What Are Sixty Warblers Worth?

Most of the animals used in laboratories are of the commonly domesticated species, or at least ones that will submit to domestication. No doubt that has been partly or wholly the reason for selecting them in the first place. There’s a peculiar treachery involved here: lethal advantage is being taken of just that trust which domestication has deliberately created. It’s a treachery poignantly dramatized by Richard Adams in his novel The Plague Dogs (see this blog at 15 January 2017). The case of wild animals in research is different, but has its own special unpleasantness. Against them, mere force is used rather than guile, but reading reports of research using wild animals one has a strong sense of something worse than treachery: an insult against nature, perhaps against life itself.

A current example is the brain research conducted by Dr Sheesh Mysore, using barn owls. Mysore and his coadjutors study, among other things, “the neural mechanisms of selection”: that is, how the mind of an owl chooses what to pay attention to and what to ignore or defer. A journalist from the USA’s National Public Radio recently paid a visit to the “basement laboratory” at Johns Hopkins University where this work is being done. Uncritically impressed by what he has seen, in the familiar way of such science reporters, he describes the “team’s long-term goal” as “to figure out what goes wrong in the brains of people with attention problems, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”. In fact Dr Mysore, no doubt intellectually easing off in this complaisant company, tells his visitor that there’s hardly a limit to the mind-ailments likely to be served by his sort of work (“Pretty much name a psychiatric disorder . . .”). He is rather more cautious on his own web-site, where also it is very clear that a large part of what drives this research is pure curiosity about “interesting neuroscientific questions”.

Curiosity is a necessary element in this as in any line of science, but making barn owls suffer for it, or indeed suffer for any other human reason, is not. And suffer they undoubtedly do. These owls are studied by means of “in vivo electrophysiology”: that is, they are immobilized in tubes or clamps (this is the only point at which anaesthesia is briefly used, so that the animals can be easily handled), and then testing probes of some kind are inserted into their heads. Sights and sounds of a challenging kind are then projected at them (“bursts of noise . . . an object approaching quickly”), and their “neural mechanisms”, helplessly confronting these insults, are recorded. When not Bewick's owlbeing thus investigated or subsequently killed and anatomized, these beautiful birds – in nature solitary and shy, with their acute sight and hearing, and their habit of sudden vigorous flight – are lodged in the wretchedly minimalist conditions of Dr Mysore’s laboratory, up to six of them in a cage. If the cages pictured on NPR’s web-site are a fair sample, then these animals, even when off-duty, are being given a pathetic fraction of what they need for an undistressed life, short as that will evidently be.

Owls are so unsuited to captivity that it’s illegal to keep them as pets in the USA without special licence. Yet nothing is said in the NPR broadcast about their welfare, though the journalist notices that the particular owl being handled by Mysore at the time is “distraught” (it can be heard screeching). In the laboratory’s most recent publication on this research – ‘Combinatorial neural inhibition for stimulus selection across space’ (Cell Reports, 25, 1158-70, Oct.30 2018) – information on the ethics and welfare implications of the work takes up less than 100 words in an article of 23 mostly two-column pages. From it we learn that these owls were “shared across several studies” (as one might share equipment), and were treated “in accordance with NIH guidelines”, whatever that implies. The National Institutes of Health is the major provider of funds for animal research in the USA – by no means a dis-interested party.

Crude and unpleasant as is this raid on wild nature, it is at least frankly predatory. There’s no pretence that it will do owls any good. Indeed, the whole tragic point is that such birds are completely free of “attention problems” of any kind: unlike humans, they are beautifully adapted to the way of life which, over countless millennia, they have made for themselves. They don’t need human help, and certainly nobody at Johns Hopkins is pretending to give it, even to the extent of providing decent living conditions for them.

However, there’s a line of research which does claim to be doing nature good by pillaging it in these ways: that is, research which has nature conservation among its aims. One presently controversial instance of this is the work of Christine Lattin at Louisiana State University. Her subject, as reported in the journal Science, is “how stress affects hormones, neurotransmitters, and other indicators in living birds”: “living” while they’re being stressed, that is, but soon afterwards “she euthanizes the birds she works with” (note the disingenuous ‘with’). The birds are mainly “wild caught house-sparrows”, and the stress to which they’re subjected in Dr Lattin’s laboratory has included mixing small amounts of oil into their feed (specifically, ‘Gulf of Mexico Sweet Louisiana crude oil’), confinement in a cloth bag for periods of 30 minutes, injection of adrenocorticotrophic hormone, ‘biopsy punching’ of the legs (under temporary anaesthesia), shaking.

Because all animals, vertebrate animals at least, experience stress, this research is claimed (on Lattin’s web-site) to be of some use in the understanding and treatment of human ills. But the immediate gain expected from it is a better understanding of “stress in wild populations”, populations of the sort the test birds used to belong to. The kinds of stress which Lattin specifies are “habitat destruction, climate change, and species invasions”. Also there are the oil spills. The better understanding of how animals respond to these assaults “may allow us to save some species that might otherwise go extinct.” For, as Science tells us, Dr Lattin is “a self-professed animal-lover”. But it would be more accurate to call her a species-lover. She sacrifices some birds in order to benefit, at some uncertain time in the future, many more of them and their like: ethics by numbers, in short. But note that those environmental stresses which she hopes to teach us to understand better, even the “species invasions”, are caused by humans (the prime invader, after all). Dr Lattin’s research work may reasonably be seen, then, not as a means to putting things right (we already know how to put those stresses right; it’s the willingness to do so that we lack), but simply as one more way in which humans in pursuit of their own interests make other animals suffer and prematurely die.

I’ve said that Dr Lattin’s research is controversial, but within her profession there seems to be no unease about it. The promotional organisation Speaking of Research claims that the publications arising from it have been “cited hundreds of times by other scientists”. This, intended as a thorough justification, is in fact a sad reminder that whenever you encounter what looks like a peculiarly nasty piece of research, it will almost certainly turn out to have a whole dynasty behind it, and very probably ahead of it as well. The research that Dr Mysore is doing on owls, for instance, can be traced at least as far back as 1978, when just the same clamping and brain-rummaging of barn owls was going on at CalTech (he cites that work, and any amount of the like in between). In that same Speaking of Research text, incidentally, the notorious work of Harry Harlow on maternal deprivation in monkeys is held to be likewise vindicated by the fact that it provided “an enduring empirical foundation for decades of subsequent work”. As the poet Philip Larkin wrote, “Man hands on misery to man”: not just his own misery, either.

The house-sparrow research reflects a more general failure of ethics in conservation work and thought. The conservation movement has habitually been simple-mindedly anthropocentric. (The title of one of the UK’s most active countryside lobbying organisations, the British Association of Shooting and Conservation, provides a cartoon version of the outlook.) And although Dr Lattin’s work goes forward primarily in the lab, similarly invasive research of various kinds does take place also in the field. Here there’s even less ethical oversight, but the same general principle of ends justifying means routinely sacrifices the individual to the species, the real life to the notional category. Not just any species, though: some of them, being more rare or more appealingly ‘native’, are preferred over others. (In fact Dr Lattin’s sparrows themselves are regarded as invasive, and are accordingly being used with an easier conscience.) Those who have read in this blog about the fine ethologist Niko Tinbergen (see ‘Eve of Destruction’, 8 March 2019), will recollect his suggestion that scientists should observe themselves as well as the animals, and should do it “as critically and as detachedly as possible”. The confused goodwill and actual arrogance of much conservation work needs just that sort of critical attention.

However, it seems that some progress is being made. Editors who publish laboratory research in life-science journals already have the so-called  ‘ARRIVE’ guidelines (Animal Research: Reporting on In Vivo Experiments) to show them what information they should require of their authors as to the treatment of the animals involved and the quality of the experiment to which those animals have been subjected. Now a similar set of rules has been proposed for the publication of research done in the field. The authors of ‘Publication reform to safeguard wildlife from researcher harm’ (PLOS Biology, 11 April 2019) argue that “employing invasive and lethal research methods in the name of conservation [the old ‘shooting and conservation’ attitude] has raised important considerations about the welfare of individuals.” Yet they find that conservation journals show little or no interest in animal welfare. Some scientists in that line of work even consider that “animal welfare and conservation are incompatible”. No doubt what they really mean is that they’d rather not have to bother about the welfare, but editors may increasingly require their authors to show that they have bothered. The proposed guidelines are titled Animals in Research: Reporting on Wildlife (or ARROW, to match ARRIVE). We can hope that they will at least force academic conservationists to recognize, as laboratory scientists have been gradually forced to do, that high-minded objectives are not a licence to kill.

It’s not much, perhaps, but then the ARROW authors see their proposal as only one part of a wider movement to moralize conservation. That there really is such a movement is well-evidenced in their bibliography, where one can find such expressive titles as ‘Why we need an ecological ethics’ (Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, vol.3, August 2005) and ‘What are 60 warblers worth? Killing in the name of conservation’ (Oikos, vol.116, August 2007). In fact the movement has a name, ‘Compassionate Conservation’. Of course that phrase ought to be simply a tautology, and the fact that it’s not, that it needs arguing, shows the crazed condition of the human mind. No wonder the owl has a reputation for wisdom, if we’re the competition.

 

Notes and references:

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) provide e-mail templates to use for objecting to both the owl and the sparrow research projects:

https://support.peta.org/page/7677/action/1?locale=en-US

https://support.peta.org/page/1068/action/1?locale=en-US

Quotations about Dr Mysore’s research are from his own pages on the Johns Hopkins web-site at https://mysorelab.johnshopkins.edu/research.html and from the NPR transcript of the relevant broadcast here: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/09/11/644992109/can-a-barn-owl-s-brain-explain-why-kids-with-adhd-can-t-stay-focused?t=1557825875601 (notice the word “kids” for children, to suggest how down-to-earth and relevant the research is).

The article in Science about the Lattin controversy appeared in the issue for 15 September 2017, at p.1087. Other quotations about Dr Lattin’s research come from her own web-site: https://www.christinelattin.com/. The defence of her research put up by Speaking of Research is here: https://speakingofresearch.com/2017/09/19/the-fact-check-peta-vs-christine-lattin/

The article proposing the ARROW guidelines can be read here: https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.3000193

The portrait of a barn owl is from Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds (1847 edition).

 

WDAIL 2019

On Saturday 27 April, Oxford was the venue for the main gathering in the U.K. to mark World Day for Animals in Laboratories (strictly April 24th). And Oxford certainly is a suitable place in which to remember all those animals. Not only are more animal lives being worked through here than in any other British university; Oxford is, besides (as we find among the various boasts on its web-site), “ranked top in the world for medicine”. It may therefore be regarded as setting an example of big spending in animals to all the rest of the world.

The gathering point for the rally was a fine open field at Oxpens on the western side of the city, adjacent to the railway line and a cut of the River Thames. Oxpens was once a working-class suburb; long since demolished as such, it’s now a miscellaneous and unpretentious area of offices and recreations, including an ice rink. As the place-name suggests, there was until recently a market for the buying and selling of cattle where, WDAIL banneron Saturday, impassioned speeches were being made on behalf of their (and our) fellow-creatures. Then, the march set out from Oxpens to make the case for animals visible and audible through the main streets of Oxford, stopping outside the Biomedical Sciences Building to hear, among other speakers, Mel Broughton, hitherto silenced on this subject for ten years by imprisonment and probation. Those years have evidently done nothing to qualify his thinking or his fervour.

This event, the WDAIL, last came to Oxford in 2013, and it’s natural to wonder what changes there have been since then.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the University’s commitment to animal research. The number of ‘procedures’ recorded at Oxford in 2013 was 189,460; the number for 2018 was 219,551, an increase of about 15%. No doubt there was a general increase in scientific activity over the same period, and I don’t know whether animal research has been growing disproportionately or not. In fact the University is growing in all material directions more rapidly now than at any time in its history. Growing ethically also? The question may arouse laughter, either as comically naïve or as meaningless. It should be asked, all the same, and the animals will certainly be somewhere in the answer.

Still speaking of the University’s expansion: even here at unacademic Oxpens, far from the colleges, the shadow of their ambition has fallen. The whole area, either bought up by Nuffield College or forming part of its original endowment, is to be re-developed. Reading the prospectus for the grandiose scheme, we discover that this modestly useful district is “perhaps the most extraordinary undeveloped area of any historic city in the UK. And those who have noticed that the University’s architectural scruples deteriorate with distance from the collegiate centre of town can happily be reassured. Oxpens is to become “a new vibrant community” (now I remember, the WDAIL rally also was vibrant, but presumably not in the sense, if any, intended here). The design will show “innovation, imagination and vision”, and the result will be one which “adds value . . . to the built environment in our world-class city.”

I quote from this dreary tract of planner’s jargon, ending with that cock-a-doodle brag about Oxford, because it’s signed off by the Warden of Nuffield College, a distinguished academic. I’m sure he didn’t write it; probably he didn’t even like to read it. This sort of publicity is a discipline in itself which does not, we must assume, engage the professional ethics or interest of the academics who commission and pay for it. Its particular relevance here is that publicity like this constitutes one of the most notable changes in the animal-research scene since the WDAIL in 2013. The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research had just been initiated then, and seemed little more than a pompous and clumsy name. Since then a nationwide fog of words has been generated by this PR project, very much in the “world-class city” style, often making it impossible to know whether what one descries through it is real or illusory.

Certainly some increase in real public knowledge has come out of the Concordat. For instance, in 2013 Oxford University was willing to disclose only that there were about 16,000 animals in the new laboratory at any one time, but since there was no indication of the rate at which those animals were used up and replaced by others, that was a nearly meaningless number. The more revealing numbers had to be fished out bit by bit with Freedom of Information requests. Nowadays all the relevant numbers which the University is required by law to submit to the Home Office are also promptly posted on its web-site, together with a great deal of other material of a more or less enlightening kind. Other signatories to the Concordat (121 institutions altogether) are similarly informative.

Such increase in public knowledge must be a good thing. But of course the knowledge is still rationed by those who provide it; even if it’s dependable in itself (and this blog has shown that Oxford’s is not), nothing unpleasant or seriously discreditable is likely to be volunteered. The most notable effect of the new candour is really on the morale of those practising animal research. They may personally prefer to remain as discreet as ever, but their work is continually boosted for them, and a habit of boastfulness and complacency now characterizes the whole scene.

Already in 2015 this can be noticed in a post about that year’s WDAIL published on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research, and titled ‘World Day for Animals in Laboratories – 140 years of animal welfare improvements’. Here we are reminded that we’re “a nation of animal-lovers” (actually the original has “animal lovers” without the hyphen, but I know they didn’t mean that, even though it would have about the same amount of truth in it). Accordingly, we are urged to mark this anniversary (instituted as a focus for anti-vivisection protest) by celebrating “the major milestones which have ensured the UK has some of the best laboratory animal welfare conditions in the world”. These “milestones” are then listed, beginning with the Royal Commission of 1875 and ending with the 2015 ban on testing of household products. Complacently looking backwards, the writer treats all this as a completed history, something for us British, and the animal-research profession in particular, to take pride in. He helpfully forgets that the purpose of milestones (anyway a tellingly obsolete image) was to inform you, not how far you’d got, but how far you yet had to travel to reach your destination. As for the “World” reference, the writer seems to regard that not as a plea for all the animals suffering in laboratories, including the many millions enjoying none of the protections mentioned, but as introducing an element of international competition in which the U.K., satisfyingly, comes at least equal first. It’s a classic piece of PR management.

The listed “milestones” have, it’s quite true, been valuable improvements. However, most of them were the result of strenuous campaigning from outside the profession, against fierce and indignant resistance from within. Nor were the results ever quite what had been hoped and aimed for; they were always partial successes at best, milestones indeed on a still unfinished journey. What we really learn from this UAR retrospect, therefore, is that eloquent and active opposition to animal research is what causes progress, and that WDAIL, as this opposition’s symbolic or representative annual event, should therefore be as noisy, restless, uncompromising, and future-minded as possible.

And that’s indeed what the 2019 WDAIL in Oxford was, just as it had been in 2013. The speeches, having nothing to hide or disguise, were in plain vehement English. Nobody was there to advance a private or professional interest, or to secure their salary. Three of the speakers had, on the contrary, paid heavily for their part in this sort of campaign with time in prison. It was, in fact, just the sort of communal/political event which the much-missed Tony Benn used to speak about and prize (and attend). “Everything comes from underneath”, he used to say: meaning that it was the collective will and sense of justice of the people, the ‘commons’, that effect change, not the formal agencies, authorities and powers. They, indeed, are what suffer the change and therefore resist it, until resistance becomes futile, when they accept, institute, and take credit for it: we’ve seen it happen. So the familiarity of the scene at Oxpens – the unpolished and WDAIL cops and dog.JPGmiscellaneous crowd, the banners and placards, the shouts, chants and whistles, the dogs, all as they were in 2013 – should be reassuring. It means that progress continues.

 

Note and references:

Film of the WDAIL speeches can be seen here:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb42LS3_n_U7hob9qMVnmDQ

The prospectus for Oxpens redevelopment is online here: https://www.bidwells.co.uk/assets/Uploads/oxpens-brochure.pdf

The UAR post about WDAIL 2015 is here: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/animal-welfare-alternatives/world-day-for-animals-in-laboratories/

Please read this blog for more about Tony Benn and the “underneath” at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/11/21/tony-benn/

Photographs are by Paul Freestone.