The ethics of employing animals

Bird experts are expressing deep concerns about a start-up that swept the news last week, announcing that it wants to train crows to pick cigarette butts off the streets of Sweden.

“These are wild birds taking part voluntarily,” the founder, Christian Günther-Hanssen, states on Corvid Cleaning’s website.

The company aims to train crows using a machine that deposits a food reward, such as peanuts, for every cigarette butt dropped in. A pilot project is currently underway in the Swedish city of Södertälje, and Günther-Hanssen claims it could cut 75% of the city’s cleaning costs related to cigarette butts.

“The estimation for the cost of picking up cigarette butts today is around 80 öre [Swedish change] or more per cigarette butt, some say two kronor,” he told The Guardian. “If the crows pick up cigarette butts, this would maybe be 20 öre per cigarette butt.”

Crows are being used due to their high level of intelligence. Species such as the New Caledonian crow have been shown to have the reasoning skills of a seven-year-old human. According to corvid expert Kaeli Swift from the University of Washington, US, even the species found in Sweden are capable of being trained to perform clean-up tasks “with enough patience and rewards”.

This has already been successfully demonstrated by Corvid Cleaning with hooded crows.

From an economics perspective, the project seems like a great deal, but according to Swift and other scientists, it’s a concerning endeavour.

“I think the whole thing is ridiculous,” says Swift. “What are the ethics of hiring birds to do this, instead of more city employees?”

Gisela Kaplan, Emeritus Professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of New England, NSW, holds a similar view.

“The entire idea is repulsive and appalling for several ethical – and indeed biological – concerns,” she says.

The first concern, according to Kaplan, is that the training may change their wild behaviours.

On Corvid Cleaning’s website, Günther-Hanssen argues that these crows are already used to living in an environment shaped by humans.

“Their current behaviour is not ‘natural’ as such, so it’s not necessarily a big change for them to just interact with the human world in a slightly different way,” he says.

But according to Kaplan, “the time spent doing such unnatural jobs for humans detracts and takes away time from socialising, foraging and even vigilance behaviour – all to the detriment of the birds.”

Two crows sitting on branch, one with stick in its mouth
Adult and juvenile wild New Caledonian crows, with the juvenile holding a leaf-stem tool, used to fish food out of a hole drilled in a log. Credit: by Natalie Uomini

Swift agrees.

“A dog does a task for food because we have almost complete control over what that food is and when it gets fed,” she says. “Why would a wild crow look for cigarette butts when it could just look for food?”

But the bigger worry is around the potential health impacts on the crows.

“Filters of cigarettes are filled with a concentration of dangerous chemicals to humans and thus [are] a risk to bird survival,” says Kaplan. “There is no guarantee that some birds won’t ingest tobacco or use some of the material to line their nests – with possible contamination of nestlings.”

Günther-Hanssen admits on his website that “no one knows” the health impacts, but the company intends to find out.

He says that “cigarette butts contain a lot of nicotine and other compound[s] that are dangerous if inhaled or ingested”, but adds that “since the birds will do neither, it’s unknown if they will get anything in them at all”.

In urban environments, he adds, birds are known to “eat human junk food and get nutrition deficit as a result. Chances are pretty good that it’s possible to put the birds on a better diet and improve their overall health with this solution.”

The website states that in upcoming pilot tests, “levels in compounds” in birds will be monitored, and “should any reach dangerous levels the project will be modified to exclude any items containing those compounds”.

No information is provided as to how this will be done.

Cigarette butts on ground
Credit: Brian Yurasits/Unsplash

Swift has many questions about how the company intends to monitor the health effects, particularly as the crows repeatedly handle cigarette butts with their mouths.

“Are they submitting blood work to a lab for a toxicology report?” she asks. “How will they determine what is acceptable? This is a for-profit firm – what animal ethics agency is overseeing this?”

Establishing ethical oversight may set some minds at rest, but not Kaplan’s. She argues that this wouldn’t solve anything – rather, it would implicitly condone such practices.

“Once established, the practice may extend to other species and whatever other harebrained schemes,” she says.

This is not the first time humans have attempted to “employ” crows, and not even the first time they have been used to pick up litter. In 2018, a French theme park trained captive rooks to clean up the park as a publicity stunt.

Bizarrely, the head of the Puy du Fou theme park told AFP news agency that it wasn’t just about keeping the park clean, but showing “that nature itself can teach us to take care of the environment”.

Back in 2017, a Dutch start-up announced the exact same idea, saying it wanted to train these avian problem-solvers to clean up cigarette butts using a machine that deposited food rewards.

But after a year of assessing the project’s viability, the company, Crowded Cities, announced that it would not be proceeding.

“We talked with experts, companies and public institutions, but we had to conclude we have too few resources to continue the project,” it wrote on its website in December 2018. “Furthermore, we couldn’t get a clear picture of what the effects would be on crows and the environment. It made us decide to end the project.”

Swift says these past attempts should be warning enough.

“The fact we keep trying this and no one has been successful suggests that maybe it’s time to give up on this idea,” she says. “What about something that rewards people for doing it themselves?

“I definitely think there’s some serious introspection to be done when we think the best solution to human-caused problems is to exploit animals in this way.”

Crow looking directly at camera
Credit: Łukasz Rawa/Unsplash

Kaplan says that projects like Corvid Cleaning and Crowded Cities show “the darker side of humanity”.

“No empathy for the birds, no qualms about potential health risks or the changes in social dynamics and even feeding and reproductive patterns,” she says.

These projects point to prickly issues around the rights of animals.

“The problem is that native wildlife, even if counted as protected, is not afforded a legal status as sentient beings,” Kaplan explains. “Endangered species usually have some protection but even there is a grey area if the intention is not to kill.”

She says by-laws should be enacted to stop active exploitation of wildlife, and joins the calls of other experts to give legal protection to birds such as crows, given their demonstrated cognitive complexity.

“Humans have always felt entitled to use animals anywhere and in any context as they wish,” she says.

She adds that ideas such as this one from Corvid Cleaning reveal the prevalence of a mindset of superiority that prioritises humans above the rest of nature – a mindset that is pushing us deeper into ecological crises.

“It points to more serious and – during climate change – very problematic and deep-seated attitudes that will ultimately be to our own great disadvantage,” Kaplan concludes.

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