Author / Contributor
image for Brian Schrag
Brian Schrag More Posts
The Gladiator Sparrow-Ethical Issues in Behavioral Research on Captive Populations of Wild Animals
The Gladiator Sparrow-Ethical Issues in Behavioral Research on Captive Populations of Wild Animals
Secondary Title Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries



Authoring Institution Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE)
Show More Show Less
Contributor(s) Brian Schrag
Notes Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 4, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2000
Share with EEL Yes
Authoring Institution (obsolete) Association for Practical and Professional Ethics
Rights The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) grants permission to use these case and commentary material with the citation indicated above.
Volume 4
Year 2000
Publisher Association for Practical and Professional Ethics
Language English
Sort By
  • Brian  Schrag

    Posted 11 years and 7 months ago

    Brian Schrag 

    Association for Practical and Professional Ethics

    Should Clarisse continue this experiment? The central moral issue in considering that question is whether the birds' interests should be taken into account in evaluating whether or how to conduct the experiment. If the answer is "No, their interests should not be taken into account," then, assuming the experiment is well designed and likely to yield useful results and hence is a good use of resources, there is no reason not to have undertaken it in the first place or continue the experiment If the answer is "Yes, the birds' interests should be taken into account," then one must determine what their interests are and what bearing consideration of their interests should have on a decision to undertake the experiment, modify it or continue the experiment.

    Moral status of birds

    To ask about the moral relevance of their interests is to ask about the moral status of birds. Are they the sort of entities that have moral standing, that is, entities that at least have interests of some moral importance and perhaps moral rights, or are they rather like rocks, which have no interests, no moral status?1 Relevant to the question of the birds' status is whether birds can feel pain or suffering. If they cannot experience pain or suffering, then one central objection to this experiment is removed. The birds cannot be harmed in this sense, so perhaps there is nothing wrong with the experiment. Historically some (the philosopher Descartes, for example) have held that birds (and other animals) do not experience pain. That view is not widely held in the scientific community, although there may be debate on the extent of pain and kind of suffering such animals experience. I will not focus on this view.

    Even if one grants that the birds in this case experience pain and suffering during the experiment or later as a result of the experiment, one might take the position that such a fact is morally irrelevant to whether or not to conduct the experiment. One might hold, as did the philosopher Kant, that "animals are to be regarded as man's instruments, as means to [man's] ends.2 One can admit that the birds experience some forms of pain and suffering, but argue that their pain is of no moral relevance whatsoever to the question of whether the experiment is morally permissible. Some in the scientific community may hold this position. The fact that we have and observe the Animal Welfare Act, however, indicates that most people agree that research animals' pain and suffering is somehow a relevant factor. Although this position raises important ethical and philosophical issues, since the locus of disagreement tends to be elsewhere, I will not focus on this view, either.

    At the other end of the spectrum, some hold that both humans and other animals (at least animals with a sufficiently rich psychological life) have inherent value, that is, they have "morally significant value in themselves, apart from their possible usefulness to others and independently of the. . . overall status of their mental life."3 This view, developed by Tom Regan and called "inherentism" holds that at least some animals have the same moral status as humans provided they are capable of having beliefs and desires and acting intentionally.4 Consequently, they are not to be used merely as means for human ends. If this view is correct, there is no justification for using these sorts of animals in any scientific research. If birds fall in the category of animals with inherent value, there ought to be no balancing the interests of the birds against those of humans. Clarisse should not have undertaken the experiment and should discontinue it immediately. As Regan himself admits, however, there are difficulties in determining which animals are psychologically rich enough to fall in this category.5

    Even if one does not accept the inherentist position, a more common position holds that birds and other animals have some sort of moral status because they are sentient creatures, capable of experiencing pain and suffering. Sentience is the feature relevant to determining moral status. Humans have at least a prima facie duty not to cause any sentient being pain. The pain of any sentient creature counts, and the pain or pleasure of humans does not automatically override that of other animals. That is the utilitarians' view.

    If one accepts this position on sentient beings, one still might argue that although the birds in this experiment experience pain, suffering, and death, those facts are irrelevant to determining what to do in this particular case. That is not because the birds' pain, suffering or death is morally irrelevant but rather because their pain and suffering was not causally connected to the experiment. Gladiator sparrows are aggressive. They attack and perhaps kill each other in the wild. If the same aggressive wounding and killing goes on in the wild at the same level as Clarisse observed in her cage, then one might argue that she had here a kind of natural laboratory. She was simply passively observing, in a convenient forum, what would have happened to these birds in the wild.

    Indeed, Clarisse belatedly discovers from researchers and early reports in the literature that gladiator sparrows exhibit the intensity of aggression in the wild that she observes in her cage. If she were able to determine by literature search and field observation that the birds exhibited a level of aggression and outcomes that closely match what she later observed with her caged birds, then one might argue that she is simply a passive observer and that the experiment contributes nothing to the pain and suffering of the birds. Suppose she were able to determine by field observation in advance of the experiment that for every 30 birds in the wild, six to twelve would be killed and a number seriously injured during the first few weeks of the mating season. One might argue that her intervention had caused no harm and thus it would be acceptable to carry out and continue the experiment. On the other hand, if the aggression observed in the wild matches that in the cage but may not result in such serious injury or death because the birds under attack are not imprisoned with no chance for escape, then of course Clarisse's experiment has contributed to the pain and suffering of the animals.

    Even if the levels of the birds'injuries and deaths in the wild match the outcomes in the cage, there are other considerations. The notion of the animal's "suffering" in this context typically includes tension, anxiety, stress, exhaustion, and fear. Do the acts of aggression in the cage create more of this sort of suffering since the birds under attack cannot escape? Do all the caged birds experience suffering in the capture process or when they discover they are trapped in an enclosure? If the aggression is learned behavior, will birds released from the cage have learned a higher level of aggression than their wild counterparts, and will they pass that on to the wild population, thereby raising the level of pain and suffering in the wild population? If any of these outcomes occur, then Clarisse's experiment has increased the birds' pain and suffering and her experiment is not merely a natural lab in which their pain and suffering is morally irrelevant.

    One can of course debate whether birds are capable of emotions such as fear and anxiety or capable in general of experiencing the emotional pain of the events in this case. Some would argue that the basis for attribution of emotions in animals is as good as the basis for the attribution of pain.6 Some would argue that we are as certain that some animals have emotions as we are that other people have emotions. "We are as sure that a bear is angry as that a spouse is angry."7

    Even if we grant, as it may be reasonable to assume, that the birds in this case experience pain and suffering in the cage that they would not have experienced in the wild, some might argue that, nevertheless, the experiment was morally justified in principle. The birds' pain and distress, although morally relevant, nevertheless, is somehow outweighed by the benefits of the experiment.

    Back to Top

    Assessing the benefits of this experiment

    The benefits of conducting the experiment may include the value of the knowledge we expect to gain as well as benefits to other stakeholders. Assume for the moment that the experiment is well designed and executed so that we gain maximal knowledge. It appears that the objective is to try to determine whether gladiator sparrows' aggressive behavior is largely innate or if significant environmental factors influence the development of aggressive behavior in the species. It is not clear if it is expected that the findings of such a study could be generalized to aggressive behavior in all nonhuman animals or to aggressiveness in humans. One might argue that the more general the implications of the findings, the more valuable the knowledge gained in the experiment.

    Suppose that the experiment indeed gives us some additional understanding of whether gladiator sparrows' aggression is largely innate or learned. What is the benefit of that knowledge? 1) This knowledge will not have any direct instrumental benefit to the welfare of birds in the study. It is not on the order of a therapeutic experiment to help those specific birds in the study. Given that there are no benefits to the subjects of the experiments, it is clear that the benefit to the birds does not outweigh the pain they experience. 2) It may have instrumental value for the promoting the welfare of the population or species if we learn something about their behavior that could be used in conservation strategies to protect this species. It is not at all clear that is an expected outcome of the experiment, hence it is not clear that one could argue that these birds' suffering is for the greater good of their population or species. From the birds' perspective, their burdens certainly outweigh the experiment's benefits for them individually or for the species. 3) Serious human interests are not at stake in this experiment in the sense that animal experimentation designed to find a cure for a human disease might be considered a serious interest. 4) The experiment appears to have some value in yielding information intrinsically interesting to humans; it satisfies our desire to know and understand the world around us. Clarisse assumes the experiment will have relevance beyond the question of whether aggression is innate in this particular species. She is challenging a prevailing view that aggression is innate in animals. If she is correct, that finding could be significant for our understanding of the issue. This experiment might contribute to our understanding of aggression in humans, although one must always ask whether bird behavior would be close enough to human behavior to be relevant.

    The intellectual benefits to humans lie in the broad advancement of scientific understanding of aggression in animals. Aside from any knowledge we may gain, what are the experiment's other benefits? It provides a research project for a graduate student. It may be part of a grant project that generates income for the department. It may provide a research program or career opportunities for the graduate student and her professors. In this experiment, the humans assume all the benefit; the birds assume all the burdens.

    Do such considerations justify continuing this experiment? We recognize that it is at least prima facie wrong to inflict pain and death on these birds. It would be wrong to kill them for our amusement or for trivial reasons. 1) That is why it would be wrong to wound and kill them in an experiment so badly designed that it yielded no benefits of knowledge. 2) That is why it would be wrong to kill and wound them in an experiment that yielded only trivial results. (Presumably the other personal benefits to researchers in conditions 1) and 2) would not outweigh the harm to the birds.) 3) That is why it would be wrong to kill or wound them in an experiment that could be alternately designed to substitute models or other means to obtain the same results. 4) That is why it would be wrong to use more than the minimum number of birds statistically required.

    Even if all such considerations have been answered in this case (and, as the other commentator notes, it is not clear that all such considerations have been answered), should the study continue? The decision still comes down to weighing the knowledge gained against the birds' pain, suffering, and death that would not have occurred absent this experiment.

    This call is perhaps closer than one might think at first. If considerations 1-4 are justifiable reasons for not conducting the experiment, it is not at all obvious that any significant knowledge automatically justifies conducting or continuing the experiment. Once one allows the moral significance of the birds' pain and suffering, one allows for the possibility that their pain and suffering could count for more than the value of the scientific knowledge gained by the experiment. There may be times when we might justifiably argue that some knowledge ought to be forgone or lost rather than inflict on animals the pain and suffering required by the experiment. Some ethologists have made that judgment in other experiments.8

    It is important to recognize that we are weighing the birds' highest interests in not suffering or dying against humans' less pressing interests in extending their knowledge. The difficulty is in weighing this tradeoff and, of course, humans are doing the weighing. In this case, it does seem to be a very close call.

    It is not clear from this case if findings from field observations before the experiment or from the experimental results at the end of Year 1 would be adequate to allow Clarisse to design models that could be used to test subjects' behavior without harming them or to identify reliable indicators of aggression while permitting intervention before actual aggression occurs. If the experiment could be carried on without the actual pain and suffering of aggressive attacks, then perhaps the suffering due to capture, captivity, and threat of aggression might reasonably be judged to be outweighed by the knowledge gained. The experiment or its continuation as so modified might be justified.

    To Clarisse's credit, she did do the literature research required, although perhaps not sufficient. She did attempt to match the habitat setting. She did get the animal use committee's approval. She did intervene to protect injured birds. She did reassess the experiment before the end of the year in an effort to reassure herself that it was a "natural lab." She did consider a modified program for Year 2.

    It is worth noting that the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee approved the experiment. It is not clear whether they required or considered a detailed ethical justification for the use of these birds or gave that question the same level of consideration they gave to the study's design or theoretical importance. The burden for such considerations ought not to lie solely with Clarisse. That fact has implications for the training and sophistication in ethical thinking one ought to expect from such committees as well as universities' responsibility to ensure appropriate levels of ethical training for such committees.

    Back to Top


    • 1 For an excellent introductory discussion of the various ethical theories that can be brought to bear on the issue regarding the moral status of animals, see F. Barbara Orlans, Tom L. Beauchamp, Rebecca Dresser, David B. Morton and John P. Gluck, The Human Use of Animals: Case Studies in Ethical Choice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), Chapter 1.

    • 2 Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) trans. Lewis White Beck, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1959), p. 47.

    • 3 Tom Regan, "Treatment of Animals" in Lawrence C. Becker, ed., Encyclopedia of Ethics, (New York: Garland Publishing Company, 1992), p. 44. This article includes a good introductory bibliography to the ethical issues discussed in this commentary.

    • 4 Regan, "Treatment of Animals," p. 45

    • 5 Ibid.

    • 6 Orlans et al., Human Use of Animals, p.19.

    • 7 Ibid., p. 8

    • 8 The ethologist Mark Beckoff gave up the study of predatory behavior of coyotes because of the suffering of the coyote prey in a captive arena. See Marc Bekoff and Dale Jamieson, Reflective Ethology, Applied Philosophy and the Moral Status of Animals, Perspectives in Ethology, ed. P.P.G. Bateson and Peter H. Klopfer, vol. 9 (New York: Plenum Press, 1991), p. 26, note 20.

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 4, 2000 

    edited by Brian Schrag

  • Anonymous  Participant

    Posted 11 years and 7 months ago

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 4, 2000 

    edited by Brian Schrag

    When someone hears or reads about research on non human animals and potential ethical problems with that research, the research typically has biomedical applications. This type of research uses non human animals as models for human beings, in experiments with new products or techniques. Ethical arguments against this research have generally fallen under two major views: a utilitarian view or a deontological (rights-based) view. From the utilitarian viewpoint, the question hinges on whether the study organism has the capacity for suffering; if so, we need to take that suffering into account.1 According to this view, if we would not conduct an invasive and terminal experimental procedure on a one-week-old human infant, we probably would not be ethically justified in doing the same procedure on an adult dog.

    From the rights-based viewpoint, the question of suffering is not the central criterion for evaluating our decisions about non human animal research. For this view, the major problem with non human animal research is that we are using living, sentient individuals as resources, as means to our ends.2 Each animal is an "experiencing subject of a life" that has importance to that individual, regardless of the species in question and regardless of that individual's usefulness to us as researchers. Thus, according to this view, it is ethically wrong to ignore the rights of that individual animal and use it in an experiment as a model for disease or biological processes in our own species.

    But what if the research does not have a direct, immediate application to our own species? What if, instead, we are interested in understanding the basic ecological and evolutionary processes that govern the living world? One field of research taking this approach and using non human animals as research subjects, is the field of animal behavior. Ethologists, comparative psychologists, and behavioral ecologists study the behavioral patterns of non human animals and humans in both captive settings and in the organisms' natural settings. The goals of the research are to understand the behaviors animals use to feed, reproduce, communicate, and avoid predation - how these behaviors develop, the mechanisms by which they are elicited, what functions they serve, and how they evolved in the species. Indeed, for those of us concerned about the use of non human animals in research, a solid understanding of the ethology and natural history of the species is fundamental to know what might be painful to an animal or what is an abnormal environmental context or stimulus for a species. To arrive at this understanding, research with non human animals is necessary. While mathematical modeling, computer simulations, and strictly observational data often serve as the foundation for generating predictions about behavior, experimental studies involving manipulations are often necessary to test the predictions.

    How does one decide whether a given ethological experiment with non humans should be done - whether it would be ethically justifiable? A decision model proposed by Bateson3 and Driscoll and Bateson4 provided a useful set of three criteria to consider: the likely amount of animal pain, the quality of the research question and design, and the certainty of benefit of the research. If these three criteria are envisioned as three axes stretching from a "low" ranking to a "high" ranking, a cube is generated. Not surprisingly, acceptable experiments with non human animals occur in regions of the cube characterized by lower levels of animal pain, higher levels of research quality, and higher levels of certainty of benefit. Extreme amounts of animal pain would render an experiment not justified, even if the experiment were designed well and promised solid benefits. Alternatively, if an experiment exposed the subjects to little or no pain, it might be justified even if the experiment may not be strongly controlled or if the practical benefits or gains in knowledge were not perceived to be great. Further, a moderate amount of animal pain might be justified in a well-designed experiment if the study had a high likelihood of benefit.

    An important extension of this decision cube would take into account what might be called a conservation criterion.5 Research carried out on, or that might affect, an abundant species may not be justified on a species or population that was threatened or endangered. This conservation concern can conflict with other ethical views of animal research. For example, if one were studying the natural history of a small island population of marsupials that was being decimated by an introduced rodent species, under this conservation criterion one might be justified in trying to eradicate the rodent species (an action the rights-based view, for example, would see as ethically wrong).6 When joining the decision cube to the conservation question, one is therefore faced with a number of potentially conflicting criteria in trying to decide whether a particular research project in animal behavior might be justified.

    "The Gladiator Sparrow" case touches on many of these issues. The research is designed to reveal basic principles and processes of behavioral development - the benefit that might accrue from the research may have no direct application to human welfare whatsoever. Then again, understanding socialization processes during development that lead to certain behaviors being displayed in a non human animal species may be of some significance to our understanding of human behavior. With basic research like the study described in the case, one simply cannot know beforehand the practical results that might be obtained. The questions raised in the case touch on our notions of whether some groups of animal species may be more or less preferable as study organisms in behavioral research and how this decision might relate to utilitarian or rights-based views. They also relate to the fact that with behavioral research, the questions asked and the design of research are often inseparable from the ethical issues confronting the research. However, the remainder of this commentary will focus on one of the most fundamental issues in this case - studying aggression in a captive group of animals.

    In this case, the behavior in question is aggressive behavior, and a study of aggression in and of itself brings many of these ethical issues to the forefront. Perhaps the most central issue in this case is that, by definition, research on aggression will involve pain and suffering for some of the animals. Further, the study of aggression in a captive setting raises the stakes. Although a captive setting allows for increased experimental control and for extremely detailed observations of behavior and its development, in this case it also exacerbates the problem of animal pain. In a captive setting, an individual being attacked by another cannot escape the interaction by leaving the area, as might be the case in the species' natural setting. This concern has led some authors to view any captive study of natural behaviors like aggression, infanticide, or predation - or any field study with manipulations to increase the likelihood of these events - to be ethically problematic.7

    In her discussion of ethical problems with studies of predation or aggression, Huntingford argued that the conflict between the pain involved in the experiment and the likely information acquired by doing the experiment will come out in favor of doing the experiment to the extent that six criteria are met:

    • The theoretical importance of the study is critically evaluated by several researchers, including researchers outside the particular field of aggression and predation studies.

    • The behavior of the subjects in the experiment is recorded in extreme detail.

    • Care is taken not to replicate unnecessarily experiments with the particular species or question; collaborative research with other workers in the field or of that species should be pursued.

    • Data are collected from natural (unmanipulated, noncaptive) settings as much as possible.

    • Models rather than live predators/aggressors are used whenever possible.

    • Aggression and other potentially dangerous or painful encounters are kept to a minimum and to as short a duration as possible.8

    It is informative to look at the case of The Gladiator Sparrow in light of Huntingford's six criteria (as well as those of Bateson, Cuthill, and Driscoll and Bateson, discussed above).

    • We can assume that the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) of Clarisse's university comprises several scientists and at least one community member and that her study passed the IACUC's criteria for theoretical importance. On the other hand, given the nature of studies of aggression or predation, it may be important for researchers such as Clarisse and her adviser to go beyond the IACUC and request commentary on the research question and design from several researchers in and outside the particular field.

    • We can perhaps assume, given the information in the case, that Clarisse has analyzed behavioral interactions of her birds in great detail. This information may be particularly relevant to the question of unnecessary pain and suffering of birds in her future work. If Clarisse has collected dozens of dependent behavioral measures in her work, she may be able to find antecedents of aggression in the behavioral repertoires of the birds that allow her reliably to predict aggressive and potentially harmful behaviors. Thus, in future studies, she may be able to stage encounters using one of these antecedent behaviors as her measure of aggressive interaction.

    • This criterion is an area where Clarisse probably did not prepare sufficiently in establishing her research design. It also points to a weakness of present IACUC protocol applications. These applications typically ask for a Web-based literature search for related studies and for alternatives to research with non human animals. Most Web-based literature searches only go back for the last two decades or so, however, which means that older studies may go unnoticed by some researchers. That could be particularly damaging in a field like animal behavior, where a great deal of very detailed natural history studies of species may be several decades old. In this case study, Clarisse did not contact Drs. Cabral and Marable, and she may not have been aware of their earlier work until well into her study. Clarisse should have known these researchers' work better than she apparently did, and should have contacted them before initiating her study. Knowing she might encounter extreme amounts of aggression among the birds, she may have been better able to minimize losses in her study.

    • Had Clarisse herself had first-hand knowledge of and data on aggression in the wild with the particular population of Gladiator sparrow she would study, she may have been more ready to deal with the level of aggression that would occur in her birds. On the other hand, if she were studying a population whose behavioral interactions had been studied thoroughly by other researchers, it may not be necessary for her to spend a year or more observing the behavior of the birds in the natural setting.

    • It is difficult to tell from the case study whether the use of models rather than live birds might have been possible in Clarisse's study. If she plans to carry out more manipulated and experimental tests of aggression and/or responses to aggression in the future, however, it may be possible to use stuffed models of the sparrows in aggressive postures or playbacks of aggressive vocalizations, rather than using real birds to test subjects' behavior.

    • This point is similar to the discussion brought up in Criterion 2. If Clarisse were able to know with a high reliability that a given behavior "A" of a bird virtually always led to fighting and harm to another bird, she may be able to use behavior "A" as her measure of aggression, and stop any interactions between two birds after that behavior is displayed by one of the birds.

    To summarize, Clarisse seems to have done a fair amount of preparation for her research, and she has met the expectations and concerns of her IACUC in developing her study. On the other hand, given the nature of her research project, she perhaps should have prepared more thoroughly. Had she known the extent of the aggression she would observe (and from the case it seems likely she could and should have known this), she could have been ready for what she would encounter with the birds. She could have set up testing situations, or in general could have been better prepared, to minimize the losses in her study as well as the amount of pain suffered by the birds, while still collecting the data required to answer her research questions.


    • 1 P. Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: New York Review and Avon Books, 1975).

    • 2 T. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

    • 3 P. Bateson, "When to Experiment on Animals," New Scientist, 20 February 1986: 30-32.

    • 4 J. W. Driscoll and P. Bateson, "Animals in Behavioral Research," Animal Behaviour 36 (1988): 1569-74.

    • 5 I. Cuthill, "Field Experiments in Animal Behaviour: Methods and Ethics,"Animal Behaviour 42 (1991): 1007-1014.

    • 6 See Cuthill, "Field Experiments."

    • 7 See M. Bekoff, "Experimentally Induced Infanticide: The Removal of Birds and Its Ramifications," Auk 110 (1993): 404-406; M. Bekoff and D. Jamieson, "Reflective Ethology, Applied Philosophy, and the Moral Status of Animals," in P. P. G. Bateson and P. H. Klopfer, eds., Perspectives in Ethology, Vol. 9 (New York: Plenum Press, 1991); S. T. Emlen, "Ethics and Experimentation: Hard Choices for the Field Ornithologist," Auk 110 (1993): 406-409; and F. B. Orlans, T. L. Beauchamp, R. Dresser, D. B. Morton, and J. P. Gluck, The Human Use of Animals: Case Studies in Ethical Choice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), Chapter 8.

    • 8 F. A. Huntingford, "Some Ethical Issues Raised by Studies of Predation and Aggression," Animal Behaviour 32 (1984): 210-215.

Cite this page: "The Gladiator Sparrow-Ethical Issues in Behavioral Research on Captive Populations of Wild Animals" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 4/4/2006 OEC Accessed: Sunday, November 19, 2017 <>