Criminology and Research Ethics: Drawing the Line in Animal Research


“In order to study blood-spatter patterns, a group of researchers in New Zealand strapped pigs to a surgical table and shot them in the head. Some of these animals were alive. Nasty, for sure, but apparently humane. The study has been justified by the government-funded Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), one of the collaborators, because if translatable to humans, the findings might have use in solving crimes involving gunshot wounds.”[1]

Research ethics has been a hot subject in recent years, especially when it relates to experiments involving harm towards animals. Many object to the practice entirely, citing the fact that they believe killing is always wrong, the notion that our treatment of non-human animal subjects is speciesist[2] (meaning discrimination based on species), and that it is
wrong to use animals for experiments that have no way to consent to research participation.

Considering the study[3] referenced above, I will evaluate whether or not killing the pigs for criminology research was permissible.

The primary ethical principle behind research involves the significance of the benefit we would derive from the experiments balanced against the quantity and type of harm we do to the creatures involved, and whether or not we have moral restrictions against doing certain things at all. In a way, the ethical principles relevant to research ethics bear a resemblance to Thomas Aquinas’s Just War Theory. Aquinas argued, among other things, that we could only engage in what was considered a “just war” if (1) one had “just cause,” or an adequate, compelling reason, (2) one had a high probability of success, and (3) one had no other options.[4] This bears a striking resemblance to what we might consider to be a defining principle of research ethics:

Photo via Research: A research project is morally permissible if (1) there is a compelling reason to undertake the project, (2) there is a high probability of successfully completing the project and gaining positive or negative results, and (3) one had no other options.

In the case of shooting pigs to study blood-spatter patterns in order to improve our investigative knowledge in gun-related cases, (1) and (3) are the most important considerations. Let’s examine (1) first. The study was done for the purposes of better understanding the forensic evidence left behind when someone is shot. In the case of the study, this was expressly done in order to determine whether or not wounds are inflicted by murder or suicide. [5]

We can speculate that similar studies could help law enforcement officers in determining things like where the shooter was standing, how tall he or she might be, what kind of weapon was used, and whether or not that weapon belonged to a given suspect. There is a clear societal interest in, as they say, “catching the bad guys,” so it seems that we do have just cause for conducting some sort of study. Indeed, this is the general rationale used in justifying this study itself.

We next need to consider whether or not there were any other feasible options. Animal research involving killing animals is generally done on the condition that it is done “humanely.” This largely comes from provisions in The Animal Welfare Act.[6] One can argue that if killing is always wrong, this is never possible. Leaving that possibility aside, were the pigs shot in a humane manner?

According to the universities of Otago and Auckland, as well as the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, who were responsible for the study itself and for evaluating whether or not they were allowed to conduct the study the way that they did, a research ethics committee approved the study, and the pigs were killed humanely because they were sedated before they were shot.[7] However, whether or not the pigs were killed humanely is secondary to whether or not this was the best option for conducting the study.

Let’s consider whether or not there were any other ways to conduct the study. The researchers did use several dead pigs to study the splatter patterns as well, but this does not equate very well to shooting something that is actually alive: in the live pigs, the blood would actually be moving, just as blood would be moving in the case of a living human gunshot victim. The researchers admitted to using mannequins previously, but were unable to get accurate data compared to shooting live animals.

However, if the only issue is that the blood isn’t moving in either dead pig studies or in mannequin trials, this seems easily fixable. Couldn’t the researchers use an artificial heart to pump blood through the pig’s head? Couldn’t they put dead blood vessels inside a fake head and move the blood with a pump to get a more realistic result? The benefit of this last approach is that one could even use fake human heads or other body parts to get even more accurate results (since we are obviously concerned with human gunshot wounds, not pig wounds). Another option might even be pumping blood through a cadaver and shooting that, so long as the body was donated to science and the person previously acknowledged that their body might be used in such a manner.

On this conception of research ethics, shooting pigs for criminology research is morally impermissible, regardless of whether or not one thinks it is always wrong to kill animals. The principle also leaves room for other studies involving animal research, such as medical or genetic studies which might eventually contribute to advancements in medical techniques, since there are no realistic alternatives: these studies generally need live animal subjects and animal cells, so there are no true alternatives.

Whether or not the techniques ought to be refined to minimize the damage below what is already done and whether or not these studies all satisfy “just cause” is a separate matter. Either way, this study is impermissible based on my conception of research ethics.

By: Michael S. Dauber
Michael S. Dauber is a student at the NYU College of Global Public Health studying Bioethics. He graduated Fordham University in 2015 with a degree in philosophy.

[1] “Pigs Shot in the Head for Science.” Article by Justine Alford, 2015.

[2] Although not his own, the term was popularized by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation (1975).

[3]G. E. Radford, M. C. Taylor , J. A. Kieser, J. N. Waddell, K. A. J. Walsh, J. C. Schofield, R. Das, and E. Chakravorty. “Simulating backspatter of blood from cranial gunshot wounds using pig models” in International Journal of Legal Medicine (2015), pp 1-10.

[4] Brian Orend. “War” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2005), Section two, “Just War.” Accessed via

[5] See the above-mentioned article by Alford.

[6] The Animal Welfare Act, 2013 edition, §2143. Standards and certification process for humane handling, care, treatment, and transportation of animals, A. 3:“(A) for animal care, treatment, and practices in experimental procedures to ensure that animal pain and distress are minimized, including adequate veterinary care with the appropriate use of anesthetic, analgesic, tranquilizing drugs, or euthanasia…”

[7] Ibid.

Written By Fordham University Center for Ethics Education

Criminology and Research Ethics: Drawing the Line in Animal Research was originally published @ Ethics and Society and has been syndicated with permission.

Photo by theglobalpanorama


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