12/18/2014 11:42 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

On Killing Wolves and Other Animals: Should Only Trained Ethicists Weigh In?

News about the massacre of 890 wolves in Canada by a team of researchers "in the name of science" has reached a global and eclectic audience. Numerous people around the world who have never gotten involved in protesting such "research" have weighed in with incredulity and outrage. I agree with their sentiments, and it made me think about how the killing of Marius, a healthy young male giraffe at the Copenhagen zoo, served to mobilize people who were outraged by his death. Marius was killed simply because he didn't fit into the zoo's breeding program ( please see "The Marius Effect: A Giraffe, Food, and Invasive Research" and links therein).

I was recently informed that a discussion on the "Canids List" (), a group to which I don't belong, centered on a posting by Denise Joines of the Wilburforce Foundation that read, "I would be interested in your opinions of both the ethics and usefulness to conservation of this research by Dave Hervieux, Mark Hebblewhite, Dave Stepnisky, Michelle Bacon, and Stan Boutin (any of whom may be on this list serve)."

I don't know how the discussion went, but a number of people sent me the response posted by David Mech, widely and rightfully recognized as one of the world's foremost wolf experts. In response to Denise Joines' request Dr. Mech wrote, "Ethics is subjective. Each person will have his/her own opinion, and the opinions will be personal, not professional unless the person is a trained ethicist. I am not." People varied in what Dr. Mech's response implied about his own point of view, and I have no interest at all to read into his response. He can fill it out if he so desires.

The two sides of science and advocacy: Science is neither value-free nor ethics-free

Dr. Mech's response made me think long and hard about the tricky and slippery relationship between science and advocacy, and I remembered an essay I wrote earlier this year called "Killing Squid, a Giraffe, and the Common Sense of Science." Based on an experience I had during and after I gave a lecture on compassionate conservation in Sydney, Australia, I wrote that scientists are humans and we all come to the table with a point of view. Being on the side of animals isn't being more of an advocate than being on the other side. Both are forms of advocacy that should be discussed openly.

I'm often criticized for being an advocate for using what we know about the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals on their behalf, but, in reality, I'm just an advocate on the one side of the coin. At a lecture I gave in Sydney, Australia, a few years ago, someone in the audience kept saying that I was an advocate -- and that scientists shouldn't be advocates -- because I was on the side of kangaroos, whereas he favored killing them because he viewed them as pests. He went on (and on) saying that scientists shouldn't be advocates but when we chatted later it turned out he also was a researcher but he was working for the kangaroo meat industry. I told him that he was indeed an advocate and at first he said, "No, I'm not". After a few minutes he came to see that he was indeed an advocate but not in my camp. Advocacy is a double-edged sword and if you're for something or against it you are an advocate.

I respectfully disagree with Dr. Mech, and I hope he and others will join the discussion. As Colorado State University Professor Bernard Rollin notes, science is neither value-free nor ethics-free. And, he is right on the mark when he writes, "'the common sense of science' to science what ordinary common sense is to daily life." Science will benefit when scientists incorporate this view into their work.

I also think of all the people who are not trained ethicists who have spoken out on behalf of animals and who have made many positive differences in how they are treated in all sorts of venues, science included. My take is that anyone who has an opinion should state it openly and discuss the issues with civility. Indeed, discussions about the ways in which animals are treated that include the very people who study them will likely be richer and inform non-scientists about how and why certain projects conducted.

People will surely disagree, but that's just fine and totally understandable because, as I mentioned above, scientists are humans and we all come to the table with a point of view. We don't agree on which bank is the best in which to place our money, and it's not surprising that we won't all agree on what's right and what's wrong in different research projects. But, hiding behind the veil of science as as an objective enterprise which it's not, will get us nowhere.