Animal Studies Bibliography

Vucetich, John A. and Michael P. Nelson. 2007. What are 60 warblers worth? Killing in the name of conservation. Oikos 116:8, 1267-1278.
(Summarized by Meghan Charters, Animal Studies Program, Michigan State University)

The premise of this article is to ascertain if Sillett et al upheld the ethics and morals associated with experimental research in their 2004 field experiment. The initial focus of the study was to “measure behavioral and ecological differences between black-throated blue warblers” (pp. 1267) and in doing so, Sillett et al killed 60-120 warblers with a shotgun. What Vucetich and Nelson argue is that Sillett et al did not deliver an appropriate experiment due to their lack of morals and ethics involved in their research, specifically considering the nature of the work – i.e. conservation research.

To lay the groundwork for their claims, Vucetich and Nelson reviewed conservation/ecology journals between the years of 1995 and 2005 and found that much of the published research did not establish an ethical framework for experiments conducted. They also discovered that the leading medical association had higher morals with regard to their subjects than that of the conservation science community (CSC). The CSC holds a primarily anthropocentric view of test subjects, therefore granting less value on moral relevance and ethical treatment when executing research. Unfortunately for Sillett et al, the lethal nature of their experiment of the black-throated blue warblers did not go unchallenged.
Vucetich and Nelson detail the process they went through to produce their study. They provided the original research that demonstrates that Sillett et al had no justification for killing the warblers. The researchers also argued that the killing was necessary to the design of the experiment and they left out the cost/benefit structure to the experiment. Lastly, there is a strong emphasis placed on the methods of the experiment and how the researchers felt their methods followed state, federal, and university laws with regard to animal handling.
Next, Vucetich and Nelson provide the complaint against the killing by Bangert and the retort by Sillett et al. Bangert argues that research is ethically unjustified due to the researchers inability to self-regulate and because the research required “destroying the very things (animals and their habitats) that we are desperately trying to preserve” (pp. 1268). The retort to the complaint presents an even deeper look into Sillett et al inability to provide valid arguments for running the experiment the way they did. They simply state that lethal methods are sometimes required in ecological research.

After this eye opening ‘defense’, Vucetich and Nelson divulge the main mistakes they see with the research. First, researchers assumed that by simply following the rules they were ensuring sufficient ethical behavior, however, not all rule-following is considered ethical. They also state that by deferring ethical responsibility on peer-review, they set themselves up to fail “because peer-review does not ensure the ethical appropriateness of research” (pp. 1269). Second, they make a mistake in their assessment of the relationship between their research and conservation itself. The Vucetich/Nelson study presents extremely important concepts to consider when compiling conservation research:“We already know that overkill, habitat destruction, and exotic species are the ultimate ecological causes of species endangerment, the ultimate solution is fundamentally sociological in nature. For these reasons, one may not be justified in generally taking for granted that some particular piece of ecological research is of significant value to conservation.” (pp. 1270).

The third mistake outlined is in the researcher assumption that the warblers had no value beyond their value to the population, when in actuality if their value is treated as being critical to the total population, than the justification for lethal methods would hold up even less. Vucetich and Nelson render this false assumption placed on value as a liability to research in that it places a false cost on the ethics of killing.

Upon concluding the mistakes made by the researchers, this article looks at the costs and benefits of the research itself. Most noticeable are the benefits, which is why the researchers did a poor job of fully disclosing their intended experiment. Essentially, benefits range from researcher prestige to knowledge gained in the conservation science community, to the improvement of conservation itself. The costs, however, hold a deeper meaning. The researchers needed to consider the suffering of the subject, the number of subjects being killed – species not considered endangered, but still not a vast population size – and lastly, the financial cost. By not divulging pertinent information, with regard to the experiment/research, they may have been granted funding that would have gone to otherwise positive conservation research.
In conclusion, the article discusses moral integrity and how much credit can be placed on moral worth in general – research or not. Following moral worth, Vucetich and Nelson offer three conservation scenarios not involving the warblers, which depict research that suggests “ethical conservation” when the experiment hasn’t been thought out in full. Each scenario sees the possibility of failure due to a lack of knowledge regarding outside factors and a lack of moral maturity. It is evident from these examples, as well as the experiment with the warblers, that while ethical considerations are ‘met’ by researchers, it does not mean that the research is ethical or justifiably moral and correct. It is important when conducting research that a certain level of self-regulation remains in tact, otherwise all ethical considerations are for naught.


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