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I’ve been feeling slightly guilty about causing the death of my beetles. Although I know there are good reasons for what I’m doing (food pests are worth controlling), I seem to have the voice of Albert Schweitzer in my head, questioning my actions. Should I be having an ethical struggle, though, when for the purposes of research ethics most invertebrates aren’t even considered animals?

In the animal care and protection laws of most western countries “animals” are vertebrates, with the invertebrate cephalopods and occasionally malacostracans sneaking past the line. The classification seems to be based on creatures’ ability to feel pain and suffering – if their nervous systems are sufficiently developed as to be distressed by adverse conditions, then they’re “animals”. This leaves most invertebrates as “not-animals” for the purposes of animal protection, which is why the RSPCA doesn’t come down on 8 year olds for having too many goldfish in the tank. But the science is far from settled on how much suffering invertebrates undergo. So why the split?

Until the last couple of centuries, we didn’t recognise that animals really suffered. Not like us, at least. When we talk about human pain we usually recognise that there is a psychological component to our suffering, and of course it is impossible to know what is going on in an animal’s psyche. We now assess animal pain by seeing if they act the way a human might act when pain is caused. It seems harder, though, to empathise with creatures less like us, as suggested by Jennifer Mather:

Still, it is less easy to take that leap of faith and presume parallels with how you feel when the animal concerned is completely unlike you. Insects, for instance, can walk normally with a couple of broken-off legs and survive with apparent unconcern as a parasite is eating them up inside, when presumably we would be in excruciating pain. Does that mean they cannot feel pain? I asked a friend who works
with ants what she thought about this apparent inability to feel the pain we do. She said that she spilled a drop of acetone on an ant by accident one day and that it had recoiled and tried to wipe the substance off its abdomen. Maybe it is still pain, just
responding to different stimuli.

I’m going on instinct, but it feels like it’s easy for human beings to empathise with animals we already care about. We have been horrified by Russia sending dogs into space and by the vivisection of chimpanzees, but I doubt that even knowing they were suffering would curtail the many thousands of experiments performed on fruit flies every year.

I find it bizarre that our laws can’t differentiate between “animals we care about and think are worth protecting” and “animals which just aren’t cute or interesting enough to look at” without stripping them of their status as animals. That makes them what then, plants? A new and very active form of yeast? The laws in place force researchers to seek ethics approval from their institution before starting experiments on the animal in question. Invertebrates such as my beetles have no such protection. An entomologist told me a story yesterday (though I haven’t been able to find a citation) about there being a dragonfly in New South Wales which was a threatened species, so to stop people performing research willy-nilly on it “they” had classified it as a duck under the laws of the state.

Being required to seek ethics approval from your institution doesn’t stop you from performing the experiments you would like to, unless there is a specific ban on experimentation of that particular type, or for that particular animal. It simply ensures that the animals you are using are necessary for your experiments, and are treated in the best possible way. Surely, as scientists and as human beings, that should be our minimum standard for all living things, vertebrate or not.