to promote the protection of wildlife as individuals and takes into consideration individual interests when planning management options. This is a huge change from a field where the wholesale killing of millions of individuals is considered OK just because they ‘don’t belong’ in an ecosystem; even when such intervention ultimately have little to no benefit.

We need a new field of Compassionate Behaviour which considers the interests of individuals in the pursuit of knowledge.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s