Animal Studies Bibliography

Carbone, Lawrence G. 1997. Death by decapitation: A case study of the scientific definition of animal welfare. Society and Animals 5(3): 239-256.

Animal use committees judge research proposals based on minimizing harm and pain to the animals involved. Making this judgment requires some knowledge of the harm involved in various techniques and the validity of the data that will result from each technique. It can be difficult, however, to determine how much pain is involved in a particular procedure. The debate over rodent decapitation shows that the social construction of scientific knowledge, and particularly the basis of scientific inquiry in a theoretical framework that cannot be separated from the study's results, has important consequences for the decisions we make about animal welfare. The American Veterinary Medical Assoc. (AVMA) has held 5 panels on the techniques most recommended to kill animals while causing the least pain. The AVMA findings are generally used as rules by the USDA, which requires justification from scientists desiring to deviate from the recommendations. Since 1972, the AVMA has begun to “scientize” its reports, citing empirical studies as the basis for its recommendations. After the 1978 report, which suggested that guillotine decapitation was the best technique because it produced instant and painless death, a scientists challenged the findings, citing a study that had found the rats' brains active for up to 29.5 seconds after decapitation, which they argued suggested extreme pain. The next AVMA report (1986), based on this study, suggested that animals should be sedated/anesthetized before decapitation. Criticism from around the scientific community followed rapidly. The sedation recommendation was called groundless, and it was dropped from later panels. Some scientists argued that decapitation was scientifically necessary for some types of experiments. The AVMA report, however, made no judgment about the usefulness of the procedure, which was not the purpose of their report, and pointed out that it meant its report as guidelines, not rules. Other scientists questioned the study's data, pointing out that it was unreplicated, poorly-conducted, and generally questionable. They did not, however, undertake a systematic reexamination of the data. Others questioned the authors' interpretation of their data, stating that the brain waves could have been caused not by pain but by other states like REM sleep and rats decapitated under anesthesia. Further, they argued that the blood pressure dropped so quickly that no pain could be felt. For a controversy to persist, there must be vested stakeholders involved. Scientists using this procedure have an interest in defending it, as above. There were, however, no opponents of the procedure to keep the debate alive. The key to the discrepancy between the original study and others is the theoretical framework they start from: the first study began by assuming pain must be experienced, and went to find evidence of that pain; other scientists dismiss the data as an anomaly, because they start from the framework that there is no pain involved. This is a problem of experimenter's regress, a question of calibration. The 1993 AVMA report cited conflicting studies: the original study, another study that found pain up to 14 seconds, and one that found decapitation was painless and immediate death. The report makes no attempt to reconcile the findings. One of the important considerations is the rapidity of the death, which must be determined by consensus (is 14 seconds a short enough length of pain to be humane? 29 seconds?) The report glosses over this question by providing the average (13.6 seconds) rather than the longest possible time (29.5), providing data on the statistical rat rather than the worst pain any individual rat might feel. Which type of number we should use to determine humane treatment is an ethical question that should be made explicit but is not in the AVMA report. As a result of the vagueness, different institutions use quite different standards. Some labs assume that pain is involved in decapitation, and require significant justification for its use. Other places assume that decapitation is humane, and the only justification required is that anesthesia or other intervention might cause problems with the data. This latter type of lab just focuses on whether the researcher is skilled in the technique, a question considered important for how humane the procedure will be. This case study shows how empirical and ethical questions are intertwined. This mixing should be explicitly discussed in order to reach the most sound judgments about animal welfare.



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