Random thoughts on banding and attaching devices to animals, and a proposal

I have been thinking about banding and attaching devices (such as radio transmitters) to animals for some time.

On one hand, I totally understand the reasoning behind these practices: individual animals are difficult to distinguish, banding allows scientists to tell them apart and track their movements (especially during migration). Radio transmitters will allow them to collect live data. These are important ways to understand the behavior and movement of animals, and if used properly, they will aid in conservation efforts too.

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A banded American Goldfinch, Maryland, US, summer, 2014

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A banded Crested Goshawk, Tokyo, Japan, November 2016

I understand all of that.

However, too often, these devices seem to be intrusive and cumbersome. Google “Bald Eagle with radio transmitter”  or “meerkat with radio collar” and you will see. Some of these are rather painful to see; it is highly doubtful that these devices will not impede these animal’s movements. Even with banding, it is not difficult to imagine that when animals move from place to place, especially in tangled vegetation, etc., or struggle with predator/prey, they may cause abrasion which will lead to infection, etc.

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Moose with radio collar, Grand Teton National Park, July, 2004

Moreover, catching the animals and attaching these devices may cause psychic damage to them, some of which may be lasting.

The late renowned ornithologist Alexander Skutch, who mostly conducted his research , in his book “A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm” (after observing the lasting psychic damage suffered by birds in traumatic shocks), said (pp 193-194):

These experiences have made me speculate about the effects of trapping and banding upon free birds. To be caught, especially to become badly entangled in a mist net, as frequently happens, and then seized and manipulated by human hands, can be … terrifying .. (some) may suffer an enduring trauma.

For his part, in his decades of research, Skutch relied mostly on careful and painstaking observation at a distance with minimal disturbances and harm to his subjects (sometimes he would sit in a blind for many hours everyday for the entire breeding season).

Most scientists downplay the intrusiveness of such devices, saying that the animals “won’t even feel them”. Really? Look at the google images, look at the radio transmitters on the flying birds, or the radio collars on the meerkat, which proportionally looks like a a propane tank on a person’s back, all the time and everywhere.

Also, I think too many scientists are too quick to dismiss the psychic effects these activities have on the animals. To them, “science” trumps everything. Too often they snobbishly dismiss such concerns as “sentimental”, “soft”, or even more ridiculously “political correctness” (there is no politics in this discussion). To them, the end — be it scientific understanding or conservation — justifies the means. To a certain extent, I understand and even agree with this — to save the entire species or an ecosystem (the “great good”, some harms to a few individual animals may be inevitable or even necessary. But science does not give one the license to do whatever to these animals they study. Furthermore, philosophically, if a scientist does not have any concern whatsoever about welfare of the animals they study, or even protect, how do we trust that they will truly have the “great good” in their mind?

Gandhi had propounded “science without humanity” as one of the seven social sins. It rings truer and truer with every passing day.

Upon reflection, I have a mild proposal:

Whoever installs these devices on the animals should install one on themselves too. They should wear permanent metal ankle or wrist bands, or attach a radio transmitter (a dummy one will do) to their back. They should wear such devices all the time and everywhere — when they eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, take a shower, etc.

This is not just an emotional plea, but a logically sound proposal. The devices are either comfortable, non-instrusive, or uncomfortable and intrusive. This proposal covers all grounds; either:

A) The devices are truly very comfortable and they really don’t feel anything at all, in this case then the person who installs them on animals should have no problem wearing one as well; or:

B) The device are so uncomfortable the person who installs them can’t even contemplate wearing one; then in this case why should they put one on other animals?

Morally, it also seems just fair. At the least, it may propel these scientists to invent truly non-intrusive means for studying these animals.

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