Wednesday, August 29, 2012

When animals aren't 'animals.'

I know a guy who has fishing licenses in about ten states. He doesn't fish, but he does study salamanders, and according to the fishing regulations in many states, salamanders are fish and you need a fishing license to mess with them. Salamanders are of course not fish, unless you are a hard-core cladist who thinks that all vertebrates are fish. State fishing officials are not generally hard-core cladists, just people who write and enforce regulations and don’t really care if salamanders aren’t fish.
A similar situation arises when it comes to laws governing ethical animal research. If a scientist wants to passively observe a bunch of animals in the wild, she needs to go through all kinds of ethics boards and paper-work to make sure she is complying with these laws. If another scientist wants to slowly dissolve a bunch of live insects in acid, he just needs to buy some acid, because legally, invertebrate animals aren’t ‘animals.’ Animal ethics laws generally don’t apply to them. I say generally because their are particular exceptions. Switzerland and Norway consider lobsters and their relatives to be animals, so you can’t just drop them in boiling water (at least not in a scientific context), you have to kill them humanely. England extends animal protection laws to the Common Octopus, but apparently not to other less common octopuses, so it pays to be common.

For a researcher like myself, who studies invertebrates in the lab, this is a very convenient absurdity. It means that when I want to feed live brine-shrimp to my hydra, I don’t have to ask any committees to review whether the feeding is humane to the brine-shrimp or the hydra. I don’t need to get official approval for the size of container I keep barnacles in.
I approve of laws, regulations, forms and committees that require the ethical treatment of animals in research, and I try hard to follow the principles they are intended to enforce. I am also very glad I don’t personally have to deal with the red tape.

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