Policing the Lab

By way of putting its readers into the right mood to read about animals, the London Times heads a news item about misconduct in laboratories with the comic sci-fi title ‘Eek! Errant scientists breed city of rogue mice’ [26 March, p.3]. After a sentence of two in similarly facetious style, however, the item turns into a perfectly serious account (mainly a re-hash of a piece in the Sunday Telegraph the day before) of a research project which was licensed by the Home Office two or more years ago to breed up to 127,600 mice, but which by 2016 had accidentally bred well over twice that number. The unauthorised excess amounted to approximately the population of the City of York: hence the phrase “city of rogue mice”. But ‘rogue’ is hardly the right word, since the extra mice were neither wandering nor solitary; they were put to mass use in experiments just like the others, the difference being that their experiments were unlicensed, a sort of uncovenanted extra.

The Sunday Telegraph calls this “blunder” (if such it was) “the most alarming of dozens of non-compliance cases by labs across Britain, though the punishment for it was relatively slight: “a letter of written reprimand” sent to the establishment licence holder.

All of this information, as well as that last quoted phrase, comes from the Annual Report for 2016 just published by the Home Office’s Animals in Science Regulation Unit (with the admittedly rather sci-fi acronym ASRU). The report shows how British law on animal research has been administered and enforced, as well as other ways in which ASRU has been promoting what it regards as good practice in laboratories. We’re told, for instance, that ASRU “piloted a framework” to reduce waste of life in the breeding of genetically altered mice. That mixed metaphor, with its comical image of trammelled endeavour, is rather well suited to ASRU’s work as a whole. With its steadily shrinking inspectorate (‘full-time equivalent’ numbers of staff were 22.3 in 2009, 14.7 in 2016) having to supervise a rising number of ‘procedures’ (a few hundred thousand more in 2016 than in 2009) and even an increasing number of establishments doing them, ASRU must have a hard job keeping its framework airborne or afloat.

Accordingly it relies heavily on the scientists themselves to police their own scenery, and this upbeat report expresses confidence in their willingness and competence to do that. Their willingness isn’t easily estimated by an outsider. However, I see that a group of research scientists and animal-research institutions in the U.S.A., where regulation is very much slighter than in the U.K., has recently published proposals aimed at cutting down even that ”administrative burden on investigators”, and I suppose that many British scientists, with their greater “burden”, would be in sympathy.

As to competence, the report’s case-studies in non-compliance (45 of them) naturally give quite an unfavourable impression. Many of the cases are instances of absent-mindedness, confused responsibilities, carelessness in record-keeping, hurried work on a Friday evening, duties neglected over the week-end – the sorts of thing which are likely to occur in any office or institution, and are only remarkable in this context because non-human animals have to pay for them in suffering or lives.

Here, for instance, are the experiences of some mice which were being used as ‘models’ of diabetes. This case helpfully concentrates in one place, to an almost farcical degree, many of the characteristic errors and slapdash procedures shown in the others:

Two mice died unexpectedly. Appropriate action was not taken when three other mice showed adverse effects, which exceeded the severity controls specified in the project licence. A drug was also administered to eight mice without the appropriate project licence authority. The same licence holders performed unauthorised surgery on nine mice … They did not keep any contemporaneous records of the regulated procedures performed, and failed to label correctly the cages in which the animals were kept … The project licence holder failed to ensure that the project licence was available and its content made known to those personal licensees working under its authority. The project licence holder also agreed with them that they did not need to monitor the animals at the weekend. [Case 2]

Of course the mice in question have been lucky to receive this much of an inquest. In countries outside the European Union, mice in similarly wretched plight enjoy neither the public attention provided by ASRU’s reports, nor even the protective standards for their exploiters to fall so absurdly short of. It’s not in fact possible to know how much in this kind happens without being noticed or reported even in the U.K., but at least there’s a deterrent. All the licences involved in this particular case were revoked by ASRU, except the one held by the unnamed institution itself. The ‘establishment licence holder’ (referred to with scrupulous anonymity as “they”) received a letter of reprimand, the basic and commonest penalty in these cases.

Note how we’ve moved from thinking of a “city” of erroneous mice to concern for mice numbered in twos and threes. In other cases we read of “three rats”, “a mouse”, “one rat”, “18 chickens” and, in the previous year’s report, “a litter of ten mouse pups” (whom we’ll encounter again below). This very proper concern that ASRU has for individual animals must feel anomalous to the practitioners, when a research project may be counting animals in their tens of thousands, and a slip in record-keeping can let over 100,000 pass unnoticed. In such a setting, the animals must surely be regarded more as products than as individual lives, by the researchers if not by the animal care staff. Something of that is indeed suggested in the ASRU report. We hear of a registered dealer in dogs, who provides “high quality animals to meet their clients’ requirements”, of staff “unpacking a delivery of mice”, of other mice “surgically prepared with cranial windows and then exported to a collaborator in Germany”. “high quality animals” is a particularly miserable phrase.

There’s a comparable incongruity in the way ASRU thinks about death (also known by the sinister euphemism “endpoint”, but ASRU generally and honourably prefers the plain word ‘killing’). The omnipresence of death in the laboratory is clearly enough announced in the annual research statistics, since nearly all those millions of animals must have been killed during the year, to say nothing (and nothing is said) of others not used in ‘procedures’. Oxford University, for instance, must be dispatching over 600 ‘protected’ animals a day. To keep up with this work, more staff than just the licensees themselves have to be active in it, which may be partly why killing is not ordinarily counted as a licensed ‘procedure’. The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act does, however, specify, in its Schedule 1, how the different animals should be dispatched. And a laboratory has to have a “Schedule 1 killing register” listing the personnel competent to perform executions, rather as offices, schools, etc., have lists of trained first-aid people with exactly the opposite function.

This is where those baby mice had their moment in the public light. An untrained person had

attempted to kill the mouse pups using a rising concentration of carbon dioxide, which is not an appropriate method of Schedule 1 killing … The pups were not properly killed and the following morning a number were found to be still alive in the waste disposal bag.

It’s a familiar enough discovery (“two rats were found alive inside a cosmetic-testing-animal-remainsclinical waste bin”, “a mouse that was supposed to have been killed by Schedule 1 killing … was observed to be breathing while the procedure was taking place”, and so on ), and again it reflects the very large numbers being continually hurried through into oblivion. Those pups, incidentally, will not re-appear in the 2017 statistics, because their breeding was not licensed, nor were they used for any procedure: they were simply another ‘accident’.

But although ASRU is rightly strict about ‘Schedule 1 killing’, it can hardly, in the circumstances, view death itself as a wrong. Suffering is ASRU’s concern; death, putting an end to that, is a sort of therapy, and many an offence is apparently mitigated by the delinquent’s swift resort to it. “After taking the blood samples [this by a Schedule 1 killer, not licensed to take blood], the birds were immediately humanely killed [that’s better].” “The second mouse had lost weight due to lack of feed and was immediately euthanased.” As the German poet Detlev von Liliencron writes at the end of a poem set among the graves in a churchyard, “Genesen” – they’ve made a complete recovery.

No doubt there’s logic and ethics of a sort in this. A mouse that was “at the scientific endpoint of a metastatic bone cancer study and was not immediately killed at the end of the study” would indeed have experienced “unnecessary pain, suffering or distress” [Case 32]. And accordingly, letting an animal die, as opposed to killing it, is one of the most serious of wrongs that ASRU recognises. It’s the theme of the one case in this report regarded as so serious that a separate write-up of it was published on ASRU’s web-pages as soon as the investigation was completed (in October 2017). The case concerned an animal (species for some reason kept anonymous) that had been taken from the wild for research but was subsequently found dead in its captivity. Even though this animal had been “assessed as very old” (for all the anonymities, these case-studies are often poignantly evocative), its death from natural causes, probably failure to eat, must have meant “avoidable suffering”: avoidable in the sense that the animal could have been killed earlier if its deteriorating condition had been noticed.

Nothing in utilitarianism, the ethical system on which British animal-research law is largely based, necessarily makes death a non-interest, as it seems to be viewed in the laboratory. On the contrary, some of utilitarianism’s earliest practical endeavours were aimed at putting a price on loss of life (admittedly human life). Anyway, that’s too big a question to attempt here. I would only insist that premature destruction is indeed a patent wrong against any animal life, even if not the greatest of possible wrongs, and that ASRU ought to recognise this more frankly in the case of the animals whom it oversees. It might make an easy start by ruling that their dead bodies should be described exactly as such, rather than as “carcases” (see, for instance, the Schedule 1 Code of Practice: “carcases should be disposed of on site by incineration or through a macerator.”) It’s a speciesist term which brings a habit of wrong attitude with it, and should be disused everywhere.

The next step would be to classify killing as a ‘procedure’ under the Act. This would probably make no difference to its frequency, but it would raise the acknowledged seriousness of the action. It would also bring into annual notice, if only as numbers, all those unused animals whose only part in the laboratory scene, or indeed in the world, is to be born and killed, like the pathetic ten mouse pups.

Published in the same week as the ASRU report was a research article in the American journal Science which described a study of circadian rhythms in the baboon, “a primate closely related to humans”. Over a 24-hour period, detailed changes of physiology were recorded every 2 hours. The study used 12 baboons (juvenile males imported from Kenya), and killed one at each interval in order to collect and study “64 different tissues and brain regions”. It’s all right, though, because baboons are “listed by the IUCN as a species of Least Concern.

On further thought, let’s not bother with those intermediate steps; let’s simply stop using and killing animals in laboratories. It’s a filthy business, not redeemable by regulations however humanely intended.


Notes and references:

The Animals in Science Regulation Unit’s Annual Report 2016 (a 53-page document) was published online by the Home Office on 12 March, and can be read here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/animals-in-science-regulation-unit-annual-report-2016  The case-studies appear as Annex 1, pp.36-48. The case of the mouse pups is Case 2 from the previous year’s report, to which there’s a link on the same web-page.

The case of the wild animal (briefly cited as Case 1 in the 2016 report) is described in the 11-page Report of ASRU Investigation into Compliance, published online here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/654177/asru_investigation_into_compliance_oct_2017.pdf

The proposals to reduce the “burden” of regulation in the U.S.A. were published in October 2017 as Reforming Animal Research Regulations: Workshop Recommendations to Reduce Regulatory Burden, and can be accessed here: http://www.faseb.org/Portals/2/PDFs/opa/2017/FASEB-Animal-Regulatory-Report-October2017.pdf

The Schedule 1 Code of Practice is from 1997, but I notice that it was withdrawn in 2016. It has not been specifically replaced, but the newer advice seems to use the word ‘cadaver’, a half-way improvement, so perhaps there has been a deliberate change here.

The poem by Detlev von Liliencron (1844-1909) is titled ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’.

The baboon study, by Ludovic S. Mure et al, is titled ‘Diurnal transcriptome atlas of a primate across major neural and peripheral tissues’, and appears in the 16 March issue of Science at p.1232, then with its own pagination 1-9. Quotation is from p.1232 and from the ‘Supplementary Materials’ appendix to the article.

The photograph is by Brian Gunn.


Fun on the Farm

A press release entitled ‘Positive farm animal welfare: something in it for everyone’ was recently issued jointly by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and the Roslin Institute of Edinburgh University. Hitherto, the announcement says, the welfare of farm animals has been mainly defined in negative terms: thus, four of the so-called ‘five freedoms’ (first formulated in the Brambell Report of 1965 as the basic entitlement for farm animals, and since revised and adopted by various agencies and charities) are freedoms from suffering – from thirst, fear, pain, and so on. By contrast, ‘positive animal welfare’ is a “relatively new idea which brings attention to animals having a good life”. And something’s “in it for everyone” because there’s “growing evidence” that this positive welfare running otmoor pigmay improve animal health and growth, reduce therapeutic costs (including antibiotic treatment), make farming accordingly more sustainable and profitable, and in sum provide benefits not just to the animals but also to “suppliers and consumers of animal products”.

Not a very good life for the animals, then, since it remains essentially life-for-use and ends prematurely as food, but better while it lasts. Or rather, not to run ahead of ourselves, ‘positive animal welfare’ is an “idea” which acknowledges the possibility that animals might actively enjoy their lives, if allowed to; there’s a need, as always, for “further research” to make things more certain.

What such research may involve is suggested in the one piece of completed work mentioned in the press release. Scientists at the SRUC and the Roslin Institute “found that litters of pigs that play the most also grow the fastest.” This brief description makes the research sound like fun and profit all round, but the title of the actual paper (published, ominously, in the journal Physiology and Behaviour) is rather more hard-boiled: ‘Up-regulation of IGF-1 in the frontal cortex of piglets exposed to an environmentally enriched arena’. In fact the growth in question was (to put it less technically) in brain-matter, and the “play” was made available to the piglets for only a quarter of an hour on each of a few successive days. As to their subsequent careers, we’re told in the paragraph headed ‘ethical review’ that “All piglets were returned to commercial stock at the end of the study.” If you’re wondering how up-regulation of IGF-1 in the frontal cortex can be measured consistently with the survival of the animal, the answer is that it can’t. In fact, the test piglets (aged approximately 8 weeks) were “euthanized” for “brain collection” very soon after their last 15 minutes of fun. Lower down the paper, the narrative is slightly revised to read “remaining piglets were returned to commercial farm stock.” But anyway, who knows which piglets really got the happier deal?

Incidentally, the same Professor Alistair Lawrence who issued the press release and led the research on piglet welfare was co-author of a 2014 paper in the same journal entitled ‘Prenatal stress produces anxiety-prone female offspring and impaired maternal behaviour in the domestic pig’ – another study which claims to have “direct relevance for farm animal welfare”, and no doubt it has. I won’t provide its details.

To return to the press release: one of the reasons it gives to explain “why the idea of positive animal welfare has emerged at this time” is that “people in general are interested in positive aspects of animals’ lives”. These ‘general’ people and their amateurish ‘interest’ are to be distinguished, it seems, from scientific people, among whom a more judicious and sceptical view is taken of the subject. After all, nearly 150 years of zoology have gone by since Charles Darwin enforced the lesson already implicit in his Origin of Species with his research into states of mind and their visibility published under the title The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). And yet we ‘general people’ are only now being told, with wonderful condescension, that “there’s growing scientific acceptance of animals experiencing positive experiences or emotions.”

Results in science are nothing if they’re not precise or at least open to precision, and of course precision takes time: there’s no point in complaining that science moves slowly (though of course it doesn’t always do that). Besides, since Karl Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934), we have to realise that there’s no such thing as finality even in science: ‘not yet disproved’ is the nearest we can get to scientific truth. What it is right to complain of is any disparagement by science of other means and forms of truth than this cautious and dispassionate one of its own – the refusal, as Bryan Appleyard puts it in Understanding the Present, “to co-exist with anything”. In one of the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, the knowledgeable and self-assured boy Eustace, a keen entomologist of the type that prefers beetles “dead and pinned on a card”, neatly illustrates this point. When he meets the old man Ramandu, who claims to be a retired celestial star (these are fantasy stories, after all), he makes the pert classroom comment, “In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas”. Ramandu kindly corrects him thus: “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

The clever school-boyish assurance which characterises some versions of the scientific mind needs that same correction. It’s the one thing that mars, I would say, the otherwise brilliant and witty assertion of science’s authority in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I see it also in the comment which an Ohio State University physiologist has made on proposals to provide laboratory animals, specifically rodents, with enrichments of the sort briefly enjoyed by Professor Lawrence’s piglets: “You don’t need an amusement park to keep them happy.” Because, yes, this same argument about ‘positive animal welfare’ is going on in the laboratory, the North American laboratory anyway. And it’s being formulated in much the same terms – as a recent article in the American journal Science has shown.

Research has indicated, so we’re told in the article, that rats and mice “can experience a range of emotions once only attributed to people” (by scientists, at any rate). These emotions affect their health just as they do in humans. An oncologist is reported as saying, “there’s a hard science behind enrichment … You can’t just treat the body – you have to treat the mind.” Stressed and unhappy animals make bad models of disease, since their immune systems are already weakened. “If we want animals to tell us about stuff that’s going to happen to people, we need to treat them more like people.” This better treatment might involve providing such life-pleasures as “toys, companions, and opportunities to exercise and explore”. So it’s good for the science, and also good for the animals: as on the farm, there’s “something in it for everyone”.

It’s the toys which especially seem to have annoyed the physiologist already quoted. This Professor Godbout (a name C.S.Lewis might have enjoyed and put to use) studies ageing and stress in mice. Another reported opponent of the enrichment project is a student of alcoholism in mice. Neither man might be expected to have much sympathy, then, for efforts to improve the quality of life of their animals, since the essential aim of their research is to reduce it. But a part of their argument is that, so far from making animals better scientific models, enrichment will introduce unquantifiable variations between different studies, and so make them local and unreproducible. This all makes for an interesting debate, and forms the basis also for further research, as in the case of farm animals: so again, something in it for everyone.

As for toys: I would suggest that anyone who can see that word or the things themselves in the context of suffering without a serious pang needs to review their humanity (if we can trust that term). It’s true that journalists like to exploit the trope, spotting toys at crash sites and such, but that only suggests that it’s a reliably human appeal. To be told of a toy sewing machine in the ruins of a wrecked city (Mosul? Damascus?) and not to be moved by it would surely be inhuman. And I would say the same for “toys” in laboratories. The word reminds us, too, that animals, once fallen under human authority and control, have the character and situation of children. Not by chance did C.S.Lewis make children the objects of scientific research in his unfinished science fiction novel ‘The Dark Tower’: it’s the true relation. And dismissing these toys as an “amusement park” is indeed just what the boy Eustace would be doing. Whatever important and useful conclusions Professor Godbout comes to about aging and stress, we can be sure they’ll be a small part of what those conditions really mean to humans and to other animals.

And that’s the moral of all this. The Science article ends, more or less happily, with the words of a vet in charge of the enrichment project at the University of Michigan: “We owe it to these creatures to give them the best lives possible … We should be doing the best we can.” Science can have nothing to say, of course, about what we “owe” or “should be doing”. But all except the most fanatical of scientists would recognise that there’s no vice versa here: science itself must be subject to moral constraints, to such concepts as “owe” and “should”. This is what the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch meant when she wrote “There is only one culture, of which science, so interesting and so dangerous [agreed, in both cases], is now an important part.”

The concept of ‘positive animal welfare’, and the enrichment project at the University of Michigan, are welcome developments, and we must hope that the researches of such as Professor Lawrence in the matter of animal emotions and susceptibilities will indeed do something to improve the treatment of animals. Still, it’s perverse to rely on the maltreatment of some animals in order to help others, and it’s anyway not necessary. By the phrase “one culture”, Iris Murdoch meant the whole human mind and its history of communications in language and art. Over the centuries this mind has built a great tradition of sympathy and understanding for life beyond the human. We don’t need the particular sub-set of thought called science to authorize our trust in this achievement. Still less should we allow science to relegate or belittle it, or to postpone appropriate action while yet further research is done into what we already have every reason to treat as true: namely, that all life contains the urge to flourish, and accordingly that non-human varieties have just as much right to do so in their own ways as we have in ours.


Notes and references:

The press release about ‘positive animal welfare’ was issued in January 2018, and can be read here: https://www.sruc.ac.uk/downloads/file/3608/positive_farm_animal_welfare_something_in_it_for_everyone

It was reported online in the journal FarmingUK, and the quotation summarizing the research comes from there: https://www.farminguk.com/news/New-study-explores-positive-farm-animal-welfare-which-could-benefit-farmers_48754.html?refer_id=1900

The research paper on play and growth in piglets by Alistair Lawrence et al is published in Physiology and Behaviour, vol.173, 1 May 2017, pp.285-92.

The Science article – David Grimm, ‘The Happiness Project: advocates are pushing to enrich the lives of rodents and fish in the lab, but critics worry about the impact on research’ – is at pp.624-27 of the issue for 9 February 2018 (vol.359). All the quotations on the subject of laboratory animals are taken from there.

The quotation from Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man (Pan Books, 1992) is from p.9.

Eustace Scrubb appears first in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, published in 1952 but quoted here from the HarperCollins edition of 1997, pp. 1 and 159. It should be added that Eustace improves greatly in character during this and the later books in the series.

The Iris Murdoch quotation is from The Sovereignty of Good, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970, p.34.