Jane Johnson – Dissenting Animals

Dissenting Animals

Oscar, my Cairn terrier, is a remarkable creature in lots of ways, including that he loves going to the vet. Although some pretty traumatic things have happened to him in his 14 years, Oscar seems to know that the vet is there to help, that the poking and prodding will be worth it. To me it appears that Oscar assents to his consultations at the vets; that he agrees to and accepts what will be done to him. But not all animals treated by vets assent to what happens to them, in fact, many appear to exhibit dissent. Dissent is an interesting but neglected phenomenon to explore in the context of animals, particularly animals in research.

A nice example of dissent in animal research comes through in interviews conducted by the anthropologist Simone Dennis. Rats in the lab learn pretty quickly to back themselves into a corner in a way that makes it hard for researchers to lift them out of their cages to perform experiments. Brenda, one of the neuroscientists in Dennis’ study, talks about how she feels that in doing this the rats are ‘refusing’ her; these rats are not agreeing to participate in research.

Perhaps the behaviour of Alex the African Grey Parrot represents another case of a dissenting animal in research. Although Alex complied with what was required of him in research much of the time, he was famous for interrupting sessions with various requests – for objects, for water or to just plain ‘go back’. If humans in research behaved in this way it’s unlikely they would be required to continue in the research at that time or maybe at all.

Something that makes dissent particularly intriguing in research animals is that unlike consent (which is the gold standard for ethical research with humans), dissent doesn’t need to be expressed in words; actions can do all that is required. Of course this means that we can make mistakes and misinterpret what’s going on. We might fail to recognize certain behaviour as dissent, or might think we are seeing dissent when a creature is simply tired or hungry. So if we are to focus on identifying dissent in animals we need to acknowledge our limitations. Nonetheless it does appear to be a promising concept which researchers might have good reasons to attend to.

For instance it makes practical sense to take dissent in research seriously. A dissenting animal might lash out or demonstrate resistance in a way that could harm the animal or the researcher. There is also a growing body of evidence that the results of research with animals is adversely affected by stress. In many cases stress and dissent go hand in hand, which means that results obtained from dissenting animals may not be reliable.

In addition to these prudential reasons, there are clearly ethical reasons to be concerned about dissent in research. Being on the lookout for dissent seems to offer a way of recognizing something important about what’s going on in research from the individual animal’s point of view. It facilitates a focus on, and attention to, the subjective experience of the animal “participant” in research; most especially their objection to what is occurring.

There are many good arguments for why we ought to alter how we treat animals in research. Asking researchers to try to identify and engage with dissent could be another avenue through which to shift the status quo. On the more modest end it might be the kind of thing that Animal Ethics Committees prompt researchers to consider. But taking dissent seriously could have more radical implications too, which challenge the very foundations and legitimacy of the practice of animal research.

Jane Johnson divides her time between the University of Sydney where she is a Research Fellow at Sydney Health Ethics and Macquarie University where she is a Scholarly Teaching Fellow in the Department of Philosophy. Jane’s work looks to reconceptualise how we think about nonhuman animals in research (often using concepts generally reserved for the human setting) with a view to improving their treatment.

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