Scenes from inside the Cruelty Business

The first of the animal-research proposals granted permission by the Home Office in 2020, and now published in its non-technical summaries for that year, is a standard ADME project: that is, testing various products for their absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion by, in, and from the bodies of live animals. In this case the products are mainly agro-chemicals, and the purpose is to assess “the composition of the terminal residue in the animal products (meat, milk and eggs) that will be consumed by humans”. Administration of the chemicals will be “by injection, dermal application, or gavage [direct into the stomach by tube]. The ‘dermal application’ is to provide information for “operator exposure assessments”: after all, when you’re out enjoying the fresh air and tending the fields, you want to be well-informed of “your crop-care product’s toxicological profile”. That last phrase is from among the offers of the company Vivotecnia, one of those which provide these ADME services (more about Vivotecnia later).

Most of this type of animal research is done in order to satisfy regulations in the countries where the products are to be used. Such ‘regulatory testing’ accounts for about one quarter of the experimental procedures conducted each year in UK laboratories, and a much higher proportion of the nastiest of them, the so-called ‘severe’ procedures. The practitioners of it are usually the CRO’s (Contract Research Organisations), which gather their work into great 5-year testing projects for Home Office approval, as in the case above. Some of these CRO’s have been founded by vets, putting their expertise to good use. In fact the UK’s Royal Veterinary College (“The world’s leading vet school”) advertises its own CRO facility, providing “large as well as small animal models” for use in “All stages of pre-clinical and clinical product development . . . within the regulatory and non-regulatory environment.” The illustration to go with this offer of ‘Biotechnical Research and Development’ shows men in suits at a reception; this is business, after all, but, reassuringly, it’s “underpinned by the RVC’s reputation for animal welfare” – a fine thing for a veterinary school to have.

CoeEdenBiotechnologies

But yes, these CRO’s are businesses, and speed and efficiency are what they characteristically promise their clients, rather than the uncertainties and scepticisms of research-science proper or indeed such personal commitment as might go with that. This character of a mass-produced technical service is what the artist Sue Coe suggests with her image of ‘Eden Technologies’ (motto: “Getting it Right from the Start”) in the fiction Pit’s Letter. Eden Technologies! It’s a very well-judged name, being one that’s ever-popular with real biotech businesses or at least their PR agents. In fact only a few weeks ago JHL Biotech (“a global front-runner in biological drug development”) declared itself “excited to announce” a change of name to ‘Eden Biologics’. Sue Coe’s Eden is where Pit, the dog-narrator of the story, has ended up, literally so, along with countless other unfortunate animals. So far from being a Paradise, it’s a hellish place of squalor and cruelty, and indeed Pit says at one point “if we believed in their God, the Devil would look like a human being.” That’s been said before, of course, but some of the more horrifyingly visionary scenes in Pit’s Letter remind us of the many reasons which the twentieth century has provided for saying it yet again (the book was published in 2000). “I walked through past and future, rotten with killing,” says Pit, the ghost who can review it all.

But the grotesque compounding, in Coe’s laboratory scenes, of high technology with filth and slovenly violence, that’s artist’s hyperbole, isn’t it, or at any rate distant history? Apart from anything else, the science would be nearly worthless. Nevertheless, we have to know that it’s both true-to-life and up-to-date. Undercover film, taken between 2018 and 2020 in the Madrid laboratories of Vivotecnia (they of “your crop’s toxicology profile”), has now been published, showing just that same mixture of expensive equipment and physical and moral squalor.

Vivotecnia is a CRO (“researching for you”) that boasts online of its commitment to the “highest standards of animal welfare”. The film shows how little truth there is in that. It’s a sickening thing to watch, rightly classified online as suitable for over-eighteens only. The animals are seen roughly handled, struck, thrown back into their wholly barren cages (“we foster environmental enrichment”, says the Vivotecnia web-site). Individuals are crudely identified with marker pen on forehead or body. Invasive procedures like gavage are conducted with clumsy impatience. Rats are shaken and swung through the air to make them quiescent. There’s blood on the floors. The staff habitually swear at the animals. A background of barking and squealing vocalizes the distress of unseen animals. Worse, there’s deliberate and enjoyed cruelty. Someone draws with marker pen on the genitals of a young monkey being held down for some procedure: “a moustache!” he laughs (the comments of staff are translated in sub-titles). Animals are mocked and taunted, held up for ridicule: “Ha ha ha!” say the sub-titles. It’s scarcely believable, a demonic anarchy.

Vivotecnia is not some rogue company pulled out from the shadows. It was founded in 2000, and is signed up to a whole array of acronymic lab standards and supervisory bodies, both Spanish and international: COSCE, Felasa, OECD, EARA, GLP (Good Laboratory Practice!), and of course EU 2010/63. It’s right in the middle of the contract research scene. Therefore Vivotecnia’s disgrace – for even in the few days since the film was released, the public and official response is certain to ruin it – also discredits all those worthy institutional controllers and protectors of this sort of vivisection. It discredits too all those familiar PR phrases about “state of the art facilities”, “paramount” concern for animal well-being, and “highly qualified” management teams (to use more of Vivotecnia’s examples). The whole collective has had a fall and deserved it. For the truth is that forcing animals to take our risks for us like this, in whatever scientific manner, cannot be done ‘humanely’. It necessarily calls out the worst in human beings. It’s incompatible with human decency to do it or to profit from it in any way.

The film has been published online, with an English commentary, by Cruelty Free International, which also sponsors a petition for the closure of Vivotecnia (at present the company’s licence to trade has been suspended). Please sign it! Both film and petition can be seen here: https://crueltyfreeinternational.org/what-we-do/investigations/toxicity-testing-animals-vivotecnia-spain. Please also note that there are other petitions against animal research on the facebook page of World Day for Animals in Laboratories, as well as information about this year’s events, such of them as are possible, on Saturday 24 April.

Notes and references:

Volume 1 of the Home Office’s Non-technical summaries granted in 2020, published in December, has 235 entries, the first being the one described above. The collection can be viewed here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/non-technical-summaries-granted-in-2020

The Royal Veterinary College (not to be confused with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, an organisation which really does promote and pioneer animal interests) is quoted from its web-site, in particular the pages about contract work: https://www.rvc.ac.uk/business/services-and-facilities/contract-research-services

Pit’s Letter, by the artist Sue Coe, was published in 2000 by Four Walls Eight Windows.

The Vivotecnia web-site (https://www.vivotecnia.com/about-us/), from which the quotations were taken, is now unavailable, owing to “maintenance”.

The Guardian has featured the exposure in two articles, this month, both available to read online: on 8 April at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/08/undercover-footage-shows-gratuitous-cruelty-at-spanish-animal-testing-facility-madrid-vivotecnia, and 12 April at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/12/animal-testing-suspended-at-spanish-lab-after-gratuitous-cruelty-footage

Cynics, Hucksters and Frauds: Welcome to Medical Research!

In the course of Otto Preminger’s film Bunny Lake is Missing, released in 1965, a mother seeking her lost child tries to escape from confinement in a big London hospital. Looking for an exit in the brick-walled basements of the building, she strays into a half-dark room which she then discovers to be full of caged monkeys. It’s a research hospital, therefore, a grotesque touch in the film but a common enough institution, then as now. Another British fiction of that period provides a more thorough, though hardly more amiable, account of such places: the novel by Colin Douglas, with the illuminating title The Greatest Breakthrough Since Lunchtime. The novel’s hero – or rather anti-hero, since his leading interests are drinking and having sex with nurses – is a young doctor (as the author had been), recently qualified and now putting in some years of research (“It’s expected behaviour.”). His topic has been selected for him by his supervisor, the keenly ambitious Dr Rosamund Fyvie; it’s ‘faecal vitamins’. Having done a few hours of half-hearted preparatory reading, Campbell provides a colleague with this sarcastic prognosis of his research career:

After a preliminary survey of the literature, I am now in a position from which I may eventually advance to prove conclusively that faecal vitamins have nothing to do with anything. I could start by proving they had nothing to do with a few important things . . . Then get some PhD students to tidy up the odd little corners, like ‘Bantu diet as reflected in faecal vitamins’ and ‘Faecal vitamins in albino coypus’. My epidemiological group would do prospective cohort studies on how faecal vitamin assay is of no use in predicting who’s going to get appendicitis. And my clinical staff would devote themselves to proving that vitamins had nothing to do with any known form of cancer. You’ve got to be in cancer. That’s where the big money is.

But the research is being paid for by a drug company, and Campbell recalls the old aphorism that “Drug companies don’t give money to pessimists” (i.e. they prefer the sort of attitude suggested in the novel’s title: more of this later). He concludes that Dr Fyvie, who secured the funds, has been able to see possibilities in faecal vitamins: “possibilities, that is, of results and hence publications, by Fyvie and somebody and somebody else and Campbell, leading to greater fame for her, and the nearer prospect of the professorial chair she coveted so much.”

Campbell’s absurd research is at least human-centred (he collects his samples from the hospital’s patients), but his reluctant labours are paralleled by the more dedicated work of an animal-research colleague, “a girl who produced endless publications on mouse prostaglandins as though by a strange compulsion”. Such diligent fixations are still a noticeable feature in the bio-science journals.

Bunny Lake is a crime thriller, The Greatest Breakthrough a comedy or farce, and both of them predate the UK’s Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986. Distorted pictures of the unregenerate old days, then? Unfortunately not: the animals are almost certainly better looked after now, but an up-to-date survey of medical research and hospital life suggests that the human system to which their lives have been made subject is further than ever from justifying that subjection. It comes in a book by a former NHS doctor, Seamus O’Mahony, with the ominous title Can Medicine Be Cured? The Corruption of a Profession.

Much of Can Medicine be Cured? is about medical research and its pathologies. The book doesn’t ever focus on the part force-played by animals in that research, but their involvement is well established early on, when O’Mahony is recalling his own early research stint. The theme of that research – “whole gut lavage” – and its likely value accord well with the fictitious Dr Campbell’s work. As practised on mice, it had been his supervisor’s speciality, and O’Mahony was required to develop the technique for clinical use. His paid helpers at the Edinburgh hospital had been Dougie and Ewan, the two “foul-mouthed technicians from the animal unit”, and he knew that unit and its denizens. There were the mice, of course; O’Mahony recalls the laboratory definition of ‘mouse’: “an animal which if killed in sufficient numbers produces a PhD”. There were also monkeys and, by hearsay, goats. “I managed,” says O’Mahony, “to avoid killing any of these innocent animals”, though he does witness one of the mice being “expertly dispatched” against the edge of the lab bench.

medic

In any case, the gut lavage research and its associated publications “produced little of lasting consequence”. O’Mahony attributes his unfitness for academic medical research to the fact that “although cynical, I was not quite cynical enough.” We are on page 19 here, and the author explores the implications of that dismal explanation in the remaining 250 pages of the book.

The most conspicuous thing about the medical scene as O’Mahony presents it is that it suffers from runaway hypertrophy: drug-based medicine in general, and medical research in particular, have grossly outgrown their useful proportions. And just as what used to be called the ‘military-industrial complex’ has engaged the talents, labours, and commercial interests of countless parties, without (fortunately) requiring a war to justify it, so this “medical-industrial complex” (O’Mahony’s habitual term) is a self-sufficient monster, having no necessity to account for itself in healing:

A medical research laboratory is a factory, which produces the raw material of data. From these data, many things may be fashioned: presentations to conferences, publications in journals, doctoral degrees, successful grant applications, even air miles. What went on in the nearby wards seemed of little consequence.

Yes, publications! These are the stairway to success, and their own proliferation (output of scientific papers apparently doubles every nine years) is part of a pathological symbiosis. With a sure market in medical institutions of all kinds, and unpaid contributors (some journals even demand payment from their contributors), they can be highly profitable enterprises. They were in fact the basis of Robert Maxwell’s one-time great wealth. For their part, researchers need to appear in them as often as possible, for frequency is much easier to notice and to record than quality. Not only individual careers but also grants for further research demand this published evidence. O’Mahony describes some of the techniques for stretching and glamorizing any given amount of work, but of course the most obvious one is fraud. The unhappy case of Dr William Summerlin shows that the temptations (‘incentives’ might be the better word) were already there in the 1970s. He was researching organ transplantation at a New York laboratory, and was found to have fabricated his evidence for the successful grafting of skin and corneas in mice and rabbits. Part of his explanation was this:

Time after time, I was called upon to publicize experimental data and to prepare applications for grants from public and private sources. There came a time in the fall of 1973 when I had no new startling discovery . . .  

O’Mahony doesn’t in fact mention the Summerlin affair, but he doesn’t have to, because fraud of one kind or another has now “become commonplace in medical research.”

Where animals are used, as in Summerlin’s case, fraud is a special kind of abuse, fatally and uselessly involving them in a lie. But there are less actionable kinds of misrepresentation, and one of the natural consequences of over-population in the research scene is what O’Mahony calls “boosterism”. “Real scientists,” he says, “tend to be reticent, self-effacing, publicity-shy and full of doubt and uncertainty, unlike the gurning hucksters [a memorable phrase] who seem to infest medical research.” He reports a calculation that there had been a 25 times increase, between 1974 and 2014, in use of the terms ‘innovative’, ground-breaking’ and ‘novel’ in PubMed abstracts (these abstracts are really as much adverts for the articles as summaries of them). Perhaps even more damaging to good medicine is the sort of collective boosterism which constitutes medical fashion. Here all sorts of interests coincide in pursuit of funds and their own versions of success, including drug companies, “Gadarene researchers” (because “medical research is a conformist activity”), popular paperback writers, patients’ groups lobbying for particular diseases, and professional lobbyists themselves. It’s a matter of chance whether these appropriators of resources will really be of any help in what O’Mahony calls “the mundane business of treating the sick”.

That 25 times increase in boastful phrases (‘ground-breaking’, etc.) is quoted from an article titled ‘The natural selection of bad science’, and the badness of medical science constitutes a sort of refrain in O’Mahony’s book: “the great majority of medical research is a waste of time and money [p.13]. . . Big Science has a Big, Bad Secret: it doesn’t work [53] . . . nearly all papers in medical journals are dross. [92]

But since much of the funding for medical research (about three quarters of it in the case of drug-testing, says O’Mahony) is provided by pharmaceutical companies, wouldn’t they be making sure that most of it was sound and productive? Well yes, productive of medications at any rate. O’Mahony recalls that his own period of research included evaluating a drug to treat coeliac disease, even though there was by then a known effective cure for the condition: a gluten-free diet (which has since developed a profitable hypertrophy of its own). He found no efficacy in the drug, but when he wished to publish his results, the drug company which had financed the trials was unhelpful (remember Dr Campbell’s aphorism about pessimists), and the journal to which he nevertheless submitted his report did not even put it out for peer review.

Nobody wants to be associated with negative results. It’s part of that “natural selection of bad science” that research is sieved in this way, regardless of its quality. When, by contrast, the research behind the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx (research involving African Green monkeys and five other species of animal) was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Merck Pharmaceuticals bought one million reprints of the report for distribution to doctors. That was good for Merck (80 million prescriptions were subsequently written out for Vioxx, before it was withdrawn as unsafe in 2004), and good for the NEJM too, but not good for science or for health. How many drugs, of the very few which do translate successfully from animal-testing to clinical trials, really are good for health? Even such lasting commercial successes as statins – the ideal drug for business purposes, since it doesn’t simply put something right and then depart, like an antibiotic, but indefinitely ‘prevents’ – are of doubtful value unless funds are limitless. In fact preventative medicine, where it means medical interventions rather than sensible diet and life-habits, is helping to push forward what O’Mahony calls “healthism”: the trend towards re-classifying the whole healthy population as at-risk.

Meanwhile, the ordinary doctor in clinic or hospital (as opposed to the medical academics and managers) is caught between this vast and pushy production system on one side, and the information-maddened consumerist patient on the other, as a sort of trading agent: “the medical profession”, says O’Mahony, “has become the front-of-house sales team for the industry.” For the point of healthism is to make a sort of self-run hospital out of each one of us, sick or well: hence the rather sinister title of one of the many books that promote this patient ‘awareness’, The Patient Will See You Now. This decline in the authority of the doctor, the devaluation of his experience and expertise, is the saddest part of the whole bad story for Seamus O’Mahony. But he shows, of course, that the decline is equally a loss for the authentic patient in need of that “mundane business of treating the sick”.

And in the shadows of the book, like the monkeys in Bunny Lake is Missing, are the animals which service this medical colossus with their own health and lives. In the European Union and in Britain, the 1986 legislation has kept their numbers more or less steady, so that they form a shrinking proportion of the giant whole. But elsewhere in the world this is not so. It’s very obvious in the journals, for instance, how much of the animal research is now being done in China, which has indeed overtaken the USA as the world’s most rapacious user of animals for scientific purposes. And for the world as a whole, a meticulous estimate of animals killed for science in 2005 was published some while ago in the journal Alternatives to Laboratory Animals: 115.2 million. When the theme was re-visited more recently, the total for 2015 was put at 192.1 million, an increase of about 65% in ten years.

We now have some idea of how worthwhile that enormous and continuing sacrifice has been.

Notes and references:

The Greatest Breakthrough Since Lunchtime was published by Canongate Publishing in 1977. Can Medicine be Cured? The Corruption of a Profession was published by Head of Zeus in 2019.

Much of O’Mahony’s case was anticipated in Ivan Illich’s Medical Nemesis: the Expropriation of Health, published in 1974 and reissued in 1976 as Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis. In fact Seamus O’Mahony has written an excellent essay about the book, its origins and relevance, in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh in 2016 (it can be read online here: https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/sites/default/files/jrcpe_46_2_omahony_0.pdf.). But Illich was almost absolute in his opposition to modern medicine and its ideology, whereas O’Mahony argues that there was a ‘Golden Age’ of medical discovery between the 1930s and 80s. He believes, however, that the challenges and possibilities of medicine are very different now, and that failure to recognize this is what has allowed Big Science and Big Pharma to become the predators on the public health and purse that he shows them to be. 

Robert Maxwell set up the Pergamon Press as a science publisher at Headington Hill Hall, Oxford, in 1951. When it closed in 1991, it owned about 400 different journals.

The Dr Summerlin affair is discussed in Alexander Kohn’s False Prophets: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine, Basil Blackwell, 1986, pp.76-83.

‘The natural selection of bad science’, an article by Paul Smaldino and Richard McElreath, appeared in Royal Society Open Science 3(9), 2016, online at http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/9/160384.

The calculation of global animal numbers is published in ATLA, 24 February 2020: the authors are Katy Taylor and Laura Rego Alvarez, and it’s accessible online here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0261192919899853. Some of the increase in numbers is attributed by the authors to shortage of information in 2005: i.e. that number was an under-estimate. Many of the countries that practise animal research do not publish numbers, so that calculations cannot be authoritative.

Fun We Had in 2020

Last year was a difficult one for many animal research laboratories (as reported in this blog: see notes below), difficult also for science conferences and other such networking. However, the Concordat on Openness, to which many bio-science institutions subscribe, held its end-of-year awards ceremony and issued its annual report as usual. The ceremony, held online, lacked the familiar prize-day atmosphere, of course, but the report seems as keen and boyish as ever. In fact Covid-19 has had some benefit for the Concordat project of “public engagement”, much of which is an online matter anyway, for as the report says, “One impact of the pandemic has been to increase the perceived relevance of biomedical and health research for the public.”

It’s easily understood. Conversations between grateful patients and the specialists researching their disease have been a common feature of animal research publicity. But now the specialist can address a whole grateful population feeling immediately vulnerable to the disease in question. In fact Understanding Animal Research (UAR), the promotional organisation which runs the Concordat, took early advantage of this “time of national emergency when people are focussed on their health” and commissioned a survey of attitudes to animal research during the first lock-down of 2020. This survey found that 73% of respondents would accept the use even of dogs and monkeys in research towards a Covid vaccine. (The percentage of those accepting their use for medical research in a similar survey two years ago was around 15.) However, since 29% of the same surveyed group (of 1,027 randomized individuals) opposed the use of any species in any research, it’s reasonable to conclude, as UAR admits, that “many people feel conflicted and remain uncomfortable with the idea of animal research.” In fact that percentage of people who object absolutely has changed little over the period of systematic surveys since 2014.

Anyway, the pandemic has meant that something stronger than the ordinary PR term ‘engagement’ was involved during 2020. Accordingly, the key word in the Concordat’s annual report is ‘share’: signatory institutions “share examples of their commonly used species”; they are congratulated for “sharing issues around animal research” or for “sharing stories on this subject”; they have “wonderful web-sites that share their use of animals with the public”. It’s not just a word, either. Three of the four ‘Openness Awards’ for 2020 went to projects which promoted public participation in some version or analogue of animal research.

Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute (the place which gave us Dolly the cloned sheep) had produced a ‘toolkit’ which enables children in school or even at home to carry out experiments using garden worms. The kit is punningly titled ‘Opening a Can of Worms’, because after all this is PR and, besides, animals are fun. But respectful fun, of course, and the judges considered that “this toolkit encouraged sensitivity in working with living animals to study behaviour.” Here, for instance, is the Roslin toolkit’s sensitive account of why it’s important to understand animal behaviour: “Animals give us companionship, help us do work, provide us with food and clothes, and they help us to study diseases and to make new medicines.” It makes you wonder what animals can have found to fill the time with before humans came and put purpose into their lives.

Southampton University likewise won its award for a ‘toolkit’. This one involved creating a mouse from craft materials and devising instructions for its proper care, a rather more appealing scheme, but equally aimed at familiarizing the young to the premise of such care: i.e. the keeping of animals for research. Both of these projects were clearly aimed at children (“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Proverbs, 22). The Mary Lyon Centre’s scheme of participation seems at first to be similarly directed. It’s fronted with a trio of cartoon mice (for the Centre’s business is the generating, archiving and trading of GM mice): they stand on their hind legs, one combing its hair (grooming, you see), the others eating and drinking in human style. We’re invited to “Burrow into the secret lives of mice”. But the purpose is actually a practical one: to get citizen-observers to watch and record the behaviour of mice on film. From their data, an algorithm will be created enabling mice to be supervised and assessed automatically while in their home cages. This is in fact a project for mass participation. The cartoons, puns, etc., are just, I suppose, the ordinary dermatitis of PR.

The fourth award went to Reading University for its publicity about using llamas to research therapies against Covid-19. As recorded in this blog, Reading won an award last year for its llama publicity. At that time, the highlight was an invitation to name a baby llama either ‘Boris’ or ‘Jeremy’. It’s wholly characteristic of the essential disposability of PR that there has been no further mention (or none that I can find) of that animal. The centre of attention this year is called – in much the same facetious spirit – Fifi.

Along with 2020’s emphasis on ‘sharing’, there has been the usual battery of more ex cathedra animal research publicity. The examples provided by signatories include presentations at science fairs, community festivals, schools, clinics, and other public events. Within the institutions, and aimed at staff, students, and any other associates, there have been articles in newsletters, express mentions in interviews and recruitment fairs, citations in reports and policy papers, even “public-facing TV screens across campuses”.

This saturation of publicity is aimed at taking the unpleasant surprise out of the subject, and surely it’s an astute policy and must be to some extent successful. Still, certain aspects of animal research continue to seem, even to practitioners, too unpleasant to advertise, and the Concordat report notes once again (for it candidly does note this every year) that many signatories are showing reluctance to provide “information that might show their research or institution in a negative light.” The report advises them that this is bad policy, and reminds them of “the risks of secrecy”.

The difficulty has very recently been illustrated in the case of Bath University, one of the fourteen ‘Leaders in Openness’ chosen as offering examples of openness to the others (there were 122 Concordat signatories in 2020). For some years scientists in Bath’s Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology have been researching new chemical compounds for use in the treatment of depression. A news story issued by the university itself in 2017, and up-dated in 2019, spoke of “potential new anti-depressant and anti-anxiety treatment with a unique mechanism of action”, whose “promise” was being excitingly confirmed by its “anti-depressant like effects in mice”. The story ends with a reference to the Concordat and Bath’s own commitment to openness on the subject of animals in its research. So yes, it has been open about the involvement of mice, but much less explicit about how they’re being used – that is, in the so-called ‘forced-swim test’.

Forced-swimming_test

This ‘model’ of depression involves putting mice (or, less commonly, rats) into cylinders half-full of water from which they can’t escape, and leaving them to swim or float as they will for a test period of six minutes. The idea is that they swim when they’re feeling optimistic about finding a way out, but they merely float when they aren’t (they don’t sink). A ‘promising’ medication is something that induces the mice to spend a larger portion of the six minutes swimming hopefully. The protocol for this experimental device, first put forward in the journal Nature in 1977, has been fully described and filmed by researchers at the University of Maryland for the Journal of Visualized Experiments. It’s all posted online, so there’s no secrecy about it. Still, it makes unpleasant viewing (despite the curious good humour of the young presenters: “Good luck with your future experiments!” they cheerfully wish us at the end.)

For that reason, no doubt, Bath University seems to have been disconcerted by a complaint about the test from PETA, which included a request to provide material from its own video recordings. The university’s first official ‘Response to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ justified “the research highlighted” without even specifying what it was. After further complaint, it seems that the university must have discussed the matter with UAR and been persuaded to provide a more complete reply, including the requested film clip. There are now, therefore, two ‘fact-sheets’ on the matter offered to public attention: Bath’s own account and, linked from that, a more extended general account, also with illustrative film, provided by UAR.

This is just the sort of defensive flurry that the Concordat report urges its signatories to avoid by arranging for their own material to be “proactively placed in the public domain”. And of course the advantage of being ahead in that way is that the material has a favourable colouring when it first appears; in particular there’s no suggestion of secrecy or embarrassment about it. It’s what the Concordat calls ‘owning the story’. By contrast, the successive responses of Bath University to PETA’s challenge have necessarily seemed defensive and palliative. We’re told, in a video featuring one of the university’s researchers, that those six minutes of struggle or helplessness are “mildly stressful” for the mice (though in fact the procedure is classed by the Home Office’s as having ‘moderate’ not ‘mild’ severity). The pathetic efforts of the mice to escape up the sides of the cylinder are described as “climbing activities”. The intervals of helplessness are called “periods of immobility”, as if a welcome rest is being taken. The inventor of the forced-swim test, R.D. Porsolt, more frankly referred to the immobile phase in 1977 as “a state of despair”.

That’s not a phrase the Concordat managers would recommend these days, I’m sure, but animal research scientists had fewer inhibitions in the 1970s. To publicize the UAR survey in March last year, the organisation’s director, Wendy Jarrett, gave an interview to an online science news service in the course of which she referred to that period as “the bad old days”. She spoke in general with un-strident reasonableness, and claimed that UAR’s aim was (as its name suggests) only to promote understanding of animal research, looking forward to “a time when everyone understands”, not to insist or expect that everyone should “like” it. But by ‘understanding’ she also meant acceptance, and in line with that she quoted the survey in which “some people said ‘just because I accept something doesn’t mean I like it’.” The main thing, then, is to dislike it permissively, or at least quietly. Accordingly, what Wendy Jarrett meant by “the bad old days” of the 1970s was not the uninhibited cruelty and profligacy of the animal research at that time, but the “animal rights extremism”.

That indeed fitted her account of the succeeding decades, which presented the science as a more or less autonomously progressive enterprise: relinquishing the more contentious uses for animals (cosmetics testing, or alcohol research, for instance), commitment to the 3Rs, showing and telling as much as possible to the public. It may be true as a mere narrative, but the plot is missing. What she didn’t make clear was that the explanatory force behind it all has been the dissent. If there hadn’t been active and adversarial ‘dislike’, who can say how little ethical progress would have been made, or what fraction of the UK’s supervising bureaucracy, or of the systematic apparatus of ingratiation such as UAR and its Concordat, would have come into existence? Despite all the tonic publicity now coming out of animal research, it must be remembered that the practitioners do not in fact ‘own’ the subject: it’s in public ownership, and what happens to it will go on depending on how much dislike of it the public feels, and what the public does with that dislike.

Notes and references:

Some of the effects of the pandemic on animal research laboratories were discussed in this blog last April: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/which-crisis/

A fuller account of the Concordat and its influence was given in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/12/13/here-come-the-concordat-folk/.  The 2020 report of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research is online here: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/files/8516/0733/9083/Concordat_on_Openness_Annual_Report_2020.pdf,   and the four awards are reported here: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/communications-media/2020-openness-awards/

PETA’s account of the Bath University affair, dated 1 December, is reported (with a link to a letter of protest) here: https://www.peta.org.uk/blog/bath-university-swim-test/?utm_source=PETA%20UK::E-Mail&utm_medium=E-News&utm_campaign=1220::viv::PETA%20UK::E-Mail::Bath%20Forced%20Swim%20Test%20Blog::::peta%20e-news

An abstract of Porsolt et al’s original paper in Nature putting forward the forced-swim test, and using the phrase “state of despair”, can be seen here: https://www.nature.com/articles/266730a0

Bath University’s initial response to the PETA complaint is posted here: https://www.bath.ac.uk/publications/open-response-to-peta-enquiry/attachments/response-to-peta-19-july.pdf

UAR’s post about the forced-swim test is here: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/communications-media/factsheet-on-the-forced-swim-test/.  The University of Maryland account and presentation can be viewed here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3353513/

Minks, Fishes, Macaques: New Wrongs and Re-newed Remedies

The sudden ‘culling’ of millions of minks in Denmark and other European countries has variously been called, by practitioners in this branch of animal exploitation, “dramatic”, “incredibly sad and shocking”, and “devastating”. It surely is all of these things (except that a scientist shouldn’t be using the nonsense word ‘incredibly’), especially for the minks themselves, but hardly more so this year than any other. Most of the minks will have been losing their lives just a very short time before the allotted span, since only the breeding females are allowed to live for more than a season. The real difference this year is a commercial one. The animals are being destroyed not for profit, but because their crowded indoors life provides ideal conditions for the Covid-19 virus. With so many back-up hosts immediately available, the virus isn’t even penalized for killing its present billet: hence the fear that it may be mutating into something even more virulent.

In fact the word ‘cull’, suggesting a judicious selection, perhaps taken out for the sake of the remaining population, is quite disingenuous here. This is a wholesale slaughter, whose start-to-end wrongfulness is only redeemed minkby the declared intention of some of the countries – Netherlands, Ireland, perhaps others – to prohibit this variety of animal-farming in future. (A current petition on the subject is linked in the notes below.)

To the slaughter on the farms themselves is added a sort of collateral population of minks: the ones being used to trial new and more effective ways of farming and breeding. It’s safe to say that every commercial exploitation of animals has this back-room population serving it. The ‘sad and shocked’ speaker quoted above was in fact thinking of his own team of 6000 or so ‘research’ minks at Aarhus University in Denmark. His work there has been, on the face of it, beneficial to the animals. He studies “the behaviour and welfare of farmed mink, with the aim of giving them a better life as they are raised for fur.” Even so, it’s difficult to think very well of this research. I can’t see that it does more than provide statistical backing for what ought to be the very platitudes of practical husbandry: for instance, that ‘enriched’ cages and gentle handling tend to give the animals confidence, whereas unpleasant events (such as brief confinement in a “small trap”) have the reverse effect, making them nervous and fearful. The conclusions of one Aarhus paper earlier this year were that “we would recommend farmers to (1) avoid negative handling, and (2) if [it’s] necessary to handle mink, to adopt the best possible handling methods.”

Perhaps there’s a bit more to the research than that – more promise of a “better life” for the minks, that is – but there’s also a good deal less. Such research is necessarily good PR for mink-farming, since it allows farmers to use these minimum decencies and claim, as the research itself does, that by doing so they “enhance mink welfare”. ‘Enhance’! So the minks are already doing well; giving them a tube to hide in, and not handling them roughly, constitute a bonus (I can find no mention of the water which these semi-aquatic animals have to do without). It’s not a surprise, then, that the funds for this research at Aarhus University come from sources that include the Danish Pelt Levy Foundation and the trade collective called Kopenhagen Fur (“ensuring the highest standards of animal welfare”).

Then there’s this emphasis on relieving the animals of the sense of fear. It’s a laudable aim, in so far as there’s general agreement that fear is the worst of the common distresses of captive animals. The cattle-slaughter specialist Temple Grandin says, “Fear is so bad for animals, I think it’s worse than pain.” But of course there’s a swindle involved here, for these animals have good reason to be afraid. Their docility, which makes them much easier to handle (and easier also to show in promotional films), is really a trick being played upon them, the wolf dressing up as grandma. The only honourable way to relieve them of fear in this case is to stop being the cause of it.

But of course the history of animal welfarism has largely consisted in managing the symptoms and leaving the essential wrong intact. This is partly what has prompted Dr Gill Langley, a dedicated specialist in non-animal research technologies, to propose in the latest issue of the journal Alternatives to Laboratory Animals that the 3Rs (reduction, refinement, replacement), a classic welfare initiative, have “had their day”.

These three “principles of humane experimental technique” were first put forward in a book of that title written by William Russell and Rex Burch and published in 1959. They have been part of British and EU law since 1986. Their consequences in reduced animal suffering can’t well be measured, but must surely have been very great. The book was re-issued in 2009, slightly revised in order to make it easier for non-English readers rather than because it needed up-dating. In fact the European Union’s “final goal of full replacement”, a commitment of 2010, is already implicit in the book, whose authors say with clear emphasis that “absolute replacement may be regarded as the absolute ideal”. They also, incidentally, devote six pages to research into fear and anxiety – still one of the most ingeniously nasty branches of animal research, and continually renewed in the search for effective, or at least different, tranquillizers and anti-depressants. Russell and Burch showed how such research might be conducted “without at any stage of the process inflicting any fear on the animal.”

But yes, the aim of the 3Rs has always been to minimize the harms of animal research, rather than to put what practitioners would regard as a premature end to the practice. Accordingly the 3Rs address only the welfare of animals, not their rights. And Dr Langley argues that many scientists have little interest even in animal welfare, except as a bureaucratic complication of their work. Outside Europe, in countries where the 3Rs have less or no authority, there’s not even much of a bureaucratic complication for them to bother about. (I notice that a Chinese scientist who studies bats and other animals as disease-carriers is quoted as saying “I don’t like animals”.) To engage the interest and commitment of such people, she proposes that the case should be put in its more positive form: “not replacement methods, but advanced techniques: no longer alternative or humane research . . . but human-relevant and human-specific: not 20th century, but 21st century toxicology.” In short, the 3Rs have “had their day” because animal research itself has: it’s out of date.

If only this were so! But, taking the human relevance first, there’s a whole corpus of research which can’t be human-specific, because, as we’ve just seen, it’s mink-specific or otherwise bat-specific or specific to any of the other species which may catch the scientific or commercial eye.

There’s fish-specific research, for instance, a mushrooming category already reviewed elsewhere in this blog. Unlike the research at Aarhus, very little of this has to do with welfare, and it supports a class of farming, ‘aquaculture’, that is briskly growing rather than, like mink-farming, in decline. Thus a report in last week’s issue of the journal Science, titled ‘Tomorrow’s Catch’, speaks of “dramatic gains for aquaculture” coming from new research. The writer seems dazzled by the numbers and superlatives: whether of fishes, farm sizes, dollars, prospects, they’re all cause for astonishment and congratulation. “Everybody in the field is excited”, says a scientist from Rutgers University. Someone from Hendrix Genetics (“Better breeding today for a brighter life tomorrow”), admiring the newly accelerated growth-rates of farmed salmon, says “My colleagues in poultry can only dream of these kinds of percentages.” And you can be certain they are dreaming of them, and fully intending to make the dreams real at the earliest opportunity.

The point is that there’s nothing in the least ‘20th century’ about the animal research which is hustling fish-farming into its future. An account of the industry recently published in the journal Trends in Genetics makes this clear: already you can throw away your notes on such last-year technologies as ‘transcription activator-like nucleases (TALENS) or ‘zinc finger nucleases’ (ZFN), because they’ve been “largely superseded by the advent of the re-purposed CRISPR /Cas9 system”. The development of the gene-editing technique CRISPR (a.k.a. clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) was the theme of 2020’s Nobel Prize for chemistry. It’s this year’s science. Some of the things about fishes which it will enable silver-pacific-salmonaquaculturists to control are growth rate, colouring, resistance to disease and infestation (crucial, as we’ve seen, in grossly overcrowded populations), sterility (more cost-effective and eases control of the patent), boniness (the aim being to eliminate the little bones that inconvenience consumers), and, to summarize, cash-value. And that last objective, of course, never dates.

But the animal research aimed at illuminating and correcting human physiology is keenly go-ahead in just the same way – using CRISPR itself of course, but many other new technologies too. Optogenetics, for instance: this technology was voted ‘Method of the Year’ by the journal Nature Methods as long ago as 2010, but has been briskly developing ever since. It involves injecting into the brains of mammals (usually mice or monkeys) a virus carrying light-sensitive proteins, so that scientists can then use an implanted light-source to activate particular nerve-cells, and thereby modify animal capacity or behaviour. The final aim is correction of human brain disorders, and there are now more than 66 neurological laboratories in the world that are using monkeys in this sort of experimentation. There will surely be many more soon: one participant in Canada is quoted in Science exclaiming that she “can’t wait to test” some of the newer techniques in optogenetics, and looks forward to “a boom in studies to influence and understand the brain circuits of some of our closest animal relatives.” You’ll notice that the word ‘closest’ is used there for its strictly scientific relevance, free of ethical content: the closer, the more useful.

macaqueThe Science article in question, titled ‘Efforts to control monkey brains get a boost’, is headed with a photograph of a macaque monkey in the wild. I’ve pondered that for a while. Why advertise the contrast? Can some sub-editor be making an ethical point (for the ethics of animal research do sometimes get a mention in this journal)? No, I conclude that the picture simply represents generic ‘macaque’, much as the term ‘mink’ is used as a sort of collective noun, all minks really being fur, whether temporarily on foot or ready-to-wear. Likewise, whether kitted with the optogenetic prosthetics or innocently looking about them in nature, macaques are uniformly brain-carriers, and we’ve set ourselves to get at it: a human-centred predatory project for the 21st century.

In such a setting, the 3Rs can’t be said to have had their day. Outside Europe their day has scarcely arrived. When it does arrive – that is, if ever they form part of the law governing research in all countries – even then there’ll be more for them to do. For there is nothing peculiarly science-specific about the 3Rs; they would apply equally well to any other scene of animal exploitation. Remember in particular that any adequate alternative to animal-use becomes a mandatory ‘replacement’ under 3Rs regulations. The 3Rs would therefore put an end to meat and dairy farming (replacement technology: veganism), to zoos (replaced by nature documentaries), and of course to animal-fur, for which replacements have been available since well before Russell and Burch first published their principles of humane research. When the 3Rs really have done all they usefully can, we shall indeed have a truly human-relevant science, and more largely a fully animal-relevant ethics: in short a humane way of life at last.

Notes and references:

The petition, mentioned above and addressed to the Prime Minister of Denmark, may have come too late now, but it’s here: https://animalpetitions.org/933352/death-is-not-disease-prevention-no-more-culling-of-innocent-animals/

Articles in Science about mink-farming, aquaculture, and optogenetics are in the issues for 13 and 20 November, and 30 October of 2020 respectively. The research paper on mink-welfare, titled ‘Barren housing and negative handling decrease the exploratory approach in farmed mink’, is published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, January 2020, and online here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159119301637?via%3Dihub

An example of a promotional film about mink-farming can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwPsStvktks

The quotation from Temple Grandin comes in her book Animals in Translation, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.189. There is more about Dr Grandin’s work in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/07/07/fitting-them-for-slaughter-the-work-of-temple-grandin-and-others/

Dr Langley’s article appears in the journal ATLA, vol.48 issue 1 supplement, November 2020. It’s a version of an address originally given at the Lush Prize Conference of 2018, and titled ‘The Times They are A-Changin’. The quotation is from p.145. The article can be viewed here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0261192920911340

The 2009 edition of Russell and Burch’s book is edited by Michael Balls and re-titled The Three Rs and the Humanity Criterion (publisher, Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments). Quotations are from pp.36 and 98.

The EU’s “final goal” is thus stated in the Directive 2010/63, part of the preamble at para 10: see
https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A32010L0063

“I don’t like animals” is quoted from an article titled ‘The bat-man tackles Covid-19’ in Science, 2 October 2020.

The article in Trends in Genetics appeared in September 2019, and was titled ‘Potential of Genome Editing to Improve Aquaculture Breeding and Production’. It’s accessible online here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016895251930126X

Fish and fish-farming are the subject of a post in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/our-ancestors-the-fishes/

Life and Times of Moscow’s Street Dogs

The first animal made to orbit the earth was the Moscow street-dog Laika, sent up in Sputnik 2 on 3rd November 1957. There was no plan to bring her back alive, and in fact she died even sooner than intended, for after a short time her capsule over-heated. The contraption with Laika’s corpse inside continued to circle the earth hundreds of times, until its scorched remnants fell to the ground in the following April. A cinematic impression of that journey is the starting-point of the film Space Dogs, conceived and directed by Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter, and just recently released. The sombre Russian voice of the narrator (very sparely used during the film) speaks of a “legend” that the ghost of Laika “has roamed the streets of Moscow ever since.”

If that seems a whimsical sweetening of an unpleasant fact, the film soon corrects it. Even for a ghost, returning to those streets wouldn’t be much of a home-coming. Not just is the life there hard and unwelcoming; the film makes painfully clear that home, for these dogs, simply means elsewhere. They are never wholly at rest, always quick to move on, always looking for something other than what’s immediately there. Even when there’s food of some sort, they seem only half-attentive, convinced that it’s not what they’re really after. They tend to congregate in pairs or groups, but their relations with one another look fragmentary and unserviceable. This life on the streets seems like a dogs’ version of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.

SpaceDog in car

The point is unhappily instanced in the already-notorious scene where a dog, the one whom the camera is mainly interested in, catches a young cat. It takes more than a few moments for the dog to kill the cat, with intervals of inattention. A half-hearted attempt is made to tear and eat the body, but then the dog loses interest. (This is all very hard to witness; if you watch the film, you may like to know that it occurs between minutes 26 and 32.) He doesn’t seem to know why he caught the cat, except that the cat was trying to get away.

It’s a scene which allegorizes the street-dog situation. Elsa Kremser says, by way of justifying the inclusion of such a painful episode, “It was important to show it, to show the wildness of these animals”, but it shows rather the reverse. These dogs are only vestigially hunters; they evolved away from their wolf-genome millennia ago, choosing or being chosen to make terms instead with the human way of life. In fact they exchanged their birthright of autonomy for a mess of pottage, as Jacob persuades Esau to do in Genesis 25, and with similar simplicity of judgement and unhappy results. And now on the streets of Moscow, as in other cities across the world, we see them deprived even of the pottage. The true ghost, then, is surely the ghost of that birthright deal; that’s what haunts them. It’s the half-glimpsed thing they’re continually looking for.

Into this wreckage of domestication came the Soviet space scientists, in their military trucks, catching dogs and measuring them to see if they would fit into a capsule, for they believed that the harsh life of the streets produced animals well-hardened for the vicissitudes of space-flight. The dogs were taken, says the narrator, “to a secret place far, far from the city gates” where further selection took place. At this point we are shown hundreds of today’s dogs in a kennels of some sort – standing in, presumably, for those 1950s cohorts. These must be strays, but they appear very much more animated than the dogs on the street, barking and ramping behind their wire-netting, urgently seeking to be noticed. Perhaps the catching and penning has aroused their expectations, reviving something of that old species symbiosis.

Well, if that was how it did indeed feel to the space dogs, the film shows how wrong they were. Their situation was in fact wholly servile, obedient to “the commands of a mighty king”, as the narrator says – more simply, to the whims of a predator, who happened not to want to eat them. What he did want is shown in Soviet archive footage from the 1950s. We see the space dog in prepchosen dogs trained to endure the forces of rocket propulsion, surgically fitted with sensors and other prosthetics, and finally sent up to try out for us the horrors of the journey itself. One or two are shown shakily resuming life on earth.

Although this archive film has never been shown before, it was evidently taken for publicity purposes. Some of it shows procedures which must have caused pain and distress, but there is no obvious impatience or rough Space dog science pichandling. The shots of the journey itself look terrifying but are hard to interpret. In fact this must all be viewed as censored material. As to what happened to the unselected dogs, we don’t know. Presumably they were directed into other and less picturable bio-science researches. Perhaps that is what those modern dogs in their cages are really waiting for. A review in the Guardian reasonably complains that we should have been told more, that these “unspeakable acts are presented without comment or context.” But it’s really the special motive of Space Dogs to keep human interpretation, even human comprehension, to a minimum. Elsa Kremser says of the street-dogs, “we realised we always think of them in relation to our world . . . But we don’t know their perspective! We wanted to find out what they think about our world.”

It’s this aim, unfulfilled as it’s doomed to be, that determines the visual and moral character of Space Dogs. Apart from the space-research footage, the film inspects the world at the height and bidding of the dogs, and at late or very early hours of the day (what Levin Peter calls “their time”). Humans are most immediately pairs of legs, striding off nowhere, or lounging space dogs picunpredictably, occasionally lunging out, occasionally bringing food or water. In themselves, these humans make little sense, loitering or gyrating round their garish lights and sounds, leaving their junk about (cars, balloons), but still the dogs are drawn to their vicinity; here if anywhere their own lives, it seems, will find their purpose. The film scrupulously refrains from suggesting what that might be. There’s no story-line here, no contrivance of any sort (though some editing of course there must have been). Accordingly, although there are longueurs (the Waiting for Godot effect), it’s an instructive and honourable film.

And if not a story, there is a sort of prospectus. The last scene shows some very young dogs, perhaps puppies. Someone apparently puts poison out for them, but one of them survives. Survival is all that’s required. So on it will go, the clumsy and shockingly costly re-casting of nature which has been our great gift to this world, and also, as poor Laika had to pioneer it, our absurdly hubristic proposed gift to such other parts of the universe as we can get at.

Notes and references:

For more about Laika and other animals used for space research see a former post in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/to-boldly-make-them-go/.  The special element of treachery involved in research using dogs is very finely dramatized in Richard Adams’s novel The Plague Dogs, discussed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/the-plague-dogs/

Space Dogs has won a number of awards, as detailed on the Raumzeitfilm web-site, where there are also details of its release and distribution: https://www.raumzeitfilm.com/film/en-spacedogs.  The film was released on the membership film-streaming service MUBI this month, and some interesting pages are devoted to it here: https://mubi.com/films/space-dogs-2019

Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter are quoted from an interview with Cineeuropa here: https://cineuropa.org/en/interview/376799/

The Guardian review, with a foolish punning title, was published on 10 September and can be read here: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/sep/10/space-dogs-review-cosmic-canine-mission-lacks-gravity

Pimping for Farmers

The feast of St Francis of Assisi on the fourth of next month will also be World Animal Day, “an international day of action for animal rights and welfare”. It’s good to see that this anniversary is noticed and promoted in one of the UK Parliament’s Early Day Motions, the one numbered 696. Although these EDMs rarely turn into actual parliamentary debates, they usefully publicize the concerns and special interests of the groups of MPs who sign them. So far, just 23 MPs have signed this EDM 696, but it was only posted in July, immediately before Parliament’s summer recess. In its final words, the EDM “encourages everyone to show their support for animals in the lead up to and on World Animal Day itself.”

Quite puzzlingly, six of these same MPs have also signed EDM 686, titled ‘Pig genomes decoded’, which takes a wholly opposite view of how we should relate to animals. The purpose of this EDM is to congratulate Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute on its part in establishing “the whole genetic make-up of pigs”. This is an achievement which will “enable more accurate use of gene-editing technologies to develop pigs with desired characteristics”; it will also “enhance biomedical research in which pigs are used as models to study human health”: two new ways of not showing support for pigs, then. The work was a collaboration involving “40 scientists from 15 laboratories in the UK and US”. It was led by Roslin in the UK and, in the US, by the Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Nebraska, part of the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS for short: readers may enjoy recalling that the research establishment featured in Richard Adams’ novel The Plague Dogs has the initials ARSE).

Roslin itself is a ‘meat-animal research centre’, but it avoids the crudely definite  word ‘meat’ in its publicity. Habitually it uses some variety of the collocation “animal and human”, as if we’re all in this together. Thus its declared mission is “to enhance the lives of animals and humans through world-class research in animal biology”. MARC isn’t nearly so tactful: its more expansive mission statement speaks of “high priority problems for the US beef, sheep, and swine industries . . . efficiency of production . . . a lean, high quality, safe product . . . the production and agri-business sectors . . . improving animal production.” There is no mention of animal welfare or animal health, still less any reference to that dangerously evocative theme “the lives of animals”. And this establishment, with which Roslin has been collaborating for at least ten years, has indeed no tradition of interest in animal welfare. As one of its scientists said in response to a complaint that the pigs were being over-crowded, it’s a “non-issue”.

The implications of this attitude were thoroughly exposed a few years ago in the New York Times by Michael Moss (the journalist who had made public in 2009 the true nature of ‘pink slime’ as a constituent in processed meat). He described in particular the various MARC projects aimed at increasing the profitability of cows, pigs, and sheep as procreators, and the consequences in animal suffering. There was the failed Twinning Project for cows, which force-raised the incidence of twin births, even triplets, but also dramatically raised the proportion of frail, deformed, or dead offspring, and created nightmare scenes at parturition, a hard enough business when only one calf has to be brought out (the Center pursued this project for 30 years before giving up). Then there was “pasture lambing”, a project to breed ewes who would produce and care for their lambs alone and unaided (no costly husbandry required!) wherever in the widespread Center lands they happened to be. Deaths of these purposely neglected new-borns – from starvation, hypothermia, predation – were up to three times the normally expected number. In the case of pigs, various gruesome operations on the wombs and ovaries of sows were tried, as a means to increase the numbers of piglets born and the frequency of pregnancy; for, as the pig-research company Agriness says by way of cajoling insufficiently ruthless farmers, “The difference between what could have been produced by every sow and what was actually produced means money lost . . . What about you? Do you know the productive potential of the sows on your farm?”

It may be that animal welfare at the Meat Animal Research Center has improved a little since 2015, the year of the New York Times exposé. There is now at least an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, in line with other research establishments, though farm animal research is largely exempted from the regulations of the Animal Welfare Act which governs research practices in the USA, a fact of which the MARC has for years been taking full advantage. There is new accommodation for the pigs, albeit a grim concrete-floored barn with no sign of straw or of anything for the pigs to do except loiter. But a photograph on the MARC web-site proudly shows 13 or 14 piglets suckling a sow (the natural number in a litter would be about ten). They’re all on a metal grid.

In short, there’s been no change to the conception of science as force which animates this institution. After all, as its sponsor-establishment ARS says, food-production is “a continual evolutionary battle of humans versus insects, mites, viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes and contaminants.” So it’s a war, and science is our weaponry. (Aptly enough, the land on which MARC operates formerly belonged to the military, which mainly used it as an ammunition storage site.)

Accordingly the research on reproduction being conducted there is altogether invasive in its thinking and practice. It includes the study of “factors that influence puberty, estrus, sexual behaviour, ovulation, fertilization, implantation, embryonic and fetal mortality, parturition, and early post-natal mortality”. The hands-on, or hands-in, “research efforts”, we’re further told, “involve regulation of follicular and testicular development, ovulation rate and sperm production, embryo and fetal relationships with uterine function, and identification of quantitative trait loci in both cattle and swine.”

This grotesque rummaging in the generative organs of animals makes the old-fashioned trade of pimping seem a healthy and life-enhancing activity. MARC says that its research into reproduction “includes both sexes”, and this is true of the practitioners as well as the practised-upon. Both men and women do this work: it’s hard to know which is the uglier concept.

Anyway, supposing one needed enlightening on this point, it’s clear that the attitude towards farm animals which Ruth Harrison challenged all those years ago in her book Animal Machines (1964) lives on in good health and funds. More than that, its scope is constantly expanding. In the UK there is going to be a Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Livestock, which will provide funds from government and industry for “state-of-the-art facilities” at several research institutions. For Roslin this will make possible a new Large Animal [note, not ‘meat animal’] Research and Imaging Facility. This will represent (so its media staff say in their PR frenzy) “a quantum leap in infrastructure available to the animal sciences innovation pipeline in the UK”. Roslin will also be able to set up an Informatics Hub, which will propagandize and train farmers and others “in their delivery of genomic improvement”. The ARS publication Transforming Agriculture (2018) shows equivalently grandiose ambitions for the USA.

It’s a common defence of animal research that it accounts for a very small number of animal lives compared to meat-eating. For instance, the organisation Speaking of Research, by way of introduction to the recently published 2019 UK statistics, puts chicken and fishes at 90% of the total, cattle, sheep, and pigs at 1%, and medical research at 0% – meaning, I suppose, invisibly few. (Most of the remainder is wild-life killed by cats, another frequently cited point of comparison, though how it helps to justify animal research is unclear.) But that 91% has itself been a product of animal research. As Ruth Harrison wrote in Animal Machines, her 1964 study of industrial farming, “every batch of animals reaching market is a sequel to another experiment or part of an experiment.”

Nor can it be said that the research is merely corrective of problems, making an existing unpleasant practice more efficient; as we’ve seen, it’s much more ambitious than that. The leader of the pig genome project at Roslin, Professor Alan Archibald, is quoted in Farmers Weekly (4 July) as follows: “Pork is the most popular of all meats [really?] and, with a growing global population, we need to improve the sustainability of food production.” In so far as this non-sequitur means anything, it expresses the intention of promoting pork in the world’s diet. And in other projects Roslin likewise promotes other meats, including chicken and fish (as aquaculture).

To claim that animal research uses comparatively few animals is therefore humbug. It is present and instrumental at the conception, birth, expedited growth, and premature death of all the billions of animals accounted for by industrialized agriculture. I know that it’s been said in this blog often before, but this is one of the most culpable tragedies of animal research, that it is thus constantly and aggressively shoring up a diet which we now know very well is bad for the health of humans, bad for the planet, and bad for the animals, wild as well as confined, who have to pay for it with their lives.

I wish that EDM 696 had mentioned some of this (EDMs are allowed up to 250 words). It should at least have included the word ‘vegan’, last used with ethical purpose in an EDM twelve years ago. Still, such as it is, please write and tell your MP to sign it!

Notes and references:

The aims and events of World Animal Day this year are described here: https://www.worldanimalday.org.uk/. The Early Day Motions can be seen at https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/57220/world-animal-day and at https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/57211/pig-genomes-decoded.

The Roslin Institute mission, and information about its new facilities, are quoted from its web-site here: https://www.ed.ac.uk/roslin. The cloned sheep Dolly was another Roslin achievement, featured in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/remembering-dolly-the-sheep/

MARC (full name the Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center) is quoted from its web-site here: https://www.ars.usda.gov/plains-area/clay-center-ne/marc/. Its research into reproduction is featured at https://www.ars.usda.gov/plains-area/clay-center-ne/marc/rru/

The New York Times article of 19 January 2015, titled ‘U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit’, can be read online here: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/20/dining/animal-welfare-at-risk-in-experiments-for-meat-industry.html?_r=0

Agriness is quoted from its web-site here: https://www.agriness.com/en/piglets-2/

The Agricultural Research Service’s publication Transforming Agriculture was published in 2018 as its ‘2018-20 Strategic Plan’. The quotation about “a continual evolutionary battle” is taken from p.6, and the whole thing can be read here: https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/00000000/Plans/2018-2020%20ARS%20Strategic%20Plan.pdf

Ruth Harrison’s Animal Machines is quoted from the 2013 edition (CAB International), pp.37-8.

The article in Farmers Weekly about the pig genome project can be accessed here: https://www.fwi.co.uk/livestock/pigs/medical-breakthrough-could-help-farmers-breed-healthier-pigs.

Killing with Kindness

Those who like the idea of a more “welfare-friendly approach” to the annual slaughter of eight and a half million or so of the UK’s pigs in early childhood (approx. 24 weeks old), will be pleased to know that a project with just that aim in view is among those recently made public by the Home Office in its non-technical summaries of research projects licensed in 2018. The idea is to determine whether ‘low atmospheric pressure stunning’ (LAPS) might be a more acceptable method to the pigs than the more familiar carbon dioxide gas, as a preliminary to being slaughtered. The “behavioural and physiological responses” of the test animals to these alternatives will be compared: “meat quality” too, because of course the pigs aren’t being slaughtered just for their own comfort.

I was thinking that a really welfare-friendly approach worth considering would be not to kill them at all. But that just shows my sentimental amateurism, for as Project 322 (‘Physiological biomarkers of poultry welfare’) warns us in its preamble, “We should not assume that, just because humans might not like certain conditions, chickens would respond accordingly.” The scientists engaged in this project will “implant electrodes into the brains” of their chickens and then study the activity “in brain areas that are known to process emotions” while the birds are experiencing “stimuli” both positive and negative. Interestingly enough, the scientists seem to have a pretty good idea of which will be which, just as you or I might mistakenly suppose that we have, but then they and their fellow-professionals have been doing this sort of work for decades (a point I shall return to later). Meanwhile, Project 157 will be taking this line of research even further with its proposed “autonomous platform for data-collection in poultry sheds”, a device that will actually share the scene with the hens and provide information about it, including “bird condition”. With what may be intended for a touch of humour (I’m trying not to assume anything, even about how scientists think), the device is called ‘Robochick’.

Back with the pigs and Project 291: here too we mustn’t assume we know what they like (or not), even though LAPS, or at any rate the sort of fall in air pressure and oxygen that it uses, is apparently “reported as not unpleasant or painful to humans experiencing similar rates of decompression.” Therefore the pigs will be able to show their preference, having been trained “to indicate that they want to leave a situation”. Of course it will prove a somewhat pathetic accomplishment for them, since any wish they may indicate to leave their fatal situation won’t in practice be granted; all the pigs will be killed as a necessary part of the procedure. That’s 300 of them, admittedly a tiny number compared to those annual millions in slaughterhouses. The same is true of the chickens in their two cohorts of 100 and 1500. The 100 will be “humanely killed”; the 500, after their time with Robochick, will go to commercial slaughter at the usual 39 weeks old – a life-span nearer to that of the house-fly than to their own natural expectation.

Almost certainly these animals will have enjoyed better conditions than are the lot of the ordinary farm animals whose lives they are being used to mimic and supposedly to improve. In fact one of the cases of ‘non-compliance’ recorded by the Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU) in its report on animal research in that same year (a report just now published) shows this to be so: under the heading ‘Failure to provide adequate facilities’, it notes some research during which “commercial standard facilities and transport were used for cattle regulated under ASPA [the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986].Accordingly a ‘letter of reprimand’ was sent, and re-training and re-inspection prescribed.

So they get a better deal in the laboratory than on the ordinary farm. That’s not saying much, certainly, but we can know little about what the farm deal commonly is (as opposed to what the official regulations for it are), since the system of inspection for farms is a sort of anarchy in comparison to the one which ASRU administers. At least five different branches or agencies of the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs are responsible for different aspects of agriculture. Responsibility for animal welfare is shared between APHA (the Animal and Plant Health Agency) and local authorities, both of which have many other things to worry about even on farms. It’s not even known for certain, by these authorities, how many farms there are in England. At any rate only a small fraction of the total farming activity is officially visited in a year, and when animal welfare is given special attention it’s usually in the commercial sense of that phrase (i.e. fit for food), so that the concern is with communicable diseases like TB rather than with humane treatment (another phrase whose special professional meaning differs from ordinary usage). The statistics are available for no year more recent than 2016, but in that year APHA visited only 372 of about 56,000 pig farms, and only 164 of the 27,000 broiler chicken farms.

It’s in order to boost and streamline this chaotic and inherently cruel farming ‘industry’ 45. abattoirthat research projects of the kind described above are funded. It may be better in the lab than on the farm, and certainly those submitting the projects for licence are always keen to highlight any advantages their research may have for the farmed animals in their sights. Still, the essential aim for both lab and farm is to get as many animals as possible to the point of sale in profitable condition – or as Project 44 (vol.2), ‘Nutrition of poultry’, puts it in its own vague yet steely dialect, to “reduce sub-clinical growth performance issues.”

Getting the right food through these farm animals – or rather “determining efficiency of nutrient utilization” (Project 44 again) – is indeed another noticeable theme in these project summaries; also, of course, protecting the animals from disease. Here, the farming of fish seems to be an especially promising field for study. Project 165 proposes to cultivate sea-lice on its colony of fish, in order to “supply them [the lice] into a range of research projects directed at improving salmon health.”  The long-term aims here are “to reduce the suffering of farmed salmon due to sea-lice [animal welfare, you see], and increase the supply for human consumption.” The main point is that, as another project summary (no. 253) exclaims, diseases of fish represent “an enormous threat to food production through aquaculture.” That the aquaculture itself may constitute the disease threat is not a paying research proposition, or so these research summaries seem to show.

As published by the Home Office, the non-technical summaries (NTS) are no longer grouped by subject of interest, as they used to be, but appear in two online ‘volumes’, covering a total of 2400 pages. I have picked out a few of the farm-related projects, but of course there are many other recurring themes. One of them is human obesity, and the associated condition diabetes. As one such project (no.269) explains, “There is a huge clinical need for this research because of the global epidemic of obesity and diabetes.” (“enormous threat”, “huge clinical need”: if these seem surprisingly unscientific hyperboles, remember that the writers are aiming to justify their use of animals). That “global epidemic” is no doubt itself farm-related, like some others of the diseases featuring in these NTS, in the sense that it’s causally related to the diet being promoted in such research projects as we’ve already been viewing. Feeding mice and rats grossly unsuitable obesity-generating diets will of course produce knowledge, perhaps even publishable knowledge. If it seems unlikely to do anything actually to correct the epidemic, well, these are biomedical scientists, not epidemiologists or sociologists, still less politicians. They have their special corner in the problem, and will work it assiduously while permitted to do so.

And indeed there they always are, coasting in the slipstream of every hazardous novelty in our way of life (as well as pioneering a few of their own): late-age reproduction, nanotechnology (Project 132 welcomes nanotoxicology as “a fast-growing science discipline”), new chemicals, new medicines. Yes, even licensed medicines themselves, because these generate their own studiable problems: “self-poisoning with medicines (‘attempted suicide’) is responsible for 10% of all medical presentations to hospital in the UK. It’s a sad and shocking statistic, though its precision is somewhat illusory, depending as it does on the obscure phrase “medical presentations”. The quotation is from Project 66, which proposes to study a whole range of poisons (using anaesthetized pigs), including organophosphorus insecticides (OP). What, haven’t these already done the rounds of the laboratories? Certainly, but former research didn’t “mirror what happens in people. The OP has been given in the wrong form and by the wrong route.”

Here surely the tears come into one’s eyes. There need be no end to this fatal mass through-put of animals. Not just new ways of life, new products, new diseases, but new “forms” and new “routes” to rejuvenate research already done however many times. And as we’ve seen, animal welfare itself is a topic open to limitless research; whole departments and careers are devoted to it.

About 150 years ago, the Oxford zoologist Edwin Ray Lankester predicted that vivisection would increase geometrically, each study producing multiple new questions for yet more animals to be required to answer. The prediction proved correct for much of the intervening period. It’s no longer true, at least in the UK, largely because opposition has steadily challenged it in ways now partly incorporated in law and in such agencies as the Animals in Science Regulation Unit. But the practice isn’t shrinking, and these NTS show why.

I say that the challenge to vivisection is incorporated in ASRU and other official organisations, but abolitionism is not. The European Union directive which has provided the ideological setting as well as the regulations for animal research in member states since 2010 does indeed look on those regulations as “an important step towards achieving the final goal of full replacement of procedures on live animals.” UK politicians have promised to carry over, after Brexit, all the standards specified in EU law, but this larger sense of purpose is something which they may not be intending to include. At any rate, when the Green MP Caroline Lucas put it as a parliamentary question to the Home Office minister a couple of years ago, whether that aim towards full replacement would be “fully reflected in domestic law”, the answer, in so far as it yielded any information on the subject at all, seemed to be ‘no’.

That answer was very probably drafted for the minister by ASRU itself. ASRU is an impressive bureaucracy in its way, active in promoting ‘compliant’ practice and (as far as this is ever possible to know) unsecretive. But it manages things as they are, with no ideological direction. As its 2018 report says, “Unlike many government regulators ASRU does not operate for the express purpose of achieving a product to be delivered.” I only wish it did.

On the contrary, however, ASRU seems to regard abolition as an aim likely to compromise sound judgement on questions of lawfulness and cruelty in animal research. We can notice this in the occasional special reports which it issues on particular serious cases. Of the five so far published, three arose out of exposés and complaints made by animal protection organisations. None of these complaints was subsequently endorsed by ASRU investigators (though various sorts of ignorance and negligence were in fact found and dealt with), and in two of the reports the reader is told, by way of caveat, that the complainant group “is committed to ending animal experiments.” But that commitment is surely the native logic of the 3Rs (reduction, refinement, replacement), the promoting of which is part of ASRU’s brief: if saving some animals from experimentation is an agreed good, then saving all of them must be even more so. Why not admit it? They don’t have to fix a date, though after my tour of the 2018 non-technical summaries I would suggest today.

Notes and references:

A more general account of the non-technical summaries was given in this blog in a post titled ‘If You Poison Us, Do We Not Die?’, here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/if-you-poison-us-do-we-not-die/  The summaries submitted in 2018 and discussed above can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/non-technical-summaries-granted-in-2018

Likewise, a more general account of ASRU was posted in this blog under the title ‘Policing the Lab’: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/03/30/policing-the-lab/  ASRU’s report for 2018 was published this month, and can be read here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/887289/Animals_in_Science_Regulation_Unit_annual_report_2018.pdf  Quotations are from pp.37, 24, and 10.

The special ASRU reports are posted online here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/compliance-investigations-by-the-animals-in-science-regulation-unit The quotations are from reports A7(1) and A8(1), published March 2015 and September 2014.

As to regulation of agriculture, a thorough and well-written report on the subject, with many very good reform proposals in it, was commissioned some while ago and published in December 2018 as Farm Inspection and Regulation Review: see https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/764286/farm-inspection-regulatio-review-final-report-2018.pdf   The figures given above for pig and poultry inspections come from DEFRA’s publication On-farm welfare inspections 2016, online at https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/animal-on-farm-welfare-inspections-in-great-britain.

Edwin Ray Lankester was a student at Oxford, and at later times a tutor and, in the 1890s, professor there. His main interests were in evolutionary biology and comparative anatomy. He used vivisection in his teaching and research at Exeter College in the early 1870s, and he championed it in principle, partly because it represented for him, as it did for many of his fellow-professionals, an assertion of the authority and autonomy of science. I’m afraid that I’ve lost for the moment the reference for his statement about the future of vivisection.

The “final goal” spoken of in EU Directive 2010/63 comes in the pre-amble, at para 10: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A32010L0063

Caroline Lucas’s written question, formally to the Secretary of State at the Home Office but answered with the signature of the minister then responsible for animals in science, Ben Wallace, was dated 18 June and the reply 26 June, 2018. Later that year, an ‘Explanatory Memorandum’ for the EU Exit Regulations as they affect the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 stated that implementing the 3Rs “will contribute to the final goal of full replacement of procedures on live animals for scientific and educational purposes as soon as it is scientifically possible to do so, which was an aim enshrined in Directive 2010/63/EU.” This is at least an acknowledgement of that EU goal, though not quite a transposition of it. See para 7.4 here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5bb24a2f40f0b62dc1451ac9/01_10_18_-_ASRU_EM_-_EM_Template_07.2018.pdf

The wood-cut ‘Abattoir’ is from The Vegan Animals’ Manifesto by the artist and activist Sue Coe: see https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/the-vegan-animals-manifesto-by-sue-coe/

Animal Research in China

The Chinese government does not like or accept the orthodox view that the Covid-19 virus first infected humans at an animal market in Wuhan. Even a much vaguer formulation, referring to “the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, was notoriously excised by the China Daily newspaper from an otherwise cordial article signed by the European ambassadors in Beijing. Still less does China officially countenance the suggestion that the virus was an escapee from Wuhan’s Institute of Virology.

This last is not an explanation that convinces many scientists outside that country either, but for China it’s especially objectionable. A recent announcement by Beijing’s Science and Technology Commission, taking a quick survey of modern history, noted that “Nations that led the most revolutionary scientific advancements . . . became global leaders in industry, commerce, and culture.” Global leadership in these and other areas of international life is patently China’s aim, so naturally the country “strives to be a superpower in innovation.” Biomedical research is an important part of this project,

CHINA-HEALTH-VIRUS

and the laboratory at Wuhan has been one of its early manifestations. The National Bio-Safety Laboratory there is the first of an intended series of institutions working at the highest internationally agreed level of bio-safety, BSL-4. When the lab was completed, in 2017, a report in the journal Nature reflected in its style something of the heroic swagger of the project: “Chinese microbiologists are celebrating their entrance to the elite cadre empowered to wrestle with the world’s greatest biological threats.” A leading Chinese microbiologist was quoted: “The world is facing more new emerging viruses, and we need more contribution from China.” Irony and coincidence: we shouldn’t be surprised that China is doing what it can to keep them from spoiling the shine on its research facility at Wuhan, and on the larger science project which it represents.

It’s not simply a matter of national pride. That announcement quoted above was part of a closely-printed 4-page ‘advertorial’ in the American journal Science on 1 May; another one, with a different text, appeared in the next issue. Both were positioned immediately after the journal’s own editorial: that is, not among the adverts at beginning and end, but as part of the reading matter. Their express purpose, thus lavishly funded, is to attract “foreign experts” either to collaborate in the research or to set up their own research establishments – in this case in the Beijing area, but other cities and provinces are equally eager. It’s being made as easy and attractive as possible for the experts to do so, with special visas, plentiful research grants, even suitable schools “public or private”. And the high-powered welcome is very acceptable to Western scientists. “This place just makes things happen quickly”, says an MIT neuroscientist whose work is becoming trans-Pacific accordingly. A fellow-professional in that discipline is making a complete re-location to the city of Hangzhou in order direct a laboratory built to her specifications, and feels likewise liberated from impediments: “Once the decision is made, you can start writing cheques.” Cheques, that is, for staff, for equipment, and, of course, because it’s neuroscience, for animals.

So it’s not just the grants which come easily; it’s the animals, and particularly the large animals. One of the planned BSL-4 laboratories, to be built near Kunming in Yunnan province, south-western China, will be specifically for primate research, but already that province is a noted centre for such work. The Yunnan Key Laboratory, which the journal Nature calls “a Mecca for cutting-edge primate research”, specializes in editing the genes of monkeys (of which it has a colony of something over 4000) to produce models of human neural diseases. The “dream” of its director, apparently, is “to have an animal like a tool” for making biomedical discoveries with. Then there’s the Kunming Institute of Zoology, whose director of primate research hopes to develop a colony of 5000 monkeys; his dream is to run the place “like a hospital, with separate departments for surgery, genetics and imaging.”

These are dreams that many researchers in Europe and the USA evidently share, but difficulties with funds and ethics tend to prevent them from realizing the dreams in their own countries. One such, Professor Nikos Logothetis of the Max Planck Institute for cloned monkeysBiological Cybernetics in Tübingen, was recently in the news announcing his intention to move to a centre for primate brain research in Shanghai. (The centre is part of a biomedical research complex which has recently produced the five monkeys pictured here on the right, gene-edited and cloned to suffer sleep-disorders. To produce these five survivors, 325 embryos were planted into 65 surrogate mothers.) Characteristically, the Shanghai centre is in process of being built; China’s science, vast as it may already be, is dwarfed by its own future. There will be 6000 or so non-human primates available there. “Scientifically it’s incredible”, Logothetis told a journalist (with that imprecise fulsomeness that scientists use for journalists, or perhaps it’s just that journalists impute it to them), but he means ethically “incredible” as well. Having had trouble with animal activists and with animal-protection law in Germany, he looks forward to a more liberal regime in Shanghai. So, presumably, do the other members of his department, about half of the total, who mean to move with him.

That’s just one well-reported example. Some Western scientists seem to run a sort of second home in China. One specialist in spinal-cord injury based in Lausanne, we’re told, “travels almost monthly to China to pursue his monkey research . . . He has even flown to Beijing, done a couple of operations on his experimental monkeys, then returned that night.” Incidentally, it costs less than half as much to buy and keep a monkey in a laboratory in China as it does in Europe or the USA, although the chances are that the monkey will have come from a breeder in China in all three cases (China provides about 70% of the primates used in the USA). That should help pay for the flights, then.

In short, primate research is one of those things in which China has the firm intention, and every likelihood, of becoming a “global leader”. There are no general animal-cruelty laws in that country, and it’s reasonable to ask whether the animals which Westerners think it worth hurrying across the globe to experiment on have any ethical protection at all. And not just primates, of course, for these are part of a huge annual cohort of lab animals. It numbers about 20 million at present, but seems likely to grow rapidly, for the present moves past at speed in China: this whole hyper-active animal-research scene in China is hardly more than fifty years old.

In fact hustle has marked the modern history of China. The people have often enough suffered as dreadfully as the animals, although they have at least been the notional last sparrowbeneficiaries. Mao Zedong’s great ‘Eliminate the Sparrows’ campaign of 1958 was one typical illustration of the place of non-human animals in communist China. In its unthought-out assault upon these birds as crop-predators, the campaign boosted the populations of the insects which the sparrows also used to eat, and helped cause the ‘Great Famine’. It did also wipe out the sparrows, apparently with the keen support of the Chinese people. Later, a sparrow population had to be imported. Something of this same hubris and hurry is evident in what has been called China’s “animal-editing binge”.

However, the hustle today has Western interests in mind, as we’ve seen. In the case of laboratory animal welfare, policy therefore pulls in opposite directions. Whilst moral permissiveness in the laboratory will appeal to many individual researchers like Logothetis, it makes collaboration with Western institutions awkward or even impractical, and as publicity it would compromise the international standing of Chinese biomedical science. It’s certainly not one of the inducements offered in that Beijing ‘advertorial’ or in any other publicity that I’ve seen. And happily there is indeed a system of ethical regulation in China’s animal research laboratories, or at least the paperwork for it.

Some reference to animal welfare even appeared in the very first Ministry of Science and Technology rules of 1988, the publication of which really marked the institutionalizing of animal research in the country. Those rules mainly concerned hygiene, record-keeping, and other aspects of lab management, but animal welfare was more expressly the subject of the Ministry’s Guidelines for the Humane Treatment of Laboratory Animals, issued in 2006. Here, something approximating to the EU’s system – with licensing, training, ethical review committees, ‘humane end-points’, and application of the 3R principles – was introduced. The stated purpose was to ensure that “animals will not suffer from unnecessary harm, hunger, thirst, discomfort, fear, torture, disease and pain”, and that “animals can achieve their natural behaviour.”

No doubt every country has its own history of malpractice in laboratories, mostly unrevealed, occasionally illuminated in scandals: helplessness of the sort imposed on the animals by these alien circumstances will always bring out the sadist or bully in some humans, whatever their nationality. Therefore there need be nothing xenophobic in deducing from the Guidelines something very unpleasant in the situation which they proposed to correct. For instance, these are some of the actions which, except when done “for the need of testing”, are specified as violations: “teasing, irritating, beating, using electric shock or hurting laboratory animals by using food with offending taste, chemical drugs and poisonous materials . . . intentionally harming the organs of laboratory animals.” 

Whether the Guidelines have been able to correct such things is another matter. They do not have the status of law, and there is little evidence that the sanctions which they do make available (warnings, suspension of license, ‘re-assignment’) have been enforced. The official policy, and habit, of secrecy would tend to hide any such evidence, of course, but also to hide the violations in the first place, and to discourage their reporting. Occasionally, papers by Chinese researchers have appeared in science journals discussing the subject in general terms, and they aren’t reassuring. Mention is made of ignorance, negligence, blunders, and deliberate abuse. One account in 2008 found that little or no provision for the welfare of animals in laboratories, beyond their basic survival needs, was then being made: “As a result, many such animals have a very high incidence of abnormal behaviour.” A survey of Chinese medical students, published in 2015, found that only 25% of them recognised animal welfare as a concept, the others not having encountered or at any rate noticed it at all.

In 2016 a new set of proposed national standards for the treatment of laboratory animals was published. These were described in China Daily as “tougher regulations . . . to bring the nation into line with developed countries”. That this was indeed at least part of the purpose, or of the purposed impression, was indicated by the choice of time and place for the announcement: a conference involving Chinese research groups and the British NC3Rs (National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research). I can’t find any reports since then of the introduction or effect of these new standards. However, we know that more and more Chinese laboratories and training programmes are applying for endorsement from the American Association for Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, suggesting that they believe themselves to be indeed getting “into line with developed countries”.

It may be more significant in the long run that China has an animal rights movement of its own, or at least a growing debate on the subject. Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation was translated into Mandarin Chinese in the mid-1990s, and Chinese writers and campaign groups have taken up the ideology and developed it in their own setting (against greater odds, no doubt, than we have known in the West). The Chinese Animal Protection Network is an especially enterprising group, which stresses the scientific reasoning for animal rights – in evolution and in our growing awareness of the sentient capacities of non-human animals. In 2008, CAPN organised the first World Day for Animals in Laboratories in that country. And it wisely reminds its constituency of a national tradition older than communism in this matter. The last of the “six keys of our philosophy” is this: “The term animal rights may be quoted from the West, but the essence of the idea is not imported. The essence of its ideas has been widely and profoundly expressed in Chinese traditional ideas: Buddha, Taoism, and Confucianism.”

Western scientists sometimes say that tightening the rules which govern their animal research, or even maintaining them as they are, will simply drive the work away to more permissive regimes. We see that happen, but it’s not a good reason to make things more permissive here. For all its proud nationalism, China needs Western collaboration in biomedical science. Many of its own leading scientists have trained in the USA, and many of their successors will still wish to study and work in Western laboratories. They like to publish in English-language journals, as do the Western scientists who re-locate there. These journals, the better ones at any rate, demand that the welfare implications of the research they publish should be part of what’s reported (as specified in the international ARRIVE guidelines noted below). The ethical standards of the West, such as they are (and they certainly fall pitifully short of those prescriptions in Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism), will continue to be the international model, however crude or insincere the approximations to it may be. The stricter Westerns standards are, the better the prospects for those millions of primates, dogs, pigs, and other species doomed to live and die in Chinese laboratories.

Even so, as the foregoing sketch may have shown, their prospects are pretty frightening.

 

Notes and references:

The quotations from Chinese and Western scientists are mainly from two articles by David Cyranoski published in Nature:

https://www.nature.com/news/monkey-kingdom-1.19762

https://www.nature.com/news/inside-the-chinese-lab-poised-to-study-world-s-most-dangerous-pathogens-1.21487

A report on the Logothetis affair can be found in the journal Science here: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/01/animal-rights-conflict-prompts-leading-researcher-leave-germany-china

The five cloned monkeys, with an extended account of gene-editing in Chinese laboratories which includes the “binge” quotation, can be found in Science, 2 August 2019, pp.426-9. The article is ominously titled ‘The CRISPR Animal Kingdom’, CRISPR being the gene-editing technology which has now made possible rapid and accurate work of the sort described.

Much of the information about animal-research regulation and ethics as practised in laboratories, including quotations from the official texts, is taken from Deborah Cao, ‘Ethical Questions for Research Ethics: Animal Research in China’, Journal of Animal Ethics, Vol.8, no.2, 2018, pp.138-49.  Also, Bryan Ogden et al, ‘Laboratory Animals Laws, Regulations, Guidelines and Standards in China Mainland, Japan, and Korea’, ILAR Journal, published online on 4 May 2017 here: https://academic.oup.com/ilarjournal/article/57/3/301/3796588

China Daily reported on the 2016 proposals on 18 January 2016 here: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2016-01/18/content_23124464.htm

CAPN is quoted from its web-site, which is well worth viewing: https://capn-online.info/en.php

The ARRIVE guidelines (Animal Research: Reporting In Vivo Experiments) were devised by NC3Rs in 2010 and revised in 2019 as a means “to improve the reporting of research using animals”: see https://www.nc3rs.org.uk/arrive-guidelines

Illustrations show the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the five cloned monkeys in a publicity shot (note the ‘enrichments’), and a 1959 poster titled ‘Eliminating the Last Sparrow’.

 

Which Crisis?

The health crisis caused by Covid-19 is unusual in its suddenness and universality, but there is nothing to learn from it about human health. We already knew that humans were liable to such infectious diseases; much of our medical research and development over the last two centuries has been devoted to identifying and disabling the bacteria and viruses that cause them. Research into Covid-19 will differ only in the haste and internationalism which correspond with the irruption of the disease. More important then, because this is something that we haven’t even started to put right, is that Covid-19 is also a crisis in our relations with other animals or, rather, a flagrant symptom of it.

The pathway taken by the virus, from bats to pangolins to humans, has now been more or less confidently identified, and the particular setting for it, the notorious wet markets of Wuhan, have been prohibited together with other such markets in China (see this blog on 28 February). But as the Mirror newspaper reports, “multiple species are still being crammed together, slaughtered and sold, in filthy conditions, contaminated with blood and faeces, at countless markets in other Asian countries.” Live-animals markets even exist in New York, selling less exotic animals perhaps, but with the same crowding, on-site slaughtering, and consequent morally and physically squalid conditions. (Two petitions which you may like to sign on this subject are linked in the notes below.)

But aren’t even conventional slaughterhouses “contaminated with blood and faeces”? At any rate, the more mainstream forms of agriculture are not innocent by-standers in the Covid-19 story. An excellent piece by Laura Spinney in the Guardian (‘Is Factory Farming to Blame for the Coronavirus?’) uncovers their part in creating the conditions for that and other such animal-derived infections. Not just have the huge factory farms pushed the small farmers of Asia out of their traditional lands and into ‘specialist’ wild animal trading, working in the forest and other uncultivated lands where the animals have hitherto been relatively undisturbed. Such farms also create, on their own account, ideal virus-incubating conditions: that is, a target host of unnaturally crowded and unhealthy animals, with none of the genetic variety that can inhibit transmission. These conditions, says Spinney, “can result in the ratcheting up of the virus’s virulence. If it then spills over into humans, we are potentially in trouble.”

Among the products of such agriculture have been campylobacter, Q fever, hepatitis E, and various mutations of the influenza virus. As to this last case, industrial agriculture’s “strategic alliance with influenza” has been fully documented in a recent book by the evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace, whose title bluntly states the case: Big Farms Make Big Flu (Monthly Review Press, 2016).

The more general truth is that farms make diseases. Humans have been fashioning their illnesses out of animals, along with their food, clothes, motive power, amusement, and latterly lab equipment, for millennia. In his comprehensive history of medicine, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, Roy Porter has to begin (on page 18 of 700) with the agricultural revolution of the neolithic period, because this was where the trouble began. Newly crowded human populations (more humans could now be fed from a given area CoeDeadlyVirusof land) were living off force-crowded animals, and so creating the right conditions for “pathogens once exclusive to animals” to jump across to humans:

Many of the worst human diseases were created by proximity to animals. Cattle provided the pathogen pool with tuberculosis and viral poxes like smallpox. Pigs and ducks gave humans their influenzas, while horses brought rhinoviruses and hence the common cold . . . water polluted with animal faeces also spreads polio, cholera, typhoid, viral hepatitis, whooping cough and diphtheria.  

Smallpox, to take one especially baneful example, was a “ratcheting up” in human hosts of the cowpox virus. Edward Jenner, the man who pioneered the use of cowpox as a prophylactic against it, understood well in the 18th century the context which Porter describes. He stated it thus in his Enquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Cow Pox (1798):

The deviation of man from the state in which he was originally placed by nature seems to have proved to him a prolific source of diseases. From the love of splendour, from the indulgence of luxury, and from his fondness for amusement he has familiarized himself with a great number of animals, which may not originally have been intended for his associates.

As I said, we haven’t started to put this problem right, but of course there’s been plenty of remedial action. Laura Spinney mentions avian flu virus H7N9, first found in humans in 2013; a vaccine was developed against this virus in poultry once it became a serious threat to the economics of chicken farming. Now a similar approach – that is, curing the result and not the cause – is being used against African swine fever, a disease which is not yet known to affect humans but has been killing millions of pigs in China before their profitable time (though it appears to be relatively harmless in the wild animals from which it came). A vaccine against it has been devised which, we’re encouraged to believe by a veterinary epidemiologist (that title itself tells a wretched story), justifies “guarded optimism”, although “more testing of safety and efficacy is needed.” [Science, 20 March]

Yes of course, it always is, and here more than ever, when we see research patching up the pathologies which research largely made possible in the first place, one is reminded of that scientist for all seasons, Dr Grant Swinger, alert to every new fashion and opportunity in big science and to the funds which lubricate it (he was the brilliant invention of the late Daniel Greenberg). Still, we certainly find ourselves in urgent need of Dr Swinger and his fellow-professionals at present, so let’s see how they’re getting on with the scourge of Covid-19.

Animal-research laboratories are of course being affected by the pandemic like any other work-place, except that they can’t simply be closed or even put on reduced hours, because there’s a population of animals to keep alive or not. We’re told that labs in the USA are “currently grappling with the best way to care for the millions of mice, monkeys, and other research animals they care for across the country”. One way to do this, of course, is to put them down – ‘take care of them’ in that sense – and a report in Science’s online news for 23 March does indeed announce that “Labs are euthanizing thousands of mice in response to coronavirus pandemic.”

There is no doubt great reluctance to resort to such measures, and one researcher calls the loss “heartbreaking, scientifically and emotionally”. The distress is surely sincere, but it illustrates the ethical non-sense inherent in animal research. (You may recall a similar cry of distress from farmers who lost cattle in the UK’s foot and mouth outbreak earlier this century.) For by way of mitigating the offence, the director of animal resources at Johns Hopkins University explains that many of these mice “would have been euthanized anyway, because, for example, they weren’t born with the genetic profile the lab needed for particular experiments.” It’s just a case of hurrying things up, of doing “two to three weeks’ worth of culling in the course of a single week”. The director himself is “assisting with much of the culling”. This is a reminder of animals bin 3something which the word “heartbreaking” tends to obscure, that killing animals, whether un-needed or at the end of their living usefulness, is a daily routine in laboratories. “Our top priority is animal welfare”, says another lab director, reporting on this crisis. It’s a very familiar claim, but it’s a pious untruth. A laboratory in which it was true would have to find homes for its animals and then close down.

Fortunately the great supplier to the world of GM mice, the Jackson Laboratory – familiarly ‘Jax’ – at Maine and elsewhere (see this blog on 3 July 2017) is not suffering similar heartbreak. Not only has it “not increased its culling” (the routine toll in the Jax labs must constitute a daily massacre), but the demand for ‘mouse models’ susceptible to Covid-19 has prompted “the Jax team” to undertake “a large-scale in vitro fertilization (IVF) program”, so that “very shortly, there’ll be thousands of these mice available to the scientific community.” Meanwhile, all other specialized mice are fully available. Incidentally, for anxious researchers who may be asking themselves “Can humanized mice (immunodeficient mice engrafted with human CD34+ hematopoietic stem cells) be infected with Coronavirus?”, the Jax FAQs section has a reassuring answer: “the chances . . . is [sic] extremely remote.” Well, that’s always been regarded as safe enough odds in the past.

There has been some suggestion that the present urgency may actually have benefited animals, by allowing researchers to conduct clinical trials of possible vaccines straight after in vitro studies, without the usual animal testing. The safety and effectiveness of this way of doing things will thereby have been clearly established. But is this really happening? As far as I can tell, it has applied only to the ‘repurposing’ of therapies already tested and approved in the conventional way for other conditions: for instance, as the journal Science reports, “drugs that have performed well in animal studies against the other two deadly coronaviruses, which cause SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)”. But in whatever way it’s being managed (and the Jax announcement shows that animals are certainly implicated in large numbers), a lot of hard and hurried work is being done to find a vaccine for Covid-19.

To find a vaccine, but to leave the root cause untouched. And this short-termism is reflected in the imagery which is commonly being used to describe our present plight. “Nous sommes en guerre” said President Macron several times in his eloquent and moving address to the French nation on 16 March. Other politicians have used the same imagery in sundry variations. Scientists too. The editor of Science calls for a grand collective effort on the pattern of the Manhattan Project (which produced the first atom bomb). Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, recently likened the co-operative endeavour for the nation’s health to the miscellany of ships which rescued the British army from Dunkirk.

All this is understandable, affecting, apt in its way. But it’s the wrong way, not so much because, as was recently argued in the Atlantic, you don’t win wars by skulking at home as we’re required to do at present, but because the attitude itself is mistaken. If there is an enemy in this case, it is we ourselves in our character as compulsive predators. A virus is no more an enemy than a tiger or a bear is an enemy, though all three can seriously harm us in some circumstances. Certain varieties of virus serve us well, for instance the ‘phages’ which can be used to disable some bacteria; others pursue their life-course (or life-like course, since viruses aren’t a self-sufficient life-form) in ways that are indeed capable, by chance, of killing us. The trick is to keep those, and their natural hosts, at a proper distance.

The situation is well understood in one of the earliest of all myths, the quest of the Babylonian King Gilgamesh to destroy the monster Humbaba in the far-distant Cedar Forest. Humbaba, with his “terrifying roar”, is spoken of and feared by the people as a monster, but he seems to do no pro-active harm at all. Simply being feared from a distance is his job. One translator of the epic, Stephen Mitchell, says “Humbaba has his appointed place in the divine order of things. He has specifically been commissioned to be monstrous by one of the great gods, because humans are not supposed to penetrate into the Cedar Forest and chop down its trees.” Or as Mitchell has Humbaba himself say, “I am the forest’s guardian. Enlil / Put me here to terrify men.” [pp.125, 31] It might be Covid-19 talking.

In so far as Gilgamesh gets wisdom from the disaster which his killing of Humbaba turns out to entail, it consists in returning to his own city, to his own proper sphere of life, and staying there. Something of this ancient lesson we may be able to learn from the present crisis, provided we see what sort of crisis it is: a health crisis just for the moment, but more importantly a long-term moral crisis habitually injuring us in ways like this until we at last put it (that is, put ourselves) right.

Notes and references:

Petitions against the live-animal markets of New York and elsewhere can be signed here: https://support.peta.org/page/17791/action/1?utm_source=PETA::E-Mail&utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=0320::veg::PETA::E-Mail::PE%20URGENT%20Help%20Shut%20Down%20Live-Animal%20Markets%20WHO::::pads  and  https://support.peta.org/page/17888/action/1

The Mirror article, published on 26 March, can be read here: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/coronavirus-wet-markets-still-selling-21762902

The Guardian article, published on 28 March) is here: chttps://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/spotlight/is-factory-farming-to-blame-for-coronavirus/ar-BB11Qjbo?li=BBoPWjQ&ocid=mailsignout

Quotation on the agricultural revolution is from p.18 of Roy Porter’s The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: a Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present, HarperCollins, 1997. Porter’s quotation from Jenner’s book is on p.19.

The Science news story about African swine fever is on p.1285, 20 March (vol.367). The online news about culling populations of lab mice can be read here: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/it-s-heartbreaking-labs-are-euthanizing-thousands-mice-response-coronavirus-pandemic. The quotation about re-purposing drugs is from an article about Covid-19 research in the issue for 27 March, ‘Race to find Covid-19 treatments accelerates’, at p.1412. This also is the issue in which the editor makes the comparison with the Manhattan Project.

Announcements about Covid-19 by the Jackson Laboratory are on their web-site at https://www.jax.org/jax-mice-and-services/corona-virus-risk-mitigation. You will notice there Jax’s own plentiful use of the ‘top priority’ trope, an interesting study in itself.

The translation of Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell is published by Profile Books, 2004. Quotations are from pp.31 and 125.

The print by Sue Coe was issued in 2007, so that in addition to its strength as activist art it illustrates the perennial nature of the harms we inherit by intruding improperly into the lives of other species. The dead animals notice is from a photograph taken by Brian Gunn of the International Association Against Painful Experiments on Animals.

Some Science Stories and their Animals

Coronavirus ———

The leading story in biomedical science at the moment (where not?) is COVID-19, the new variety of coronavirus – new to humans, that is – which has evidently been accompanying us as a fellow-passenger on our restless tours round the world. It’s a zoonotic disease; the animals gave it to us, and where more probably and more justly than at an animal market like the one in Wuhan, where human contempt for other creatures is at its most visibly disgusting? These markets crowd the living, dying, and dead together – farm animals, marine animals, snakes, civets, foxes, dogs, donkeys, destined for food or for traditional ‘medicine’ – in a hell such as Hieronymus Bosch might have painted.

We surely deserve whatever they can do us of harm in such a setting. Even a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology seemed to be thinking so when she was reported on the Sina.com web-site (and roughly translated) as calling the virus “a punishment for uncivilized living habits of human beings by [towards?] nature”. ‘Even’, I say, because of course the burst of scientific activity prompted by the epidemic has itself swept a CoeDeadlyViruscrowd of other animals into human un-mercy. This same laboratory in Wuhan has already, we are told, “completed the establishment of mouse and non-human primate models”. Meanwhile scientists in the USA are using data provided from China to synthesize live virus and then “study it in animals”. [Science, 17.1.20] We humans can’t be expected to suffer alone.

The Donkey Trade ———

The Chinese government has now put a stop to the trade in wildlife for food, and this most welcome ban seems set to be permanent, unlike the one introduced during the outbreak of the SARS virus a few years ago. (There’s a Care2 petition for a similar ban on wildlife markets in the neighbouring countries, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos: see the link in the notes below.) But the disfavour hasn’t so far been extended to animal-related traditional medicine. One particularly wretched instance of this, though not involving exotic animals, is the manufacture of ejiao from collagen in donkey hides. The growing popularity of this supposed blood tonic has been “spurring new studies of donkey biology”, according to the journal Science, the aim in particular being “to speed their reproduction . . . and expedite growth.” [13.12.19] Here’s the science of animal research, then, continuing to serve and promote the ruthless industrialization of farming – and the donkey trade really is ruthless from birth to death of its unhappy victims.

Science says that publications on the biology of donkeys now appear at about seven times the rate of twenty years ago. Not all of this burgeoning research is being done in Chinese institutions, but of course much of it is. In fact a rapidly increasing proportion of all internationally recognized science comes from China. Yet ejiao itself seems to have been subjected to no serious clinical assessment. There’s an ugly mismatch here: high-tech science and ancient habits of predation. Of course, something of that mismatch is present in every animal-food business and every animal research laboratory throughout the world. Besides, there’s a sound caution against censuring other ways of life (the Chinese themselves readily call such criticism colonialist or racist): alien traditions and values, even superstitions, should have our respect or at least polite acquiescence – so it is liberally said. Agreed! And therefore let’s extend the same amenity to the traditions of animals and their values, in particular their traditional attachment to staying alive.

Alcohol studies ———

One peculiarly human tradition habitually imposed upon animals in the laboratory is the drinking of alcohol. I had thought that this category of research, alongside studies in tobacco, was prohibited in Britain, but in fact only “developing or testing alcohol or tobacco products” is ruled out by the Home Office; where the research is aimed at “investigating disease or novel treatments”, permission may be given. And since alcoholism almost certainly is a disease or at any rate a ‘disorder’ (the common scientific name is Alcohol Use Disorder), and is besides, according to Science, “a component cause of more than 200 diseases” [22.6.2018], such research does indeed go on here. A report in the Independent online newspaper at the end of last year instanced some of it, including studies at Oxford University into the role of alcohol in birth abnormalities.

Alcoholism is undoubtedly a tragic condition. ‘Compelled to drink: why some cannot stop’ is the heading to a Science news story introducing some recent research; it well suggests the helplessness of people in the grip of addiction [22.11.2019]. But the words are ambiguous and misleading, perhaps knowingly so in order to make a bigger splash. The heading should be ‘Why some mice cannot stop’; it’s mice that are being “compelled to drink” in the research itself (which is fully reported later in the same issue). So the human relevance is purely speculative, but readers are encouraged by such wording to elide for themselves the species gap, and so to give this research a value it cannot expressly claim. Even the researchers themselves (Dr Cody A. Siciliano, of Vanderbilt University, and others) speak of “a binge-drinking experience in male mice”, as if the conditioned addiction suffered by the mice is identical to the human behaviour evoked by the word ‘binge’, and can therefore be an adequate surrogate for it in the laboratory. Science’s own introductory gloss on the research shows the sleight of hand concisely: “People drink to excess for a variety of reasons, but as the animal model of Siciliano et al demonstrates, not all heavy drinkers become compulsive.” Demonstrates! Human and mice minds, it seems, are simply interchangeable.

To test the strength of their compulsion, the mice in this study were given disincentives or “punishment” (a curious word to use), consisting in “increasing shock amplitudes”. The “compulsive animals”, we’re told, “showed a robust insensitivity to punishment”. There’s an unpleasantly sadistic suggestion in that euphemistic “robust”. And of course all these animals, “compulsive” and otherwise, making their choice of soft drink or alcohol from “lickometers” in the miserable ‘Skinner boxes’, were in fact drinking themselves to death, since that was the necessary end-point of their part in the research.

Defective research ———

A similar study using rats was featured in Science a few months earlier, with much the same optimism, but there was at least this concession: “The value of animal models for understanding human psychiatric disorders is increasingly criticized because preclinical studies often produce false-positive results that do not translate to the clinical situation.” [22.6.2019] Often enough in other areas of biomedical research too: this must partly explain why so much clinical research not only goes unpublished but, in the USA, is not even posted as required by law on the federal database ClinicalTrials.gov. Nor is it only translation from animals to humans that causes problems. An article in Science last month looked at the unpleasant scene of ecotoxicology, the study of new chemicals in the environment. Here, apparently, it’s “now widely accepted that a high proportion of published research is not reproducible”, so much so that there’s talk of a “reproducibility crisis” [24.1.2020]. One of the reasons given is especially wretched: the researchers have chosen unconventional animals for their test subjects, and the results don’t successfully cross to the more standard species.

Other reasons are of a kind which may affect any type of research. There’s bad experimental design, for instance: some of the research which actually is posted on ClinicalTrials.gov has to be removed because it fails to satisfy “basic quality-control standards” [17.1.2020]. Then there’s wishful thinking in interpretation: that is, bias in favour of the chosen hypothesis.  There’s even falsification of data. A recent paper on ‘threat learning’ in mice (another experiment based on pain aversion: i.e. electric shocks) has had to be retracted because the lead author made up some of the data [31.5. and 20.12.2019].

These varieties of flawed experimentation may, as I’ve said, affect any research, wasting work and resources and other people’s attention; but in the case of animal research lives too are being – I won’t say ‘wasted’, since it implies that good research is a proper use of them, but negligently squandered. And unfortunately even diligent and authoritative research may be negligent in the sense of being unnecessary. The ecotoxicology survey comments on this abuse with justifiable severity:

Did we need 250 papers to tell us that ethinylstradiol [a common oestrogen medication] poses a risk to fish? Everything we need to know to protect the environment was communicated in the first half a dozen papers.

Perusing the issues of even such an authoritative journal as Science, I conclude that this must be the most common animal-research flaw of all: needlessness.

Privileging the species ———

As the ecotoxicology article suggests, Science is quite willing to publish material critical of animal research as practised, though in general the methodology is taken for granted, and huge numbers of animals (most of them mice) are accounted for every week in its biomedical papers. On environmental subjects, including wild animals under threat, the journal is committed and informative. But of course it’s species-minded. Thus an editorial review of ‘What’s coming up in 2020’ speaks favourably of “efforts to rein in loss of species”, but notes with equal approval the way new gene-editing techniques are “reinvigorating the beleaguered field of xenotransplantation, which aims to surgically replace human organs or tissues with ones harvested from animals such as pigs.” [3.1.2020] I needn’t comment on the slap-dash callousness of those last six words. Even in Science’s sympathetic coverage of the wretched plight of the donkeys in China, the headline concern is with an “existential threat” and “crashing populations”, rather than with the essential wrong.

To think in this way conveniently cheapens the lives of animals that belong to durable species populations, notably the ones whose numbers we ourselves keep artificially high. But humans themselves are just such a species. We make an exception of them which is merely self-interested and has no foundation in science or even in philosophical ethics. A declaration by UNESCO in 1997 stated that it was the human genome that secured “the fundamental unity of all members of the human family as well as the recognition of their inherent dignity and diversity.” But in fact that genome overlaps extensively with other species and varies in ways that make the declaration sentimental nonsense. So much is acknowledged in a Science paper headed ‘Biotechnologies nibbling at the legal “human”’: “there is no defined ‘human genome’ that can be used as an easy way to determine humanity.” And as the title suggests, there are other developments that call our sense of separateness into question: “new research techniques, such as xenotransplantation and human/non-human chimeras, challenge the animal-human species divide.” [20.12.2019]

Here, then, is a prompt to revise our relations with other animals. Yes, distinctions of species are real and intelligible, a necessary academic ordering, but they are none of them absolute, and they should have no bearing on entitlement to life and liberty. As for the human/other-animals distinction, it’s a fiction. Once we admit as much, our ethics can start to go right. Unfortunately the authors of the ‘nibbling biotechnologies’ paper shy away from the truth they’ve uncovered. I can’t quite make sense of their final sentence, but its mixture of sentimental appeal and determination to preserve our ancient rights is patent enough: “the concept of membership in the hazily bordered human family can serve as a useful source for the delimitation of the ‘human’”. Science and other business as usual, then.

 

Notes and references:

Most of the references are to Science, an international peer-reviewed research journal which also publishes news and editorial features; dates for the issues cited are given in brackets.

The Sina.com report is published here: https://news.sina.com.cn/c/2020-02-03/doc-iimxxste8358663.shtml

The Care2 petition is available here: https://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/906/819/294/?z00m=32286462&redirectID=2984541248

The Home Office rules governing research into alcohol use are published in Guidance on the Operation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, HMSO 2014, p.50.

The piece about UK alcohol research published by the Independent online in December 2019 can be accessed here: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/animal-experiments-test-us-uk-mice-fish-alcohol-nicotine-a9259776.html

UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights can be read here: http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13177&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

The picture, Monkey Business: Deadly Virus, is by the artist Sue Coe, who is featured in this blog on 25 September 2017: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/the-vegan-animals-manifesto-by-sue-coe/