Cecil the Lion and Trophy Hunting

This week’s horrible animal welfare story comes courtesy of a certain American dentist, yes we’re talking about the trophy killing of Cecil the lion.

I won’t name the gentleman (the Guardian has no such qualms), but according to the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, he . . .

  • Paid $50,000 for the privilege (Cecil is a well known personality of the park thought to bring in thousands of dollars annually, at a conservative estimate)
  • Spotted the lion in the park and then lured him outside of the park with bait
  • Shot the lion with an arrow, failed to kill it
  • Followed the lion until were able to shoot it with a gun, killing it.
  • Did so with no permit
  • Removed the lion’s radiotracking collar

The Telegraph rightly points out that locals who had been found guilty of hunting without a permit would be imprisoned if found guilty. I sincerely hope rich hunters have to abide by the same legal systems.

I’m not totally against hunting. In cases of overpopulation, a skilled hunter able to kill an animal quickly and humanely in its natural environment is what I would consider a ‘good death after a good life’. The hunter needs to kill the right animals (this is never the big males) and I would prefer if the animal’s body was used after death, but I’m okay with this.  I’m not even necessarily against culling lions, but I want there to be valid conservation reasons behind it. My ethical viewpoint, which is a pretty common one, is that animal use needs to be justified, and one person’s enjoyment does not allow me to approve of the painful and prolonged death this lion suffered. (I talk more about animal use in the Value post).

For a humane death we need to be using the right kind of gear. While it’s very impressive shooting things with a bow and arrow, it’s not the cleanest kill-method. Take the Makah people who live in Washington State. When they were allowed to hunt grey whales again, as part of their traditional hunting, they chose to use high powered rifles to make as quick a kill as possible. I really like the Makah’s story for a number of reasons (and frequently contrast it with UK fox hunting with my students, to varying degrees of success), including that the not all of the tribe were keen on the idea of starting up their hunting again.

A modern bow and arrow is a fearful weapon, but still not one that kill as quickly and reliably as a gun. Guns are extremely effective weapons, and short of being stunned prior to killing, a high caliber bullet to the brain is a quick and painless death.

Despite my disagreements with the method, what’s happening to this hunter right now isn’t right. We protect animal welfare because we want to be better, we should protect human welfare for the same reason. This guy should be prosecuted in a court of law, protected from the internet’s mob-happy vengeance.

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Value

I like when current events in the media combine to illustrate animal welfare in our society. This week’s blog post was impossible to resist.

Recently there was a bit of hubbub over a group of scientists discovering what they described as … a freaking puppy sized spider (emphasis mine, extra Raid cans also mine).

The scientists released a blog and the media picked it up and ran with it (because it was a freaking puppy sized spider. It wasn’t even chihuahua sized, this is a decent sized puppy we’re talking about. No I’m not linking to a picture. Google that yourself. Go on. Type ‘puppy sized spider’ in there. I dare you).

But here comes the twist in the tale (the puppy sized spider tail . . . wait, that doesn’t really work, does it?). Our intrepid scientist started to receive death threats and abused because he collected a specimen. And ‘collected’ in this sense means in the more Victorian sense. There is one less puppy sized spider in the world.

Piotr, for that is our scientist’s name, has written an excellent blog post describing the necessity of biological sampling, and the danger of assuming that any of us lead a guilt free life. I strongly encourage you to read it, but I’ll include this quote:

We kill thousands of organisms without realizing that we do it. Look into the light fixtures of your house or the grill of your car, they are full of dead insects and spiders. 

It is all but impossible to live a life that does not harm animals in some description, and for the most part (legally, and culturally) we often excuse ourselves by protect vertebrates. I’m really fascinated by the outrage that has come up around a spider.

This week, TV presenter Chris Packham penned an open letter to the presenters Ant and Dec asking them to put a stop to the ‘animal abuse’ in their show ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’. The show typically features ‘celebrities’ eating live bugs on screen as a challenge, or in one memorable case, a contestant caught, killed and ate a rat. Packham says:

“I can guarantee that some animals are harmed during production, because they are fragile or easily stressed. Or simply killed, as they are in your bushtucker trials.”

Are we heading toward a new age of invertebrate animal protection?

 

I have a visceral reaction to that spider. It makes me feel unwell. Yes, I am an arachnophobe (I’m not fond of any insect really), even the cute ones like the Peacock Spider are only tolerable when they are an image on a screen. When I see a spider the space between my shoulderblades begins to twitch and my heart begins to pump. Fear this, my body tells me, and even when I’m trying to be cool in front of other scientists, I cannot bring myself to approach. I have never held a tarantula, even though I’ve had copious opportunities to do so, because I simply would not be able to control my muscles long enough to do so.

It’s Okay To Be Smart did an interesting vid on this recently, but that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is to discuss whether we, as a society, think it’s acceptable to harm invertebrates.

I have beliefs about the way you should treat animals. This set of beliefs arises from my experiences, my knowledge, my culture and my society. This is my ethical viewpoint. You can explore the most common ethical viewpoints and how you stack up on the excellent Animal Ethics Dilemma website.

My ethical viewpoint has changed over the years, as has yours no doubt. Our ethics can even be formed by different thought processes. Some people will describe their ethics based on how things make them feel. As a utilitarian, I try to remove my feelings from the process of making an ethical judgement (interestingly, a small study of 38 students showed that the way they reacted to images of humans experiencing injustice and unfairness influenced the way their higher-order ‘computational nodes’ of the brain – in essence it was the logical parts of the brain that react in cases of injustice, Yoder & Decety (2014). It would be fascinating to repeat this with other age groups, and with animal scenarios too. The point being that your desire for social justice does not necessarily have to be based on the emotional centres of your brain). Regardless of how your ethical viewpoint was formed, you believe it to be right. When people act against their ethical values, they can be deeply distressed.

Now some people believe you should harm no animal at all. They believe that animals have an absolute value and that we have no right to use them. To live in such a way that upholds the absolute value of all animals is very difficult. The kingdom ‘Animalia’ (the simplest way to define animals, really) encompasses a huge range of beasts: do the sponge and the jellyfish have the same absolute value as the elephant and the tiger? Every time you swat a fly, uproot a worm, or even tell a dog not to eat the cat’s food you could be violating that absolute value.

This is a difficult (though not impossible, see Jainism) way to live. But most people begin to take a more centrist position by believing that animals have an intrinsic value. We must justify their use in some way. Some justifications are easier than others. I always find the fish eating vegetarian to be a fascinating example of this. Many species of fish (which is an arbitrary group of animals anyway) have very sophisticated nervous systems and are capable of pain and suffering. Killing them humanely is difficult and catching them humanely even more so. But for many people, their ethical viewpoint can accept the death of a fish, but abhors the death of a chicken. This often comes from a relational viewpoint, where animals are prized for the way we interact with them. Most people have fewer interactions with a fish than they do a chicken or a cow, and the life of a fish is more unimaginable.

And then on the other side, some people believe that animals have an extrinsic value, that we may use them as we wish.This is more common than you might think. The cat owner who takes his cat to the vets to be euthanased because he no longer wants it is assigning its life extrinsic value. When the owner no longer takes value from the animal, the life becomes disposable.

This scale of values exists in conjunction with the various ethical viewpoints we have. I myself am a utilitarian who believes animals have an intrinsic vale. I use animals. I am also rather broad in my description of animals. For example, I’ll eat any animal so long as I can be satisfied of two questions: “Did the animal have a good quality of life/human death?” and “Will eating this animal negatively impact my health or welfare?” Now that doesn’t mean I question every animal product that passes my lips, I am more than sure I have eaten poor welfare meat (as we discussed in our kosher post), but this ethical standpoint and my view of animals’ values guides my actions.

 

However there is an element of the ‘relational’ ethical viewpoint for me. I don’t have good relationships with invertebrates, and I don’t have the same emotional reaction to their injury that I do to a vertebrate’s injury. With that being said, we describe invertebrate harm as ‘cruel’ and ‘worrying’ in several cultural contexts. Imagine the cat playing with the spider, batting it from paw to paw, tearing it limb from limb. We frequently stop our cats from doing this, in part because we are disgusted, but in part because we recognise that must be an unpleasant experience for the spider. Cats are cruel and toy with their prey (probably because they don’t recognise their prey as sentient, but with cats you never know . . .)

And then there is the case of the little boy burning ants. It’s a short hand we use for unthinking cruelty in our media, or to indicate that a character will go on to become cruel. And yet invertebrate experimentation like this is a common experience for many of growing up.

 

What is the difference, ethically speaking, in killing a spider for entertainment (I’m a Celebrity) and killing a spider for science (the puppy sized specimen). In  both cases, a spider dies, surely the ethical line is one drawn in the sand?

Well, no, I don’t think so. It’s often tempting to write off ethics as nebulous and personal, but there are many, many reasons to support both the collection of the puppy sized spider and the banning of invertebrate eating on I’m a Celebrity…

  • The ‘greater good’ of media vs science. How much does the entertainment of seeing people eat spiders benefit society?  Not a huge amount, the trials could be replaced by something equally disgusting and memorable (smelly tofu springs to mind, indeed what one of the previous winners of I’m a Celebrity ate as a vegetarian). Indeed you could argue that the destruction of animals for entertainment is an overall negative for our society, as Packham outlines.
  • By contrast, the ‘greater good’ we get from understanding the physiology of the Goliath spider is a scientific contribution to  our understanding of the world. I prize knowledge over entertainment.
  • Which brings me on to volume – the number of spiders which die for this scientific need is less than the number which die or are fatally injured for this case of entertainment.
  • And this brings me to the method – the method of killing on I’m a Celebrity is one which we might reasonably consider to be a high-stress environment, even for what we know of spider perception. Whereas we  might expect the passionate scientist to have a calmer, more human approach.

At the end of the day, if you feel animals have an extrinsic value, neither of these spider deaths will upset you. If you feel they have absolute value, both these deaths will upset you.

But most of us lie in the middle zone, where intrinsic value must meet the benefit our society gets from either entertainment or knowledge. And it is here that the great ethical debates come in.

Regardless, threatening the scientist is not going to help anyone.

Fluffy Friday – Peer Review Rings and MOOCs

You’ll have to forgive the lack of original content in this week’s Fluffy Friday (and lack of content entirely in last week’s). The MOOC launches on Monday at 11 AM and this week has been spent polishing the course and obsessing over comma placements and going a little bit hysterical after watching ourselves present over and over. One of our hysterical moments was remembering filming this introductory video – you’re never more aware of your face than when you’re being filmed in the background!

 

But in other science news there has been yet another peer review scandal, this one reported by the Washington Post. The Journal of Vibration and Control (I will not make a joke, I will not make a joke) was apparently victim to a peer review ring, where a scientist made up false aliases to give himself and colleagues favourable reviews. Publishers SAGE have released a statement where they say:

While investigating the JVC papers submitted and reviewed by Peter Chen, it was discovered that the author had created various aliases on SAGE Track, providing different email addresses to set up more than one account. Consequently, SAGE scrutinised further the co-authors of and reviewers selected for Peter Chen’s papers, these names appeared to form part of a peer review ring. The investigation also revealed that on at least one occasion, the author Peter Chen reviewed his own paper under one of the aliases he had created.

 

What I would give to have been a fly on the wall when they came up with that idea. I imagine it happened in the pub as it was closing, a group of scientists huddled around their pints, and as they get hustled from their barstools one of them comes up with the inevitable words “Why don’t we just review our own papers?

I think Kevin Spacey should play that scientist in the movie.

Badger Fortnight – The Solution?

But Jill, a fortnight is two weeks not three.

Shut up, that’s what.

 

This week I want to discuss two main studies – the first by Torgerson and Torgerson (2010) and the second a 2008 in the Veterinary Record. We have talked about why the disease is a problem, why the cull hasn’t worked, so the question becomes: What now?

The Torgersons start off with the claim that Defra’s continual fight against bovine tuberculosis is a misplaced use of public resources and we should just chill on the whole thing.

What’s their reasoning?

They start by going into the details of the few cases Britain has had of humans developing bovine TB. Between 1993 and 2003 they note that there were only 315 human cases of Bovine TB and only 14 of those were in people born after 1960 and were British Nationals.

Molecular investigation found that only 10 of the 25 spoligotypes of the bovine TB present in infected humans were actually present in contemporary UK cattle. They describe two cases from Gloucestershire where on-farm transmission from cattle to humans was likely. A third case in Cornwall where a veterinary nurse was infected was considered to have more likely come from her dog. (Interestingly, cats and ferrets are also known vectors of bovine TB and I know I’ve had more cats sneeze into my mouth than badgers, and I’ve probably worked with more badgers than most . . . Ragg et al, 1995). The more infamous six cases which sprouted up in Birmingham featured a UK national with a ‘history’ of drinking unpasteurised milk at home and abroad. And four of these six patients were likely immunocompromised.

Historically, Bovine TB did not come from cattle-to-human airborne transmission, but through milk. And as we pasteurise all our milk nowadays, the Torgersons conclude this risk is now negligible. I want to take a  moment to say that I have anecdotally observed a strange counter culture of people who love unpasteurised milk (in fact it is a topic of conversation that seems to leap up whenever I tell people I work with dairy cows). Unpasteurised milk drinkers are a little like foodies who insist you’re using the wrong kind of spice and I’m often asked if I drink unpasteurised milk – once I was fairly certain my optician wouldn’t sell me glasses until I converted to unpasteurised, but I digress – seeing as milk makes me ill at the best of times, the thought of drinking milk unpasteurised ‘gies me the boak’ as we say in Glasgow. Unpasteurised cheese is another matter . . .

Where was I?

Oh yes. The end conclusion of the Torgersons (are they brothers, or did they just think they would be epic scientific partners?) paper is that they believe our hypervigilant position on bovine tuberculosis in the UK is a waste of public resources. They don’t see a reason for spending so much money on a disease which so rarely affects humans.

The Veterinary Record article doesn’t quite agree, but following the randomised badger culling trial in 2007, they too realised that badger culling was not the way forward (yes we were having this discussion seven years ago) . In the article they propose:

  • More frequent testing of cattle using combined tests to detect active disease.
  • Research on post-movement cattle testing.
  • Research into a vaccine for cattle and badgers and immediate usage as soon as its developed.
  • Research into the disease.
  • Get farmers to understand the need for greater on-farm biosecurity.

 

Really, this article back in 2008, was proposing the oldest solution: identify, research, prevent.

So why aren’t we there yet? Well seven years in research and pharmaceuticals is not a lot of time. Defra’s old website has a page on cattle vaccinations and it points out that the EU prohibits vaccinating cattle against TB (because being vaccinated makes some cattle test positive for TB, ergo herds cannot be declared TB free because the vaccine may be masking infection. The EU prohibits trade of TB infected cattle).

The BCG vaccination is not brilliantly effective in cattle, so we either need a better vaccine, or to use that vaccine to protect some of the herd and reduce the number of cattle we need to cull. But it’s expensive and hampers trade with the EU.

This post will be published a week after I voted in the European elections. I can tell you I didn’t vote for UKIP or anything like that, I’m a good left winger who lives in Scotland, you get three guesses on my vote and the first two don’t count, but the role of the EU legislation in our Bovine TB problem can’t be ignored. The Farmers Guardian reports that the European Commission doesn’t expect a vaccine to be around until 2023.

There is definitely something to be said for better biosecurity measures on farms. There are some brilliant farmers, and there are some poorer farmers, and coughs and sneezes spread diseases. We have known this since Koch came up with his postulates. The good farmers resent being told what they already know and the poor farmers resent being told to do better. We come back to my old hobby horse – how do you communicate that science to a varied audience?

And finally the TB test – if we can find a test that can discriminate between infected, active infections, vaccinated and TB free, and do so reliably, we can still trade with the EU. These things all take time, money, and a little bit of luck.

We won’t find the solution to the bovine TB problem on a welfare scientists hobby blog. The answer is not badger culling. It’s not, as the Torgersons suggest, just letting the disease roam free. If we want to trade with the EU we need to deal with it.

 

Just wait till Defra finds out cats transmit TB . . .

 

Badger Fortnight – The Cull

This week on Badger Fortnight we turn our attention to the rogue of the tale, the humble badger.

Did you ever read the Redwall books as a child? If the story of Bovine TB was told Redwall style, I imagine the badger would be a travelling bard, handy with a bow, flirting with the bovine ladies at the bar, upsetting the status quo and just generally causing a fuss.

Badgers biggest problem in this story is that they are a host for Bovine TB. When they catch TB and it becomes an active infection the disease develops and they become weak and emaciated but rarely actually die from the disease. They can transmit this infection back to cattle out in the fields, again through aerosol droplets.

Badgers are group living animals which are highly territorial. They live underground in setts which are protected by law in the UK. For this reason, Defra’s randomised culling trials needed special permission. You cannot simply go and shoot badgers in the UK.

The culling trial was supposed to be the humane solution to the problem of the spread of bovine TB. As you may have seen in some other posts of mine, I have no welfare problems with humane culling (although I may not like it from an ethical standpoint).

In this post I’m going to briefly go over the final Defra reports on the culling trial and discuss why I would consider it to be an abject failure.

 

Humaneness of the Badger Cull

The Humaneness Monitoring protocol for the cull (Version 0.4) states that:

“Killing techniques that are instantaneous without imposing any stress on the animal are universally accepted as being the ideal and having a low welfare cost. Welfare costs are assessed in two dimensions: duration and intensity of suffering.”

 

I’m fairly content with this definition. If the process doesn’t stress the animal and the death is fast, I consider that to be a ‘good’ death. The protocol itself states how they recorded the whether or not the cull was humane. They investigated:

  • Time from being shot to death
  • How many badgers escaped after being shot at?
  • What do badgers do after being shot at?
  • Where on the badger are the wounds located?
  • How injured are the shot badgers?
  • Is there a relationship between time till death and type of injury?
  • Is there a difference in the wound type between shootings observed by researchers and unobserved shootings?

This protocol also features the cutest little wound plot you ever did see.

 

Taken from the Humaneness Report Protocol, 2014, Version 0.4
Taken from the Humaneness Report Protocol, 2014, Version 0.4

 

These are the objectives the independent panel used to decide whether or not the badger cull was considered humane. But of course the cull had another objective too.

 

Population Control

The cull’s purpose was of course to control the badger population in the region. The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency 2014 Report into the efficacy of the cull (Version 1) describes how the AHVLA judged the success of the cull on a population control level.

Their aim, stated at the very start, was to reduce the badger population in the Gloucestershire area and Somerset area by at least 70%. Pretty early in this report you’ll notice the words ‘cage trapping’ being used. And if you’ll scroll up just a few paragraphs you’ll notice the humaneness protocol mentioned nothing about cage trapping.

Yes, the cull, in the end, did allow for cage trapping followed by shooting. Does being confined in a small area, unfamiliar to you, for up to a day, before a human approaches and shoots you sound like a stress free death? There’s a reason ‘like an animal in a trap’ is a saying.

Moving swiftly on . . . the AHVLA sampled the number of badgers in the area using hair traps – by placing little pieces of barbed wire near setts and badger runs they collected badger hair and DNA sampled that hair to build up a profile of how many badgers were in the area. They then compared the DNA of culled badgers to their profile.

They also investigated sett disturbance by monitoring the setts and placing, in a slightly Nancy Drew esque fashion, sticks outside the setts and noting which ones were disturbed. This method was not very reliable and they stopped using it because it was estimating that the cull had taken out over 100% of the badgers in the area, even though the observers were clearly seeing badger activity.

So they stuck with DNA sampling.

Now as you may have heard, it’s important for the cull to take out at least 70% of the badgers or the disturbance in the population will simply lead to badgers redistributing within the air and increased disease transmission. The cull had to take out a large proportion of the badgers to be successful.

Now read on . . .

 

Cull Success – Numbers

The AHVLA report estimates that in the Gloucestershire area, the highest estimate of the number of badgers culled was 65.3%. And it could have been as low as 28%. In Somerset they removed a maximum of 50.9% of the population and as few as 37% of the population.

All of those numbers are less than the target of 70%, even the maximum estimates.

In Gloucestershire, more setts were active after the culling than before (suggesting that the cull had resulted in increased badger movement, increasing the perceived disease transmission risk). Although this didn’t happen in Somerset.

The AHVLA report concludes with the following verdict:

“From the results presented above we conclude that industry-lead controlled shooting of badgers during the entire culling period (including the initial six week period and the extensions) did not remove at least 70% of the population inside either pilot area. In both areas significantly fewer than 70% were removed by controlled shooting. The combined approach of controlled shooting and cage trapping also did not remove at least 70% of the population inside either pilot area; substantially fewer than 70% were removed in both areas. Populations of badgers were highly likely to persist within both pilot areas following culling.”

 

Verdict: Fail.

 

 

Cull Success – Welfare

The Humaneness Report (2014) found that only 36.1% of the carcasses they post mortemed had the first entry wound in the target location. When the contract shooters were observed this jumped to 42.9% and when they were unobserved it was 31.5%

 

As you can see from this figure, a proportion of badgers were found some metres away from where they were shot, clearly suggesting functioning behaviours and implying suffering and pain after being shot.

Taken from the Defra report into humaneness.
Taken from the Defra report into humaneness.

 

The Independent Panel Report’s Conclusion

Professor Munro’s Independent Panel Report (2014) takes both these reports into account when it delivers this damning conclusion:

“We concluded, from the data provided, that controlled shooting alone (or in combination with cage trapping) did not deliver the level of culling set by government. Shooting accuracy varied amongst Contractors and resulted in a number of badgers taking longer than 5 min to die,others being hit but not retrieved, and some possibly being missed altogether. In the context of the pilot culls, we consider that the total number of these events should be less than five per cent of the badgers at which shots were taken. We are confident that this was not achieved.”

 

In summary, the cull failed to eradicate enough badgers to be worthwhile and it failed to do this in a method that we would consider humane.

The report also makes this  mention of the problems surrounding the humaneness of the cullings:

“Further concern about the accuracy of shooting stems from the following observations:

a. Seven badgers required at least two shots, with one Observed shooting recording six shots fired at a single badger.

b. A further seven badgers (in Category C) may have been missed completely. In one of these cases two shots were fired at two badgers, with both shots being considered misses on the basis of thermal imaging observations and subsequent analysis of thermal imaging recordings.”

 

So on the two criteria by which the culls were launched, they failed. They are not an option for controlling bovine tuberculosis.

 

So what happens now?

 

Tune in next week  . . .

Of Denmark, Zoos and Lions

Lately I’ve had a song from the TV series ‘Nashville’ stuck in my head – titled I Just Can’t Get it Right.

Copenhagen Zoo was back in the news last week for another culling. The Guardian and the Independent report on the story.

What’s happened this time?

Copenhagen Zoo is receiving a new male lion.

That seems cool, so why are they back in the news? Are they feeding more giraffes to the lions?

Um. No. They’ve euthanised two older lions and two younger lions to make room for him.

You’re kidding.

Well the zoo have helpfully said they’re not going to have live dissections of these lions, because they don’t always publicly dissect animals. 

 

Seriously though, the Guardian reports that the zoo’s scientific director received death threats after the Marius story went viral. I wonder how hard the journalists had to search for the next story, and how the scientific director is feeling this week.

There is a solid, scientific motive behind this culling, and it’s much the same as it was last time around. The zoo highly prizes natural behaviours.

In the wild, lions live in harem structures called prides. We’ve all seen the Lion King. Typically one or two related males will guard a group of females (the females tend to be related to one another, mothers, daughters, sisters). When the cubs are born the pride takes care of them. When the male cubs mature they’re chased from the pride.

Two brothers might then wander the Savannah until they find a pride with an old male lion guarding it. With all the strength and vigour of youth they oust the old lion and set up their own pride. The quickest way to do this is for them to kill all the cubs and bring the lionesses back into oestrus. This means the lionesses waste no time on producing cubs that related to the male protecting their pride. And so the circle of life continues.

Copenhagen Zoo euthanised their two old lions and their two cubs because this would mimic what happens in the wild.

I spoke about Copenhagen Zoo during the Marius scandal and I mentioned that I don’t entirely agree with this ‘natural behaviour’ approach. Let me explain again:

 

Natural behaviours are a good thing – one of the Five Freedoms relates to the Freedom to Perform Natural Behaviours.

But natural behaviours do not show an ethical standpoint. Aggression is natural. Dying is natural. Stress is natural. When using this freedom to assess the welfare of captive animals, we mean that the animal’s behavioural repertoire, all the behaviours it is capable of performing, should not be artificially restricted. For example, keeping a pig in a farrowing crate that prevents her from turning over is severely restricting her natural mothering behaviours.

This new male who is coming to Copenhagen Zoo does not have to fight the two old males for his pride. In the wild, he can’t simply come in and have the humans do all the work for him. Vice versa, the two old males who have been euthanised have not had the chance to fight for their survival. They did not have the opportunity to display their aggression to newcomer males.

It’s obvious why the zoo did not allow these natural behaviours to occur. A fight between three male lions would have caused great suffering to the animals. The aggression and the fight would have induced pain and stress and resulted, most likely, in a slow death for the losing animals. The zoo has accepted it has a duty of care over the animals, and so will not allow the fight to occur.

The zoo inherently compromises its natural behaviour ethos by selecting what animals live and die.

The moment you take responsibility for the life and death of an animal, you have a duty to make sure it has a good life and dies well.

Now I want to emphasise that I do not have a problem with animal euthanasia. It’s a ‘good’ death. I use animal products every day, therefore I cannot be opposed to the ending of a healthy animal’s life for human benefit. I have a problem with how the zoo chooses to justify this euthanasia. I think the zoo is trying to wear two hats at once, and it’s not an attractive look.

If the zoo’s primary focus is conservation, it should act as a rehabilitation centre. The public are not allowed in. You don’t overstock on animals which are not going to contribute to the conservation effort. You don’t stock many high profile, popular species like lions and giraffes. You have pens which are designed wholly for natural behaviours, not for viewing purposes.

If the zoo is a business which seeks to educate and inspire people about animals, it must accept that the very practice of keeping animals for this purpose innately compromises natural behaviours. The animals are not being kept for their good but for ours, and therefore we owe them a very good life indeed.

The zoo would probably respond that it is both of these scenarios. That is would be impossible to work in conservation without the money-making business side of the enterprise. I don’t really agree.

Many of the pictures used on this blog are ones I’ve taken at Edinburgh Zoo. I use that zoo for teaching. I use that zoo for entertainment. I think it’s a good zoo. But it is still a zoo and I still accept, every time I cross those gates, that my demand to use these animals compromises their welfare.

It’s a relatively small compromise. Probably better than the welfare compromise I ask of the chickens I eat. But it still exists.

Cull the surplus, it’s better than a slow death. But don’t try to fool yourself into thinking its for any other reason than because they’re no longer satisfying a human need.

The Selfie Cancer

Have you taken your make-up free selfie yet? Or are you rolling your eyes at the very thought? The split between the two camps is pretty much 50:50 on my Facebook wall.

Let me start with this. I am terrified of cancer. There are few diseases that frighten me. As a biologist, and with a family that comes in the medical flavour variety, I tend to view disease with more fascination than fear. But this obsession with the mechanics of the body breaks down when I’m confronted with the C word.

It’s not that I have bad experiences with cancer. The worst thing cancer has done to me is present a few non-malign tumours in close family members, which causes a few months of unease until the offending lump is excised. A grandfather died of an unknown primary tumour, a quick decline after a surprise diagnosis. And a grandmother who died of cancer before too many memories of her formed. Family lore says her radiation badge from her days working as a nurse in radiology was too often blackened, and that she ignored the signs for too long. I’ve been told we have the same hair.

But it still frightens me. Is it the chaotic nature of the disease? Cells which divide forever, heedless of the proper order of the body? Yes, I am a bit of a control freak. Is it the way it lurks? The lumps and bumps that might seem normal. Is it that, despite being shown by a nurse and looking at the diagrams, I’m still very unclear on whether I’m doing a breast exam right? Is it the vestigial cultural taboo of the C word?

But as a scientist, cancer holds other problems for me. If you forced me to give you my contribution to the world’s scientific knowledge I’d tell you I enhanced our understanding of how personality affects animal behaviour. Anonymous internet commenters have asked me why I didn’t spend my time curing cancer instead.

Build a Large Hadron Collider – why didn’t you spend that money curing cancer?

Define our theory of physics – why don’t you use that time to cure cancer?

Launch a telescope into space – shouldn’t you be curing cancer?

Work in cancer research – shouldn’t you be curing cancer faster?

I’m sure most of my fellow scientists will have had this accusation levelled at them once or twice. Never mind that markets don’t work like this, that scientific progress requires more than one discipline of study. Never mind that I’d be useless in a lab because my natural talents lie towards the empathy and big-picture-view that make me a good ethologist. Why don’t we all go cure cancer right now?

Here I direct you to another wonderful science communicator: Jorge Cham. As the creator of PhDComics.com he has plenty to say on the experience of being a scientist. When he visited a cancer centre he had to ask: why were they listening to him and not off curing cancer?

Please do visit that link. It’s one of the most informative links I’ll ever point you towards. To call this monster simply ‘Cancer’ provides a smoke screen that disguises the true problem. There are many, many cancers and there are many, many hurdles on the way to curing, or even treating, those many, many cancers.

This brings us to the selfie trend. Take a photo of yourself without makeup to raise awareness of cancer. The Telegraph reports the trend has already raised a million pounds. The Independent editorialises the death of vanity. And Closer magazine thinks we’re all missing the point (they helpfully tell me the point is to donate money).

It’s always easy to criticise. I’ll start my criticisms by saying this no-make up selfie bandwagon sensationalises women who choose not to wear make up. It is somehow ‘brave’ to appear as you do when you wake up in the morning. I have apparently been subjected to ‘horror’ if I’m to believe the self deprecatory captions on each selfie.

This is perhaps what offends me the most about this whole trend. I’m an avid selfie taker and I wear make up perhaps once a month. Last weekend I posted about five make-up free selfies in the course of a football match. Is this horrendous to you? Am I brave? No, I am not.

Because I am afraid of cancer.

And this is why the selfie craze is brave, just not quite in the way people might think. It’s not brave because you contravene some ridiculous preconception of beauty. It’s brave precisely because you frighten me. You remind me there is a terrifying disease out there. Stephanie Boyce is brave for reminding me that the disease is survivable.

The bravery is the same bravery that prompts people to stand on the street collecting money for cancer research. It’s an irritant. They know I don’t want to hear about it, they know I don’t want to confront the fear today, but still they ask for money.

When we talk about a ‘cancer awareness’ campaign it may seem like we’re implying there are people out there who are somehow unaware of our plague. Nobody is unaware of cancer. But there is still a desire to sweep the disease under the rug. It is so big, so complex and so terrifying that it’s easier to think that if all scientists simply put their heads together we’d have it kicked in a week.

It bothers me that your make-up less face is worthy of comment. It bothers me that we picked this method of getting people talking. But it bothers me that cancer is still so prevalent.

What’s the bigger evil? The disease, or being reminded that it exists?

The Empathetic Spreadsheet

Serendipity smiles on FluffyScience. I said I wanted to talk about the peer review scandal and the very next day I’m asked to act as the peer reviewer for the first time! If I ever needed an excuse to talk about peer review, I certainly have it now.

The peer review scandal everyone has been talking about is this: 120 computer generated conference papers were withdrawn by Springer. Including a delightful sounding paper about an empathetic spreadsheet. It sounds shocking. But it’s probably not quite as shocking as you think it is.

Let me explain using my own first hand knowledge of peer review. I don’t pretend to be an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but by fortunate happenstance I have enough publications, and enough different kinds of publications, to walk you through the process.

Have you checked out my Google Scholar profile? The link’s over on the right hand sidebar. Or just click here. You’ll see that there are currently five items in my profile. You can use Web of Knowledge instead but that requires an academic log-in, doesn’t update as quickly and isn’t as comprehensive in its record keeping. Therefore we’ll stick with Google.

All five of those publications have a Digital Object Identifier which basically means they have a permanent presence online. And they’re all linked to my name. The top three publications on that list are scientific papers. There’s MacKay et al 2012, MacKay et al 2013 and MacKay et al 2014. Then there’s a conference proceedings and a book chapter about the video game Halo (that’s another story).

Therefore I have publications in three categories: Papers, Conference Proceedings and Book Chapters. Now. Which publication wasn’t peer reviewed?

If you guessed the video game chapter, you’re correct. Video games, much as I love them, are not known for their rigorous peer review. You might be surprised to find that the Conference Proceedings (this one for the British Society of Animal Science (BSAS) 2012 conference in Nottingham) were, in fact, peer reviewed.

I’ve presented at two International Society for Applied Ethology (ISAE) conferences, two BSAS conferences, and two regional ISAE conferences. For all six conferences I have had to submit an abstract, a short description of what I intend to talk about. For BSAS the abstract is a page long, with references, subheadings and must present data in table or graph form.

This is quite unusual for my field, ISAE by contrast is something like 2000 keystrokes and frowns on references. On the other side of the fence, many of my colleagues have just submitted papers to the World Congress on Genetics Applied to Livestock Production (doesn’t it sound thrilling?) and these have been three pages in length. They’re papers more than abstracts.  But WCGALP only runs every four years and it is a very large conference, hence the extra work.

All of these conference papers will get comments back on them. Even the regional ones (although my last regional one was a comment simply saying I needed to be more explicit about what behaviour I was recording). The point being that a human has read these papers and passed judgement on it.

Here we stop and acknowledge the scientific committees of these conferences who have an extremely hard job reviewing so many small pieces of science.

So these 120 conference papers that were removed from Springer – what went wrong?

Well first off, many of the authors on these conference proceedings did not know they were co-authors. Someone submitted papers with their name on it without them knowing

But wait – I hear you say. Jill, your conference paper is on your Google Scholar profile. Wouldn’t you be suspicious if an extra publication cropped up? Yes, reader, I would. But note that despite publishing in six conferences only one of them is on Scholar. Why is this paper the lucky one? If I had to guess I’d say someone referenced something in that Proceedings, forcing Scholar to index it. But I may be wrong – Google’s not particularly clear on this. And some of these authors may be in the lucky position of having so many publications they genuinely don’t notice a few extra ones.

So why submit a fake paper with somebody else’s name on it? I’d be surprised if these papers are being presented at the conferences (although I’d love to hear the talk on empathetic spreadsheets). But what I do know is that those fake-papers have to cite other papers and another very important research metric is the number of citations you have. (Mine is a glorious 1).

Yes – fake papers are a problem. But it’s not a problem of bad results getting out there, it’s a problem of the system being gamed, and people using these kinds of research metrics as the only gauge of a researcher’s quality.

Research Metrics

There are ways around this. In the UK we have a new system for assessing research quality in Higher Education Institutes. It’s called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Funding bodies use this to help them decide how to allocate funds over the next few years.

You enter REF as an institute. REF grades the papers submitted to them based on this framework.

  • A four star paper is world leading research, original, with great impact and the highest quality science.
  • A three star paper is pretty damn good, internationally recognised, good impact and high quality science.
  • A two star paper is internationally recognised as being original research, good impact and high quality science.
  • A one star paper is nationally recognised as being original research, good impact locally and high quality science.

 

The difference between these stars is really all about the impact of the science, which is great. Of course, REF has its own drawbacks. In the next few years you’re going to see a lot of UK papers with sweeping, statement titles instead of informative titles. A paper which would have been titled “The effect of indoor housing on behaviours in the UK dairy herd” will now be titled “Management systems affect dairy cow behaviour [and industry if I could wrangle that in there]”. You’ll also see a lot of new roles being created just before a REF exercise because the papers stay with the primary author. If you have a 4 star publication under your belt you become a Premier League footballer during the transfer season.

But one thing REF is  not vulnerable to is false publications. A panel of experts reviews all the papers that the institute chooses to put forward. No empathetic spreadsheets allowed.

We’ve just finished the first round of REF and it will be interesting to see how it affects research going forward. As animal welfare scientists we’re excited about the emphasis on impact, something we’re good at demonstrating.

Lastly, while 120 papers sounds like a lot, I’d like to direct you towards Arif Jinha’s 2010 paper which estimated that there are 50 million published articles out there. We are talking about less than 0.000001% of articles even if these were papers, never mind conference publications.

 

By that logic, my own publication records contributes 0.00000008% of the world’s papers. I’d better get cracking.

Blackfish

If you live in the UK or US you’re running out of excuses not to watch the documentary Blackfish. It’s had a cinematic release and been shown on the BBC, as well as being available on iTunes.

For the uninitiated, Blackfish is the story of an orca who recently killed its trainer at SeaWorld. As a result, SeaWorld trainers were prohibited from entering the water with the animals.

When I’m not slaving away over a hot computer screen and working on my next paper, I am a bit of a film geek. In fact I wrote the first draft of this post before heading to my monthly film pub quiz (we lost). Blackfish is a truly brilliant documentary. It takes you an emotional journey, is beautifully structured, and paints the orca, Tilikum, as a flawed, sympathetic character. I love it as a film.

But we’re scientists! Let’s take a critical look at the concept of keeping orcas in captivity. As I have access to scientific papers, I decided to do a short review of the literature. When talking about science I think it’s important to cite your sources (and no doubt I’ll say this many times in future) so I will link to papers. Unfortunately some of them, if not most, will be behind a paywall.

I wrote this post over a number of days, but it’s certainly not an exhaustive literature search. This is the kind of literature search I’d do if someone asked me what I thought of orcas in captivity.

So what did I find out?

Continue reading “Blackfish”