An Ethical Tightrope

Lynn Carlon, research technician at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Burns, soothes every cow with a head scratch following a vaccination. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

By Lee Anna Sherman

Making ethical choices about animals can be a philosophical high-wire act — a precarious balance of practicality and principle. Weighing practical needs against “normative ethics” — right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust — requires more than a handbook of do’s and don’ts.

“The institutional protocols — the laws, regulations, policies — provide a framework, but a lot of situations are subject to interpretation,” says OSU Professor Jill Parker, a large-animal surgeon who teaches Veterinary Medical Ethics to second-year veterinary students. “Decisions need to be based on a reasoned decision process.”

For students eyeing careers at clinics, biomedical labs or other veterinary enterprises, ethical skills count as much as finesse with a syringe, a scalpel or a stethoscope. Through role-play and case studies, Parker pushes her students to challenge their assumptions. In one scenario, for example, fictional researchers at a make-believe university are using pigs to develop heart valves for humans. Parker’s students pretend to be various characters, such as university researcher Dr. D. Zyne and heart patient B.D. Hart. The scenario is further complicated by hypothetical animal-rights protesters.

Across campus in Animal and Rangeland Sciences, Matt Kennedy wades into equally uncomfortable territory when he teaches Contentious Social Issues in Animal Agriculture. The course, which draws 200 students yearly from majors as diverse as engineering and art, tackles such hot-button issues as agri-terrorism, horse slaughter, wolves versus livestock, gestation crates for pigs, genetic engineering and the history of the animal rights movement.

“We educate them to look at the facts before the emotions,” says Kennedy, who manages the Campus Swine Unit and Steer-A-Year program. “Our goal is not to sway them to one side or another, but to let them make their own decisions through critical thinking.”