Two CONICET researchers working in Puerto Madryn with marine invertebrates, they seek methods that allow reducing the damage to animals when using them as study subjects in laboratories. Although there are long-standing ethical guidelines for working with different species, in general, the community tends to treat them as objects and use them indiscriminately. For this reason, the biologists Augusto Crespi and Tamara Rubilar propose a new approach to change the utilitarian conception and generate practices based on caring for the environment, nature and the beings that inhabit it.
“In order to study the regeneration mechanisms of starfish, I had to cut off an arm. The bibliography that he used at that time said that to do so he had to build a cattle prod and there was even an instruction manual to assemble it.. I refused to use a torture tool to do science and looked for another way,” he says. tamara rubilar, researcher at the Center for the Study of Marine Systems (Cesimar-Conicet). As an alternative, the scientist used bookcase clips to simulate the grip of a crab claw, a situation that does occur in nature. After a while, the star released her arm.
In general terms, biologists have as an ethical guide when experimenting on animals the principle of the 3 Rs, postulated by the English scientists William Russell and Rex Burch in 1959, which call for “Replace”, “Reduce” and “Refine”. That is, as far as possible, do not use animals. If this is unavoidable, use the smallest amount and refine the experiments to avoid the suffering of the study subjects.
The biologist Augusto Crespi, a specialist in animal welfare, assures that This postulate has not managed to significantly modify the historical practices that specialists use in laboratories when experimenting with organisms.. “The paradigm that reigns during the course of the Biology degree is that of insensitization. In this search for a science that is as objective as possible, there is a tendency to reify them., particularly in the case of marine invertebrates, which are the animals that we study”, highlights Crespi. In addition, he narrates that some science magazines reject his work because the number of copies they sacrifice to obtain certain results are not considered statistically sufficient and they ask for more.
“Although there is a responsibility that is individual, there is an assessment of the academic community that must accompany it. If I am an evaluator of a work and you made a sample with 30 animals and you already detected the desired effect, I cannot demand that you do it with 300 so that the tests are more robust ”, she assures.
respect and responsibility
For researchers this is a subject in which contradictions abound. Some as thorny as the sea urchins they usually study. Dissecting, amputating and sacrificing specimens is still part of his job; but also, as they understand, they must find new methods and alternatives to avoid or mitigate pain. “For us it is essential to add two more R’s to this 1959 principle: Respect and Responsibility. We must never lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with living beings.”, affirms the biologist.
For his part, Rubilar points out that it took him at least seven years of professional practice to question the way of working with animals. The straw that broke the camel’s back was watching the sacrifice of a huge crab that a colleague of hers was studying. She “she placed it in a bin full of formaldehyde and the crab was scraping the container for about eight hours before it died. That day I had to leave the laboratory. I got to the office and told Augusto, I can’t take it anymore. We cannot continue to treat animals in this way, ”he describes.
In the same sense, Crespi asks: “Why should biologists maintain the same practices that we have been developing in the laboratory for many years? We have to think and apply new conceptual frameworks. It is necessary to maintain respect for life for life itself. It is a value that was and continues to be present in other cultures, but in ours, which is increasingly utilitarian, we have been losing it”.
Many works linked to ethnoecology, ethnozoology, and ethnobotany observe and rescue the traditional methods that many communities have of connecting with nature. For this reason, Crespi maintains that It is not incompatible to respect and use. “In fact, this combination favors a responsible use of the natural environment“, guarantees.
Other practices are possible
At the origin of their ethical reconsideration, the researchers communicated with professionals from different disciplines to Think of alternatives that allow to appease the suffering that they cause to their subjects of study.. Thus, they consulted a veterinarian and an anesthesiologist to see what drugs they could use to reduce pain, until they developed a method.
“In practice, we work with the smallest number of animals and we develop some non-lethal methods to investigate and techniques to assess the reproductive status of the species without generating a slaughter as was normally done. It works on sea urchins. Now we want to encourage others to adapt it to study other species”, Rubilar explains.
However, the concept of animal welfare does not only apply at the time of the experiment. In this sense, the scientists take sufficient precautions and house the animals in suitable places, without overcrowding, with a good quantity and quality of water. In addition to respect and responsibility, not having them in good condition affects the research because the body is in a context of stress and that alters the results. “In the case of sea urchins, for example, if they are stressed they do not produce eggs,” the researcher remarks.