Reflecting on Ethical and Legal Issues in Wildlife Disease
Hocking, Barbara Ann
Bioethics 2005 August; 19(4): 336-347
Disease in wildlife raises a number of issues that have not been widely considered in the bioethical literature. However, wildlife disease has major implications for human welfare. The majority of emerging human infectious diseases are zoonotic: this is, they occur in humans by cross-species transmissions from animal hosts. Managing these diseases often involves balancing concerns with human health against animal welfare and conservation concerns. Many infectious diseases of domestic animals are shared with wild animals, although it is often unclear whether the infection spills over from wild animals to domestic animals or vice versa. Culling is the standard means of managing such diseases, bringing economic considerations, animal welfare and conservation into conflict. Infectious diseases are also major threatening processes in conservation biology and their appropriate management by culling, vaccination or treatment raises substantial animal ethics issues. One particular issue of great significance in Australia is an ongoing research program to develop genetically modified pathogens to control vertebrate pests including rabbits, foxes and house mice. Release of any self-replicating GMO vertebrate pathogen gives rise to a whole series of ethical questions. We briefly review current Australian legal responses to these problems. Finally, we present two unresolved problems of general importance that are exemplified by wildlife disease. First, to what extent can or should 'bioethics' be broadened beyond direct concerns with human welfare to animal welfare and environmental welfare? Second, how should the irreducible uncertainty of ecological systems be accounted for in ethical decision making?
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