Ethical Issues Relevant to Using Animals in Genetics Research
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2007
M.W. Fisher1, PhD; D.J. Mellor2, PhD, HonAssocRCVS
1Kotare Bioethics, Stortford Lodge, Hastings, New Zealand; 2Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand


Modifying an animal's genome used to be simple-allow or encourage mating between selected sires and dams with desirable or appropriate traits and gather the off-spring, a proportion of which would hopefully have those traits. However, genetics research is apparently now not that simple. Major initiatives such as the report on Farm Animal Genetic Engineering and Cloning (Compassion in World Farming, 2002) and the Report on the Welfare Implications of Animal Breeding and Breeding Technologies in Commercial Agriculture (Farm Animal Welfare Council, 2004) question some of the values associated with developments in genetics. Other reports describe some undesirable effects on animal health and welfare of selection for productivity traits (Rauw et al.,1998), including "rapist roosters" which are an apparent consequence of an excessive focus on bird productivity (Grandin & Johnson, 2005). Objections to the rationale of genetics research as "playing God" (Midgley, 2003), and exclamations like "Fur God's sake, why choose a Frankencat" in response to animals designed to reduce allergenic suffering in humans (Garnett, 2007), highlight influences with cultural, spiritual and emotional orientations as well.

People also have complex and diverse relationships and interactions with animals, relationships which are very important. Animals provide us with labour, food, entertainment, education, commerce, protection, companionship, and even with symbols of good and evil, and wildness. Similarly, there are many views about how people should interact with animals. They range from the perspective that animals are the subject of a life and must not be used for human purposes, to the view that animals are a resource to be exploited without regard to their interests.

How do we make sense of this complexity? Should we incorporate, reflect upon, consider or reject these diverse expectations? It was within this context that we recently were involved in developing an animal ethics policy with an animal breeding company. Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC) is a New Zealand farmer-owned co-operative and the country's largest herd improvement company. At their instigation, and with the involvement of their staff, a guiding philosophy and ethics policy were developed. The overall aim was to assist the company to clarify, demonstrate and articulate its values, and at the same time to provide it with guidelines that would assist it to question and justify, or if necessary modify, its practices. Here we provide a summary of that undertaking. Although its initial orientation was towards dairy cattle, we consider that the principles articulated would have application to developments in genetics in other species.

Interactions with Animals are Guided by Our Beliefs

Ancient and modern societies alike have been, and continue to be, heavily dependent on animals for food, entertainment, economic livelihoods and companionship etc. The common view, representing the views of most members of society and the culmination of a long tradition of moral reflection, is that the use of animals for human benefit is acceptable provided that in doing so the animals are treated humanely (Banner et al., 1995). In other words, while animals serve our needs, we recognise we are indebted to them and must ensure that their needs are met with any compromises to those needs justified and minimised.

This general ideal of treating animals humanely has been given more focus by expressing it in term of the "five freedoms" or alternatively meeting the needs animals have (i.e., proper and sufficient food and water, adequate shelter, safe physical handling, the opportunity to display normal patterns of behaviour, and protection from or alleviation of significant injury or disease). However expressed, such ideals do not explicitly, nor adequately, reflect the complex environment in which we undertake to modify an animal's genome. Other principles have therefore been developed to improve understanding and to help guide our actions.

Our Actions are Further Guided by Specific Principles

First, genetics research should be justified with reference to the broader goals of agriculture whilst being consistent with the constraints of the particular ecology and biology of the system. The goals of agriculture include profitable, sustainable and environmentally safe production, and the provision of nutritionally adequate and safe food and other products, and these activities must be undertaken in a fair and just or socially acceptable manner (Aiken, 1991). Similarly, the use of animals in research, testing and teaching has broad goals including the following: understanding humans, animals and ecosystems; the maintenance and protection of human and animal health and welfare; the management of ecosystems, flora and fauna; animal production; and education.

Second, genetics research should be informed by the full range of the perspectives of all interested parties. Scientists, veterinarians, technicians, stockmen, farmers, the processing industry, markets and consumers, regulatory authorities, non-governmental organisations and academia-all bring different perspectives not only because of their interests but also because of the different ways they see the world. This requires all such groups to contribute whist recognising that at any time knowledge is incomplete and continuously evolving.

Third, the skills, experience and values of animal handlers underpin the expert management of livestock and that knowledge should be respected and taken into account. Good stockmanship expresses an ethic of care or stewardship (Gatward, 2001) and a respect for stockmanship and husbandry practices involves acknowledging and trusting the practical knowledge people have about animals, knowledge borne of experience and adapted to particular localities, climates and animals.

Fourth, the potential consequences of genetics research should be monitored and assessed, not just for the animals, but also for the wider environmental and societal contexts to which the animals contribute. Monitoring thus requires a long term commitment, over decades or successive generations of animals, effectively placing it within the realm of stockmanship.

Fifth, any harmful consequences of genetics research should be managed to reduce detrimental impacts on animal health and welfare. This is part of a commitment to the maintenance and even continual enhancement of animal welfare.

Sixth, the rationale, benefits, risks and safeguards associated with genetics research should be collated and evaluated, and used to guide current and future activities. Only by seeking to clarify and understand the foundations of our experience with and our knowledge of genetics can we move forward with confidence.

Finally, consideration should be given to whether a technology is compatible with the future we want for ourselves and our animals. Genetics research brings the possibility of creating new or different animals, of "playing God", even of human pretensions to infallibility. These highlight a need to consider the sorts of people we want to become, particularly regarding our interactions with animals. Consideration should not only be by way of reason, but it should also call on our intuition, common sense, philosophy, religious tradition and insight, reverence and other such perspectives.

These principles can be visualised as a segmented pyramid, where lower levels form the foundations of higher ones, and where the seventh feeds back to the first.



Justification for using animals in research is often reduced to determining if compromises to animal welfare are reasonable and necessary (i.e., ensuring that the anticipated benefits derived from the use of animals are not outweighed by the likely harms to them). Genetics research adds a further dimension--the creation or modification of future generations of animals which not only affects them but also affects people through their diverse and important interactions with animals. The principles articulated here encapsulate and outline the activities individual people, often unknowingly or intuitively, reflect upon when they engage in genetics research. The approach outlined ensures that whatever mechanisms are adopted to ultimately guide genetics research, they will be founded in appropriate knowledge and widely held values. There may be no absolute answers, just security in knowing that most of the ethical challenges and related matters raised by genetics research have been considered. In a sense, the approach recommended is one of systematising common sense to facilitate the application of values to genetic research.


The authors are indebted to the Livestock Improvement Corporation for instigating the project upon which this contribution was largely based.


1.  Aiken W. (1991) The goals of agriculture. In: Blatz, C V (Ed.) Ethics and Agriculture. An Anthology on Current Issues in World Context. University of Idaho Press: Moscow. pp 56-62.

2.  Banner M, Bulfield G, Clark S, Gormally L, Hignett P, Kimbell H, Milburn C, Moffitt J. (1995) Report of the Committee to Consider the Ethical Implications of Emerging Technologies in the Breeding of Farm Animals. HMSO, London.

3.  Compassion in World Farming (2002) Farm Animal Genetic Engineering and Cloning. CIWF Trust, Petersfield.

4.  Farm Animal Welfare Council (2004) Welfare Implications of Animal Breeding and Breeding Technologies in Commercial Agriculture. DEFRA, London.

5.  Garnett M. (2007) Fur God's sake, why choose a frankencat. Hawke's Bay Today

6.  Gatward G. (2001) Livestock Ethics. Respect, and our Duty of Care for Farm Animals. Chalcombe Publications, Lincoln.

7.  Grandin T, Johnson, C. (2005) Animals in Translation. Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behaviour. Bloomsbury, London.

8.  Midgley M. (2003) The Myths We Live By. Routledge, London.

9.  Rauw WM, Kanis E, Noordhuizen-Stassen EN, Grommers FJ. (1998) Undesirable side effects of selection for high production efficiency in farm animals. A review. Livestock Production Science 56: 15-33.

Speaker Information
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Mark W. Fisher, PhD
Kotare Bioethics
Hawke's Bay, New Zealand

David J. Mellor, PhD, HonAssocRCVS
Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre
Massey University

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