Roosters and Lab Rats

Jan 27 2010 Published by under Animals in Research, Ethics

A recent post over at Casaubon's Book discusses the plight of the male farm animal and, in particular, the humble rooster.

What do I mean by "the problem of husbandry?" What I mean is that generally speaking, in the rearing of domesticated animals, one gender of the animals is more valuable than the other. Often, but not always, females are preferred, because they lay the eggs, give the milk, and can reproduce themselves perfectly well with only a very tiny number of male participants.

Now true, we have a highly similar problem in genetic research which involves breeding laboratory vertebrates (most typically mice) for a desired genotype. Frequently enough some fraction of the bred animals never make it into the papers. A desire to match group sizes means that in the simple Mendellian situation, you have twice as many heterozygous as homozygous offspring. A poorly-surviving genotype may further complicate the picture. As does the array of current multi-gene breeding techniques designed to target a controllable gene expression system to a specific tissue.
Nevertheless I wanted to address the broader points made by Sharon Astyk because they are critical for the well-intentioned, non-extremist person who only leans in the direction of Animal Rights wackaloonery.


Sharon's post discusses the ways in which food consumers and others can pretend to themselves that they are not directly causing the death of animals. Are you familiar with the ovotarian? Or for that matter the lacto-ovotarian? These are the people who eat eggs and milk products "only" meaning they eschew the meat of the animals from which they are deriving sustenance. Perhaps not all, but many of these individuals take pride in not causing the death of animals. Sharon's point is that when you are taking the eggs and milk of female animals, you are causing the death of male animals. Gender-selective breeding has not been perfected, you see.
Sharon also covers the growing trend for urban chicken husbandry. This has been a little bit of a local regulatory issue apparently with an interesting compromise being struck. Urban laws are known to permit hens but not the loudly-crowing, neighbor annoying roosters to be kept in tightly spaced neighborhoods. More dead roosters. Egg hatching school projects? My kids' school has done this- where do the chicks end up? In Sharon Astyk's town apparently at her farm:

My step-mother just asked me if I would take the chicks that are likely to be the outcome of a local school project in incubating eggs. I said I probably would, depending on the breed, but I admit, I'm tempted to ask in exchange to be allowed to come to the kids' class and talk about what happens to the chickens afterwards, because our cognitive disconnect about the future of animals is vast.

I hope she does insist on this. Because this is the critical issue that I see in her post, as does she. Sharon ends her bit with this observation:

What I think is impermissable is unconsciousness. We are not allowed, ethically speaking, not to know that for every hen for our backyard, there was a rooster chick, euthanized and disposed of. We are not allowed, ethically speaking, not to have the ability to put down animals that are suffering, even though we'd rather have no truck with their deaths. We are not allowed to pretend that our diet doesn't leave us with blood on our hands.

My view of the non-extremist, animal-rights sympathizing voices is that they do not do the hard work of following their positions to the conclusion. It is easy to claim that you are a lacto-ovotarian while conveniently ignoring all the dead roosters- wasted dead if you were to wish your eating preferences on everyone else. Luckily there are still plenty of chicken eaters around (who you criticize implicitly if not explictly) to save your ethical soy-bacon. Easy to be a milk drinker and yoghurt eater while conveniently ignoring the dead boy-cows.
If, that is, you are a lazy thinker who takes things up to the point of justifying your own behavior and beliefs...but not so far as to question yourself. It is one thing for personal preference, I really don't care that much about how much of a inconsistent hypocrite anyone might care to be in personal choice. The trouble comes in when you want to apply your beliefs and preferences to everyone else in the form of laws and regulations. Then you have an obligation to do the hard work and follow your views, beliefs and preferences to their end stage. Including the part of the mental work which includes thinking about facts that make you look inconsistent.
This is assuredly applicable to the anti-research viewpoints. A little less direct of course, because medical advances from current research are by definition off in the future. The current benefits derive in some part from animal lives sacrificed in the past (although not exclusively, some tests and treatments require ongoing use of animal lives). This makes it even easier to pretend, like the lacto-ovatarian, that the things you use have no bearing on your anti-animal-research position.
But you are still just pretending. Do the hard work. Carry your views to the logical end.
And ultimately, have the courage of your convictions. Forgo all medical treatments, cosmetics, cleaners and a vast array of other consumer products that depended on animal research or animal-based safety testing. Drop the milk and eggs out of your diet. Only eat vegetable matter that you know has not resulted in the plowing/harrowing of field mice, shooting of pest deer (did I tell you my funny story about an organic farm?) or fertilizing from animal sources. Above all else, commit yourself not to miraculously change your mind when it is you or a family member who gets struck with an easily cured, but lethal if untreated, condition in the prime of life.
Because after all, that is what you are insisting your fellow citizens should suffer based on your theological and poorly formed belief system.
I'll end with a multiple choice poll

I have personally(survey software)

43 responses so far

  • I wonder if this is also an issue in lab rat husbandry? In my field it is much more common to use male animals than female animals. I wonder if the female animals are euthanized by the vendor?
    Hm.

  • [...]I really don't care that much about how much of a inconsistent hypocrite anyone might care to be in personal choice. The trouble comes in when you want to apply your beliefs and preferences to everyone else in the form of laws and regulations. Then you have an obligation to do the hard work and follow your views, beliefs and preferences to their end stage. Including the part of the mental work which includes thinking about facts that make you look inconsistent.
    One of the single best paragraphs I've seen on the topic.
    Well done, good sir.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    whoops, I originally forgot to embed the poll. It's there now.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Back in the day when we used to pick up boxes of baby chicks at the post office, you could order male or female chicks. As I recall, we ordered males, for frying. There were some females, because sexing chicks is mostly art and not easy. We kept the females for eggs, and eventually stewing hens.
    Incidentally, isn't the soon to disappear penis of a male chick a realy good example of a vestigial organ?

  • Scicurious says:

    Brilliant post, DM!

  • PalMD says:

    Brilliant piece. I can't help wondering how it will be read by those who are working actively to end the use of nonhuman animals in research. I wonder if they justify their hypocrisy as being in service of a "greater cause".

  • Stephanie Z says:

    did I tell you my funny story about an organic farm?

    Why, no. Tell me a story, DM?

  • To echo Isis's concern, a coworker of mine studies an enzyme whose expression is pretty much limited to the balls so we really don't use a lot of female mice.

  • Perrotti says:

    Awesome post, DM. Just posted the major content of it on my office door in yet another attempt to open the eyes of some of the students around here.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Isis reminds me. I did forget that very important point that a lot of behavioral rat research that I am familiar with concentrates on male subjects. I wonder if the breeding requirements of the vendors, combined with a presumably lower demand for female rats, makes up for the male-subject bias?
    A marginally related post is here

  • jdhuey says:

    Obviously, the solution is to perfect the technology that will allow us to upload our consciousness into computers that will then be powered by photovoltaics. But then perhaps it is unethical to capture 'wild' electromagnetic energy for our own purposes.

  • Lou says:

    This post reminded me of our lab mascot in my former lab. He was called Bob, and was a male chimeric mice (first one to be made in the group, hence we actually named him). His sexual encounters were followed with much interest...until his untimely death. It did make me wonder if we put too much stress on him though.
    And as for Isis' comment, I always thought it was because of vendor interest that there were more males. There has to be a healthy turnover of breeding females of a certain age to keep a consistant output.

  • becca says:

    @Isis and Genomic Repairman- I bet there are a ton of breast cancer researchers who want your females
    @jdhuey-Don't be silly. We just need to spice us in some euglena genes. That way we can photosynthesize, and yet can occasionally choose to partake in (sustainably grown, gently harvested, and fairly traded) chocolate.
    DM- I think your ethical reasoning leads to untenable conclusions. I agree that, if one is opposed to how a product is made (in any respect), it makes sense to abstain from anything that will involve that process. That said, we can't help how old treatments were developed. If I develop cancer, should I avoid all cancer treatments that used knowledge generated with Hela cells because I'm mad Henrietta Lacks was never compensated? Or are you just saying that I should avoid all cancer treatments if I'm going to advocate policies or legislation on better treatment of human subjects? Seems a pretty high bar to make cancer patients jump over.

  • Kierra says:

    In my field it is much more common to use male animals than female animals. I wonder if the female animals are euthanized by the vendor?

    The standard for LD50 studies is to use females because they tend to be more sensitive to chemicals than males when differences exist, so it's entirely possible that someone can find a use for them (other than for breeding).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    That said, we can't help how old treatments were developed.
    This is one of the conveniently selfish tropes for which I have very little patience. It stems from the confidence that your dealios are met and that you consider future developmental stuff to treat what you may get hit with as "that's life". It is arrogant in the extreme and as far as morality goes entirely arbitrary.
    What about the people whose medical conditions are not being met because we have not yet found the solution?
    Think of it this way. When the HIV/AIDS thing hit, we were right in the midst of a huge anti-animal-research enthusiasm in the US. At the time, your rationale would prevent all of the subsequent development of HAART medications that have totally and completely changed a death sentence to a somewhat manageable disease.
    Your rationale would have condemned your fellow citizens who happened to become infected to rapid unpleasant death instead of the decades of additional productivity and quality of life they now enjoy. Thanks to research on, yes, cats, monkeys and even chimpanzees, the most sensitive of research species.
    I don't think I go too far to say that your logic absolutely horrifies and disgusts me. Principles are one thing- don't like animals being used in research, fine don't take any possible benefit from such uses. But to say you are going to pick and choose the stuff that helps you and condemn other* people to suffering....wow.
    *and as always, it is just remarkable how many people change their principled stance when it is themselves or their family members who are afflicted, isn't it?

  • Charles says:

    Sorry DM, even though I agree with you that animal research is necessary, I can't really agree with much of anything in this post. Basically, as I read it, you're saying to vegetarians and animal rights activists, "In for a penny, in for a pound", and that's just not true.
    For example, one could take the position that we have a duty to minimize animal suffering, but that it's OK to cause some suffering as long as the benefit to humans is greater. Then every action that would harm animals requires its own cost-benefit analysis. Drinking milk could be OK even if eating flesh is not, because even though milk production does cause death and suffering, it's not as much. Or, on a subject closer to home, you could say that up until now the amazing advances we've made in science have been worth the cost to animals, but there may come a point in the future, as our understanding becomes more complete and new discoveries become harder to come by, that future advances might not be worth it anymore.
    I'm not saying I agree with either of those views, but a person can certainly believe them without being a hypocrite.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    I am going to shamelessly pimp this article which lists many of the common lab tests in every day medicine (including OTC pregnancy tests) that use dead animals:
    http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/678865/vegan_beware_animal_products_used_in.html
    And my thanks to the ovo-lactos for leaving me the young cockerels to fry or broil and the male calves to have as steaks and hamburgers.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The 'other' poll responses so far:

    eaten pets for a holiday meal
    euthanized a pet myself
    caused a multi-car crash avoiding a squirrel
    killed house mice
    drank wine from the skulls of my foes

  • DrugMonkey says:

    as I read it, you're saying to vegetarians and animal rights activists, "In for a penny, in for a pound",
    No, in the OP I'm not saying this at all. I'm saying that pretending you are not in for 5cents or 50cents worth when you indubitably *are* is dishonest.
    every action that would harm animals requires its own cost-benefit analysis
    It already does! We already have a cost-benefit evaluation system for both the production of food and for animal research. I agree that this is a very GoodThing.
    The problem is that ARA people simply don't like the conclusions of the analysis that has been done by the community (by which we mean the entire political and regulatory structures that have brought about our current state of affairs).
    Performing a cost/benefit analysis does not make you a hypocrite nor protect you from hypocrisy. How you choose to value benefits and assess costs is what may be criticized. I'm criticizing analysis that conveniently overlooks certain things that otherwise would be viewed on the cost side of the ledger. Also, in the case of my comment in response to becca, criticizing analysis that undervalues benefits because they accrue to someone else in the community and not oneself.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The 'other' poll responses so far:

    eaten pets for a holiday meal
    euthanized a pet myself
    caused a multi-car crash avoiding a squirrel
    killed house mice
    drank wine from the skulls of my foes

  • slightlyoffended says:

    To clarify: is it acceptable for a lacto-ovovegatarian to take pride in minimizing harm to animals?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    : is it acceptable for a lacto-ovovegatarian to take pride in minimizing harm to animals?
    So long as they are in full recognition of the harm that they do cause...then they are free to find themselves superior to others if they like without attracting a charge of hypocrisy.

  • @ Becca,
    We actually share our females with a group that studies hormonal regulation who use them for control mice so it works pretty well for us. We occasionally hold a female back for one of the males to shake the cobwebs loose and inoculate her in order to keep the line going.

  • Anonymouse says:

    I haven't killed animals myself, but I was very familiar with the death of small animals. When I worked for a live animal center, my boss did the actual killing (chicks from the egg incubator exhibit, mice when our frozen mouse supply was interrupted or the colony got too big).
    We had one spare live rat, but he hung around so long that he got named, played with, died a natural death, and got buried ceremoniously. We fed various animals dead rats (shipped frozen and then thawed) daily. The human mind compartmentalizes very easily.

  • bill says:

    Excellent post, DM.
    Everything's a compromise, innit? I don't eat meat, for many of the usual reasons, but I do eat eggs and dairy because giving them up was just too limiting -- I'd end up spending most of my time hunting for food. I thought we invented agriculture to *avoid* just that.
    But I'm well aware that mine is a personal choice (and one that still entails killing). I'm careful not to go further into "thou shalt" territory than "I think most people could stand to eat less meat, thereby reducing incentives for gruesome factory farming and relieving some of the pressure that intensive animal husbandry puts on the environment".
    Perhaps some enterprising megafarm corporate conglomeration could start marketing "male meat" aimed at the likes of me, who might figure, well, ol' rooster there was gonna die anyway...

  • bill says:

    ... and only after I hit "post" does it occur to me that "male meat" is a most unfortunate choice of name for the proposed product...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    "male meat" is a most unfortunate choice of name for the proposed product
    This is the best possible day for you to fuck up a a product name bill. It won't even register.

  • Alexandra Lynch says:

    My own ethics would be better served if I could raise and kill my own meat animals. Unfortunately, I can't do that right now.
    I personally have never met a nice chicken. And rooster chicks make nice capons. Yum.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    More comments from the poll:

    sweet-talked invertebrates while dumping them in vats of ethanol for research.
    euthanized a pet chicken after it was mangled by a stray dog.
    killed pest mice in snap-traps
    worn leather
    set out mouse/rat poison
    family farm sent most bull calves to market (for meat) and raised the heifers
    "borrowed" lab equipment to euthanize a pet
    mouse outside safe, mouse inside dead dead dead!
    watched an animal be butchered

  • Stephanie Z says:

    I forgot to add to my poll, "Live trapped and drowned several squirrels that made their way into the house while we were remodeling and repairing all the holes they'd chewed." I hate it when people trap them and take them somewhere else, where they can die slowly after fighting with the other squirrels into whose territory they've been dropped.

  • thegr8caitbait says:

    I've made manatee steaks for the sake of science*^.
    Oh, and have sliced up flipper too...and several other large, charismatic megafauna...
    *science in this case was for conservation.. pesky manatees keep dropping like flies....
    ^Manatee died of an kidney abcess, btw. We needed to rearticulate the skeleton, hence "steaks"..

  • Mobyseven says:

    I didn't fit anything on that poll. Sadly, all the fish I've caught have been ones that aren't good for eating, but which are pests in their local ecosystem (I live in Australia, so...)
    Damn I wish I'd catch something that tastes good for once...

  • darwinsdog says:

    I have 25 straight run chicks coming in about a week. In past years I've ordered pullets but straight run (unsexed) is less expensive. Where I live a "special use" permit from the city council is required to keep poultry. Since I don't have such a permit I don't need a rooster announcing the presence of the flock to the neighbors. So when the little cockerels commence cockadoodling, there'll be a massacre. Added to the slaughter will be last year's hens. Chooks are best regarded as an annual crop.
    Plenty of people who keep snakes or varanids would be happy to take excess lab rodents off a researcher's hands, I'd bet.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Plenty of people who keep snakes or varanids would be happy to take excess lab rodents off a researcher's hands, I'd bet.
    You would think. And this used to be the case. Individual investigators or sometimes whole institutions would have arrangements with local enthusiasts, pet shops or even zoos. I have seen these practices curtailed, mostly because of fear on the part of the University that news would get out (or heavens forfend some sort of liability complaint would arise) and draw animal rights fire. Once more you can score an *increase* in the total number of animals bred for human purposes to the ARA wackanut fringe.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    yet more 'other' answers from the poll:

    dropped live lobsters into boiling water, and also steamed live mussels
    killed venemous snakes to defend my own livestock/pets
    killed a pest fish that is not good for eating.
    I see no reason for valuing the life of animals over plants or bacteria.
    used a mousetrap
    eaten raw oysters and lobster boiled alive
    disected a cat

    I do hope that last one was for a class.
    on reflection I am surprised at just how biosci heavy the readers are. I figured fishing would way beat out those of you doing animal research.
    I find it more than a little odd that there appear to be slightly more with hunting experience than with farming experience.
    Stephanie Z, the short version of the story is that of an organic farm which recruits the occasional "intern". Said interns have a tendency to be of the stereotypically crunchy, organic, granola-y variety that is bothered by the notion of using animals for food. Said organic farm is plagued by the local deer population who come by to eat the tasty organic vegetables. Proprietor of farm shoots the deer when he gets a chance (I am unclear on whether this is permitted as crop protection or not). Proprietor either leaves them or calls certain locals who are known to enjoy a freezerful of venison. Somehow in all of this the crunchy intern is basically forced to help dress out the deer.
    I enjoy the mind's picture of this story immensely.

  • JohnV says:

    As well all know that correlation implies causation, clearly biologists are crappy fisherpersons.
    Yes I'm leaving the door open to a long series of awful fish puns.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    But some biologists are ichthyologists. How do you think all those fish in museum jars with my name on the label got there?
    Here is a skill you can learn. Been there, done that, on a yearly basis during my formative years.
    http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/agriculture/livestock/animal-welfare/general/other/livestock/sop/sheep/lamb-marking

  • Sharon Astyk says:

    I wish "drank wine from the skulls of my foes" had been an actual poll question - and thank you for the linkage.
    I see an increasing number of affluent consumers eschewing vegetarianism because they can now get awesome grassfed local meat - I can't complain about this trend, since a number of them are my customers, and I wonder if it could work for you. I wonder if it would be possible to boutique line of pastured mice, so that affluent consumers could get "grass fed mouse researched treatments." ;-).
    Sharon

  • darwinsdog says:

    "But some biologists are ichthyologists."
    Reminds me of how my adviser would ridicule me for insisting on euthanizing fish with MS-222 (tricane methanesulfonate) before preserving them. He just dropped them alive into formalin. Similarly, Navajos thought me a sissy for shooting sheep & goats in the brainstem with a .22 before butchering them. They just slit their throats. Said they didn't bleed out right if shot first.
    Don't think I'll be paying triple for a grassfed rat to feed the large female gray ratsnake (Elaphe obsoleta spiloides) we inherited from my son's friend when his girlfriend moved in with him, Sharon. Sorry. (BTW, anyone have a male? I'd like to get hatchlings.)

  • Sharon Astyk says:

    No skin off my nose, Darwinsdog - I don't raise rats...yet ;-). Although if you went fishing in my barn, I could probably find a few that the cats and dogs have missed. Maybe I could market them as "free range."
    Sharon

  • Jim Thomersoin says:

    Lady next door raised mice for a while. At the time, she was the local source of mice for the exotic pet trade here. She got 50 cents a piece for them. Given that mouse husbandry is very well understood, I would think an enterprising person could make a fair living raising and distributing feeder mice.
    My daughter caught a garter snake for a pet. We kept it in an aquarium and fed it earthworms from the compost pile. Came in one day and found 13 garter snakes in the aquarium. After a few days, we got tired of feeding them and took them out and dumped them on the compost pile.

  • brook says:

    There's a kids' book "Click Clack Moo, Cows that Type" with cute lighthearted message about the power of collective bargaining.
    Bugged the crap out of my kids though because the cows say they're cold and want electric blankets. My free range kiddos couldn't stand it that the author didn't bother to do some very basic research: cows in a barn are more likely to be hot than cold. "If the author had them asking for a ventilation fan, we'd like the book better mommy."
    We've converted more than one vegetarian. All it takes is a short in the electric fence, newly weaned lambs or horny rams and a hot day.

  • darchole says:

    At the university where I work any small animal that hasn't been given any drugs gets donated to the local zoo for the raptors to eat.

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