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The Science, Ethics, and Philosophy of Tooth Extractions from Live-captured White-tailed Deer: a response to Festa-Bianchet et al. (2002)


In their charge that tooth extraction on live ungulates is an unethical practice, Festa-Bianchet et al. (2002) correctly note that the Wildlife Society Bulletin requires that the studies it publishes have been reviewed by an animal care and use committee in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act. The committee must include a veterinarian, a nonscientist, and a member who is not a part of the organization conducting the research. My research has undergone this review under the auspices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and I presented that documentation to the Wildlife Society Bulletin prior to publication.

It is unclear why Festa-Bianchet et al. (2002) judge tooth extraction to be an unethical practice. Initially, it appears straightforward. Tooth extraction is apparently considered unethical because it does not meet their requirement that the procedure be shown to be harmless before it is used. They clearly feel comfortable basing their argument upon envisioned harmful consequences. Their argument becomes more complex by their reference to research guidelines published by the Association for the Study of Animal Behavior (ASAB in Europe) and the Animal Behavior Society (ABS in the United States; Stamp Dawkins and Gosling 1991). Reference to these guidelines apparently is meant to support their position.

In examining the guidelines of the ASAB and ABS, I could not find condemnation of tooth extraction per se, or the ethical criteria that a procedure must be proved harmless before it is used. However, what I did find was documentation that supports my decision in 1977 to proceed with canine extraction as an experimental technique. The following briefly paraphrases and quotes some appropriate sections of the guidelines, but I encourage readers to examine the details for themselves.

From Stamp Dawkins and Gosling (1991:1):"Our aim in publishing this booklet is to get think about how they treat the animals in their care." They conclude: "To stop, to think and to weigh up the value of the research against all costs for the animals involved before anything is done to them at all should be part and parcel of any scientific enquiry" (Stamp Dawkins and Gosling 1991:4).

The guidelines for research involving pain and discomfort call for minimizing these effects to the greatest extent possible, always using anesthetics unless conflicting with the experimental design. The guidelines further recognize that "disruption" of free-living animals may occur with their capture or marking and that this must be weighed against any "potential gain in knowledge."

The importance of the concluding sentence of the guidelines chapter cannot be overstated, and we would all do well to weigh its meaning in relation to our lives as scientists. Referring to the guidelines, "They should not be considered an imposition upon scientific freedom of individual researchers, but rather as helping to provide an ethical framework to which each investigator may respond in making decisions related to animal research" (Stamp Dawkins and Gosling 1991:5).

Before extracting my first deer canine, I weighed the costs to individual deer against the gain in knowledge that would benefit all deer and species with similar life-history strategies. Based on Bergerud and Russell's (1966) results from caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and my judgment that canine loss would have minimal lasting effects, I decided to proceed with canine extractions. I minimized the pain and discomfort of tooth extraction by anesthetizing my study animals and closely following the established surgical procedure proven successful on anatomically similar caribou. I made these decisions 4 years before the first version of the ASAB and ABS guidelines were published. I am satisfied that my decision-making process then, and the technique itself, had all the elements of the 1991 revised guidelines and therefore is in accordance with ASAB and ABS ethical standards for animal research.

Based on my findings, I encourage deer researchers to extract canines from live-captured deer if they want to learn about age effects in deer (Nelson 2001). By following the guidelines discussed herein and others suggested by specific animal care and use committees, they can be confident they are participating in an ethical procedure.

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