Friday, 15 May 2015

Steven Wise Rattling the Cage in Australia

Steven Wise is touring Australia as part of the 2015 Voiceless Animal Law lecture series.

Wise has been writing about and more importantly, advocating on behalf of nonhuman animals, for many years. Recently he founded the Nonhuman Rights Project which aims to establish legal personhood for (some) nonhuman animals.

To that end Wise has had a significant victory of late, with Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe asking the State University of New York at Stony Brook to show cause as to why it should be permitted to own, restrain and use Hercules and Leo; two chimpanzees who are part of a University mobility study.

Steven Wise’s law lecture tour raises the obvious question; what might this landmark case mean for Australia?  

Wise’s litigation is an attempt to establish legal personhood for chimpanzees. Legal personhood is good. In fact it is great. Legal personhood is closely equated with rights, and rights are closely equated with strong interest protection. At present nonhuman animals are property items at law. Legal personhood would change all that.

Most commentators agree that Wise is unlikely to succeed in this case and Hercules and Leo are unlikely to get their freedom. If Wise is successful I expect the decision will be appealed immediately. If Wise does win, and the ruling withstands challenge, it will still only have local jurisdictional application in a strict legal sense.

However, that does not mean that the case is not important and it does not mean that its impact will not be felt in Australia.

The use of animals in research is the most secretive of all animal uses. As I document in my book Animals, Equality and Democracy, animal research is heavily regulated, but there is no mechanism by which the community is permitted to engage in a dialogue about animal research. Experiments are kept secret; deliberations by animal ethics committees are kept secret; and in many (if not most) cases the results are not conclusive and are never published. Suffice to say, where animals have an adverse reaction to an experiment they are quietly killed and the community is none the wiser.  This secrecy means that the community is not permitted to reflect on the values, ethics, and process associated with animal research.

The level of secrecy is such that many Australians are unaware that Australia has three primate breeding facilities or that an estimated 313 macaque or marmoset monkeys were used in research in 2011, in Victoria alone.

If nothing else, Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Animal Project are helping us start a much needed, and long overdue, conversation. As Wise noted on the ABC’s Lateline, the State University of New York at Stony Brook has not so much as acknowledged that they are in possession of the two chimpanzees at the heart of his case. Nor have they been held to account by the community. All that is about to change. Soon Hercules and Leo will have their day in court.

Any type of ventilation of what goes on behind closed laboratory doors is important. The State University of New York at Stony Brook will be forced to show cause. Perhaps they can do so successfully. But what is important is precisely that they do have to do it. They have to make the case. It is no longer silently assumed that animals are ours to experiment on or that one set of animal researchers can approve the animal research of another set of animal researchers.

Asking the question and having the debate is what matters. And what is discovered once that discussion is had will have an impact on attitudes and behaviors around the world, including in Australia, where we do regularly harm nonhuman primates in the name of science.  

Friday, 24 April 2015

Dr. Clare McCausland on Knowing Animals the podcast with Siobhan O'Sullivan

In this episode of Knowing Animals the podcast with Siobhan O'Sullivan, Dr. Clare McCausland discussed her article 'The Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare are Rights' which appeared in Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, August 2014, Volume 27, Issue 4, pp 649-662. 

Monday, 26 January 2015

Minding Animals 3, New Delhi, India, January 2015

My animal studies year got off to the perfect start when I attending Minding Animals 3. Having attended the first conference (which was also the third Australasian Animal Studies Association conference in Newcastle, Australia) and then the second in Utrecht, it was my great pleasure to be at the third.

This time Minding Animals was held at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, India. Much of the conference organisation was undertaken by the Wildlife Trust of India:

I had some misgivings about visiting India. Some people love the country, but others told me that after visiting once they would never return. Thankfully I am one of the people who love India. While I didn’t travel too far out of Delhi, I loved being there and I hope to return soon.

Some regular Delhi visitors commented that the number of animals living on the streets of Delhi is now far smaller than in previous years. The city was also in a particular mode as it prepared for US President Obama’s visit.

Yet despite the apparent clean up efforts – both long and short term – I did still see many animals on the street. Most evident were dogs. Dogs appeared to fall into two categories. Those who were clearly ‘owned’ as evidenced by being on a lead or wearing a winter coat, and those who appeared to be un-owned and simply living their own life on the street. The dogs were overwhelmingly healthy looking, friendly and social. Many dogs had cuts in their ears indicating that they had been de-sexed and vaccinated.

This photo was taken around the corner from my hotel. The cow just stood there all day and people fed her. 

Cows were also clearly visible in the city. They did walk among the traffic and did appear to have right of way. I was told that many cows who I would have assumed were street cows were actually ‘owned’ and their movement around the city during the day is simply free time. At night they are collected up by small dairy owners and then milked in the morning, before being released again the next day.

One of the most disturbing things I saw during my trip was a documentary called ‘Plastic Cows’. You can watch it online here: The streets of India are full of rubbish, much of which is plastic waste. The cows eat the plastic and it gets lodged in their first stomach, never to be passed. It creates the illusion that the cows in Delhi are well fed. In fact they are often starving and the bulk is plastic. It is very sad to see.

Monkeys were less present in the city, although we did see some. I didn’t see a single elephant the entire time I was in India.

India truly is the land of vegetarianism. Veganism is (as far as I could tell) almost unheard of. But vegetarianism reigns supreme. My hotel had a daily breakfast buffet. It featured around 12 dishes, 11 of which were always vegetarian. Meat eating is the exception and relegated to the margins of society. This suited me just fine.

The conference featured regular keynotes and parallel sessions. My favourite keynote was by Will Kymlicka: Writing with his partner Sue Donaldson, Kymlicka spoke about whether we are providing animal citizens with adequate choice in their lives. I live tweeted Kymlicka’s paper and you can read the tweets @so_s #MAC3.  

I also enjoyed hearing Erica Fudge: talk about animals in wills in the early modern period. She is trying to understand whether animals were given names during that period. Erica will be a keynote at the upcoming Australasian Animal Studies Association (AASA) conference at the University of Melbourne in July 2015:

But the conference wasn’t just about the keynotes, or even what was said during the sessions. It was also very much about networking, learning who is doing what in the field, and sharing ideas informally.

Networking drinks. The conference seemed to be dominated by Australians. We are quite a loud people!

It was a pleasure to meet Lori Gruen: who hosts the Animals and Society Institute fellowship: each year.

 Dinner with Lori, Fiona and Yvette Watt.

It was great to reconnect with Fiona Probyn-Rapsey who heads up the Human Animal Rights Network (HARN) at the University of Sydney: and to meet Peter Chen: who is also based at Sydney and conducts research into policy networks and animal protection.  

Now that I have moved to the University of New South Wales (UNSW) I will hanging out with the Sydney crew more and more.

But I shouldn’t get into naming individuals because I met and reconnected with so many people that it really isn’t fair to single out just a few.

However, it wasn’t all hard conferencing work. The closing night started on a fascinating note as we heard from Ace Bourke:, one of the people featured in the book and documentary ‘A Lion Called Christian’:

Following the formalities we were treated to an Indian dance show Bollywood style and then a disco. It was so much fun!

Me rocking out Bollywood style. Lots of people in Indian wanted to have their photo taken with me (for some reason).

Thank you to everyone who made Minding Animals 3 so special. I look forward to the next one in 2018!

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Melbourne Zoo and its elephants

In 2012 Melbourne Zoo is celebrating its 150th birthday.

Earlier in the year I wrote an opinion piece about the Zoo's decision to use images of the baby  elephant it bred in captivity - Mali - as one of their principle means of commemorating the event. I wrote:

Mali will live her entire life in a space only a fraction the size of the typical home range of a wild herd of female Asiatic elephants. She may literally never know what it is to run. She will have no control over who she mates with, whether she has a calf, or what happens to that calf. She will never taste the foods of her homeland. She will not make a single significant decision about her life. It has already been determined that Mali will live in a tiny enclosure, on display, with a couple of other elephants, for the entirety of her life. She will never be returned to Asia. Nor will her offspring.
Does the elephant really encapsulate everything Melbourne Zoo wants to say about itself after 150 years?

The Zoo's idea was to commission artists to paint Mali sized statutes and to place those painted statutes around the city of Melbourne.

The statues have now started appearing throughout the city. The photo below was taken in Parkville. The second photo is the text that accompanies the statute.

While I think the artistry is beautify, I am no less disappointed by Melbourne Zoo's choice. My view is that the thing Melbourne Zoo should be least proud of is its elephant enclosure. I wrote earlier in the year:

Many urban zoos have decommissioned their elephant enclosures. In 2006, Philadelphia Zoo ended its 132 year old practice of exhibiting elephants. Andrew Baker, former vice-president of Philadelphia Zoo, said that in order to continue exhibiting elephants, the Zoo would need to expand the space devoted to them. They were not prepared to do so because community attitudes are shifting so quickly that they were concerned that by the time they had completed a new enclosure it would already by out of step with community expectations – it could be too small or not adequatly enriched. Zoos in Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto and New York have all done the same.
Yet despite this international trend, Melbourne Zoo persists in keeping elephants on a tiny tract of land in the high density inner city suburb of Parkville. This is hardly a vanguard approach to exhibiting animals and seems to have little to do with fighting extinction.
It may be true that Melbourne Zoo is also doing good conservation work. Indeed, they achieved quite  PR coupe by attracting renowned wildlife documentary maker Sir David Attenborough to the Zoo. He seemed to be sincerely impressed with the Zoo's stick instinct breeding program. But I am yet to be persuaded that Melbourne Zoo's elephant breeding program is about conservation first and foremost. Moreover, even if I could be persuaded that conservation is the principle motivator it would still be unclear to me why the elephants must be exhibited in the middle of the city of Melbourne. 
If Melbourne Zoo is going to fight extinction by caging animals why can't it do it by housing animals in enclosures that are appropriate for the animal in question? Stick instincts may have the capacity to thrive in small cages. I don't think the same is true for elephants. 

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Animal Research - the most polarising issue?

The use of animals in research continues to be the most polarising issue in the debate over animal rights; animal welfare; and what constitutes an appropriate human/animal relationship.

It seems that not more than a few weeks can pass without the media opening up the debate over the use of animals in research. Yet despite extensive writing on the topic, the views expressed by commentators are often polarising and rarely move the discussion forward in a meaningful way. Moreover, in cases where readers can leave comments about what they have read, the opinions posted are often vitriolic and rarely constructive. 

A case in point is an article written by Helen Marston from Humane Research Australia. Helen wrote about her personal battle with breast cancer and the ways in which she reflected on laboratory animals while undergoing treatment. Her article attracted some 360 odd responses from readers, many of whom aggressively objected to what she had to say. The commentary from readers quickly became personal with one reader writing that he could tell from Helen's photo that she's fat. I assume that the fat comment was intended to suggest that being overweight causes cancer. What is clear from such occurrences is that the use of animals in research generates passion, yet few people have much of value to add to the debate. 

A further example of the polarising nature of the animals in research debate is the way in which the Conversation website has dealt with the issue in recent weeks. 

On August 6th the Conversation carried an opinion piece which argued that the use of animals in research is inherently flawed. Monika Merkes wrote:

There are many other examples showing animal testing to have very poor predictive value for human diseases and toxicity. But animals are still used in laboratories all over the world to test the safety, toxicity and effectiveness of drugs. In fact, (and rather paradoxically) animal testing was made mandatory by drug regulators after the thalidomide tragedy. During the more than four decades since, it has become clear that animal tests fail to accurately predict human responses. And now, new testing methods are available.

That article also attracted numerous responses, many of which were polarising, and some of which attached the author. 

Then on August 9th, in response to Monika's article, the Conversation carried a second piece on animal research titled 'Animals-based research is still relevant and necessary'. In that article the author, Swetha Srinivasa Murali from the University of Sydney, wrote: 

Drug development is a slow process involving years, even decades, of research and animal models have always been integral to this work. 

As in the other cases, the article generated quite a debate among readers.

The same polarising tendency is evident in a piece published on The Independent online site in which the author asks: 'should testing on animals be banned?' That author affords equal space to two guest authors who go on to make polar opposite arguments. The first writes that animal research is cruel and unnecessary. The other argues that while animal research may at time be cruel, it is vitally necessary if we want medical advancement. The conclusion? There is none because both authors make opposing claims and when pushed I'm sure that both could produce a host of experts to back up their position. 

So where does this leave readers? I would suggest that it leaves us with very little to go on. Thankfully we now seem to have a consensus on the observation that the use of animals in research may cause animals to suffer. But is it beneficial? Both sides of the debate cross their heart and swear that they are telling the truth. But those truths appear to be mutually exclusive and the current form of intellectual engagement seems to be bringing us no closer to a consensus on the issue.  

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Viewer distress as we look inside an Australian piggery

One of the biggest animal news items of the last week relates to footage captured covertly inside a New South Wales (NSW) piggery. 

The footage was apparently obtained by a piggery worker, under the guidance of Animal Liberation NSW. Animal Liberation was involved in the collection of the footage over a two month period

According to those who have seen the footage, including representatives from the NSW Department of Primary Industries; RSPCA NSW; Animal Liberation NSW; the manager of the piggery in question; the CEO of Pork Australia; and the NSW Chief Veterinary officer, the footage shows animals experiencing significant suffering. Mark Pearson from Animal Liberation NSW described the vision in the following way:

The evidence that was gathered certainly showed abuse of animals, brutal treatment of animals.
Not treating wounds and injuries and disease and then slaughter of animals with the use of a sledge hammer, and no electrical device was used to stun the animals.

Authorities raided the piggery in response to the footage, which suggests that they found the evidence to be compelling and worthy of further investigation. 

The footage was so newsworthy that is was included in both the ABC (Australia) and SBS news broadcasts on Saturday August 4th. 

The airing of animal related footage as a national news item (and it may well have run on commercial television also - I don't know) suggests that it is a big story and that the treatment depicted in the footage is remarkable. 

What I found most curious, and the reason for writing this post, is that before both the ABC and SBS news segments went to air the respective newsreaders warned the audience that some people might find the scenes distressing. You can watch the ABC broadcast by clicking on this link: The warning comes at the 22 second point.

The news often includes reports about things that are upsetting, shocking, unpleasant, or distressing. Wars are being fought all around the world and as those wars are fought people are displaced and made to suffer in terrible ways. Yet rarely are warnings offered before a news item. The decision by both ABC and SBS to warn viewers that they may find the piggery footage distressing suggests to me that producers at both the ABC and SBS believe that the general public don't like to see animals being treated badly or suffering either prolonged cruelty or bursts of violent activity. Indeed, not only did the SBS newsreader warn her viewers that the footage may be distressing to some, the producers cut out a section and the reporter told the audience that 'what came next' was too distressing to be aired. SBS also pixelated the image of a worker kicking a piglet 'like a football'. 

I don't find it surprising that the community are sensitive to images of animal suffering. My research is predicated on the idea that there is not strong community support for animal suffering. But what I do find curious is: if the community is so distressed by animal suffering, that warning must be issued before news items that contain images of animal suffering can go to air, why do we allow so much animal suffering to take place? 

It would seem that as a society we are both oppose to, and are distressed by, animal suffering. Yet we also generate so much of it. 

Many people seem to agree that sow stalls look like miserable places to live. Many people seem to find the sight of them unpleasant, shocking or distressing. Yet they are perfectly legal, commonly used, and most people eat pork. 

I find it interesting that something can be both confronting to the point of distressing, yet also widely acceptable.

While the piggery footage captured by Animal Liberation NSW clearly depicts extraordinary events, I wonder whether audiences would have been shocked by the footage even if it didn't include piglets being kicked or sows being chased. I suspect they may have still been shocked, although probably less so. I think that many members of the community find the inside of an intensive farm (factory farm) confronting. Yet they exist and are home to many billions of animals in Australia and around the world.