Sheep’s ability to recognise human faces from two-dimensional images

Hi Readers,

I recently read an article which has led me to form a very strong opinion on the subject. There has recently been a study on eight sheep (Ovis aries, female Welsh Mountain) at the University of Cambridge. These sheep were being trained to recognise celebrity faces on a screen (Fiona Bruce, Jake Gyllenhaal, Barak Obama and Emma Watson). They were also tested to see if they recognised their handlers on a screen as well.

Training – Celebrities

Training involved the sheep moving around a specially-designed pen choosing the photograph of the celebrity. At one end of the pen, they would see two photographs displayed on two computer screens and would receive a reward of food if they chose the correct photograph (by breaking an infrared beam near the screen); if they chose the wrong photograph, a buzzer would sound and they would receive no reward. Over time, they learn to associate a reward with the celebrity’s photograph.

Test – Celebrities

After training, the sheep were shown two photographs – the celebrity’s face and another face. In this test, sheep correctly chose the learned celebrity face eight times out of ten.

In these initial tests, the sheep were shown the faces from the front, but to test how well they recognised them, the researchers next showed them the faces at an angle. As expected, the sheep’s performance dropped, but only by about 15% – a figure comparable to that seen when humans perform the task.

Test – Handlers

The researchers looked at whether sheep were able to recognise a handler from a photograph without pre-training. The handlers typically spent two hours a day with the sheep. When a portrait photograph of the handler was placed randomly in place of the celebrity, the sheep chose the handler’s photograph over the unfamiliar face seven out of ten times. In this test, the researchers observed an interesting behaviour. Upon seeing a photographic image of the handler for the first time (they’d not seen the photo version of this person before) the sheep did a ‘double take’. Checking first the unfamiliar face, then the handler’s image, and then unfamiliar face again before making a decision to choose the handler.

This experiment was very interesting and on reading how they made the experiment fair was very fascinating (see first article in references). However, what the researchers are now doing with the findings is something I do not agree with.

A team at the University of Cambridge have said: 

‘ “Sheep are long-lived and have brains that are similar in size and complexity to those of some monkeys. That means they can be useful models to help us understand disorders of the brain, such as Huntington’s disease, that develop over a long time and affect cognitive abilities. Our study gives us another way to monitor how these abilities change, particularly in sheep who carry the gene mutation that causes Huntington’s disease.”

Professor Morton’s team recently began studying sheep that have been genetically modified to carry the mutation that causes Huntington’s disease. ‘

Huntington’s disease

UK research carried out in 2012 found the figure for those affected by this condition to be about 12 people per 100,000. Huntington’s disease affects more than 6,700 people in the UK and is an incurable neurodegenerative disease. Together with colleagues in Australia, the team successfully bred a strain of Merino sheep carrying the human genetic mutation that causes Huntington’s disease.

Whereas I am, of course, extremely supportive of research needed for this awful disease, I do strongly believe against genetically modifying the sheep to give them the disease. Unlike animal testing where the animals are euthanized afterwards to minimise anymore suffering – a quick and humane process, from what I can gather the researchers are breeding the animals so the pain they feel due to the disease can be studied. The team could work on genetically modifying the faulty gene causing the disease in the first place rather than spreading the pain as a result of it, to another animal. Another concern I have is, the disease affects humans once they reach adulthood, if we are messing with another species’ genes how are we to know if effects will be the same? Will they suffer longer or less than humans? When will the sheep start showing symptoms? When looking into this study I have found no mention of ethical concerns – I, myself, am concerned for how the researchers will minimise the negative effect on the animals health.

What do you all think? Is the GM of sheep for the purpose of medical research justifiable?

I would love to hear all your thoughts.



Feline Blood Donors

Hi Readers,

While walking around one of the veterinary school open days I noticed a sign that caught my attention. It was advertising for feline blood donors, which shocked me as I thought about the number of ethical questions it raised.

I looked into the procedure of cats donating blood a little more and found this article of the procedure that occurs when a cat donates blood:

Although the article is written in a method format, certain wording of the instructions such as ‘Locate healthy happy cat’ did begin to support my original fear that donor cats may be being used solely for ‘harvesting blood’ and forgotten that he/she is a live animal. As the veterinary profession develops and we use human procedures in the vet world, I feel that ethical issues are raised such as the problem of consent. While a ‘healthy happy human’ can agree to donating blood for a good cause, not all humans are comfortable with doing so – through fear of needles for example. Unfortunately, we will never be able to speak to our feline friends to ask whether or not they are comfortable with having their blood extracted.

Granted they do not understand what is happening, probably don’t have the same fears as us and I’m sure some cats sit purring away…but should we really be doing it to save a pet for human pleasure? After all, if the pet wasn’t living in a home and suffered, say, a car accident where he/she has lost a lot of blood…he/she would probably be left to die at the side of a road – like a badger or a fox – and not taken to a vet to have its blood replaced.

Another point I have considered is the possibility of someone who has their beloved pet that they’ve become very attached to and he/she needed blood, they may buy a certain cat just to use it’s blood. Similar situations are seen in humans for transplants. I’m sure many of you have seen ‘My Sister’s Keeper’ – I do think in cases when the animal cannot consent for themself, blood and actual organs are equal in the rights we have to extract from them, although admittedly blood tissue is less risky to transplant that a whole organ.

An article by International Cat Care discusses the issues with feline blood donation:

“Most cats, for their own benefit, need to be sedated for blood donation and this in itself carries a small risk. The drugs used in sedation often lowers blood pressure, and donating blood itself can also lower blood pressure due to removing some of the circulating blood volume. These effects on blood pressure and circulation can be a particularly important if a cat has some underlying disease that neither the owner or the vet is aware of – especially things like heart disease and kidney disease.”

This is of course very different to the procedure in humans and there are questions raised as to whether this is ethical or not.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on feline blood donors!



Ethics in pig farming

Hi Readers,

After a long period of revision and exams I am back and very excited to start my many weeks of work experience I have lined up this summer!

Today I’m going to be investigating pig farming as I always ensure I do some research into any new animal before working with them on work experience. I’m so glad I have the chance to work with such intelligent creatures in the summer and want to also look into the breeding of these animals and how they are kept beforehand.

It was brought to my attention that there are lots of laws and regulations on pig farming when listening to a talk on “Compassion in World Farming” in my school by Eileen Greeves that must be adhered to when keeping pigs.

The topics included are: Pig housing and design (making sure they have enough material to investigate and have the ability to stand up, lie down and rest without difficulty and able to see other pigs at all times), Feeding and watering pigs (making sure they’re fed at least once a day and have the correct amount of water available to them dependant on their size), Health and welfare (getting any necessary medical treatment at the correct time and dose), Protecting animals from hazards and emergencies (stock should be moved to a more suitable area if there’s no natural or artificial shelter to protect grazing stock from extreme weather – heat waves, flooding or being buried by snow).

However what caught my interest was the following criteria.

Mutilating pigs

Boar tusks

Boar tusks should only be reduced in length when there’s evidence that it’s needed to prevent injuries to other animals/for safety reasons.


Pigs shouldn’t be castrated wherever possible and other ways should be used to reduce aggression and avoid boar taint. Boar taint is an unpleasant smell that is smelled during the heating of pork. Boar taint occurs particularly in meat of adult male pigs due to changes in the hormonal system when the animal is growing older. Boar taint rarely occurs in female pigs or castrated male pigs. Research has shown that there are three  substances that can cause boar taint: androstenone, skatole and indole. Androstenone – substance that is important in the development of the sperm cells in male animals. Skatole – produced during the degradation of certain amino acids in the body. Skatole – affects both male and female animals. Castration of male piglets lowers the concentration of Skatole significantly.

If castration must be done, a method must be used that doesn’t involve tearing tissues. Farmers can castrate pigs up to 7 days old, as long as they’ve been trained to do so – older pigs must be castrated by a vet.

Tail docking

Pigs should be separated or stocking densities cut down to reduce aggression. If those methods fail then tail docking should be a last resort on pigs over 7 days old and must be:

  • carried out under anaesthetic and additional prolonged analgesia (painkillers)
  • carried out by a vet
  • done by a quick and complete cutting of the tail

Tail docking is performed to reduce tail biting and cannibalism among pigs.

Teeth clipping

Corner teeth shouldn’t be routinely reduced in piglets. Only if there’s evidence that they’re injuring a sow’s teats or other pigs’ ears or tails, and farmers are trained to do so, can they do this.

Carrying out grinding or clipping routinely is not allowed. When steps have been taken to improve the environment or management of pigs to prevent tail biting but there’s evidence it’s still happening, you can carry out grinding or clipping. But this should only be:

  • done in the first 7 days of the piglet’s life
  • a uniform reduction of the corner teeth

Nose rings

It is not allowed to put nose rings in pigs kept continuously in indoor housing systems.


In reading these rules and measures put in place to prevent certain behaviours in particular I have found that pigs can be rather aggressive compared with similar sized animals I have worked with (ie. sheep). I researched this a little more and found there are a few reasons for this. Piglets show aggression to other piglets within the first week of life while forming a teat order (they always suckle the same teat so much form this teat order). Introducing new pigs into a group may lead to aggression as the pigs establish social ranks. Pigs may spend 1–2 minutes nosing each other, vocalising, and then biting until one of the pigs retreats. It may take several days to establish a hierarchy in older pigs.

Crowding and limited amounts of food increase aggression. During breeding, boars may fight and become very vocal; boars will strut shoulder to shoulder, champ their jaws (producing pheromone-rich saliva), then finally face each other and attack. Serious injuries may result, especially among boars that still have their tusks. Breeds with lower body fat are more aggressive when handled.

Tail biting was one of the behaviours that really caught my attention. Tail biting is seen mostly in confined pigs. Overcrowding and boredom seem to be the main causes. Free-ranging pigs spend 5–10 hours daily looking for food and rooting, whereas pigs kept in pens consume meals in a short time. Slatted floors without bedding, low-salt diets, and low-iron soil seem to prompt pigs to start tail biting. Once the problem starts, blood from the injured tail seems to arouse the other pigs and can even lead to death of the victim however it rarely advances to pure cannibalism.

In terms of cannibalism, this is seen in first time mum gilts (young female pigs), cannibalism accounts for 4% of piglet deaths and is estimated to affect about 18% of litters. It is most common immediately after giving birth when the sow is stressed. Usually, the sow will bark to warn piglets walking by her head and then later attack them, biting them to death. This may raise some ethical questions such as should they become so stressed that they resort to killing their young? Can this be helped? Does it happen in smallholdings where space isn’t so much of an issue? From a veterinary point of view, how could we ensure that in farms that number decreases in order to help farmers produce as many piglets as possible?

I look forward to working with such a different species and hope I learn more about their behaviour in a commercial setting. As always, thoughts and personal experiences are very much welcomed in the comment section.





Ethics on the topic of dissections in schools

Hi Readers,

After doing a number of dissections this week while studying the respiratory system of different species, one of the questions I needed to answer for a core practical was “Describe the approaches that were taken to ensure the ethically responsible use of animals in this practical activity”.

This got me thinking on what the different opinions were on dissections from an animals-rights activist’s point of view as well as those in favour of the dissections.

When doing some research I found a PETA article called “Dissections: Lessons on Cruelty”. It talks about the different animals that are commonly dissected, such as frogs and mice. It also mentions the methods in how the animals are obtained for dissection, implying that escaped cats, for example, were in fact stolen from their homes by suppliers of dissection animals. The article claims “Classroom dissection desensitizes students to the sanctity of life. Research has shown that a significant number of students at every educational level are uncomfortable with the use of animals in dissection and experimentation.” After seeing some of my peers uncomfortable with the dissection, I spoke to one of them about what exactly made them uncomfortable when watching/carrying out these practicals especially the compulsory core ones. She said: “I think sometimes it’s wasting animals. The core practical we did was dissecting a locust, which I was more comfortable with as insects are annoying. Also, if the animal is already dead then I don’t mind as much, for example, if it comes from a butcher’s. If it was a full cow on the other hand, I wouldn’t be okay with killing it just for dissecting. It could be used to feed a lot of people so dissecting it is just a waste. If a laboratory had to kill a healthy cow to do research I’d understand that but not for a school dissection as this is just to see what’s inside. I don’t really like the smell during these practical activities either, or the sight of blood.” Another peer commented that he was “just afraid of rats” so didn’t want to watch the dissection I was chosen to do in front of the class.

After reading another article, I read a statement that I found very concerning. Heidi Blake writes for the telegraph (2010) “Schools are abandoning the practice of cutting up frogs, rats and animal organs which has been a mainstay of biology lessons for generations, out of concern for squeamish pupils and fears that they could turn their scalpels on each other.” The article was based on the reduction of dissections taking place now due to health and safety concerns and that most of these practicals are now being replaced by videos or the teacher’s are carrying out demonstrations. The violent element of this statement surprised me as only a few generations before my own would claim that they remember hating biology due to having to capture their own and then dissecting the animal (mostly frogs). It leaves me with a few questions: is there more crime occurring now? Is it more between young people? Do we just hear about incidents more because of social media/ the news on national and international television?

In my opinion, I think by commercially killing animals to be eaten we are doing just as much harm as if we killed them for these practicals. We are claiming it is fine to kill them in order to fulfill a basic human need, but not fulfill the need of potential future scientists – this practice may influence a person to follow this career path who could go on to cure a human disease. This forms a cycle – treatment from disease is also a basic human need. In my experience, I have enjoyed dissections and recall wanting to dissect any animal as soon as I moved up to secondary school in order to learn more about how my own body functions as well as that of different animals. I have learned valuable skills such as accuracy, patience and steadiness. I also think diagrams of these animals usually don’t help at all and oversimplify structures; in a locust for example the spiracles are not obvious dots and if I hadn’t done the dissection myself I wouldn’t have understood fully the structure of the chitin supporting the tracheae, having not seen it under the microscope.

I have seen that many A level students are also currently carrying out these practices and would be very interested in hearing your views.