In my Primate Conservation course this week, we talked about Dr. Linda Fedigan’s (2010) article on Ethical Issues Faced by Field Primatologists: Asking the Ethical Questions. And honestly, it really blew my mind and made me think about how I should be considering things when I conduct my research in Costa Rica.
The one thing I liked most about this and I feel some primatologists forget sometimes: non-human primates and primates typically do not exist in an exclusive vacuum. In many cases, primates (non-human and human primates) exist side-by-side and have common interactions–be it through a shared living space, access to necessary resources (think: open water sources and food resources); their interactions are enough to influence disease ecology, behavioral ecology, and the overall function of the ecosystem in which non-human primates and human primates utilize. If this is already seen as invasive by many (and it is), think of the role a foreign researcher plays in attempting to study in a foreign nation; particularly if they are from an affluent nation going towards a more impoverished one.
And it is on that note that I find Fedigan’s article to be at its best: in Appendix B of her article, she devises an example version of a revised protocol sheet for Animal Care Form for Field Studies,
“Part C. Local people
1.) List and briefly describe any national or regional laws in the country where your research will take place that are pertinent to your field study of primates (e.g. laws pertaining to human/animal interactions, hunting, the pet trade, extraction of resources, etc.)
2.) List and briefly describe any cultural traditions in the country where you propose to work that are pertinent to your field study of primates.
3.) What measures will you take to observe those laws and local customs?”
The considerations to cultural understanding and awareness are what inspire me and excite me the most as a future primatologist; in order to perform the best research possible, you need to understand the environment you’ll be in to some extent. And since, as I’ve stated before, human primates and non-human primates typically don’t exist in a vacuum, the best thing you can do is to understand and work with the people who you’ll be around. At the risk of sounding callous, I think this was the message to learn from Dian Fossey‘s story.
But there isn’t just the cultural understanding that should come with primatology: it should also serve as an education tool. I don’t necessarily think or believe every researcher should make their site a tourist trap or anything like that. But I do believe it is the role of a researcher to attempt to balance the needs of native people (in so much as hunting for subsistence) and the role of their research as a tool for education and conservation (side note: to some extent, I believe all primatologists are conservationists, even captive ones.) Researchers should be willing to take in natives and educate them; instead of dragging in a team from an affluent country, use locals and educate them so maybe they would be willing to take on a greater responsibility of environmental management and protection for their local resources. Because when all is said and done, and a researcher leaves–the natives will still be there. If you can get them interested in protecting instead of hunting to gain money, and instead, try and gain money for protection and conservation (assuming that the local or national government has the funds for such.)
There’s a lot I like about the Fedigan article and I could easily yap about it for days, but here’s what I’m going to pledge to do when I’m in Costa Rica so I can, to my awareness, perform as ethically as possible:
1.) I will invest time (after my finals are done) to learning about Costa Rican culture. I have done a little legwork and I intend to do more; although I don’t expect to meet any natives aside from any permanent staff at the field station and hotel, I won’t allow myself to be caught off guard. Although, this will be problematic considering I speak very, very limited Spanish. (“Me gusta cerveza!”)
2.) I will do my best when I am in the field to perform strictly to the rules that will be set out for me by my director. I realize this is incredibly vague now, but I’m assuming things like “Don’t scream!” or “Don’t make sudden movements!”
3.) Luckily, I will be working with New World Monkeys (Latin/South American), so the zoonotic disease transmission is lowered, but I’ll attempt to take some masks with me before I go to minimize any potential risk. Fortunately, I have had my TB test performed in the last six months, and assuming it suddenly didn’t creep on me, I won’t be passing that along.
4.) I will be using clean sanitation areas as much as possible to lower any potential zoonotic transmission. Though the risk is cut, I refuse to take chances if I can help it.
5.) Most importantly, I will treat my subjects with as much respect and consideration that allows me to in that specific context of observational research.
It is that last one, I think, that makes or breaks any primatologist: myself to be included.
Fedigan, L. (2010). Ethical Issues Faced by Field Primatologists: Asking the Relevant Questions. American Journal of Primatology, 71, 1-18.