Killing Schrödinger’s feral cat

Opinion by Susan Lawler

An article published last month in the Animal Studies Journal presents a nuanced view of animal research from the perspective of a scientist whose research sought a humane method for killing feral cats.

The author provides an insight into the legal and practical boundaries that surround animal experimentation. He explores the euphemisms used, the compromises required, and the challenges faced by a researcher who hopes to retain both his objectivity and his empathy.

Animal research ethics has been discussed at length on The Conversation, and readers often have strong views on the topic. In many cases, strongly held assumptions hamper thoughtful discourse. Here is a chance to explore the issues with our heart and head and viscera intact.

We all know that feral cats have a negative impact on Australian native fauna and that it is therefore desirable to control them. But most of us would agree that inducing pain and suffering is not ethical, unless it is unavoidable. Here we face a question of balancing harms and deciding which is the most compelling. How do we decide on the best approach?

It is not as simple as pitting cat lovers against environmentalists. It is not as simple as saying that all animal experimentation is evil. Evidenced based decisions require data, and collecting that data can be a painful process for both the scientist and the animals involved.

Killing Schrödinger’s Feral Cat, by Clive Marks, forces us to confront our assumptions by presenting a series of introspective vignettes. As the former head of Vertebrate Pest Research in Victoria, Clive faced the burden of killing feral cats for science. There was no other way to demonstrate how much suffering was caused by poisoning them with 1080 and to develop a justification for developing something better.

Animal ethics: not as straightforward as you think

Animal ethics committees are essential to ecologists, because without the proper permits we cannot do our job. And yet, the permit process does not always fit the reality of wildlife research. For example, a common goal of ethics committees is to reduce the numbers of animals affected, but when monitoring animals in the wild, researchers want to survey as many animals as possible.

Legal definitions are confusing, as when some invertebrates (octopus and crayfish) require permits while others (insects and shrimp) do not. When the law decides which animals are animals, biologists feel manipulated. People who do research on animals are likely to have their own (biological) definitions and they struggle with the discordance of imposed legislative language.

Even in the broader community, opinions differ about how we treat animals. Most people consider their pets as part of the family, but some say that owning animals is a cruel form of imposed slavery. Many people are comfortable with eating animals, others refuse to eat them at all, while some people will only eat animals they have slaughtered themselves.

Almost everyone is sure that their relationship with animals is the correct one, but which animals are suitable as food and which are acceptable as pets varies from culture to culture. The bottom line is that animal ethics is not as straightforward as you think.

Schrödinger’s cat – a thought experiment

We know that Schrödinger’s thought experiment about the cat in a box with a vial of cyanide is about the uncertainty of quantum physics. Clive Mark’s article about killing feral cats explores the uncertainty of human empathy. How much is required and in what circumstances?

One of the most moving aspects of his article is the descriptions of other people’s reactions to Clive’s work: the laboratory technician whose contempt for cats is tempered by forcing to witness their suffering; the quiet dignity of the dingo trapper who looks death in the eye; the smugness of the ecological modeller who never has to wipe the blood from his hands; and the murderous vitriol of the anti-vivisectionist.

None of these people are thoughtless automatons, yet all of them have a blind spot of their own choosing. The problem is that most of them are unaware of having made a choice. They just know that they are right. I think we all do.

What about you? Do you love domestic cats and hate feral cats? Do you hate cats of all descriptions? Do you hate what cats do while insisting that all cats have a right to be treated humanely? What does your answer to these questions tell us about your humanity?

When we open Schrödinger’s box, will your cat be dead or alive?

This article is a conversation starter, make no mistake.

If you have time, download the original article.

First published on The Conversation on 5 February 2014.

Dr Susan Lawler is the Head of Department of Environmental Management and Ecology at La Trobe University in Albury-Wodonga. She writes a regular blog for The Conversation entitled This thing called life.

Image credit: Zaimoku Woodpile 

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