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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)

Philosophical Basis of Animal Research

Festa-Bianchet et al.'s (2002) challenge is as much about the philosophical underpinning of wildlife research as it is about tooth extraction itself. Thus, the issue begs for, even demands, discussion in a broader context. Because it is my research that is under scrutiny, I take the liberty to briefly personalize the discussion and present some history so it is clear how I have arrived at this juncture.

When I first decided to extract canines from live deer to determine their ages, little was known about the effects of the procedure. Eleven years earlier, Bergerud and Russell (1966) had described the procedure and reported no complications from canine extraction in 39 caribou observed 1.25 years later. Based on their work and my judgment, which included consideration of the small size of the deer canine and its outside position in the incisor row, I stepped into the unknown (for me as well as for the deer).

I did not know how it would turn out, but by simply repeating history, I was guaranteed to learn nothing new. I would evaluate the results as they came in and make future adjustments if and when necessary. It was my judgment that the risks to individual deer were minimal and the potential knowledge to be gained about age effects in life-history dynamics was great. This is clearly at odds with the criteria and underpinning philosophy expressed in Festa-Bianchet et al.'s (2002) challenge. As it turned out, the early results were positive. Same-winter recaptures of extracted deer indicated rapid tissue healing and subsequent short- and long-term survival. Fawn production and recapture weights suggested no lasting effects. The data herein support this conclusion.

Photo of lower jaw of deer.
Figure 1.  Front lower jaw of a deer that had an I4 incisor extracted at 4 and 6 years old and survived to 11.8 years old.

I have invested better than half a career in studying deer. Perhaps it will be an entire career before I am done. While I have learned many things about deer and wildlife research over the years, an early lesson remains as vivid as if it occurred yesterday. In one of my very first captures of deer as a young graduate student, a capture-related death taught the hard lesson that knowledge about wild animals was not free. I was raised a hunter of deer, and death was no stranger to me. Yet, the death of this deer was something quite different. I had caused the death of an animal I very much wanted to live so that I could learn its secrets. Clearly, gaining knowledge had its risks and costs. I had to decide then and there whether I wanted to continue in wildlife research. For me, it was but a momentary reflection and not a difficult choice to make. My history, my life style, and my training swept me forward.

The criterion that an action or procedure need be predictably harmless, and the judgment by Festa-Bianchet et al. (2002) labeling tooth extraction as unethical, clearly stem from a philosophy toward wildlife research rather different from mine. I want to probe the unknown and search for the new. That can mean working with limited facts and risking unpredictable outcomes once thoughtful evaluation has been made about the course of action. I realize that such a philosophy is not for everyone. My philosophy also weighs costs to individuals against costs and benefits to populations, the latter being of paramount concern for conservation of biological and genetic diversity.

I conclude this response to Festa-Bianchet et al. (2002) by sharing the thoughts expressed by Cuthill (1991) but probably pondered by most wildlife researchers at one time or another. All field experimentation, by its very definition, alters nature. The extreme objection to this then argues that any manipulation is unnatural and therefore should be avoided. Acceptance of this ethic closes the door to science because understanding nature requires "tampering" with it (Cuthill 1991:58). For us as scientists, then, the debate centers on one question: How much and what kind of manipulation are we willing to engage in? As might be imagined, the answers are many and diverse. Bergerud and Russell (1966) had an answer, and I am grateful to them for sharing it. In 1966 the question of ethics may not have even been on their screen, but I have no doubt that they weighed the risks and costs of tooth extraction to their study animals against the knowledge they would gain about caribou.

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