We failed to establish communication with the aliens. Our scientists have lost hope in reverse-engineering their technology - what little we can even recognize as technology. The only commonality, it seems, is that the biology of their cadavers is remarkably similar to terrestrial life. Close enough to work with.

The admiralty has agreed that in light of these circumstances, a policy of artificial genesis is necessary despite ethical objections; the simple fact of the matter is that if we want to avoid or win an interstellar war, we must come to grips with their psychology by any means necessary. The question now stands: how do we do right by these "adopted" children?

Salient Concerns:

  • We do not know how social they are. A lack or overabundance of attention at a young age could be psychologically damaging.
  • We do not know their in-group preference. How many should we produce so that they can see "familiar faces" when each individual is a potential nightmare from an ethical, logistical, and security perspective?
  • We do not know what we do not know. All of our assumptions are based on terrestrial life and the advice of scientists can only go so far when command itself is untrained in the subject matter.
  • They will be the first non-human citizens in history. How can we avoid alienating them from society? Both as a matter of formal policy and from the practical standpoint of disclosure to the population at large.
  • The project may be entirely futile. How do we anticipate the worst without condemning ourselves further?
  • We are only human. How do we prevent abuse from the personnel entrusted with this mission?

Supplementary Document 1: Our Capabilities & Knowledge

  • Our artificial gestation pods are capable of being retrofitted to support embryos produced from some of the undifferentiated cells recovered.
  • Our techniques for cell cultivation are sufficient to extend this supply of stem cells indefinitely.
  • Through study of their cadavers and life support systems, we are reasonably certain of their physical needs in terms of atmospheric composition and nutritional requirements.
  • Our computational capacity provides enough to reason about some of their gross biological process and capabilities, but much of it remains beyond our understanding for the near future. This especially holds true for their brains.
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding, please visit our help center to better understand our standard and policies. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Sep 22, 2021 at 12:49
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch Is there anything in particular I could do to improve this post? I recognize the question is somewhat vague, but that is inherent in the problem - any realistic first contact scenario is going to be a mountain of unknowns burying what little is known. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2021 at 12:58
  • $\begingroup$ If/when you edit, remember to not invalidate existing answers. (Unlike real life, where you get to correct your errors if you have the sense to recognize them - woops, that was almost an answer) $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2021 at 14:14
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    $\begingroup$ A more relevant question would be "Can we even safely raise an alien organism". Go watch Brightburn. There are other philosophical concerns... I'm not certain that they'd be citizens for instance. Or that it would even genuinely be murder to kill them. This is definitely a project that would be better off if no one pursued it. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Sep 22, 2021 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ Your question more or less mirrors the plot of an SF novel by well known author CJ Cherryh only the situation is reversed. Its aliens raising a human child. The book is called Cuckoos Egg. It might be worth reading because it addresses some of the moral and ethical issues raised by such a project. (Note there is heavy use of the third person narrative in the book, as is the case with most of her books so if that is not your 'style' just be warned in advance. Still a very good book though which covers the issues raised by your narrative in detail. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Sep 23, 2021 at 0:37

7 Answers 7


Of COURSE we'll screw up royally:

There is no way that there won't be massive harm done to these children - at least for the first couple generations. But biology is cruel, ruthless, and selective. After a time, we'll figure out how to deal with them. The process will be ugly, however.

Human beings have a long history of learning to deal with non-human children - they're called domesticated animals, or pets. If the process is anything like that, then there will be gruesome mistakes as we poison children, drive them psychotic, create imperfect incubation conditions so they have horrifying developmental problems - and all that is assuming your aliens are derived from a panspermia event, so terrestrial biology is essentially IDENTICAL.

Science, done the way it's been done for most of human history, will have a large number of aliens raised like chicks in an incubator. The conditions and inputs - nutritionally, socially, educationally, etc. - will be varied and evaluated. Very large numbers of these aliens will die simply because we don't realize they need large amounts of something basic, like huge doses of lysine. Then there will be screw-ups where they die from terrestrial infections that creep past isolation lines, OR they need symbiotic bacteria we fail to provide.

And of course, even if we're wildly successful, the best we can hope for is a bunch of alien children who have been humanized to the point of being unrecognizable, and possibly traumatized by the bizarre upbringing in a giant petri dish.

But after a few generations, we will find an accommodation with these beings, dealing with their quirks, exploiting their strengths and weaknesses. If we are extremely sensitive, we may eventually separate them from us and allow them to set up a society to their liking, so they can deal with us on their own terms.

More likely, we'll treat them like second or third class citizens because they are unable to conform to our standards. But hopefully we won't make them slaves or pets.

"Hey, Spot, come here! Good boy! Here's a lysine treat!"

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I've accepted this answer in lieu of a "proper" answer, since it succinctly puts forward a realistic vision of events with the smallest degree of bias towards to familiar & human-like life. That said, this was a difficult choice because each answer provides valuable insight, all of which would be useful and applied to some degree in a realistic scenario. Thank you everyone who contributed to this question! $\endgroup$ Oct 4, 2021 at 13:07

This is a Frame Challenge

Other than understanding a little bit more about the physiology of the child, you won't learn that much.

In your scenario, you only have two ways to raise the child (we'll leave ethics out of this for a moment).

  1. Raise the child as a feral child.

In this case, the child is raised with no human contact. If... (and that's one whomping big IF), if you can successfully raise the child in a way that the only behavior you see is the "natural" genetic behavior of the "animal" (as in "human animal" if we're talking about feral human children), then you can learn a little bit about the basic motivations and primal behaviors of the species.

The reason this is a huge, huge IF is what, for lack of a better term, we'll call the "Heisenberg alien uncertainty principle." Boiled down, you can't measure something without affecting that something. You can't raise the child with robots without that affecting it's behavior. You can't raise it with (proverbially) wolves without that affecting its behavior. You can't raise the child without affecting its behavior unless, at best, you mimic its original "natural" habitat... which you said you can't do.

Consequently, this path has next to no real value other than to show you the bodily machine in operation, which would help a bit, especially if you want to do things like experiment with biological warfare pharmaceuticals.

  1. Raise the child with human help

Frankly, from the perspective of trying to better understand the species, this is even worse because the little angel is going to reflect the human behavioral and emotional patterns. The aliens came to us, right? That means they are intelligent, capable of learning... and therefore the cute little munchkin will quickly absorb every human pattern it's exposed to. That will effectively mask each and every behavior you're trying to research with the theoretical condition of extreme psychological conditions, which wouldn't exist (IMO) in a successful space-faring civilization anyway as such would tend to be antisocial and have been bred out of the species just as it has in ours.1

Is there an alternative?

No, which means that you'll be working with both paths to synthesize the best understanding you can. Your scientists know that a big pile of knowledge will actually be a big pile of rotting Kim-Che, but their superiors won't know the difference, and if they write long enough treatises on the subject, nobody will take the time to read them to discover the conclusions were pulled out of thin air anyway.

But why can't the effort be more valuable?

Because of that "Heisenberg alien uncertainty principle." Because you cannot (and do not) know anything at all about the environment the alien child would normally be raised in, anything you try can and will taint the outcome. You will never see the "true" behavior of the child. Worse, you will never know if what you are seeing is "better" than what you would have seen had you run the test another way. You will always be uncertain. Consequently, you will never have an outcome that will realistically improve your capacity to understand the psychology of the aliens.2

But that wasn't what I actually asked...

True! What you asked was how to ethically raise a child you know nothing about. The problem is, whose ethics?

Ethics: moral principles that govern a person's behavior or the conducting of an activity. (Google definitions)

Ethics are defined by a society. They are not intrinsic to a species. They're a lie — an important lie. An incredibly important lie, but a lie nonetheless.


“Tooth Fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”


“So we can believe the big ones?”


“They’re not the same at all!”


“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or else what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY. (Terry Pratchett, Hogfather)

So whose ethics are we talking about? Liberal ethics? Conservative ethics? Western ethics? Eastern ethics? Male ethics? Female ethics? Other-Non-Binary-Gender Ethics? Religious ethics? Scientific ethics?3 When you boil the very complex study of ethics down, all we humans really believe is, "Someone has the right not to be hurt and to keep what they have." And not everyone believes even that.4

So, ethically, what's the right way to raise the child?

  1. The moment what you're doing becomes known to the public, there will be a crowd of well-meaning but under-educated5 people protesting outside your doors that what you did was unethical from the moment you thought of it.

  2. If you raise the child as feral, there will be a crowd of well-meaning but under-educated people protesting outside your door...

  3. If you raise the child with humans, there will be a crowd...

I hope you get my point. Ethics is a point of view. In real life, no matter what choice you make, you're screwed. The only choice you really have is how much effort will be required for damage control based on the choice you make versus the value of the proposed knowledge you'll gain.

Which, of course, is why the U.S. government has been keeping the Roswell aliens secret at Area 51 since day #1. 😁

OK, So what's your Frame Challenge?

You're barking up the wrong tree. You need to stop worrying about what the "most ethical method" is and focus on "what are the ethics of my investigators?" Answering that question automatically answers the first. Unfortunately, this new question is too story-based to ask on this Stack.

1This deserves a bit more discussion. There's a fairly large field of psychological study concerning human primal behaviors in civilized society. It's an issue right now as, at least in the U.S., we debate what is acceptable involuntary behavior and what isn't. While we can argue until the cows come home whether or not humanity has successfully overcome any aspect of its original, aggressive animal behavior with the onset of intelligence and education, the reality is that the answer is certainly yes. The only real debate is "how much?" Or, worse, "how has the original primate behavior changed to accommodate the influence of education and indoctrination in any form?" Frankly, that debate is going to be going on long after everyone who's using this Stack today is long dead — but we have to boil it down somehow for the sake of effective worldbuilding. So, IMO, the influence of humans raising the child would wash away any effective knowledge you can gain from the experiment.

2As I said earlier, your problem is that the species must have evolved to the point of cooperative behavior that subjugates the primal behavior to make room for the intelligent, educated behavior. Otherwise it's unbelievable that the aliens got to Earth in the first place. It's nice to think that you'll find a useful tidbit of information (like the cute little aliens on the Beryllium planet in "Galaxy Quest" that suddenly smile with sharp little teeth and eat their wounded pal), but in reality, there will be precious little of behavior like that. Your aliens, like humanity, had to become domesticated to develop the skills necessary for interplanetary flight. That means the only practical differences, other than perhaps noting that they tend to lick their noses like dogs rather than blowing them with hankies, will be cultural, and you can't get to that data.

3This is starting to make sense, right?

4If you want to see someone's idea of what happens when you change the "majority opinion" of what's ethical, go watch one of the "Purge" movies.

5From the point of view of the people inside....

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ While I agree that you can't say too much about the behaviour of an alien raised in their natural habitat based on an alien we raise, you can probably get at least some insights by comparing their behaviour to the behaviour of a human raised in the same way (e.g. if they're much more aggressive than a human would be, you may reasonably assume they would naturally be even more aggressive than that). But it's an imperfect comparison: they could be affected by our environment, their natural habitat may help mitigate their natural tendencies and raising humans exactly the same could be difficult $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 23, 2021 at 9:38
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ You word the issue very well. A small nitpick: we know human children are veritable cultural sponges, but we do not know that about the hypothetical ETs. Some animals have a lot more instinctive behaviours in-bred ("nature", as opposed to "nurture") than humans. So it might be an interesting (and costly, and time-consuming, and ethically fraught) experiment to raise some aliens with USAns, with Germans, with Chinese, with wolves, with chimps, with dolphins, ... then compare how much they have absorbed - for a first rough estimate, before even deciding the value of the breeding program. $\endgroup$
    – frIT
    Sep 23, 2021 at 10:41
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    $\begingroup$ @NotThatGuy You underscore the problem well. For all humanity knows, the alien evolved in sunlight a completely different hue and luminosity than we - and not knowing that, can't tell whether the behavior really is natural behavior, or a consequence of living uncomfortably in a world with the wrong natural light. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 23, 2021 at 15:45
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    $\begingroup$ @frIT What you express as a nitpick is literally the central problem. The scientific method requires a control group. In this circumstance, there isn't one. Without it all the efforts (including the circumstance you suggest) mean nothing because there is nothing anyone can reliably compare to. What would knowing that the alien raised in Germany absorbed the culture more quickly than the alien raised in China tell you? Nothing. Without running thousands of such experiments, it would mean nothing. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 23, 2021 at 15:49
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @join-jbh-on-codidact To play devil's advocate here (sorry I keep picking on you!), there are legitimate scientific fields where performing experiments is prohibitively expensive, let alone having actual control groups. The ones that come to mind are astronomy and economics - although I've found this topic very difficult to google so I could be mistaken. While one can argue astronomy is special since stars don't behave differently under observation, economies do and we are able to say much about them. $\endgroup$ Sep 23, 2021 at 17:26

Do we even know how to raise human children?

Answer: Nope. Hard nope. All the nope. Every new parent, without exception, has had the experience of being handed their baby - and then having the realisation that you have this small human which is entirely dependent on you to stay alive and you don't know what to do.

Even considering any level of expertise in this from professionals, views on how to raise human children are massively variable depending on society. Read The World Until Yesterday for a bit of an overview of just how variable that is around the world.

To our credit, modern Western societies have done some studies (ethically) and there are professionals in the field who are trying to get the latest ideas across. That doesn't mean the latest ideas are necessarily right, or the best, or even mutually compatible in some cases - they're just the best we can do so far. But then "spare the rod, spoil the child" was also the best that Western society could do up to the mid/late 20th century, as an example of how wrong "the best" can be.

So it has to be taken as an assumption that we're inevitably going to screw up somehow. We can't expect perfection, because we don't have perfection in raising our own kids.

Let the next generation analyse the problems and react

A more general principle though is that if parents really screw up, the next generation can usually see how they've screwed up. So long as they can recognise this as a screw-up (and not see it as normal), they can react to errors in how they were raised and try not to repeat them for the next generation.

So whilst things are almost certainly going to go wrong on some level for the first generation, the second generation are likely to have a better shot at it.

Children are individuals too

Even amongst human children, they all have different likes and dislikes. Some may enjoy swimming; some may be terrified of water. If the child turns out to dislike something, or is allergic to it, you change their diet to cope. If the child would rather run around in a field than sit on the sofa and have a cuddle, you spend more time running around in a field. That's what "doing the best you can" looks like.

Keep listening to your child - regardless of species - and you're more likely to get it right.

Children already exist who are not neurotypical

The needs of a child with autism and other conditions are often very different to those of other children.

If you have a demonstrated ability to work with non-neurotypical human children, you're likely to be just fine with the level of attention and adaptation required to deal with the unexpected challenges here. That doesn't mean you'll be ready for everything, but at least you'll know to be cautious about making assumptions, and to process when assumptions turn out to be false.

Adoption already exists

We have a long history of figuring out who can be trusted to look after people's children. And realistically, most people don't abuse the system, or abuse the children. We sometimes get it wrong, but that's mostly down to underfunding of social services so that social workers simply don't get enough time to do a thorough enough job.

But at least do your best

The main thing is to try your best, and if you fail then fail honestly. Many children don't have the best upbringings, and parents/guardians often get things wrong. The most important thing is that the child knows you're doing the best you can, even if things do go wrong.

When we've raised these children, they may well decide that they have their own wants and needs which are not human. That's fine. But we're not raising an army who will kill us all off, because at least at a bare minimum they will respect us for having done the best we can, and they will acknowledge that they wouldn't exist if it wasn't for us. Hopefully they'll have some capacity for love and affection, but at least they'll respect us.

  • $\begingroup$ Oh, +1 for an amazingly good point. After who knows how long evolving, we're still unable to predictably raise children ourselves. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 23, 2021 at 15:51

Starting to breed aliens about which we know nothing apart that their biology is very close to ours sounds like the common trope horror movie plot "in this house there is a serial killer armed and determined to kill us, we are scared and poorly equipped, let's split and search for it!".

If we don't know anything about the aliens, there is a lot to be learned by anatomical examination of the bodies.

If you want to "do right", you do a deep dive into anatomical studies, comparing the corpses and trying to get as much knowledge as you can. You don't play with something if you first don't understand it.

  • $\begingroup$ Fair answer; perhaps it's better not to explore this rabbit hole. That aside, perhaps I should've been more clear w.r.t. the purpose; you're entirely right that cadavers suffice for physiological understanding of the aliens, but the difficult part of establishing first contact is understanding their psychology - something that almost requires living specimens. I will amend my question in light of your answer. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2021 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ @smallobsession note that you can't edit a question in a way that invalidates existing answers. You can post follow up questions, though $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Sep 22, 2021 at 14:21
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for giving me the head's up. Assuming my understanding of your answer as "Don't - stick to studying their corpses" is correct, I should be fine. Dodged a bullet, really. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2021 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ One of the plausible ways far-away aliens without hyperdrive tech could conquer the solar system is by communicating to us, via radio transmission, their DNA-equivalent and how to make one of their kind. Curious, humans do so. The resulting aliens are smarter and stronger than humans, and reproduce prolifically, without necessarily needing to be horror-movie monsters; they could be mostly nice guys, but just better than us. In 100 years they outcompete humans and become the masters of the planet. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Sep 23, 2021 at 8:19
  • $\begingroup$ (In fact it's better for them if they are nice guys and not horror-movie monsters, because that would keep humans from wanting to exterminate them as their numbers grow.) $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Sep 23, 2021 at 8:23

They will be raised as humans are raised.

Now you must be content to skip ten or eleven whole years, and only guess at all the wonderful life that Mowgli led among the wolves, because if it were written out it would fill ever so many books. He grew up with the cubs, though they, of course, were grown wolves almost before he was a child. And Father Wolf taught him his business, and the meaning of things in the jungle, till every rustle in the grass, every breath of the warm night air, every note of the owls above his head, every scratch of a bat's claws as it roosted for a while in a tree, and every splash of every little fish jumping in a pool... http://www.fullbooks.com/The-Jungle-Book1.html

Because who can say we did wrong by these aliens if we treat them as well as we treat our own.

This concept has the makings of seriously great fiction. The Jungle Book and Stranger in a Strange Land being two that come to mind. But this is also Frankenstein and Jurassic Park. These are not vulnerable immatures raised by wolves or Martians. These are things that have been raised from the dead by science. Their creation requires purpose but what is that purpose?

They are two great concepts and if they have been hybridized before I have not read it. There are many wonderful ways this story can go. Keeping the raising of the aliens simple and in the human pattern will remove unnecessary complexity and highlight the places where the experience of these Lazarus babies different from those of humans - and where it is the same.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Sorry Willk! I cloned your answer. In my defense, our timestamps are only two minutes apart and I don't type that fast, so this is not theft but parallels evolution of an idea in distant minds. Great minds think alike. Deleting my version now. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2021 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor Thank you for your answer anyway - I managed to read it before it was deleted and appreciate the attention given to this difficult question. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2021 at 14:32

you can't

Since others were focusing on practical concerns, I decided to focus on the ethical question exclusively (and dust off my philosophy degree). Please don't take it too seriously. What follows is not an attack on anyone’s moral, religious, or political beliefs. If it comes across as such, please let me know so I can make edits as necessary.

defining terms

There is a popular conception that ethics is wholly cultural: liberal ethics, western ethics, Chinese ethics, etc. While there is a kernel of truth to this claim, it’s also a gross oversimplification. Philosophically, ethics is an attempt to identify the underlying rules that we use, or should use, to make moral decisions. In this sense the idea that we should not treat people differently based on the color of their skin is not an ethical rule, it is a moral decision based on some underlying ethical principle. Philosophers studying ethics fall into roughly three (oversimplified) groupings:

  1. Those trying to identify a universal set of coherent ethical principles that underlie (or should underlie) moral decisions
  2. Those arguing there is no such universal set but there are multiple, equally valid sets
  3. Those who say there is no fully coherent set at all and that the whole enterprise is a failure

All three groups agree that actual human beings living actual lives rarely (if ever) even attempt to apply such principles. In most cases people use an ad hoc blend of multiple systems (mainly versions of utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, and care ethics) as part of a system of post hoc rationalizations while insisting all along that they subscribe to “[insert cultural label here] ethics”.

If group three is correct, then there is no such thing as ethical decision making. For the purposes of my answer, I will assume they are wrong, otherwise the question is moot. For analytical purposes, group one can be treated as a subset of group two. I will thus address the question: can any philosophically coherent system of ethics provide guidance on how this task can be done?

side note: Although often treated as separate concepts in general culture, within philosophy “ethics” and “morality” are synonyms.

finally, an answer

The question proposes to create children as weapons of war. It does not matter that you're not strapping bombs to them. Their reason for existence is war; they are weapons. This is an immediate ethical failure. To be philosophically coherent, a system of ethics must accept that anyone in the same circumstances should act the same way. This raises the simple question: if these were your children, should your enemy do the same?

Some will respond immediately in the affirmative. However, just a bit of philosophical scratching at the surface will demonstrate that this is just the post hoc rationalization coming in. Perhaps an (imaginary) pure utilitarian can make the case?

The utilitarian argument can be based on the number of potential casualties should there be a war. However, this argument fails because the outcome is unknowable. The generals want to be prepared but if the aliens discover what was done, they may very well see that as a "crime against [insert alien species name here]" which demands war in response.

ok, but that's no fun

Let’s sidestep this immediate failure then, and assume the children were created before you came into the picture. They exist, maybe they shouldn't have been created but done is done. Can you find an ethical means of raising them? No, you still have an insurmountable ethical problem.

Given that you know nothing of the needs of these alien children, the probability that you can raise them without causing serious harm is essentially zero. Thus, you are willingly and knowingly undertaking an action that will cause serious harm to these children. You have chosen to do something that will result in child abuse. Two quick notes:

  1. “If I don’t then someone else will [and they might be worse]” is just post hoc rationalization popping up again (although, see below)
  2. This is not the equivalent to collateral damage; you didn’t accidently bomb the orphanage because it was too close to the tank, you deliberately targeted the orphanage

so, any way forward?

At this point, if you choose to proceed, you’ll fall back onto a post hoc rationalization. There are two likely variants on this:

  1. embrace the evil of difference: This is what we’d normally call “dehumanization” or "sub-humanization" in that we mentally reassign a person to animal/beast (subhuman) status. In this case it will be easier since these children aren’t actually human. But they’re still sapient and that is what we take away.
  2. appeal to the banality of evil: This is well known culturally -- you’re just the bureaucrat doing your job. You might disagree with everything about it, but you have a family to feed, etc. Here I would just remind you that Eichmann was convicted anyway.

a final note

To reiterate what I said at the beginning: Please don't take this too seriously. It is not an attack on anyone’s moral, religious, or political beliefs. If it comes across as such, please let me know so I can make edits as necessary.


This is a Frame Challenge.

These days, ethically speaking, you don't. You use the biological information already obtained to create vast simulations of growing these alien babies and don't inflict the horrors upon them in reality. First build a huge simulation that mimics human development, clone that into multiple copies and then in each one you introduce just one tiny change of biology that matches what you have discovered. Once you have an idea of what effect that has (and in most cases there will be NO observable effect) you combine a few bits and try again. Your scientists will come up with endless theories on which bits do what, so you always have more variations and options to try. Expensive - sure, but so is growing real creatures and trying to monitor them 24/7. With simulations you can speed up the timelines whenever you need to and get answers in minutes that would've taken decades in real life. The risks of these creatures inflicting damage of any sort (physical, psychological, disease etc) are eliminated, as are all the risks of "ethical" people storming the compound in a bit to free the small vulnerable creatures.


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