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No one wants to kill animals for research. Sadly, it's necessary for the improvement of scientific knowledge. Ultimately, what we learn from these experiments not only benefits humans but animals as well. Still, nobody denies it is a grim and unfortunate practice - a message that has been hammered home by recently published research.

In order to study blood-spatter patterns, a group of researchers in New Zealand strapped pigs to a surgical table and shot them in the head. Some of these animals were alive. Nasty, for sure, but apparently humane. The study has been justified by the government-funded Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), one of the collaborators, because if translatable to humans, the findings might have use in solving crimes involving gunshot wounds.

The purpose of the study was to look at “gunshot-related backspatter,” or the blood, tissue and bone that gets ejected from an entrance wound, but in the opposite direction to the bullet. According to the authors, a significant amount of research has looked into its incidence following shots to the head, and this information helps distinguish suicide from murder. However, what scientists still struggle to understand is why it isn’t always observed and what factors underlie its occurrence. In steps the present study.

As described in the International Journal of Legal Medicine, researchers from the ESR and the universities of Otago and Auckland gathered a number of butchered pigs’ heads from a supermarket, alongside five live adult pigs. Both were subjected to similar treatments: namely, being shot in the head.

For the live animals, they were sedated by a vet and then secured to a table before being shot with either a pistol or a semi-automatic rifle. Three were fired at from just over a meter (4 feet) away, and two were shot with the gun in contact with the pig’s head. The whole thing was recorded using a high-speed camera and the material that splattered out was then analyzed.

Needless to say, animal rights groups are not happy about the research, and they’re not afraid to shout about it. Director of PETA US’ Laboratory Investigations Department had this to say: “Shooting a living being to watch blood spatter is appalling, indefensible and just bad science.” A statement issued by the organization goes on to point out how the authors themselves acknowledge the anatomical differences between humans and animals that “cannot be ignored.” They also highlight a recent analysis that questioned the usefulness of animal models in forensic science due to the inapplicability of results.

But both the University of Otago and the ESR have defended the research, assuring that it was approved by an ethics committee and conducted in a humane manner. ESR spokesman Stephen Corbett also told Morning Report that the team had already used other techniques to study spattering, like computer modeling and mannequins instead of animals. But apparently these methods were inadequate in this case and the researchers struggled to get the data they needed, and so went down the live animal route.

The authors also said that pigs were chosen because of similarities to humans in terms of skin and bone properties, although the translatability still seems questionable as their brains are significantly smaller than humans’ and their skulls are much thicker. And the fact that the animals were (thankfully) sedated likely doesn’t reflect many gunshot crimes.

But while it’s easy to focus on the brutality aspect, is this ultimately significantly different to other studies that require animal sacrifice? Not hugely, but its necessity still remains questionable. Thankfully, the researchers said they have the data they required and won’t be conducting such studies again. 

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