Most of the research done at EBD-CSIC involves wild animals in their natural habitat. Occasionally, animals are kept in captivity for a variable period of time. Most captive animals are housed at the Animal Experimentation Unit (AEU) facility, under husbandry conditions subject to the local laws concerning animal welfare. Information about the animals housed at the AEU facility (numbers, species, procedence, final endpoint and research project involved) can be found in the animal record files.
Performing wildlife research under natural conditions often poses particular and complex problems from the standpoint of animal welfare. Unlike for domestic animals specifically bred for scientific purposes, almost every human intervention which interferes with their normal way of living (e.g. trapping and marking) is potentially dangerous to wildlife. Such a negative impact on animal welfare is difficult to evaluate because human access to animals is limited, welfare indicators are often cryptic or difficult to quantify, and working conditions often are often outside the control of human researchers. Moreover, veterinary assistance can be seldom guaranteed, overlooking protocols are difficult to implement and there are many possible contingencies during fieldwork caused by climatology, technical equipment, human staff and the animals themselves. Even for wildlife studies in captivity, optimal housing and husbandry conditions inside an authorised user facility are often poorly known and may differ substantially from the accepted recommendations for similar domestic species. Finally, field studies involving wildlife often have a collateral negative impact upon the welfare of animals other than the study subjects from the same (e.g. dependent offspring, mates, social companions) or a different species (e.g. predators and prey).
Adhering to the 3Rs Principle (Replacement, Reduction, Refinement) seeks to find out alternatives to this negative impact upon animal welfare. All researchers at EBD-CSIC are obliged to comply with this requirement when applying for a legal authorization to carry out their research.
Unlike biomedical research where animals are mainly used as models for the human organism, wildlife research often seeks understanding the biology, behaviour or ecology of wild animals. Therefore, wild animals can seldom be replaced by non-animal (e.g. in vitro) models or less sentient species. Sometimes, it is possible to replace them with domestic animals (e.g. in physiology studies) which suffer from a lower negative impact (e.g. they do not need to be captured).
Researchers often make use of statistical methods of experimental design to prevent the number of animals used being insufficient to render conclusive results or, alternatively, too high to make some data redundant. Such methods may be of a limited usefulness for wildlife studies, which often deal with a huge, unknown natural variation which sometimes justifies the use of larger samples and the replication of studies in different sites and moments. The possible collateral effects upon animals other than the study subjects are also evaluated, both by the Animal Welfare Body (AWB), and by the competent authority on wildlife protection.
Often, the only way to reduce to a minimum the negative impact upon the welfare of wild animals consist in a careful planification and design of experimental procedures. To obtain a favourable, positive assessment of a research application by the AWB, researchers must consider how each and every thing they plan to do to animals (e.g. trapping, marking, blood sampling, releasing) may likely affect their physiology, social behaviour, foraging efficiency, and vulnerability. This information must follow species-specific guidelines supported by renowned scientific societies, and must take into consideration the behaviour, ecology and usual way of living of the animals under study. Moreover, researchers must anticipate possible contingencies which are likely to occur due to the technical equipment, meteorology, human staff and the animals themselves. Special attention is given to the requirements of animals during transport, confinement in captivity, choice of humane endpoints to stop the procedure in case it causes much suffering or risks the animal's life, and releasing the animals back to their natural habitat after the end of the procedure. As a rule, releasing is only advisable when the procedure is of a short duration and mild severity and the animal keeps most of its physical and behavioural (territory ownership, social status, ability to escape from predators) capacities intact, and must be carefully supervised by the researcher. Sometimes (e.g. when there is a risk of transmitting diseases to the native population), releasing is not advisable at all.
Below you can find a non-technical summary of the current research projects involving animal use at Doñana Biological Station.