Category Archives: Ethics

Animal rescues in the spotlight

Dr. Anke Franz, Senior Lecturer at CCCU discusses the regulations, or lack thereof, effecting the wellbeing of animals under the care of animal rescues and sanctuaries.

Before Christmas, BBC’s week in week out programme aired an investigation into an animal rescue in Wales, raising issues around standards and license requirements for animal rescues. “Sanctuaries […] aren’t regulated. Boarding kennels […] need a license because they are governed by the animal welfare act, so too are breeders and come to mention it circuses. As for sanctuaries, well the act doesn’t cover them, so they don’t need a license”. This isn’t a problem if they function well, and many local rescues do excellent work. However, if they don’t, there are limited powers to close them down or prosecute.

So how can we know that the local rescue that we donate money to or where we got our dog/cat/rabbit from, is a good rescue?

A good place to start is the Code of Practice written by the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes (ADCH) to be adhered to by its members.

However, are all necessary standards covered in the ADCH Code of Practice? If not, what standards should rescues adhere to? And who will benefit from inclusion or exclusion of certain standards?

Ana Fernandez, Liz Spruin, Nicole Holt and I have been working with several small independent animal rescues across Kent. As part of this work, we asked them what rescue standards animal rescues should adhere to, which of these are basic standards and which of these are Gold standards – standards rescues should strive towards beyond the basic ones.

The basic standards were:

  1. Rescues have to thoroughly assess all animals that they take on
  2. Rescues have to provide necessary vet care, including neutering/ spaying and micro-chipping
  3. Rescues have to hold a valid insurance, including 3rd party insurance
  4. Rescues have to provide a safe and suitable place to keep the animal, either in a kennel or in a foster environment
  5. Rescues have to complete home checks for all foster and adoption placements
  6. Rescues have to follow up on adoptions, ideally through follow-up visits
  7. Rescues have to offer guaranteed Rescue Back-Up for the duration of the dog’s life (this means that the dog will be taken back by the rescue at any time if the dog cannot be kept by the owner for any reason)
  8. All foster and adoption agreements have to be subject to a contract
  9. At all times, rescues have to be professional and approachable and recognize potential lack of knowledge in fosters and adopters and ensure adequate information and training is provided

The gold standards were:

  1. Rescues should provide ongoing mentoring and behavioural training and interventions to fosters and adopters
  2. Rescues should provide general advice on owning a dog, including costs and nutrition
  3. Rescues should ensure that adequate information regarding potential adopters has been received
  4. Rescues should set up a registry of unsuitable dog owners
  5. Wherever possible, rescues should provide financial and other assistance to struggling dog owners as well as adopters to ensure animals can stay within suitable home environments
  6. Rescues have to provide a high quality of life for all animals in their care, particularly for long-term or permanent residents
  7. Rescues should be transparent about their destruction policies
  8. Forums for social and long-term contact with adopters should be available and fostered.

One topic we discussed at length was euthanasia. Our partner rescues felt transparency regarding destruction policies would be useful. It would allow everybody to know where problem dogs could go without the risk of euthanasia. However, some of our partner rescues had witnessed serious backlash from other rescues regarding decisions that they had been forced to take leading to a reluctance to engage openly with this issue. This was also raised by the ADCH guidance which falls short of requiring rescue organisations to be transparent about their euthanasia policies. Yet, greater openness about realities such as these are vital for arriving at workable standards and regulations.

Generally, there is a lot of overlap between the ADCH Code of Practice and the rescue standards that our partner rescues developed, however, there are some key differences.

Our partner rescues, usually smaller rescues, often run completely by volunteers and frequently relying on foster homes, focused on procedures targeted at increasing success in adoptions, such as conducting home visits for all potential dogs, with dogs often only being rehomed within small geographical areas. In the ADCH guidance home visits are seen as useful but not essential. For many larger dog rescue centres that, for example, take in stray dogs for the council, the reality of euthanising dogs for a variety of reasons is very tangible. This was highlighted by the Sun newspaper in January 2016, when it revealed the numerous dogs being euthanised by large animal rescue organisations such as Battersea, Blue Cross and the RSPCA Rehoming dogs to people living further afield and even on occasion in a different country can equate to having to destroy one dog less, even though the chance of the adoption being successful is decreased.

In addition, the responsibility of a rescue to take back animals at any time when things don’t work out was non-negotiable for our partner rescues while the ADCH strongly encouraged this, but did not enforce it.

If regulations were to be introduced, it should certainly be done in a way that does not penalise good rescues, small or large, and that takes account of the diverse workings of different rescues. While larger, more structured rescues could help smaller rescues to put in place legal structures and auditing procedures, small rescues and sanctuaries can often offer a lifeline to animals that larger rescues might not be able to work with due to problem behaviour, including aggression. They also often have well-functioning informal networks helping them find expert rescue and sanctuary places for difficult or specialised animals needing a second chance.

There are plenty of excellent rescues of all shapes and sizes, including many small local ones, and it is important that they are able to continue their work, especially in an environment where the sheer number of animals requiring rescue places means that rescues have to refuse many more animals than they can help.

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The Ethics of Manipulating Facebook Users

Facebook has been going for so long that, when it started out, the term ‘social networking’ referred to meeting people, shaking their hands, and exchanging business cards. Now it’s all online; we poke, post and like–some of us even vine, tweet and instagram. Facebook began as a Harvard-based contacts directory. Today, it’s a global juggernaut of realtime, mostly accurate data from about one billion users. This is Big Data.

Kramer et al.

In the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America or PNAS, there is Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks (Kramer, Guillory & Hancock, 2014).

Each Facebook user sees a ‘News Feed’ that contains a series of text-based updates on what has been happening in the lives of their friends. Kramer and colleagues manipulated the content of this stream such that (i) positive text expressions were reduced and (ii) negative expressions were reduced. (There was also a control condition in which a similar proportion of posts were reduced, but randomly.)

The main finding of the study is straightforward to describe. When a Facebook user is presented with a greater proportion of positive statements, they are more likely (compared to a randomised control) to use positive language in their own status updates. The reverse is true for a greater proportion of negative statements.

For social psychologists, the effect is interesting; but it is modest. The ‘size’ of the effect is unusually small (the authors report Cohen’s d statistics between 0.02 and 0.001; even sizes an order of magnitude larger than 0.02 are considered small, see Cohen, 1988).

Ethics in Psychological Research

The underlying issue with the study comes down to those words ‘experimental’ and ‘massive’. Participants were not merely observed; their experience of the friends’ updates was altered. This happened for many people: 689,003 Facebook users.

Over the years, academic psychology has matured to the extent that, no matter how interesting a study or experiment might be, we take a strong position on protecting the rights of our participants. We will not, for instance, subject them to any personal risk above what they would experience in their everyday lives on the grounds that our experiment interests us scientifically. And participants must be asked for their informed consent. What is informed consent? This is the agreement of an individual to have something done to them; and the agreement is made with as much information about the outcome as humanly possible.

In their article, the authors write:

As such, [the experiment] was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research. (p. 8789)

Who is informed, and when?

Informed consent is a keystone of ethical research. Given the Facebook data use policy, which is several thousand words long, there’s no doubt I’ve consented to all kinds of things–all of them forgotten, since I, personally, had to click ‘OK’ on scores of legal boilerplates in order to use a product or service, from Microsoft Word to installing OS X.

Over at, Katy Waldman writes:

Facebook’s methodology raises serious ethical questions. The team may have bent research standards too far, possibly overstepping criteria enshrined in federal law and human rights declarations. “If you are exposing people to something that causes changes in psychological status, that’s experimentation,” says James Grimmelmann, a professor of technology and the law at the University of Maryland. “This is the kind of thing that would require informed consent.”

If I’m going to invite a participant to take part in an EEG experiment, I’m not going to give that person a long document with a short passage on consent somewhere near the middle, and then pat myself on the back when the participant signs the last page. It might fulfil the letter of the ethics code, but it’s hardly in the spirit.

There’s a long list of things a psychologist can do if saying to someone ‘Hey, I’m about to test you! Brace yourself!’ will render the data from a study unusable. We can give someone a general notion of what’s about to happen and then fully debrief them afterwards, and offer an opportunity to withdraw their data. We can ask people from the same group as the participants–e.g. other Facebook users–what they think a person’s reaction to being manipulated might be.

But is ‘manipulation’ even the correct term? Tal Yarkoni:

…The suggestion that Facebook “manipulated users’ emotions” is quite misleading. Framing it that way tacitly implies that Facebook must have done something specifically designed to induce a different emotional experience in its users. In reality, for users assigned to the experimental condition, Facebook simply removed a variable proportion of status messages that were automatically detected as containing positive or negative emotional words.

Applying ethical principles is hard in one sense, but easy in others. The Internet has made personal data easily available, and our sense of privacy is changing. It’s been said on more than one occasion that young people today have a different notion of privacy prevalent with old codgers like me (I’m 37 and still remember the monstrous inconvenience of rotary telephones). Do I consider my Facebook posts private? Funnily enough, I do. But perhaps they aren’t. I certainly don’t think of my Twitter posts as private. Would I object to Twitter manipulating my feed in such a way? I’m not sure.

On Medium, Zeynep Tufekci writes:

I’m struck by how this kind of power can be seen as no big deal. Large corporations exist to sell us things, and to impose their interests, and I don’t understand why we as the research/academic community should just think that’s totally fine, or resign to it as “the world we live in”.

Reader, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post.


Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences (second ed.). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kramer, A. D. I., Guillory, J. E., & Hancock, J. T. (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (24), 8788-8790.

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