Remembrance and Refuse

Although decisions about what happens to animals in laboratories are mostly taken by those doing the research, the daily maintenance of the animals is done by others, the animal care ‘technicians’. These are the people who will get to know animals individually, if anyone in the laboratory does. Many of them, perhaps most, will have gone into the work exactly because they ‘like animals’. It’s a strange and potentially unhappy situation for these people, and one which for that reason has produced its own corpus of sociological and psychological study.

Out of this work have emerged various therapeutic suggestions – therapeutic for the humans, that is. For instance, staff might be encouraged to view the laboratory relation as “symbiotic” rather than bleakly exploitative: “We take care of the animals, and they take care of us.” (I won’t bother to expose the sleights of hand involved in this formulation.) Another suggestion is to keep “favoured ‘mascot’ or ‘pet’ animals in the workplace”. This is quite a traditional device. Some of the earliest group photographs of the Physiology Department at Oxford University feature just such a dog. Perhaps the dog providing this service was the professor’s own, for he was known as a ‘dog-lover’ (a “favoured” dog-lover, that is). In fact it was considered a rather entertaining anecdote that when Professor Burdon Sanderson was once walking his dog through the University Parks, a woman expressed the hope that he wasn’t taking it along to be vivisected (laughter all round!).

This device of the laboratory pet as lightning conductor for caring sentiment leaves the other animals exactly where they were, of course, perhaps kept at a convenient distance by the oldest “coping technique” of all: minimal contact, numbers not names, and euphemisms of various sorts.

A rather more inclusive means of reconciling staff to their role as purveyors of live animals to fatal research is now growing in popularity: the memorial. The most traditional form of memorial is the plaque or picture, acknowledging in a permanent but discreet way the nature of the work being done. The University of Rochester Univ Rochester School of MedicineMedical School in New York, for instance, has a rather fine bronze plaque with the text “To those who give their lives for the welfare of mankind”. A notable euphemism itself: you’ll appreciate the choice of verb and its convenient present tense (the memorial is looking ahead as much as back: perhaps war memorials should try this).

It’s doubtful if any text in which an institution memorializes those whom it has itself put to death can quite escape a flavour of humbug. Memorial events may be even more of a challenge. As one such event in Canada (at the University of Guelph in 1993) candidly acknowledged in its prepared reading, “To thank the animals seems logically inappropriate because their contribution was taken, not given.” Even so, the attempt has continued, and some institutions in the U.S.A., Canada, and most animal memorialnumerously in Japan, hold such events annually, with a wide variety of observances, religious and secular: prayers, poems, personal testimonies, ritual procedures, gongs, and so on.

No doubt different cultures design and experience these memorial events in different ways. They must mean differently also to different individuals. Although a moderate regret seems to play an accepted part in them, I don’t find that remorse or the associated desire for forgiveness does, and with good reason: as the guilt-burdened King in Hamlet poignantly asks himself when he tries to pray, “May one be pardon’d, and retain the offence?” That the “offence” – in our case the habit of using animals in research and the benefits claimed for it – will indeed be retained is made obvious by the annual recurrence of the events. But pardon of some kind is implicit in them, self-pardon and institutional pardon, together with its more positive counterpart, a sense that the right thing has been done after all. Hence the recorded effects of such events: “It made me feel proud of what we do”, “It made me realize how much good has come from using animals”, “I went away feeling good about what we do for our animals.” Now we can see more clearly the idea behind these memorial events: they improve morale in the laboratory. They are, in fact, as I said earlier, therapeutic in nature. And after all even feelings of distress can be turned to one’s advantage: as one sociologist specializing in this topic has observed, such feelings show that one has a conscience – surely a comforting possession for anyone to know they have.

That some good does come also to the animals out of all this is certain. Most of the events and other memorials aim to promote respect for the animals (living as well as dead), however compromised that may be in reality. Apparently some events even recall particular animals, rather in the manner of pet funerals. But this last seems to be uncommon, for obvious reasons. It’s not just that there is no grave or pyre, of the sort which normally goes with funeral observances, and that abstraction or idealization must therefore be the characterizing mood; committal to ground or fire couldn’t even be imagined in such a setting. How could the event (half an hour each year, in one recently advertised example) possibly keep up with the numbers?

“We simply throw them away”, one scientist says of the unsatisfactory animals produced during his research project on genetically altered chickens. It’s a stray comment heard and recorded at a conference on an especially disgusting theme, the artificial insemination of commercial poultry. But it’s surely the truer record of what happens in laboratories, what in fact must happen, and of the attitude implicit in animals bin 3that. In truth, a bin is a more accurately expressive memorial to laboratory animals than, say, a garden (where, besides, the animals will never have gone in life or death).

This point is made wretchedly clear in a 2014 article in the journal Environments, titled ‘Review of Evidence of Environmental Impacts of Animal Research and Testing’. After all, these animals have not been enjoying healthy outdoor lives: “A vast array of chemicals is involved in every step of animal research and testing, including chemicals for sanitation, disinfection, sterilization, animal care, and research and testing procedures.” Therefore when the time comes to dispose of the animals, they simply become part of an enormous waste problem: “Millions of animal bodies, many of which are contaminated with toxic or hazardous chemicals, viruses, or infectious diseases, and significant amounts of other laboratory waste such as animal excrement, bedding, excess feed, caging, needles, syringes, and gavages, are discarded after use every year.” Mostly, this terrible miscellany is being steadily incinerated, either at the laboratories themselves or by agencies doing it for them. Landfill is another option. The toxic effect of all this isn’t the subject here, alarming as it is: I’m viewing the matter simply as a gigantic and continuous act of cremation or committal, and asking the question, how could any memorial event or art-work make palatable sense of it, even acknowledge it? In so far as they console or inspire, such memorials must deceive.

A like situation is presented with contrasting honesty towards the end of J.M.Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace. The dead animals in this case are not laboratory animals; they come from a charitable Sunday veterinary clinic where the disgraced professor of English, David Lurie, now helps out. The clinic’s function is to heal the animals brought to it by impoverished owners in the countryside of the Eastern Cape, or to neuter them, or most commonly to put them down, their owners having allowed them to sicken beyond rescue or having lost capacity or willingness to support them. But an incinerator is where the dead and bagged animals, mostly dogs, go after the clinic. And it’s the local hospital incinerator, where the scene is much as described in the Environments article, a dump of mixed refuse piled up and waiting for the incinerator to be fired on Monday morning.

Leaving the dogs there overnight among the rubbish is something that Lurie cannot agree to do: “He is not prepared to inflict such dishonour upon them. So he takes them home in his van, and returns with them early the next morning. But by then they have stiffened, and to fit their bodies into the feeder-trolley the workers at the incinerator beat them down with shovels. Lurie could leave before this happens, refuse to witness it, but he won’t; instead, he does the incinerating of the dogs himself, saving them from this last indignity. He cannot explain to himself why he does it: “For the sake of the dogs? But the dogs are dead; and what do dogs know of honour and dishonour anyway?” And if it cannot help the dogs, nor certainly does it advantage or dignify him.

When Lurie is first helping at the clinic, he expresses the view that animals understand death better than we do, that they are “born prepared”. The woman who runs the clinic disagrees: “I don’t think we are ready to die, any of us, not without being escorted.” This indeed is what Lurie discovers, and when we last see him he is preparing thus to escort a crippled dog the whole way: that is, to “caress him and brush back the fur so that the needle can find the vein, and whisper to him and support him in the moment when, bewilderingly, his legs buckle; and then, when the soul is out, fold him up and pack him away in his bag, and the next day wheel the bag into the flames and see that it is burnt, burnt up.”

It’s not presented as a heroic or even a useful service: “It will be little enough, less than little: nothing.” Nor do I suggest that this fidelity – to what? To an “idea of the world”, Lurie concludes – is even conceivable in the circumstances of a research laboratory, whose output of animal bodies is likely to be on a scale that defeats respect and decency, let alone escorting of any sort. I simply offer Lurie’s unsentimental labour, stubbornly unyielding of consolation or satisfaction of any sort, as a critique of the memorials described above. It may well be that such memorials do some good, fortifying people whose work can make a difference for the living animals, and reminding their institutions that something needs putting right: so good luck to them, just as long as nobody supposes that the memorials themselves do put anything right, or that in their dignity and artistry they correspond to anything that’s really happening. They may be well-intentioned and helpful lies; but they’re lies all the same.


Notes and references:

The descriptions of memorials, including the quotations, come from Susan A. Iliff, ‘An Additional “R”: Remembering the Animals’, in the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research Journal, vol.43, 1 January 2002, pp.38-47. This is a sympathetic account by a vet with direct experience of the subject. The observation about having a conscience comes from an article by A.Arluke, ‘Uneasiness among Laboratory Technicians’, in Occupational Medicine, vol.14, 1 April 1999, pp.305-16. Another writer on this theme of uneasiness in the laboratory is the psychologist Harold Herzog: e.g. ‘Ethical Aspects of Relationships between Humans and Research Animals’, ILAR Journal, vol.43, 1 January 2002, pp.27-32. This and the Iliff article can be accessed online.

The quotation about throwing chickens away comes from a report of the First International Symposium on the Artificial Insemination of Poultry held at the University of Maryland in 1994, cited in The Experimental Use of Chickens and Other Birds in Biomedical and Agricultural Research by Karen Davis, 2003, accessible online at

The article on waste from research laboratories is ‘Review of Evidence of Environmental Impacts of Animal Research and Testing’, by Katherine Groff et al, in Environments, 2014, pp.14-30.

The quotations from Disgrace are at pp.144, 146, 84, and 219-20 of the edition by Vintage Books, 2000. This novel won the Booker Prize in 1999.

Illustrations: The bronze plaque at Rochester is a cast of the one originally made by Amelia Peabody for the New England Deaconess Hospital at Boston in the 1920s, photograph made available from the online version of Susan Iliff’s article cited above. The animal memorial garden, shown in preparation for a service of remembrance in 2016, is at the Okinawa Institution of Science and Technology in Japan. The image of a laboratory waste bin is by Brian Gunn of the International Association against Painful Experiments on Animals.





If You Poison Us, Do We Not Die?

In the previous post, I began to speak about the recently published ‘non-technical summaries’ (NTS): accounts of the animal research projects proposed and granted in 2016. These texts, 530 of them in their 31 research categories amounting to a thousand or more pages of reading, are instructive, painful, and boring, an unusual combination, and I quickly steered off and spoke instead about the sorcerer Merlin as re-imagined by two twentieth-century authors, a much more rewarding subject all round. However, the NTS are such a crucial feature of the thinking and practice of EU law since the Directive of 2010 (‘on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes’, which still, for a time, governs UK law) that I feel obliged to make a second attempt at them.

As designed (there is a standard form which sets the various questions to be answered), these NTS are intended to satisfy three fundamental aims of the 2010 Directive: to make as much information as possible available to the public about what happens to animals in laboratories, and why; to have all research projects expressly subjected to cost/benefit assessment; and to make sure that every proper effort has been made to minimize the use of animals and the pain which they suffer (the 3Rs, in fact: replacement, reduction, refinement).

So on come these great annual pageants of proposed (and accepted) research, with their retinues of animals (mostly mice and rats, but also dogs, monkeys, ferrets, ducks, turkeys, sheep, pigs, birds, rabbits, fishes, and others), their promises (the hoped-for benefits section), and acknowledgements of harm (the expected costs to animals section), and their obeisances to the 3Rs. And on they pass into the future for their (mostly) 5-year labours. All across Europe they happen. They’re impressive as a huge bureaucratic exercise in ethics, or propitiation of ethics. They’re exhausting, boring (as I said), unhappy. They show no sign of diminution. I don’t know who else is watching, but I am anyway, and here are a few of the things which I notice about this year’s NTS for the U.K..

Each of the NTS is what rhetoricians call an apologia: a speech justifying something. Although their writers are meant to be factual about what’s proposed and expected, and no doubt are factual as to numbers, species, and procedures (in so far as these are specified), they can’t be supposed impartial. Accordingly, many of the less definite claims made in the summaries have no reliable meaning: “optimal experimental designs”, “careful monitoring”, “best possible welfare”, such phrases are only informative if used by dis-interested parties. It’s slightly suprising, in fact, to find scientists, trained in the habit of exact measurement, using them at all. I suppose that they have in mind suspicious non-technical readers and wish to reassure them, but in doing so they tend instead to cast doubt on other matters which ought to have definite meanings.

Of these, the suffering caused to animals (officially classified ‘sub-threshold’, ‘mild’, ‘moderate’, and ‘severe’) is the most important. Yet, sensing the apologist, we’re bound to wonder, for instance, about a project which proposes to test a great range of pharmaceutical, agrichemical, and other products on a positive menagerie of animals – hamsters, dogs, pigs, goats, monkeys (500 of these) – but which promises “little or no adverse effects”. Perhaps it’s right; on the other hand, perhaps some at least of these animals will re-appear anonymously in the ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’ categories of the annual statistics years later.

Testing of that sort mostly appears in the category ‘Regulatory Purposes’, which contains a high proportion of the more unpleasant proposals. Here, the cost/benefit assessment – never in fact much more than a juxtaposition of proposed good to humans and harm to animals, without further adjudication, but then what adjudication could there sincerely be? – is simplified by reference to legal requirements, some of them presumably part of Europe’s huge REACH project of chemical testing: these things have to be done, so don’t blame us.  The applicants, un-named of course, must be mainly contract testing organisations, such as Huntingdon Life Sciences (now part of the absurdly named Envigo company: “helps you secure the potential of life-enhancing research”). Such organisations necessarily have rolling programmes of work, routinely renewed.

There’s a foul history behind all this. The notorious LD50 test, classifying toxicity according to the dose required to kill 50% of a given group of animals, was introduced ninety years ago in a paper for Proceedings of the Royal Society (Biological Sciences section) titled ‘The Error of Determination of Toxicity’ and written by J.W.Trevan of the Wellcome Laboratories. Trevan wanted to establish a standard method for batch-testing therapeutic drugs, and in particular to show by statistical analysis how many animals should be used to produce reliable enough results (about 60 per batch, he seems to have concluded). But his method has been used to estimate, with a numerical precision which is both unnecessary and misleading, the toxicity of almost every ingestible or injectable substance open to misuse or accident. Published tables can be found which provide LD50 measures (ratio of substance to body-weight) for anything from arsenic to water. A terrible record of suffering is implied in them.

Fortunately the ‘classic’ LD50 test by mouth has been discontinued in many parts of the world, including Europe and the U.S.A. More accurate methods, not so profligate with life (but profligate all the same), are now being specified in the NTS. I don’t suppose that the writers of these summaries are finer humans than Dr Trevan was. That they accept it as an important aim to poison as few animals as possible, whereas he seems to have attached no explicit life-value at all to the animals caught up in his graphs and charts, shows what progress in enlightenment, or at least in rules, has been made. The NTS, for all their faults, are part of this progress. Even those research scientists who still think that animal lives don’t amount to much in comparison with human ones (we know there are such scientists) have to write these summaries as if they do. And if this means that they’re writing in much the same spirit as schoolchildren write out lines set as punishment – well, teachers think it works, and I expect it does.

But it remains a horrible scene. Here’s a prognosis of needs for a project which will test drugs, food and drink additives, and “other substances administered to Man” (the phrase makes humanity sound like one great baby, which in many respects we still are): “Over a five year period, it is expected that the following number of animals will be used on this project: 30,000 rats, 30,000 mice, 3500 hamsters, 2500 rabbits, 1500 dogs, 1500 pigs.” The proposed severity level here is ‘mild’ rising to ‘moderate’ (for an indication of what this implies, see the post for 27 March 2017, linked in the notes below); all the animals will be killed as the ‘end-point’. Another project, aiming “to identify hazardous properties of chemical preparations with respect to acute toxicity (including primary irritancy and skin sensitization)”, shows that some version of the Draize test, allied in notoriety to LD50, does persist: as well as 38,000 rodents for various purposes, 2,350 rabbits are to be used in this research for “skin, eye-irritation and dermal toxicity studies”.

Of course there is very great talent wrapped up in these NTS, especially in the more pioneering medical projects. But putting aside for a moment the tragedy of its entanglement in the misuse and suffering of animals, we may also ask how well directed it is. Some of the human problems which recur in the NTS are largely the consequence of wholly voluntary habits of life and their natural penalties. I’m not just thinking of the many references to obesity and diabetes, for which strenuous preventative measures would surely be, if not a complete alternative to this ruthless search for cures, then at least an honourable preliminary to it. There are also (pathetically listed under the heading ‘Animal Welfare’) studies in animal disease which are essentially aimed at making the brutal practice of factory-farming, with all its associated ills, sustainable by medical force.

These farmed-animal studies aren’t notably harsh in themselves: in many, the animals will be treated quite a lot better than they would be on ordinary farms, to which they’re often in fact returned unharmed. And as the category title implies, the ostensible aim is commonly to improve welfare: to enhance nutrition, prevent disease, make detection of injury or other harm easier, kill animals with less hit and miss. This last is quite a research type in itself. There are projects to develop “new stunners/electrode types for turkeys, ducks, geese and chickens”, for instance, or “to evaluate the electrical field strength required for an effective electrical stun in fish”. One project is titled ‘Validating humane killing of small ungulates’. Apparently, newly-born animals that have to be killed as sick or surplus are generally dispatched by “swinging the young animal against the floor or a wall” (ah, the pastoral life!). The research aims to perfect a “non-penetrating percussive device” which will do the killing more “humanely”. Well, that would indeed be more humane than the old swinging method, a desirable improvement therefore. At the same time, such research supports and streamlines a savage and wasteful farming economy. And that’s what most or all of these farm-animal projects do, whether they’re welfare-minded or frankly directed at increasing “performance” (a vile but much-used word for the profitability of an animal).

This is just to evidence yet again what the biologist Lewis Wolpert says in the introduction to his book The Unnatural Nature of Science: “Science … doesn’t tell us how to live”. It only, as translated into technology, eases and reinforces however we do choose to live. In time, if there is time, it will no doubt willingly devise for us the means to leave our responsibilities behind and set about ruining some other planet. But the particular efforts of science which are illuminated a year at a time in these non-technical summaries have gone a bit further in amorality, not simply sharing but also pioneering our wretchedly corrupted relations with other forms and ways of life.


Notes and references:

The Non-technical summaries of projects granted in 2016 can be viewed here:

The particular research projects quoted in this post are projects 21, 14, and 15 in the category ‘Projects with a primary purpose of: Regulatory Purposes’ (vol.14), and projects 4, 10, and 2 in the category ‘Translational and Applied Research – Animal Welfare’ (vol.29).

A clear account of the LD50 test and why it needed to be jettisoned, ‘The LD50 – the Beginning of the End’, was written by Andrew Rowan in 1983: it’s still worth reading, and is accessible here:

J.W.Trevan’s original paper can be read here:

Some definitions of the meanings of ‘moderate’ and ‘severe’ are provided in the post titled ‘For We Are Many’:

The quotation from The Unnatural Nature of Science by Lewis Wolpert (one-time Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College London), published by Faber and Faber, 1993, is at p.xiv. Incidentally, he also says, at the other end of the book (p.178), “It is to science and technology that we shall have to look for help to get us out of some of the mess in which we now all find ourselves.”

The title of this post comes from The Merchant of Venice, part of Shylock’s claim for the equal humanity of his race with that of the Christians around him. But of course there is an even larger collective than he has in mind of all those affected by pain and death, and accordingly a much larger than human claim upon our moral consideration. We come back to Jeremy Bentham’s rhetorical question, featured on the banner at the top of this page, “Can they suffer?”

Advent, PR-style

The gathering time of year has come round again for signatories to the ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’. In the setting of the Wellcome Collection in London (the medical museum and library “that encourages everyone to reflect on what it means to be human”), it’s a time for mutual congratulation, distributing of awards, chivvying of the less motivated, and general reflection and retrospect. Among the prize-winners this year was Oxford University, sharing the Award for Public Engagement Activity with three other institutions which all now offer ‘digital tours’ of their laboratories (as reviewed in this blog on 28 August). Other awards were given for ‘Media Engagement’, ‘Use of New Media’, and ‘Outstanding Contribution to Openness in Animal Research’, this latter won by Fergus Walsh for his “balanced reporting at a time when ‘animal research’ evoked a knee-jerk response from much of the public and media”. The judges had in mind Fergus Walsh’s “exclusive” BBC tour of Oxford’s new Biomedical Sciences Building early in 2014, much admired at the time by both of the institutions concerned.

That was the year also in which the Concordat itself was officially launched, and its Annual Report for 2017, issued to coincide with the awards ceremony on 4th December, is partly a review of its career since then. Fifty pages or so, but there’s no need to read it to know that there has been a great change. The institutions which sign up to the Concordat (there are now at least 113 of them) are required to ‘show and tell’ on their web-sites, and they do, some of them at considerable length: statements of policy, disquisitions on their commitment to the 3Rs (not always remembering to mention that this is a necessity in law), accounts of research projects, slide shows, and videos of caring technicians and sapient professors. The Report recalls that the Concordat had set out to “change an endemic culture of secrecy around the use of animals that was present in UK life-sciences research” [p.5], and its success in this quite proper purpose is evident. At Oxford, for instance: here, the routine publication of statistics of animal research, including severity levels, in the University Gazette and on the OU web-site, together with a sort of school-year record of open days, 3Rs training courses, and other worthy Laboratory, South Parks Road.JPGinitiatives, makes a striking contrast with the Biomedical Sciences Building itself, planned and built in the old days (about ten years ago) and constituting an assertion of secrecy in concrete and brick: no visible way in, counterfeit windows, railings all round, security cameras.

But is this change anything more than hitching animal research to the already blazing star of modern public relations? Perhaps the Concordat is simply to be understood as one of those “unique hubs of PR excellence all round the country, all powering forward” which PR’s own professional body, the PRCA, has recently acclaimed as moving us all towards “an even larger, even more vibrant, and even more future-proofed PR industry”. Certainly much of what appears on the animal research web-sites is ordinary self-promotion, however judicious-sounding. As the Concordat acknowledges, “It is the role of all organisations and their communications teams to highlight publicly appealing aspects of their work, and to avoid more difficult topics” (a pretty good summary of PR). And even when not merely conforming to this model of communications, what the signatories do and say is necessarily one-way. The Report talks about the “development of public-facing communication tools” [11]; whatever exactly that means, it doesn’t suggest a progressive exchange of views. Even the manipulable digital tours, such as the Oxford one, only make available what the institutions choose to show; you aren’t going to stumble upon anything they didn’t mean you to see. And supposing you can find the way in to the real Oxford building, you won’t be let through the barrier without a very good reason (I know this), let alone be invited to take a look round.

An introductory video about Imperial College London’s animal research makes the situation unexpectedly clear. The Concordat Report specially praises ICL for its web-site, and certainly it’s the only one I’ve seen where animal research is mentioned and linked on the front page. The video itself touches on some of ICL’s “great biomedical research”, and showcases (to use a favourite Concordat word) the cleanness, good order, and superior welfare of its animal-management. But as well as appearing on the web-site, the video is posted on YouTube, and its immediate neighbour there under ‘Imperial animal research’, tagging along like a bad conscience, is a filmed record of squalor, cruelty, and malpractice in that same institution, part of the exposé published in 2013 by the British Union Against Vivisection. “Look here, upon this picture and upon this!” as Hamlet exclaims. Only two years separate the two representations. It’s a bewildering difference.

The Concordat earnestly advises that research should be “presented openly rather than sanitized” [36], with “balanced information, acknowledging harms as well as benefits of animal research” [10]. It admits, however, that to do so constitutes “a challenging area for signatories” [1]. In fact it unwittingly illustrates the point, since it doesn’t follow its own advice to include images of animals “undergoing research” as well as the usual stock pictures of animals enjoying rest or play. The Report does have pictures, but the nearest they come to ‘balancing’ the several at-home pigs and playful rodents is one image of a rat receiving an injection. Likewise, we can feel pretty certain that ICL will never, for all its “sector-leading” communications, showcase the table-guillotine which appears in the BUAV footage, still less the rats which we see undergoing ‘endpoints’ by that and other similar means, with mixed success (“Oh, its eyes are still moving!”, someone exclaims in the film). We must assume that ICL’s standards really have risen since then (all of four years ago), but its PR isn’t how we’ll expect to know one way or the other.

Unfortunately there’s something more to all this than the harmlessly increased clamour of self-advertisement, for corresponding to it is a decline in authentic reporting. It’s a quite reasonable principle of PR to get your client’s story in first, and leave as little as possible for more impartial commentators to make a story out of. You aim to sap their professional scope and interest. Thus, the opportunities for a journalist to base a story on things found out about animal research, perhaps merely through Freedom of Information requests, and then to quiz the practitioners and thereby keep the subject stirred, are now very much harder to come by. The information is already public, in ready-to-consume form, with follow-up comment prepared by experts (the institutions’ own “media-trained champions”, as the Report calls them). Investigations are still possible, of course, and needed, but they will demand more in time, motive, and initiative. The consequence is noted with satisfaction in the Report: “The accessibility of information about the use of animals in research has notably reduced media interest in this subject over the past three years … there have been only a handful of significant stories … Animal research per se is a non-story.” [37, 46]

It’s not just a problem in animal research, of course. That 2016 census conducted by the Public Relations Consultants Association (from which the quotation about “hubs of PR excellence” is gratefully taken) assessed the number of people working in its profession at 83,000 and bullishly rising. The equivalent number for journalism is about 64,000. Commenting on these numbers in the Guardian newspaper at the time, Roy Greenslade (a professor of Journalism) called it a “disproportionate ratio”, one which has ominous implications for public awareness in the future.

In the case of the Concordat project, this pre-empting of media curiosity and critical supervision has been achieved without any necessary alteration in the ethics or practice of animal research. But perhaps it does nevertheless entail or at least promote improvement there? I think that there are two things to say about that.

The first is that, yes, there must surely be some positive effect on animal welfare. The films may only show scenes chosen for their tonic effect, but such scenes, and the reassurances which are voiced over them, must set a noticeable standard within an institution and beyond, promoting what the Report calls “understanding of what represents current best practice” [37]. Then, because the animal care staff always co-star in these shows with the research side, the increased attention must boost the status of their contribution, to the benefit of the animals who depend on it. In fact this effect is mentioned in the Report [6].

But the second point is that an equivalent boost must be profiting animal research in general, and the departments and people that do it. Signatories are quoted in the Report as saying that the Concordat has “created increased awareness of animal research, and given it profile and standing” [45]. Profile and standing in whose eyes is not specified: perhaps only in the eyes of funding managers or other science departments, but that alone will have an important bearing on the growth or decline of animal studies. As to the general public, certainly there’s no confident assertion in the Report that opinion there has yet been affected. But of course that’s the aim. When vivisection was first given official attention, in the Royal Commission of 1875-6, the commissioners noted that “a large and very estimable portion of the public” viewed physiologists and their work with “a feeling of suspicion, and even of abhorrence” [xvii]. Has that ever not been so during the intervening years? The Concordat’s project is to liberate the profession from that odium for the first time, and to do it without ever needing to win the argument or even to continue having it.

Well, there’s more to Advent than the Concordat and its awards, I’m glad to say. And indeed, as a more general contribution to seasonal celebrations and portents, Understanding Animal Research (the promotional agency which runs the Concordat) has posted on Facebook its own Advent calendar. With an Xmas sparkle and jingling, each door opens upon a different animal, with a short account of its ‘contribution’ to research. The doors won’t open ahead of time, so we can’t yet know what will arrive on the 25th, but at least it won’t find itself alone: these days, coming into the world to save mankind is a crowded avocation.


Notes and references:

The digital tours of laboratories are reviewed in this blog at

The Concordat Annual Report can be read at

The Imperial College video is on YouTube at  and the BUAV film, here following a few minutes of a BBC Radio 4 news report on the exposé, is at

The quotation from the PRCA Census 2016 comes from the introduction, p.4. Roy Greenslade’s comments on the rise of PR were published in the Guardian, 10 June 2016, and can be read online here:

The quotation about suspicion and abhorrence comes from Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO 1876, p.xvii.



Fighting for Peace

Is it reasonable to speak of ‘science’ as one project, and ‘scientists’ as if they form not just a profession but a collective in some larger moral or political sense? Well, they certainly do speak so themselves, as, for instance, a letter in last week’s issue of Science illustrates. Arguing that scientists should take better advantage of the huge and instant audiences which some celebrities have acquired through social media, the writer speaks of “we” as needing to find “inventive strategies to educate the public, particularly in critical fields such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and sustainability.”

And there’s a tradition for it. Fifty year ago in that same journal, another letter-writer speaks similarly of a “scientific community”, and gives some reasons why its collective voice ought to be heard – in this instance, on the Vietnam war. Scientists, he says, “probably comprise the most intelligent large group in our society”. They are “more devoted to knowledge and less to wealth and power”, and accordingly “their values are humane and relatively attuned to this complex age.” No doubt he would think so, but it must be true that scientists know more than others do about such important subjects as are specified in that first letter, and also they enjoy a sort of international solidarity as a natural feature of their profession, so their outlook ought to be usefully non-partisan. We might even feel that science has made its own collective contribution to creating these world problems, and therefore might have an obligation to advise us how to address them now. This is at least a reasonable enough feeling in the case of the subject on which the scientific “we” has been vocal for longest, but which has unfortunately never lost its topicality: the subject of nuclear war.

Here, the first notable declaration was the ‘Russell-Einstein Manifesto’, put forward in 1955. Bertrand Russell may be thought of as a philosopher rather than a scientist, but the manifesto was signed mainly by Einstein’s professional colleagues: Max Born, Linus Pauling, Frédéric Juliot-Curie, and others. Out of that Manifesto came the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, with their own public statements, such as the Nagasaki Declaration of 2015. In 2018, a newer organisation, Science for Peace, will be holding its own conference at the University of Toronto with the title ‘How to Save the World’. Yet another such organisation, The Global Union of Scientists for Peace, says on its web-site by way of summary, “For over sixty years, the scientific community has issued vivid warnings about the catastrophic effects of thermonuclear war and has called for the abolition of these world-destroying weapons.”

The 1966 letter-writer was therefore not a lone voice when he urged “Let the scientists speak out as loudly as possible!” In fact that same issue of Science has an article by a scientist very keen to speak out on the peace subject: Dr Roger Ulrich, the head of experimental psychology at Western Michigan University. Ulrich specialized in the subject of aggression, and was committed to making his specialism serve the cause of humanity by showing how aggression might be better understood and managed. This particular article had the title ‘Classical Conditioning of Pain-Elicited Aggression’. We shall return to it, but first let’s meet Ulrich in his role of prophet.

In a short film issued in 1971, entitled Understanding Aggression, Dr Ulrich presented to the general public the nature and implications of his research. The film begins with a sequence of stills from the long history of violence, beginning in the primeval swamp Beckmann, Nightand working through to all the varieties of specifically human ferocity, from pre-historical savagery to modern battles, torture, executions, mob frenzies, and all-out war. Portentously eerie music backs these unpleasant scenes.

Then Ulrich himself appears on-screen. He is an engaging personality, with his sixties-style long hair, white polo-neck with smart-casual jacket, and ideology to match (“you can’t fight for peace.”). Tipping back in his office chair, or leaning informally upon laboratory equipment, he warns his audience about the dangers of aggression in the nuclear age:

We have to stop reinforcing aggression. We have to stop glorifying violence … We have to start teaching and living non-violence, at every level … We can’t say violence is bad and that it has no place in America, and expect to be taken seriously, if we daily support its use.

Even the credits at the end of the film urge this message. We are told, of the staff at the Michigan Behavior Research and Development Center, that their “highest achievement is that they practise what they preach; they love one another.” As we knew then, all you need is love.

But of course these are not simply earnest generalisations, impossible to dispute and indeed obvious as they may seem. They are conclusions drawn by Ulrich from the work done in his laboratory. There, aggressive behaviour was being studied mainly by inducing and manipulating it in various species of animal – cats, rats, guinea pigs, monkeys – and under ingeniously varied conditions. The basic stimulus seems always to have been electric shock, but one of Ulrich’s published articles says, by way of introduction to this field of research, that “some of the variables which have been studied in connection with shock-induced aggression are frequency and intensity of shock stimulation, consistency of shock presentation, enclosed floor area, fatigue and shock duration. The effects of age, social isolation, and castration upon reflexive aggression have also been studied.” The complicating effects of heat, cold, and loud noise were also investigated, as was the effect of “combined permanent vision and vibrissa impairment” (i.e. of blinding and removal of whiskers). As one witness before a House of Representatives committee on vivisection, already quoted elsewhere in this blog, remarked at about this same time, “You’d be surprised what professors and some students can think up.”

All this explains that equipment which Ulrich leans against in the 1971 film, and which indeed the film very frankly shows in use. We see young squirrel monkeys inside the perspex-fronted apparatus, receiving electric shocks and retaliating upon each other. Or we see one monkey on its own, trapped by the waist, with its tail connected to an electrical apparatus, furiously mauling a rubber bar as the shocks are administered. From these scenes we learn that pain, or by extension any aversive stimulus, will produce aggression (therefore, for instance, physical punishment doesn’t work). Or elsewhere in the lab, a large and clearly peaceable cat is confined in a small chamber with a rat. The rat, presumably itself peaceable enough by nature, is taught by rewards directed into its “pleasure centre” (a lead of some sort is attached to its head) to attack the cat, until the exasperated cat finally kills it. This tends to show that if aggression is rewarded (“glorifying violence”), it will persist, even against the true interests of everyone concerned.

That 1966 article goes a step further from the obvious, looking for clues to “apparently unprovoked aggression”. Pairs of rats in their box were conditioned to fight each other upon hearing a harmless sound or “tone”, once that tone had become associated in their minds with electric shocks. This association (which constitutes the “classical conditioning” mentioned in the title of the article) had not been arrived at without difficulty. We’ve seen in the film that aggression can be induced easily enough by painful stimuli – this was a staple of Ulrich’s laboratory – but “earlier attempts to develop conditioned fighting by pairing painful stimuli, such as electric shocks, with neutral stimuli” had formerly achieved “only minimum success”. That may explain why it took “2000 pairings of the tone with the shock”, administered every ten seconds or so over a period of about five hours, to achieve a dependable association in the minds of the rats. And the shocks in all these experiments were not simply irritants. In the film, Ulrich explains why his laboratory doesn’t use humans in these trials: they would not be willing, and could not be forced, to endure, even for science’s sake, such “extremes of pain”.

Dr Ulrich briefly and sardonically notes that humans are prepared to impose such pains upon each other in the course of wars and other strife. In fact this sixties liberal (I don’t use that phrase with a sneer) has no high opinion of the human character or record to date: “the most violently aggressive of all species … the king of killers”. Yet he takes for granted our right to use this habit of violence against other species in our search to free ourselves from its grip. No doubt this contradiction is partly explained by his behaviourist model of animal life: as a disciple of B.F.Skinner, he would have discounted inner life in animals, and therefore their capacity to suffer or perhaps even to matter. But then his premise is that human behaviour too is intelligible according to that model: hence the usefulness of animal data, upon which his case depends. And the film’s preliminary pictures of violence show it arising with animal life and reaching its horrible apex in man as one evolutionary history. No, the contradiction makes no sense, and this earnest and idealistic man was simply subverting his own case as he went along. As he himself insists, “We can’t say violence is bad … and expect to be taken seriously, if we daily support its use.”

It’s certain that no scientist using animals nowadays would film his or her work with the sort of guilelessness that we see in Understanding Aggression. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the work itself has changed. And although Dr Ulrich’s self-contradiction is especially conspicuous because he was researching the very subject that he was at the same time exemplifying – the human habit of violence – still, the subjugation of other animals for any purpose nullifies non-violence as a practice or ideology.

No doubt the “science community” has important advice to offer on many important subjects, and ought to be listened to, but while animals are forced to serve human interests in laboratories all over the world, there’s no reason why we should feel any special respect for what scientists get together to say about world peace.


Notes and references:

The quotations from the journal Science are at 1 September 2017, p.880, and 29 April 1966, pp.591 and 668-9 (the Ulrich article).

The film Understanding Aggression can be seen at Other reports of Dr Ulrich’s research can be found in Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behaviour, Nov.1969, 12(6) and in The Psychological Record, 15, 1965, from which the quotations surveying his field of research are taken.

The Russell-Einstein Manifesto can be found at  The web-site of the Global Union of Scientists for Peace is at

The quotation from evidence given to the House of Representatives in 1962 is taken from John Vyvyan, The Dark Face of Science, London (Michael Joseph) 1971, p.188.

The illustration shows Max Beckmann’s painting Night, completed just after the First World War, a conspectus of contemporary and foreseen violence.




Come See Our Worlds

A new public relations venture from Understanding Animal Research (UAR) provides ‘360° digital tours’ of four animal research laboratories in the U.K. One of them is Oxford University. Two others – MRC Harwell and the Pirbright Institute – have likewise featured in this blog before. The fourth is Bristol University, where the main event shown is heart surgery being pioneered on a pig.

The tours consist of all-round views, navigable and magnifiable, of different rooms and activities (60 such views in all), with brief explanatory texts and some video clips (35 of these, up to six minutes in length). The model for this venture seems to have been an unidentified primate facility presented online in 2015 by France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, but these new tours are quite a lot more sophisticated. In fact technically it’s a remarkable show, very smoothly done, almost mesmerizingly so. Nor is it crudely assertive or defensive. Animal care staff show what they’re doing with convincing sympathy; scientists in casual clothes speak with reassuring authority about important work. Such as it is, you can’t fault it.

No doubt it’s pleasant for them to talk about how well they care for animals, and to show the animals enjoying their strange stylized and minimalist habitats, if that’s what the animals are doing (I can’t tell). Talking about the suffering and death is harder, and there’s accordingly much less of that. The suffering, in fact, is hardly touched on at all, except as something conscientiously minimised; there’s nothing to indicate, for instance, why the U.K. law should bother with a ‘severe’ category for experiments. The killing is necessarily mentioned from time to time, and it’s done with some uneasiness, not so much visible (though I think it is noticeable) as verbal – that is, in the resort to various genteelisms. The word ‘kill’ is used once only that I heard; otherwise it’s ‘euthanize’ and its strange variant ‘euthanaze’, or a selection of circumlocutions, such as ‘put to sleep as at the vet’s’ (just like our own pets, in fact), ‘culled at the end of their lives’ (the ingeniously evasive formula pioneered at Oxford University: see post for 28 October 2015), or, the most scrupulously oblique of all, “How long they stay with us depends on … etc.”

These are fairly transparent euphemisms; we know well what’s meant. Some of the strictly scientific narratives contain terms which more seriously cloud the meaning: for instance, in accounts of neurosurgery on (or, more companionably, “with”) monkeys at Oxford, there is talk about “manipulation”, of the need to “intervene in their brain and change a little part of it”, and of injecting “a very small amount [of what?] precisely into the brain”. Here, most of us don’t know what’s being meant, and are left to guess.

UAR’s news-piece about these tours says “Watch the videos to see technicians talking about how they look after their animals and to find out from scientists why animals are being used.” You notice what’s missing: the middle term in this scene, what really happens to the animals in between the being looked after in caring confinements (we see a lot of this) and the goal or “why” of it all. The “why”, as spoken of in these tours, is of course not product-testing or mere knowledge-garnering, but the feared sicknesses of affluent societies or ailments which affect children. So if we aren’t adequately reassured by the scenes of animal comfort at the one end, at least our concern about the middle part will be frightened away by mention of those natural cruelties against us which are about to be cured by these means.

But of course the whole show must itself be a sort of euphemism. Its aim is indeed to ‘speak well’ of its subject, and to miss out what can’t be spoken well of. And even if the tours were altogether impartial, mere good taste would steer them away from anything unpleasant to see, particularly because one of their declared aims is to be of use to school students as young as eleven (so there’s a preliminary warning about the pig surgery). You can navigate all those rooms, then, without stumbling upon anything disagreeable like the fridge for animal corpses pictured elsewhere in this blog (“For dead animals. Please put in plastic bags.”). But some such equipment must be on the premises somewhere, presumably in rooms shown blank on the plans provided. At MRC Harwell, for instance, I calculate from inadequate evidence that mice must be dispatched on the premises at a rate of about one per minute. That amounts to a fair proportion of the work. It ought to be shown, in good taste or not.

At about the same time that this set of laboratory tours was put online by UAR, its equivalent organisation in the U.S.A., Americans for Medical Progress, put up their version, entitled Come See Our World. As the cheery showbooth-style title suggests, this is much more blatantly a public relations push, and what it intends to accomplish is plainly stated in brand-manager’s terms: “to replace outdated, inaccurate images of animal research with current accurate views.”

With this in mind, an album of photographic “views” of contented animals, many of them with pet names, has been assembled, with brief texts explaining their role in research, and some links to further details. The animals are grouped by species. Among the felines, there’s ‘Sadie the Research Cat’, the kitten Midnight (“likes to kiss her special person”), and Sophie, who kindly “helps” researchers study heart failure. Sadie, of the sinister title, is shown sitting on a sort of metal-framed shelf behind bars. Among the dogs, Blake is enjoying a bathe in a paddling pool. ‘Beagle playing with Kong’ shows a dog in a cage with a wire grille floor. Among the monkeys, there’s ‘Mom and baby rhesus on hammock’, in a grim tiled room.

I would upload one or two of the views here, but they’re only made available to those who support the “mission of the Come See Our World project”. This mission, in so far as it goes beyond replacing one set of images with another, is evidently to persuade the public that the patent kindness and sound judgement of scientists is quite sufficient to ensure good practice, with no further intervention from the law, still less from ill-informed public indignation. As one professor of psychology recently said, “each scientist has to make his or her own moral decision”. This dubious assertion (even in the U.S.A. there are some external controls over what researchers may do) was made by Richard Davidson, with reference to the work presently being done in his own department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by Ned Kalin. Dr Kalin’s “own moral decision” is that it’s quite all right to take new-born monkeys away from their mothers, in order to study anxiety by inducing it in them. For many years he has been building upon the research notoriously done in this line by Harry Harlow (see the post for 15 July 2015, ‘How Not to Treat Babies’). In fact the photo of the two rhesus monkeys with their ugly modernistic hammock comes from that same university. So may God help that ‘Mom and baby’ and all the others they represent!

I don’t know whether Kalin’s work is mentioned in Come See Our World; I can’t find it anywhere. The picture of ‘Mom and baby’ has a text about the life-cycle of the species – a sad irrelevance here, I would have thought – and a list of research areas, but nothing more particular. At any rate, the site is not apologetic about the use of the various monkey species. In fact, those “outdated, inaccurate images”, which apparently need replacing in you or me, turn out to constitute, when rightly understood, something to be proud of, for we’re told that “Nonhuman primates have a rich history of contributing to significant medical advances.” “rich history”! So speaks the ad-man.

It’s hard to know what one has really learnt from these tours, since there’s no knowing about what one hasn’t been shown. (The French tour seems to have been filmed on a general holiday: I only spotted one member of staff and, more puzzlingly, one animal, a solitary monkey somewhere in a whole cage-scape of bars.) The institutions themselves, which thus ration the knowledge, must know it all, however; perhaps one merit of these exercises in publicity might therefore be to draw their attention to any differences which exist between what they’re doing and what they wish the public to suppose that they’re doing.


Notes and References:

The U.K. laboratory tours are online at Come See Our World is at The French tour (which I couldn’t get to work properly) is at

MRC Harwell is featured in this blog at, and the Pirbright Institute at

An account of Dr Kalin’s proposal, and its successful progress through his university’s ethics committee, appeared in the Wisconsin journal Isthmus for 31 July 2014, and can be read here: Kalin subsequently decided, for purely scientific reasons as he insisted, not to take the new-born monkeys away from their mothers. Otherwise, the research goes ahead as intended.




Earth-born Companions

When Oxford University was first required to estimate its annual usage of animals in research and teaching – this was in 1875 – the tally was about 30 frogs and smaller unspecified numbers of fish, dogs, rabbits, insects. No mice were mentioned. In 2016, the University used 226 frogs but more than 200,000 mice.

I don’t know when mice overtook frogs as the leading victims of animal research. Now, in the U.K. at least and probably everywhere, they account for well over 60% of all experiments and a much higher proportion of the GM breeding programmes. A huge industry and international trade has come into being, devoted to the creation and exchange of genetically altered mice. Two of its primary sites are the Medical Research Council’s establishment at Harwell in the U.K., and the Jackson Laboratory in the U.S.A.

As well as its own research, MRC Harwell supplies mice to other laboratories round the world, either live or as frozen sperm or embryos (see web-site for prices). In more detail, its services include (just to give an idea of the sort of thing) “Production of blastocysts and pseudo-pregnant females [a blastocyst is a cluster of cells in the very early stage of embryo development]… Uterine transfer of injected blastocysts to pseudo-pregnant foster-mothers [the foster-mother is the female into whom the foetuses extracted from the first mother are inserted. Neither mother survives the process] … Oviduct transfer of injected embryos to pseudo-pregnant foster mothers … Harvest and preparation of F0 transgenic embryos …”, and so on. The gruesome gynaecology of all this, I won’t attempt to describe: a sample guide to one of the procedures, with illustrations, is referenced below. MRC Harwell bred over 213,000 mice in 2016, but this number would not include the mice archived or traded in unborn condition, or the wastage in mothers and unviable offspring.

The Jackson Laboratory, based in Bar Harbor, Maine, does things on an even larger scale. Like Harwell, it does its own research work. In addition, more than 3 million ‘Jax’ mice, from a selection of over 7000 genetically defined varieties, are sent out to other institutions.

A brief digression now on the likely experiences of these Jax mice at their destinations. Since the Jackson Laboratory receives state funding, it has to conform to national guidance as to the care of its own animals. The same does not apply to the privately funded or commercial laboratories in the U.S.A., well over 800 of them, to which Jax mice may be sent (still less, of course, to laboratories in other countries). These establishments are regulated only by the Animal Welfare Act, whose definition of ‘animal’ does not include mice (or rats or birds). This glaring anomaly is genially described as a “quirk” by the National Academy of Sciences, but actually it was a very deliberate omission, and one which was later emphatically fixed into law by the so-called ‘Helms Amendment’ of 2002. Senator Jesse Helms pointed out to his fellow-senators during the debate that a mouse was much better off in a laboratory than being eaten by a python in the wild, and evidently they accepted this as a useful bench-mark for mouse-welfare. Certainly the research industry did; indeed it had sponsored Helms’s intervention. This is just one instance of a consistent historical record. In spite of all the claims in their publicity to be making animal welfare their special concern, research institutions and their agencies have always resisted statutory controls. If they’d had their way, laboratory animals would even now be relying for their welfare wholly on the haphazard kindness of their vivisectors.

Back to the Jackson Laboratory, and the man who founded it in the 1920s, Clarence Little. In later years he declared that his institution “has done for the mouse in science what Disney has done for it in amusement.” In fact he hoped that Walt Disney’s version of the mouse might be employed to publicize medical research of the Jackson sort – rather Mickey_-_House_of_Mouseas comic pigs advertise bacon. And certainly Micky Mouse would very expressively have represented what has happened to the mouse since it got caught up in medical research. The Disney studio ruthlessly stylized Mickey Mouse, both to make repeat drawing easier, and to make him highly visible and recognisable (the strange white gloves and bulbous shoes, for instance): this is the mouse subdued to human idea and human use. So exactly is the Jax mouse, standardized as it is, and infinitely repeatable in its 7000 varieties. And just as Mickey Mouse became the iconic cartoon animal, so the Jax mouse established its species as the essential laboratory animal.

Both of these institutions, MRC Harwell and the Jackson Laboratory, belong to the International Mouse Phenotyping Consortium, an international collaboration whose aim is “to catalogue the functions of the roughly 20,000 genes that mice and humans share”. Last year the IMPC “released an analysis of the phenotypes of the first 1,751 new lines of unique “knockout mice” (mice in whom one gene has been deleted), with much more to come in the months ahead.” The National Institutes of Health, reporting this achievement, was especially interested in the genes which seem to have proven crucial to live birth in the mice. The heading to its announcement optimistically generalized the findings thus: ‘Of Mice and Men: Study Pinpoints Genes Essential for Life’.

Can mouse genetics really translate so usefully into knowledge about humans? In one of this month’s issues of the journal Science, there’s a report of research into “the nature of genetic predisposition to pain”, which is said to promise “new treatments of conditions affecting tens of millions of people worldwide”. Naturally the research used mice, designed and generated for the study (though using at least some Jax mice as starters). But other research in that same area of biology – incidentally an especially malignant one for laboratory animals, with its array of ingenious pain-supplying devices – has questioned the value of mice as models for humans, even where the same genes seem to be involved. An article about it in Yale Scientific said that “there was almost no correlation between human and murine reactions to any of the experimental conditions. For example, if humans were likely to activate a certain gene following trauma, mice were almost equally as likely to activate it or suppress it.” Acknowledging that “mice models are a cornerstone of biomedical research”, the Yale article suggests that this reported research “raises the question of how similar humans and mice really are. With such different genetic responses, perhaps the biology of mice is not an accurate representation of that of humans.”

Bad news in Bar Harbor and Harwell, then, but wait! A professor interviewed for the same article points out that the study only used the one mouse variety, C57BL/6, commonly called ‘Black 6’: “until other mouse strains are studied, the authors need to be cautious in their interpretations that use of mice is irrelevant to human responses.” Get out those order books, then, and let business resume.

The Yale article was headed ‘Of Mice and Men: The Mouse as a Model for Human Disease’. The upbeat NIH piece, you’ll recall, was headed ‘Of Mice and Men: Study Pinpoints Genes … etc.’ But it’s not much of a coincidence: that phrase, with its neat alliteration and reassuring link with a vaguely remembered literary classic, has also caught the imagination of many other science writers on this subject, or has at least appealed to them as likely to catch the imagination of their readers. After all, in a poll recently organised by an educational publisher, John Steinbeck’s fine novel Of Mice and Men has been ranked fourth in the “top 100 titles for the American literature classroom … chosen by American literature teachers across the country.” (But then The Great Gatsby came top!) And perhaps, although mice are only incidentally present in it, this story of two displaced and status-less labourers in forlorn search of a home is no bad fable for the modern animal.

But in fact the novel’s title is not the origin of the phrase. Steinbeck himself was borrowing it in his turn from the poem ‘To a mouse’ by Robert Burns, first published in 1786. And this certainly is an encounter of mouse and man to set beside and re-appraise the modern Disneyfied mass-mouse and the people who convert it into science.

The poem’s sub-title is ‘on turning her up in her nest with the plough’, for Burns was a farmer when he wrote the poem; he knew the situation. He was, besides, as the poem 220px-PG_1063Burns_Naysmithmakes poignantly clear, unhappy in his own ways, remorseful about the past and fearful as to the future. Accordingly there’s absolutely nothing suggestive of species-superiority in the way he speaks to the mouse, as he contemplates the ruin of her nest. He sees in detail and feels the catastrophe which the mouse has suffered, and he understands suffering as a universal burden, indifferent to species and size. Hence that phrase:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,       

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy!

The poem recognizes the encounter as an aspect of the power-relation whose characteristic modern manifestation we’ve been viewing in earlier paragraphs:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
An’ fellow-mortal!

So the spoiling of the mouse’s nest is an incident in a much larger wreckage of that commonalty which Burns beautifully dignifies as “nature’s social union”. But in his poem he reasserts the union, at least between these two now present, pledging a true existential comradeship in those phrases “thy poor, earth-born companion / An’ fellow-mortal”.

And of course exactly this is “how similar humans and mice really are” (the phrase from the Yale article). They really are earth-born fellow-mortals, each in their own sphere liable to “grief an’ pain”. Unfortunately we’ve repudiated that fellowship for which Burns’s poem is a permanent model and recommendation, and have chosen instead to privilege human grief and pain, and to make of the mouse a multitudinous enslaved resource in our ruthless struggles to escape them.



Notes and references:

The numbers from 1875 were published by the Cardwell Commission in Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO, 1876, Appendix III.

Information and quotation about the work at Harwell appears on its web-site at

A clear, though highly technical, illustrated account of how a standard procedure works can be found in the article ‘Pronuclear Injection for the Production of Transgenic Mice’ at

About the welfare provisions in the U.S.A.: the “quirk” reference is from; the account of Helms’s amendment is from a contemporary news report in U.S.A. Today, readable at

What Clarence Little said about Mickey Mouse is quoted by Karen Rayder in Making Mice: Standardizing Animals for American Biomedical Research, 1900-1955, Princeton University Press, 2004, p.5

The announcement about the work of the IMPC is on a blog run by the National Institutes of Health at

The article in Science is from 16 June 2017, pp.1124-5 and 1168-71, quotations from pp.1124-5. The Yale Scientific article is from 5 April 2013, and can be read at

The poll of American novels was organised by Perfection Learning, and is reported on their web-site at

The picture of Mickey Mouse is from the TV series Disney’s House of Mouse (2001-3). The portrait of Robert Burns in 1787 is by Alexander Naysmith, and is held in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

In the U.K., Animal Aid has recently started a campaign to raise awareness of the mouse, its qualities in nature, and its sufferings in laboratories: see



Nim: the Life of a Chimpanzee

Among the various attempts to persuade chimpanzees or other great apes to use a human language, the most famous or notorious, certainly the most written-about, has been ‘Project Nim’ – the attempt, from 1973 to 1977, by Herbert Terrace at the University of Columbia, to teach the animal whom he originally named Neam Chimpsky to use American Sign Language (ASL).

That name itself was ominous. True, it wasn’t a senseless joke. Terrace, a behavioural psychologist, wished to test Noam Chomsky’s claim that language, as humans used it, was a unique and innate capacity of the human brain. If a chimpanzee, brought up in human society, could learn to converse in some way with humans, that much language at least would be shown to be the product of culture, a learned behaviour. So Terrace named the chimpanzee to show that the project was a challenge to Noam Chomsky. But unfortunately the name also expresses an estimate of value. Like the name ‘Dolly’ for the cloned sheep (see the VERO blog on 29 August, 2016), it makes a joke of the animal’s participation in human affairs. In fact it belongs with the mock-dignity of a chimpanzees’ tea-party. An animal not to be much respected in itself, then, but made over to a human purpose: that was the implication of the name.

Accordingly, it was Neam Chimpsky’s fate to be snatched with unceremonious violence from his captive mother (a ‘breeding’ chimpanzee at Dr William Lemmon’s Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma), pitched into a more or less unprepared human family in New York, and wholly subject for the next four years to the chaotic professional and private interests of whatever people Terrace could find to run the Nim_Chimpskychimpanzee’s education and home life. Most of those people proved devoted and loyal to Nim (as he came to be called) while they stayed with him. It was not so much the difficulties of looking after Nim, though these were great enough, as the instability of the human relationships that caused what Terrace himself calls “the necessity of introducing more and more teachers into his life … The revolving-door manner in which caretakers cycled through Project Nim”. Nim’s so-called “socialization” in fact consisted in a succession of broken homes: a training in delinquency.

Yet during this time Nim rose above his slighting name and its moral implications, and re-characterized it in his own true image, as vital things do (poor Dolly was too unassertive to discredit the joky etymology of her name, as it deserved). The ‘Chimpsky’ disappeared from ordinary use, and the ‘Noam’ reference was forgotten. In fact, discovering Nim as a real and enduring being is the most interesting lesson that Herbert Terrace can be seen to learn during his own account of the project, the 1979 book Nim. Accustomed to pigeons and rats as subjects, creatures which he could with impunity put away in cages and forget when not in use, he found that Nim was a 24-hour phenomenon: “Even more than a human infant [of which Terrace had no experience either], Nim needed constant contact and attention.” More urgently, chimpanzees mature quickly, so that any “unseized opportunity to teach Nim to sign seemed to be an opportunity lost forever.” In practice, Terrace mostly delegated these demands, but even delegating them required time and understanding.

A theme for a comedy, perhaps: harassed scientist taught to live and love by warm-hearted monkey. But in fact the story of Nim was a tragedy. There came a time, unprepared-for like most of what happened during the project, when Nim’s growing strength started to make his vagarious moods a physical danger to his carers (there were several trips to hospital). Both man-hours and funds for the research were becoming scarce, and anyway Terrace now had plentiful results in notes and film of Nim’s communications during nearly four years on which to base his research conclusions. So Nim was indeed put back in his cage: that is, he was sedated, as his mother had been when he was stolen from her, and taken to the place which one writer about Nim (Elizabeth Hess) describes as “a dreary, crowded, woefully inadequate cement prison” – the Institute for Primate Studies from which he had come. Having been taught to regard himself as a human (when asked to sort photographs of chimpanzees and humans, he had put his own picture among the humans), he was thrown back among his own kind and left to start again.

Terrace himself, a more sympathetic man than Dr Lemmon, devoted a chapter of his book to this miserable event. The chapter is somewhat disingenuously titled ‘Nim Leaves’, but it doesn’t shirk the pain and violence involved. After all, such ASL as Nim had learned did not encompass explanations or persuasions. The parting had to be done with a trick:

Nim didn’t realize what had happened until I got up and padlocked the door. He then began to scream and tried to force the door open … Without further ceremony we all walked out of the building. I will never forget Nim’s incessant ear-piercing screams and his look of fear and anger when I abandoned him in his cage.

In the recent documentary film Project Nim (2011) one of Nim’s household who had been present on that occasion still seems tearful when she remembers it: “a nasty thing to do … We coaxed him down there because he trusted us … We did a huge disservice to that soul. And shame on us.”

But Terrace had in preparation what many of his co-adjutors regarded as a further betrayal, this one strictly as a scientist. In his report on the research published in the journal Science in 1979, he argued that Nim had not been using ASL as a proper language at all. Nim had learnt to use many individual word-signs (125 of them by the end), and could use them in combinations of up to four, but there was no good evidence that he was using a syntax to make variable sense of them, still less that he was generating altogether new meanings in such a way. Not just Nim, either. Terrace rejected also the more positive conclusions of previous studies (for instance, the work of Allen and Beatrix Gardner with the chimpanzee Washoe). The title of the article was ‘Can an Ape Create a Sentence?’ The answer which Terrace gave was this: “Apes can learn many isolated symbols (as can dogs, horses, and other non-human species), but they show no unequivocal evidence of mastering the conversational, semantic, or syntactic organization of language.” In short, no.

Terrace did not altogether abjure the romantic possibilities of inter-species communication which his own research seemed thus to have closed off. At the very end of his book, he writes that such communication would be “as exhilarating as receiving a message from outer space”, while to introduce language into the culture of a group of chimpanzees “might provide a priceless glimpse of what life was like at the dawn of human civilization.” But this may have been the licensed rhetoric of a book’s last lines. The question with which he starts the book, whether “humans could take comfort in the assurance that our language made us unique”, had been emphatically answered. Terrace told the New York Times, “Language still stands as an important definition of the human species.”

So it turns out that Nim was not teaching humans to understand a different animal; he was just helping us to take another admiring look at ourselves in the mirror: as Terrace more recently said of Nim, with familiar speciesist condescension, “he should be greatly respected for sharing himself and his abilities in the pursuit of what it means to be human.” No surprise that this last quotation comes from a piece published on a pro-vivisection web-site.

Terrace’s much-publicized conclusions from his research certainly had a baleful effect on other such projects and their chances of getting funds. We may not regret that in itself, but more importantly his conclusions have also helped to keep chimpanzees and the other great apes, and in a queue behind them all the other animals, for that much longer outside the circle of our moral fellowship. And thus a quarter of a century later Oxford’s Professor Colin Blakemore could still be defending the use of great apes in experiments on the grounds that “there is only one very secure definition that can be made, and that is between our species and others.” Nim’s return to prison was, in this sense, wholly emblematic.

As I said, there have been many tellings of the Nim story. The most thorough, apart Nim books copyfrom Terrace’s own account, would be Elizabeth Hess’s Nim Chimpsky: the Chimp who would be Human (2008), the book on which James Marsh’s film Project Nim was based. One of the briefest and most poignant versions was published in the New Yorker in 1976, while Nim was still in ‘education’ at Columbia. The author, Mark Helprin, doesn’t in fact mention Nim by name; it’s possible he had no knowledge of him (though Terrace was good at generating publicity for his research in the media). Rather, Helprin tells the larger story of which poor Nim’s career is an illustration. The title is ‘Letters from the Samantha’.

The captain of “an iron-hulled sailing ship” is reporting to his superiors a typhoon and its troublesome consequences. From that sudden violence in nature, the ship has come into possession of “a large monkey”. The presence of an animal on board is a serious breach of regulations, but unlike lesser creatures, which the captain has from time to time found on the ship and promptly dispatched, this one makes special claims, being “like a man”. Indeed, it was the captain himself who had him rescued. And once he has been fed, the monkey becomes biddable, even friendly. A special “throne” is made for him. But his presence produces disciplinary problems among the crew, and the captain feels that he’s losing his own authority on the ship. Still, he cannot bring himself to order the monkey to be thrown back into the sea: “I brought him on board in the first place.” More than that: the monkey’s personality has had a powerful effect upon the captain: so far from his dominating the animal, “it is I and not the monkey who have been converted, although to what I do not know.” But finally, disregarding the various opinions of his crew (just as Terrace suddenly announced to his staff the end of ‘Project Nim’), and more significantly violating what he himself has learnt, the captain grasps the monkey, subdues his struggles, and throws him overboard to drown. And now he must restore a proper attitude on board the ship. Accordingly, he addresses the crew on the subject of the ape thus:

He is not a symbol. He stands neither for innocence nor for evil. There is no parable and no lesson in his coming and going … He does not stand for a man or men. He stands for nothing. He was an ape, simian and lean, half sensible. He came on board, and now he is gone.



Notes and references:

The book written by Terrace himself is Nim: a Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language (Knopf 1979). Quotations are from the U.K. edition (Eyre Methuen, 1980) pp.97, 108, 5, 127, 202, 226-7, 4.

Quotations from Nim Chimpsky, the Chimp Who Would Be Human, by Elizabeth Hess (Bantam, 2008), are from the 2009 paperback edition, pp.46 and 242 (which quotes Terrace speaking to the New York Times).

‘Can an Ape Create a Sentence?’ appeared in Science, 23 November 1979, vol.206, no.4421, pp.891-902. The full authorship was H.S.Terrace, L.A.Petitto, R.J.Sanders, and T.G.Bever. The recent comment from Terrace (“… what it means to be human”) appeared on the website Speaking of Research, in a ‘guest’ post, 15 August 2011.

Colin Blakemore was quoted in the Independent, 2 June 2006, introducing a Medical Research Council publication which promoted the benefits of experimentation on non-human primates – including, when “necessary”, the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos).

Among other discussions of the Nim story, these two are especially interesting: (1) Peter Singer’s review of the film Project Nim, and the unfriendly exchange between Singer and Terrace which followed it, in the New York Review of Books for 13 October and 24 November 2011; (2) another review of the film, this one a really fine and impassioned piece of writing (it starts with an attack on the name Nim Chimpsky) in the journal Dissent, 17 August 2011, by Benjamin Hale. The Dissent article can be read here:

The short story ‘Letters from the Samantha’, by Mark Helprin, was first published in the New Yorker, 5 January 1976. It has been re-published in Helprin’s Ellis Island and Other Stories (Dell, 1981), and also in the excellent American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks (Dell, 1987), pp.271-82.

The illustrations show Nim washing up, and two book covers: the front of Hess’s book, and the back cover of Terrace’s book Nim, picturing the author and the chimpanzee.

As to Nim’s later life: he stayed at the IPS until 1982, when it began to fail as a paying concern. He was then sold on to somewhere very much worse, New York University’s Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, with its grotesquely inappropriate acronym LEMSIP. After a very public controversy, in which Terrace took a part arguing for special treatment in Nim’s case (other chimpanzees were sold to LEMSIP at the same time and stayed), Nim was taken back to the IPS. In 1983, Nim was sold again, this time to the Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, property of the animal activist Cleveland Amory. This was a wholly benevolent animal sanctuary, but it was primarily for equines, and for a year or so Nim lived a wretched life alone in a cage, a period vividly recorded in the film Project Nim. Then other chimpanzees were brought to Black Beauty, and we can hope that Nim lived a reasonably contented life until his premature death at 26 years of age in 2000.