What Are Sixty Warblers Worth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes and references:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Advertisements

Eve of Destruction

One of John Ruskin’s successors as Oxford University’s Slade Professor of Fine Art (see previous post) was the distinguished architect Sir Leslie Martin. There’s some irony in the fact that at the time of Sir Leslie’s appointment to speak about art at Oxford in the mid-1960s he was working on the design of what must be the University’s most hideous structure, the giant Tinbergen Building for the Department of Zoology and Experimental Psychology in South Parks Road.  zoology building

Leslie Martin did produce some much finer buildings, including the Royal Festival Hall in London and, in Oxford, the English and Law Faculties building just along the road from the Tinbergen. But he was a keen and influential champion of architectural modernism, and the Tinbergen Building shows modernism in one of its most uncompromising phases, nick-named ‘Brutalism’ by its own practitioners. The word was intended to mean raw or unpolished rather than aggressive, still less anything to do with animals (there’s another irony tucked away here somewhere). It asserted the commitment of the style’s architects (they would have hated to hear it called a ‘style’) to designs that were plainly functional, to undisguised surfaces like the ‘shuttered’ concrete of the Tinbergen Building, and in general to the absence of all aesthetic apology. Of course, the word ‘function’ covers more than just accommodation and services, or it might do. And thinking of the building in its wider academic function, one online commentator has observed with throw-away sarcasm, “Totally looks like a place animal-lovers and empathic therapists gather”.

I don’t know what therapists, empathic or other, have come out of that building, or what cruelties have taken place there, though certainly the practice of Experimental Psychology has involved some of the most savage misuses of animals in modern science. Nor do I know whether being an ‘animal-lover’ has ever constituted a recommendation for candidates seeking to study life-sciences in that building. But the architecture itself is indeed suggestive of the worst, and the sad thing is that the man after whom the building is named, Nikolaas Tinbergen, would himself have been a proper focus for just such a gathering as the comment pictures, or rather can’t picture.

Tinbergen was a pioneer of ethology, the study and interpretation of animal behaviour as it occurs in nature rather than in the laboratory. He worked originally at the University of Leiden, but he came to Oxford in 1949, and was appointed Professor of Animal Behaviour at about the same time that Leslie Martin became Professor of Fine Art. In 1973 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, sharing it with two other notable ethologists, Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch. The lecture which Tinbergen gave on that occasion was thoroughly characteristic. He noted the novelty of three “mere animal-watchers” receiving the prize, and then, instead of speaking about the area of research in which he had been so brilliantly successful, he deferred to the prize’s title, and set out to show how the disciplines of ‘animal-watching’ could indeed contribute to both knowledge and therapy in human health. The two examples he discussed were autism and the ‘Alexander technique’ of posture and movement. In both of these he had personal experience, but no academic reputation to lean on. In both, also, he was arguing for changes in behavioural practice rather than for medication – ‘empathic therapy’ in fact, before it had that name.

As for ‘animal-lovers’, I don’t suppose that Tinbergen ever expressly put himself in that category (anyway a dubious one, as this blog has argued elsewhere). But that he felt for animals, and admired them, is very obvious in his writings. Speaking of research into the nesting habits of two species of the Ammophila wasp, he writes,

It is hard to believe that these two Ammophilas should be so much more interesting than other digger wasps. I prefer to think that each of the others will be found to be just as rewarding once it is studied with as much care and love as was Ammophila.

Again characteristically, he was not talking here about his own research; he was describing and admiring the work of his students. But his own work showed just those same qualities. Tinbergen

Of course there was more to the work than sympathetic observation: it was the purpose of ethology to learn both the immediate function of animal behaviour and its origins in evolutionary selection. It was here that Tinbergen’s genius lay, but he believed that to analyse the conduct of animals in this way did not, or should not, diminish our respect for them: “So long as one does not, during analysis, lose sight of the animal as a whole, then beauty increases with increasing awareness of detail.” “the animal as a whole”: possibly he was glancing here at so-called ‘behaviourism’, which was then the much more fashionable way of researching and interpreting animal behaviour – that is, as a small repertoire of more or less mechanical responses to stimuli, simple and autonomous enough to be studied in the laboratory. No doubt much was being shown about the structures of behaviour in that way, as well as much cruelty being practised, but its relevance to zoology as Tinbergen understood it was doubtful: “there is an enormous amount of scattered and often unrelated evidence, acquired under such special laboratory conditions that it is at present impossible to say how it is related to the normal life of the species concerned.”

Tinbergen’s work, though it mainly took place in the field, did also involve experimental intervention. For instance, when studying the way of life of black-headed gulls on the Norfolk coast, he wished to learn how the colouring and patterning of their eggs helped to protect them from predation; in pursuit of the answer, he moved, re-coloured, or otherwise doomed some of these eggs. But he didn’t regard science as justifying every convenient transgression against animal life. The gulls’ new-born chicks are likewise camouflaged against predatory eyes; at least, Tinbergen believed that their dotted patterns must have this same effect, but he writes that “although we were quite prepared . . . to sacrifice a number of eggs for our tests, we drew the line at chicks, and so we cannot prove it.” It’s instructive to see how that word ‘cannot’ turns a moral inhibition into an actual impossibility. Whether it has since been ‘proved’ by someone with a less scrupulous respect for these animal subjects, I don’t know.

Tinbergen’s consideration for the animals he studied seems to have derived partly from a certain diffidence about the character and role of the scientist. That phrase in the Nobel speech, “mere animal-watchers”, belongs to a habit of professional self-awareness, even self-deprecation, in his work. As he himself wrote, “it is always worth observing oneself as well as the animals, and to do it as critically and as detachedly as possible.” One may thereby discover, for instance, that learning about animals is not quite as dis-interested a procedure as we flatteringly assume; proving things about them may be felt, discreditably, as a kind of triumph: “people enjoy, they relish, the satisfaction of their desire for power.”

This was and is especially a danger in the laboratory, and a predecessor of Tinbergen’s at Oxford had once spoken of it with memorable force: “every kind of original research [is] a gratification of self, and liable to develop selfishness, which of course is the root of all unscrupulousness”, so Professor George Rolleston had told the Royal Commission into vivisection in 1875, and the risk was particularly acute where the subject was “the lower animals, who have no friends to remonstrate for them.” When such animals were subjected to experimentation before a student audience, he went on to say, “the sight of a living, bleeding, and quivering organism” made an involuntary but powerful appeal to the instinct of cruelty. Rolleston quoted something that had recently been written about audiences at Roman gladiatorial shows: “then burst forth the sleeping devils in their hearts.”

This powerful warning from the nineteenth century isn’t just a historical digression here. As that Nobel speech showed, Tinbergen believed in the importance of ethology in the understanding of humans as well as other animals. Not, of course, by crudely extrapolating things discovered in those others in order to explain human conduct, for indeed Tinbergen knew that humans, “our own unfortunate species”, were uniquely problematic. While animal behaviour in general showed or implied a gradual adjustment to fit slowly changing ecologies, the human species was creating dizzily changing environments for itself, in which it had nevertheless to get along with roughly the same evolutionary design as had served Cro-magnon man. In fact man had become “a misfit in his own society”. And belonging as he did to “the only species that is a mass-murderer”, this “unhinged killer”, now with access to atomic weaponry, needed understanding and putting right as a matter of urgency.

Tinbergen discussed all this in an essay of 1968 titled ‘On War and Peace in Animals and Man’. Speculating upon the possibilities of sublimating or usefully re-directing human aggression, he proposes a solution which his fellow-ethologist Konrad Lorenz had also considered. Science itself, in particular as a project of self-discovery and self-healing, “would seem to offer the best opportunities for deflecting and sublimating our aggression”, especially if “the whole population” could somehow “be made to feel that it participates in the struggle”. If this seems a rather professionally grandiose concept for Tinbergen to subscribe to, it at least shows his engaging idealism. But he was not naïve: he knew well the intractable irrationality of the human (in the Second World War he had been a prisoner of the Nazis). Therefore this project of self-understanding, so he concedes at the end of the essay, might only mean that, when the final self-destruction came, we “could at least go down with some dignity, by using our brain for one of its supreme tasks, by exploring to the end.”

Anyway, the Tinbergen Building is itself about to be destroyed, as many other brutalist monuments have been. In this case, a refurbishment scheme revealed that asbestos had been used throughout the structure. That wasn’t Sir Leslie’s fault – asbestos was very commonly used in buildings at that time – though one may more readily blame him for not foreseeing how badly his concrete would weather, or how poorly it would insulate the interior. Now waiting to occupy the vacated space is an world-class.JPGeven larger structure, intended to house Zoology, Experimental Psychology, and Plant Sciences. Will this new building inherit the dedication to Tinbergen? Nothing official has been said about that. More importantly, might the building reflect, in its form and in its academic functions inside, the sort of humane science for which Tinbergen’s name might well stand? There’s a big notice on the hoarding, promising that whatever comes next will be “world-class”. This banal and wholly un-Tinbergen-like brag is not a good omen.

 

Notes and references:

The online comment appears on the Reddit web-site, which briefly notices the Tinbergen Building here: https://www.reddit.com/r/brutalism/comments/7q05hv/tinbergen_building_zoology_and_psychology/

Tinbergen’s Nobel Prize lecture can be read here:  https://www.nobelprize.org/uploads/2018/06/tinbergen-lecture.pdf

Tinbergen describes some of the research conducted by himself and his students in his book Curious Naturalists, Penguin Books, 1974: quotations here are from pp. 29, 85, 119, and 194. His other writings quoted here are Social Behaviour in Animals, Methuen, 1965, p.vi (on laboratory studies), and his essay ‘On War and Peace’, originally published in the journal Science, and re-printed in The Sociobiology Debate, ed. Arthur Caplan, Harper and Row, 1978 (quoted at pp. 80, 86, 89-90, and 97-8).

The term and concept ‘animal-lover’ is discussed in this blog at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/love-talk/

Konrad Lorenz discusses the idea of science and scientific education as a corrective to tribal aggression in all its forms in the final chapter of his book On Aggression (1966).

George Rolleston’s evidence to the Royal Commission is published in Report of the Royal Commission on the practice of subjecting live animals to experiments for scientific purposes, 1876, pp.43-5. In it, he quotes (“sleeping devils”) from Charles Kingsley’s 1853 novel Hypatia.

The detail from a photograph of Nikolaas Tinbergen is from the archive of the Max Planck Gesellschaft.

Scenes from the Dawn of the Atomic Age

An advertisement published in 1952 by the National Society for Medical thanksBigResearch shows the towering cloud of an atomic explosion with attendant dog, who calmly turns her head back as if to deliver or at least endorse the message posted at her feet: “We must thank animals if good comes from the atomic bomb”. Yes, the dog must be a she because it surely can’t be by chance that this is a Rough Collie, the same breed as Lassie, who had by then become famous in print and film for her imagined loyalty and sagacity. So she’s thought a suitable intermediary between us humans and the animals whom we’re invited to thank for helping us to make a good thing out of the bomb. Later on, Lassie tended to advertise dog foods, but here she (or at least the breed which she made famous for its useful virtues) is being made to advertise vivisection. And the giant mushroom cloud reminds us that we’re in a hurry; we need to be in a position to thank the animals pretty soon, or there won’t be anything left to thank them for.

At the front of the picture, some palm trees bend and flap in the unnatural gale. Evidently, then, the immediate reference is to the atom bomb tests which had been carried out by the US government at the tropical Bikini Atoll in 1946 (and which would be resumed in 1954). The tests had been titled ‘Operation Crossroads’, the crossroads in question being the ones mankind had arrived at in his war-making: which direction was he to go in next? Three bombs in turn were to be exploded over or under a miscellaneous fleet of about ninety warships – either obsolete US vessels or ones captured from the recent enemy – to test, in particular, the continuing relevance of the navy in battles transformed by nuclear science. The ships were realistically loaded with equipment and stores: planes, tanks, guns, ammunition, even food. But of course there were the personnel to think about too, and that’s where the animals came in, or rather were put in.

Rats, mice, guinea pigs, goats, pigs, about 3,500 of them in all for the first test, were put on board selected ships, in cages or pens, or tied to individual restraint devices which were bolted to the decks, or just shut into the ships’ accommodation. Some of the animals were shaved, and sun-cream and other such ointments were tried out for their protective powers against radiation. Pigs and goats were put into naval uniforms or other clothing, to see what difference that might make. The ships with these grotesque involuntary crews were anchored at various distances from the expected epicentre of the coming first explosion, code-named ‘Able’. (A note on names: after ‘Able’, the next two tests were to be ‘Baker’ and ‘Charlie’, but the bomb itself was named and sign-painted ‘Gilda’, after a character played by Rita Hayworth in the newly released film of that title: “There never was a woman like Gilda!” said the posters. The laddish frivolity of the name is highly characteristic of such enterprises; it re-surfaces, for instance, in the ‘Dolly’ project, as commented on in this blog on 29 August 2016.)

Operation Crossroads was not a secretive affair, except in technical matters. Part of its purpose was to show that the United States was uniquely there at the world’s crossroads, determining the new direction. It was a staged event, and a very large audience, estimated at 42,000, was assembled to experience it: service personnel of course, but also members of Congress, UN representatives, observers from other nations, including the USSR, and many journalists, who had their own dedicated press ship, with “specially prepared media packets, lectures, and tours”. More than 150 ships were needed to accommodate these people. In fact it was said at the time that Operation Crossroads was “the most observed, most photographed, most talked-of scientific test ever conducted”.

In particular, great quantities of moving film were used to record the event – mainly the explosions themselves, of course, but also the preparations and the aftermaths. Some of the film was edited for official use, and a commentary was added. One such sequence shows pre-test tours of the fleet, the hurried making-ready (the whole project seems to have been conducted in haste), then the moment for the humans to make themselves scarce: “Preparations are now complete, and crews abandon their ships . . . Military and scientific personnel leave the target area.” The target ships recede from our view. That representative collection of the world’s Able testhumans re-assembles at a safe distance of 15 or so miles away, while the animals remain behind to endure the bomb. It’s a summary of vivisection: the humans taking cover and watching (in this case through protective goggles) to see what happens to their more expendable fellow-creatures.

In the event, the ‘Able’ test was rather less destructive than expected, perhaps partly because the bomb missed its aim by about half a mile. In the official film, the camera cruises again around the now blasted fleet noting the damage. It spots some of the animals just visible in a huddle within the ruined superstructure of one of the ships: “These animals,” explains the voice-over, “survived the blast but died later from the effect of radioactivity.” In fact one or two did survive more lastingly. A pig (no. 311) which had been shut into the officers’ ‘heads’ or lavatories on the Japanese cruiser Sarawak, anchored about 500 yards from the centre of the explosion, was discovered some hours later “swimming gamely in the radiation-polluted waters of the Bikini Lagoon”. “gamely”! One would think it was a sporting event, but then the title of the Time magazine article from which that quotation is taken was ‘This Little Pig Came Home’: once you conspire in the misuse of animals, it’s impossible to speak in a straight and honourable way about them. Pig 311 died in 1950 at the Smithsonian Institution Zoo.

The second test, ‘Baker’, was detonated underwater and proved much more sensational. The giant column of sea-water, hurled 6000 feet into the air, came back down in a spray of radioactivity which clung to the surviving ships so tenaciously that they could not safely be re-occupied. (For that reason, the third test, ‘Charlie’, was abandoned.) An official report described the ships as “radioactive stoves”. There seems to be less information available about the animals used in this second test, but one history of Operation Crossroads says that “All of the pigs and most of the rats used during the Baker test were either killed by the initial blast or died shortly thereafter from radiological exposure.”

That was of course neither the beginning nor the end of the part which animals have been made to play in atomic weapons research (some more details are provided in this blog at 9 November 2018). In 1964, a cow patronizingly called ‘Granny’ – and if I was naming farm animals, I’d avoid the theme of family life – appeared in the news as a survival story, rather as pig no.311 had done. The cow had just died twenty or so years after the very first atomic bomb test (New Mexico, July 1945) by which she and her fellows had been sprinkled with radioactive dust. The herd had at once been collected and taken away for tests. ‘Granny’ herself was, when she died, under observation at an agricultural research laboratory, for as a 1960s booklet on the subject noted, “Not only does man benefit from radiation research on animals, but animals do also”: for instance, we can “improve the quality of farm animals by determining, with the help of radioisotopes, the most efficient methods of feeding, breeding, and maintaining good nutrition.” So Granny didn’t survive in vain.

Still, deciding how to fight and win wars in the new atomic age was the primary motivation of the early animal research, and it remains, after all this time, a continuing laboratory theme. Thus a study from 2003 titled ‘Mortality of Atomic Bomb Survivors’ argues that “accurate predictions of age-specific radiation-induced mortality in beagles and the atomic bomb survivors can be obtained from a dose-response model for comparably exposed mice.” Or, from 2010, the report of a ‘workshop’ on the subject, titled ‘Animal Models for Medical Countermeasures to Radiation Exposure’, speaks of its mission “to identify and develop mitigating agents that can be used to treat the civilian population after a radiological event”.

A “radiological event”: it’s a horrible prospect even when part-disguised by euphemism, and no doubt we’d all be glad to learn that there did indeed exist “mitigating agents” against it. That, of course, is the thinking behind the Lassie advert. The National Society for Medical Research had been founded in 1945 to promote animal research in general, and how better to promote it than by shaking the mushroom cloud at us?

Many unappealing human sentiments and qualities have been involved in the practice and the reporting of atomic weapons research – in that part of it, at least, for which we “must thank animals”: callousness, bumptious levity, hubris, amoral curiosity. But cowardice is perhaps the most shameful of them. That workshop report claims that “Radiation research has a glorious history of sound animal models.” I’ve only offered a sketch or two of that history here, but I’ve perused a very great deal more, and I can’t find anything glorious there. It has been inherently a cowardly enterprise. A suitable New Year’s resolution for the human species would be to face up to our future with honourable self-reliance, instead of trying to make the other animals solve our troubles for us.

 

Notes and references:

The Lassie advert is in the archive of the US National Library of Medicine, and can be seen here: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/animals/atomic.html

There is any amount of material documenting the Crossroads tests, including notably the web-site of de-classified documents from the US National Security Archive, at  https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/environmental-diplomacy-nuclear-vault/2016-07-22/bikini-bomb-tests-july-1946. The quotation about publicity, and the phrase “radioactive stoves”, come from that page, as well as the photograph of test Able and the report on the animals used in the Baker test. The quotation about amenities for journalists comes from James P.Delgado, Nuclear Dawn: the Atomic Bomb from the Manhattan Project to the Cold War, Osprey, 2009, p.147. See also The Effects of Atomic Weapons, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, McGraw-Hill, 1950.

As for film, links to official documentary films can be found on the web-site of the Atomic Heritage Foundation: https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/operation-crossroads. Some of that footage appears also in the compelling 1988 film by Robert Stone, Radio Bikini.

The quoted article in Time magazine was published in the issue for 11 April 1949. The 1960s booklet is Animals in Atomic Research, published in 1969 by the US Atomic Energy Commission, quoted at p.37.

Both of the recent research articles quoted were published in Radiation Research: the first is dated August 2003, vol.160, no.2, pp.159-67, the quotation being from the preliminary abstract; the second is  from April 2010, vol.173, no.4, pp.557-78, the quotations being from pp.557 and 573.

It’s a crisis, but nothing to do with them . . .

It’s frequently asserted that the global pharmaceutical industry is in deep trouble. Owing to the staggering cost of producing a new drug, ‘big pharma’ needs blockbusters (bestsellers that will generate vast amounts of money). These are few and far between these days, and some observers have concluded that they’ve ‘picked all the low hanging fruit’. However, the American medical culture is unique. The USA is one of only two countries (the other is New Zealand) that allow drug companies to advertise on TV. Consequently the USA is swamped with medication, and ‘big pharma’ spends billions on direct advertising to doctors, and on ensuring that regulators and politicians don’t interfere with their activities.

Since 1999, prescription pain medication has killed about 350,000 Americans, and it’s the leading cause of death among the under 50s in the USA. This is ‘the opioid epidemic’, and it’s a monumental human catastrophe. Opium-based treatments for pain were restricted until the early 1980s, when a single paper (later revealed to be based on weak data) and a short 101 word letter to a leading journal established a whopping lie: “Less than 1% of patients treated with opioids become addicted.” Drug companies now produced a range of synthetic versions of opioids, and the marketing aimed at regulators and doctors was explicit. The message was simple and very successful: “It’s irresponsible not to treat pain.”  

Several brands were involved in the crisis, but there’s a general consensus that OxyContin is a major culprit. It became available in 1996, and was issued by Purdue Pharma. OxyContin used a proprietary coating designed to offer “continuous release” (hence the “Contin”) and it was disingenuously claimed to be “less addictive”. In fact, the release mechanism made it more addictive, and anyway the coating could easily be removed. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved OxyContin for “moderate to severe pain”, and Purdue launched an unprecedented marketing campaign. They employed almost 1,000 reps, and specifically targeted locations where two crucial factors were firmly established; there were high levels of opioid prescription and dependency was already an issue. A typical example is the destitute rural towns of Appalachia, and in one of these (population only 3,000) a single clinic legally prescribed more drugs than the whole of West Virginia’s University Hospital. Unsurprisingly some prescribers were making a fortune, and one enthusiastic doctor crammed some of his $7 million in cash into a safe deposit box.

By 2009 sales of OxyContin hit a staggering $3 billion a year, the same year that drug overdose deaths exceeded road accident fatalities in the USA. This grubby saga of corporate greed relied on blatant misrepresentation (via funded reports) to ensure that the FDA and legislative bodies didn’t interrupt the gravy train or the appalling death toll. Purdue insist that they always follow FDA rules, and they blame doctors for over-prescribing and patients for misuse. Earlier this year (2018) Purdue stopped marketing OxyContin, but 2 million Americans are addicted to opioids and heroin use has accelerated (with opioids identified as the gateway drug to heroin).

Obviously, all prescribed opioids in the US and the UK had to go through the legally required animal testing before they were approved. There are multiple causes of the epidemic, but all the deficiencies and immorality of vivisection are exposed by this tragedy. Negative animal results (in this case, pinpointing the highly addictive nature of opioids) can be ignored and then ‘manipulated’ or simply removed before data is supplied to the FDA (see notes below). The cosy relationship between the FDA and pharma companies – the revolving door syndrome – is another and not unconnected scandal.

In the USA Purdue are facing an avalanche of lawsuits, and they will (almost certainly) have to make huge compensation payments. However, these losses will be fairly insignificant against the billions generated by OxyContin. The final irony is that a new treatment for opioid addiction was recently patented in the USA, and the patent was granted to (wait for it) none other than Purdue Pharma.

Paul Freestone

 

Notes:

For a full account of the opioid epidemic, see Beth Macy, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America, Little, Brown and Co., 2018; also Sam Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, Bloomsbury Press, 2016.

A recent article in the journal Science discusses the “incredibly alarming” practice of cherry-picking data from pre-clinical (i.e. animal) trials of drugs, and the flawed reporting of these trials to the FDA: see ‘Study questions animal efficacy data behind trials’, Science, 13 April 2018 (vol.360, p.142), accessible here: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6385/142  It’s an especially shameful part of a wider problem – the failure of truly dis-interested research – which is the special theme of the journal’s issue for 21 September of this year.

The Mirror Test

An article published in August by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, in its online journal bioRXiv, is headed ‘Cleaner wrasse pass the mark test’. The story was picked up in various more popular science publications and in the general media, for this is a much-loved line of research with them – the line in question being clearly announced in the heading which the Daily Mail gave its own account: “Tiny fish is the first to pass the self-awareness test by recognizing its reflection in a mirror.” Or to sum up, in a twitter comment, the sudden claims now being made on behalf of this fish, “Cleaner fish are AWESOME! They show self-awareness.”

The research itself was somewhat less conclusive. Ten of these cleaner wrasse fishes (Labroides dimidiatus) were put into a tank which contained a mirror. At XRF-Labroides_dimidiatusfirst they treated their own reflections as intruders into their territory and acted accordingly. Then, becoming used to the mirror, they behaved in a more improvised manner, apparently testing out the mirror with “idiosyncratic postures and actions”. Finally they seemed to use the mirror more as humans might, showing “self-directed behaviour”. This behaviour most specifically included scraping off marks (hence the ‘mark test’) which had been applied to their skin under anaesthetic and were designed to be undetectable to the fishes except in their own reflections.

The conclusion which the authors reach in their report is that the fishes did indeed show responses of the sort recorded for previously ‘successful’ species, notably chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, and magpies. Therefore, if those former experiments are to be regarded as having demonstrated self-awareness in the animals concerned, so must these be: cleaner wrasse, then, must be “self-conscious and have a true theory of mind” (i.e. awareness of their own mind and motives, and of those which others may have). However, faced with this ambitious imputation, the authors very reasonably prefer to argue that the test itself is unsound, or at least has been over-interpreted in the past. The test shows, they suggest, no more than an animal’s awareness of its own body (surely a necessity for survival) and the ability to learn that a mirror can enhance this awareness. And indeed other research has shown that pigeons and even ants (please accept the ‘even’ for now) can put a mirror to such use. To claim self-awareness for all these creatures would be to make it an ordinary condition of life – which perhaps it is, but nobody so far does assert this; on the other hand, to claim it for apes and dolphins who ‘pass’ the test, but not for these other less prestigious creatures, would be (I’m delighted to find these scientists saying) “taxonomically chauvinistic” – i.e. speciesist.

The authors of the article end by suggesting that “many more species may be able to pass the test when it is applied in a manner that is sympathetic to their natural biology.” This is surely true, and in fact the ethologists Mark Bekoff and Roberto Gatti have adapted the test for dogs by using the scent of the dogs’ own urine as the ‘reflection’. For of course making it a test of vision, the primary sense for humans but not for every animal, inevitably ties it to what humans do, makes it in fact a set of comparisons with ourselves.

And indeed that is just what it always has been. The hidden or (in more popular versions) expressed question has always been not just ‘How like us is this animal?’ but ‘How nearly as clever as us is this animal?’ Hence the strangely unscientific terminology which has been characteristic of this line of research, and which we’ve already seen instances of. Thus, elephants who seemed to recognize themselves in a mirror, as we were told in the leading professional journal Science a few years ago, “have joined the elite group”. The same journal more recently reported on a similar capacity in some magpies: only two out of the group of birds “passed the test”, but this is apparently “similar to the success rate in chimpanzees.” To sum up: passing the mirror test, so this article says,

is regarded as evidence of knowing who you are – a higher neural skill underlying human abilities such as self-consciousness and self-reflection. Researchers have given the test to a wide variety of species. Most fail.

Fail! It’s a wonder (I know the point has already been made elsewhere in this blog) that these second-string animals manage at all. You’d have to feel sorry for them.

This new research with cleaner wrasse, and its revision of the standard interpretation of such research, ought to help correct the absurd anthropocentrism of the mirror-test tradition, and is accordingly welcome. Even so, it’s sad to see these strange and fascinating animals (already demeaned and abused as decorative fishes for aquaria) emerge into the light of intellectual attention for this irrelevant reason, that they may ‘know who they are’ or at any rate be able to learn how to use a mirror. The beauty and complexity of their niche in coral reefs, where they eat the parasites and other unwanted material off ‘client’ fish, and indeed help to keep the whole coral system clean, make this mirror test crude and reductive. It’s really a part of the ‘smarter than we thought’ genre of research, which itself has some relation to the amusement of dressing animals in human clothes. It all amounts to preening ourselves in the rest of nature: in short, making a mirror of it, for of course we are, as a species, mirror-addicts.

As to the ethics, the testing of the cleaner wrasse had the blessing of the Animal Care and Use Committee of Osaka City University, where the research was done, and we must suppose that the Committee meant what it said. But these mirror experiments are necessarily tainted with the cruelty of the behavioural psychology tradition, and their earlier versions, at least, show as much. The originator of the MSR test (mirror self-recognition) was Gordon Gallup, from Tulane University’s Psychology Department – always an ominous location for research animals. Gallup published his first report on the subject in 1970. His subjects were four “pre-adolescent” chimpanzees, born in the wild (a happily mirror-free environment, ensuring that they’d had no practice). Here’s what happened to them:

Each animal [the report goes] was placed by itself in a small cage situated in the corner of an otherwise empty room. [Remember that a sense of self is what’s being looked for in the animals who are being treated thus.] After two days of isolation in this situation a full-length mirror was positioned 3.5 metres in front of the cage to provide enforced self-confrontation. Observations of the animal’s behaviour were made by watching his reflection in the mirror through a small hole in an adjacent wall. After 2 days (8 hours each) of exposure to the reflected image, the mirror was moved to within 0.6 m of the cage and left in that position for 8 days … etc.

It’s a miserable performance, with its bleak and meaningless setting, cruel isolation of the juvenile animals, and “enforced self-confrontation”, all tending to rule out natural behaviour, and then the scientists squinting at it all through a hole, like Peeping Toms. (For more on this last particularly unpleasant dimension in animal research, see the petition set up earlier this month by Peta under the heading ‘Sex, Violence, and Vivisection; Are Some Animal Experimenters Psychopaths?’, noted below. I’m not, of course, suggesting that Gallup or his assistants were of this kind.) And although these unpleasant proceedings were offered as “the first experimental demonstration of a self-concept in a sub-human form”, the experiments with cleaner wrasse, to say nothing of pigeons and ants, have since suggested that very little was really being discovered.

Reports on MSR in the more popular science press and other media (which, as I say, love all this kind of ‘smarter than we thought’ research) are frequently headed ‘Mirror, Mirror’, to give the science a brightening connection to a familiar saying, the wicked stepmother’s refrain in the folk story of Snow mirror, mirrorWhite. Evidently it’s not done with any serious thought, because that story, so far from representing as an evolutionary boon the sort of self-awareness dramatized by correct use of the mirror, shows it as a source of neurotic restlessness and self-doubt. And that indeed is the mirror’s habitual character in the fictions where it appears. Here’s a trio of the finest of these, with the dominant sentiment in each case: Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘I look into my glass’ (self-pity), Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’ (helpless protest against ageing), Shakespeare’s Richard II  (the king calls for a mirror, trying unsuccessfully to authenticate himself). These instances, with their sadly alienated mirror-gazers, don’t prove anything of course, but they represent a tradition of intelligent distrust of the kind of self-awareness that the mirror represents, and the “self-directed” mind and life which go with it.

No doubt this capacity to see and think we know ourselves, as individuals, groups, nations, and even species, has been essential to the rise of humanity, for good or ill. But we should admire the talent cautiously, cease to regard it as one of nature’s top prizes, and cease to teach it (or think we’re teaching it) to other animals. It’s not, after all, what is most needed by us now, or by them at all. The animal-activist son of a professor of psychology in Karen Joy Fowler’s brilliant novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves puts it thus:

We need a sort of reverse mirror test. Some way to identify those species smart enough to see themselves when they look at someone else. Bonus points for how far out the chain you can go. Double bonus for those who get all the way to insects. [my italics]

Or as Albert Schweitzer said in one of his Sermons on Reverence for Life, “Wherever you see life – that is you!”

 

Notes and references:

The full article from bioRXiv, posted 21 August 2018, is linked here: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/early/2018/08/21/397067.full.pdf+html  The twitter comment was posted alongside the short version of that article.

The Daily Mail online reported the research on 31 August.

An article on self-awareness in dogs, as tested with urine samples, can be seen at https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/do-dogs-have-sense-self

The Science article about elephants (‘Jumbo Reflections’) appeared in the issue for 30 October 2006, and about magpies (‘The Magpie in the Mirror’) on 19 August 2008. The report by Gordon G. Gallup Jr on his chimpanzee experiments (‘Chimpanzees: Self-Recognition’) appeared in Science on 2 January 1970.

The Peta report and petition can be found at https://headlines.peta.org/sex-violence-vivisection/?utm_source=PETA

The quotation from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is at pp.201-2 of the edition published by Profile Books, 2014. Albert Schweitzer is quoted from A Place for Revelation: Sermons on Reverence for Life (Macmillan, 1998), p.10, translation by David Larrimore Holland. The sermons were originally preached in 1919, in the Church of St Nicolai, Günsbach. The saying is not Schweitzer’s own, of course, but is at least as old as the Hindu Upanishad from which he borrows it.

The sketch of Labroides dimidiatus is by Xavier Romero-Frias, and the illustration of the Snow White story comes from a 1916 re-telling in Europa’s Fairy Book.

 

Fitting Them for Slaughter: the Work of Temple Grandin and Others

The planning application presently before Canterbury Town Council (in the UK) to set up a research business specializing in farmed animals is a reminder that modern livestock farming is continuously serviced and promoted by laboratory-style science. In fact sheep and chickens are two species whose numbers showed an increase in the most recent Home Office statistics (for 2016): 3% and 9% respectively, compared to the general decrease in numbers of 5%, though of course not all the procedures in these cases were for agricultural purposes. The Canterbury research business uses the go-ahead name ‘VetQuest’ – for yes, vets continue to play their especially treacherous part in streamlining the movement of farm animals from birth to plate.

Among the institutions playing their part is the British Society of Animal Science, with its journal Animal. That’s a very suitable title, equivocally ‘animal’ as an Goat meat boardindividual or ‘animal’ as collective matter like water or wood. Turning the individual ever more efficiently and profitably into matter is the Society’s aim, and it’s not squeamish about the process. The most recent of the BSAS conferences, ‘Bull Fertility: theory to practice’, makes that very clear, with its sessions on ‘Optimizing semen procedures’ and ‘Pathophysiology of bull sub-fertility’. After all, “the reproductive performance of cattle is critical to farm productivity.”

That very ugly word ‘performance’, astonishingly callous when applied to fertility and the mutilated sex-lives of animals on farms, is always the crucial term for the BSAS and its kindred. ‘Performance’ is their jargon word for profitability: the end-value of an animal, less all the trouble and expense involved in hustling it there. And “there” is not just the supermarket shelf, but right into the human chops. Thus a recent article in Animal, asking and answering the question ‘How does barley supplementation in lambs grazing alfalfa affect meat sensory quality and authentication?’ (note how the animals turn from life into food even in the space of the one title), studies the problem of “excessive odour/flavour in the meat” and the consequent “purchase resistance”. You’ll be interested to know that barley supplementation doesn’t solve this serious performance failure: something for VetQuest to look into, perhaps, if it gets planning permission.

The most famous example of animal science as applied to meat-producing is the work of Dr Temple Grandin (“the world knows her”, it says on her web-site). For many years she has been a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, specializing in the behaviour and management of farm animals. This is a remarkable woman, someone who evidently does have an understanding of non-human minds far beyond the strictly scientific. She attributes that to her autism, a subject on which she likewise lectures and writes with authority: as she says in her book Animals in Translation (2005) “Autistic people are closer to animals than normal people are.” [57] Specifically she believes that autistic people make much more use of the older “animal” parts of the brain, and therefore think as animals do, in pictures and details. The more lately developing neo-cortex of the brain has enabled most modern humans to think in concepts and generalisations, and indeed has strongly biased them toward doing that.

The insight which Dr Grandin claims to have gained in this way isn’t just a matter of understanding, or even of the highly-developed sympathy which she clearly does feel for animals, especially cows (“Cows are the animals I love best.” [307]). She argues, or believes she does, for animals to be more valued and more highly respected in our lives:

“I hope we’ll start to think more about what animals can do, and less about what they can’t. It’s important, because we’ve gotten too far away from the animals who should be our partners in life, not just pets or objects of study.” [303]

I say “believes she does” because although “partners in life” is a strong phrase, it’s attached here and more generally to claims about their concealed talents (concealed from us, that is). “Are animals as smart as people?” is one of the sub-headings in Animals in Translation [248]. The answer ought not simply to be “I can’t answer that question, and neither can anyone else”, which is the one she gives (and an excellent one as far as it goes), but rather ‘why should it matter?’ We need to respect animal lives as such, not just their capacities, still less the tricks we can get out of them, however intriguing these may be. This is something which Dr Grandin does not compass. In fact when she does speak deliberately about the value of “more primitive living organisms such as oysters or insects”, in her paper ‘Animals are not Things’ (2002), all her examples turn out to be value for human consumption: “bees pollinating flowers . . . a species that becomes extinct might have provided a cure for cancer . . . natural ecosystems are beautiful . . . ” and so on.

But of course a much more conspicuous instance of this compromised sympathy with animals is the use to which Temple Grandin’s knowledge of them has most profitably been put. Her fame and success in animal science arise mainly from the equipment and advice which she provides to slaughterhouses: “Half the cattle in the United States and Canada are handled in humane slaughter systems I’ve designed.” [7]

The main aim of these systems (a term which includes equipment, handling techniques, and monitoring methods) has been to reduce the fear felt by the animals. Dr Grandin writes extensively and very well about fear in animals: “The single worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally is to make it feel afraid. Fear is so bad for animals, I think it’s worse than pain.” [189] She is familiar with the research in the subject, of course. In fact she refers with surprising insouciance, even enthusiasm, to experiments which ought to arouse disgust and indignation (one “terrific study on fear and survival”, for instance, “put a bunch of guppies in with a piranha in a fish tank”, and showed how the more fearless ones got eaten first, the more nervous progressively later [196]). However, she also, again, uses personal experience to illuminate this subject: “I’m sure that’s why I relate to prey animals like cattle as strongly as I do: because my emotional make-up is similar. Fear is a horrible problem for people with autism.” [191]

For herself, the solution has been partly force of character, partly medication: “I take anti-depressants, and they’ve gotten rid of my fear.” I would guess that this success has been possible for her because her fears are mostly mind-created or at least mind-enhanced, and to that extent insubstantial. After all, Temple Grandin herself isn’t a prey animal. But cattle are, blatantly so in slaughterhouses. Their fear is wholly rational, for as she says on her web-site, “animals use their emotions . . . to predict the future” and the future in this case is quite properly terrifying. How, then, to get rid of their fear?

That Dr Grandin has indeed been able to relieve billions of animals in slaughterhouses of at least some portion of their fear is evident, and it’s surely been of real service to animal welfare. She has done nothing, of course, to relieve them of the grounds of fear. All her calming devices – the curving approach-passage which makes them feel that they’re returning “home”, the graduated lighting which makes each stage of the fatal journey turn smoothly into the next, the ‘double-rail’ conveyer giving them confidence in their uprightness – are ways of concealing the truth from the animals. In this sense they’re elaborate euphemisms, of a piece with the all-inclusive euphemism “humane slaughter” – which phrase Dr Grandin happily uses. And of course, as that phrase shows, the whole array of euphemisms works as unfounded reassurance for humans as well as for the animals. Indeed, Dr Grandin has the astonishing expression “stairway to heaven” for the ramp which cattle walk up towards the ‘slaughter hold’. It’s not a heartless joke: she means it. And the brief discussion of it on her web-site shows that even this fantastical euphemism works, for her and for others: works, that is, in reconciling otherwise decent people to their participation in the mass destruction of innocent youthful life.

Meanwhile, in making slaughter a smoother, less frenzied business, Temple Grandin has promoted its efficiency and success. For she too is in the ‘performance’ game, as her science publications clearly show. On ‘PSE’, for instance (PSE stands for “pale, soft, exudative pork”, another product which encounters “purchase resistance”), she advises slaughterhouses, “PSE increases if pigs are handled roughly at the plant, because excited pigs become over-heated . . . Rough handling, electric prods, and jamming raise lactate levels which damages meat quality.” A conference paper from 1994 advises how to prevent ‘bloodsplash’ (“a severe cosmetic defect that affects the appearance of the meat”). In fact she has produced a huge corpus of research work aimed at helping the meat industry satisfy what she calls “the needs of today’s customers”. She herself, of course, is among those customers.

Another woman who has spent long hours in slaughterhouses, the artist Sue Coe, speaks of Temple Grandin as “a sort of ‘fix-it’ person”, dealing with a fundamental wrong by putting right its symptoms. And that’s what animal science of the sort practised by the BSAS and by countless other scientists and science institutions characteristically does: for instance by devising more docile breeds of animal, finding new ways of keeping factory-farmed animals ‘healthy’ (one of VetQuest’s aims is a feed which makes antibiotics unnecessary), or demonstrating that farmers can stock pigs at higher densities with “no difference to animal welfare” and “without impacting on performance” (a recent BSAS conference highlight).

Apologists for animal research habitually argue that the animals they use are both far fewer in number and much better treated than farmed animals. But in fact modern farming methods would not exist without the constant aid and attention of laboratory-style research: the two are not separable. The campaigning organisation PETA quite rightly ran a petition against the Canterbury planning application. It’s a very small operation that’s being proposed there, but it’s one instance of a giant-scale misuse of science and of animals.

 

Notes and references:

Other treatments of this theme in the VERO blog can be found in the ‘category’ list under ‘Farming Connections’.

The BSAS bull fertility conference is reported here: https://bsas.org.uk/about-bsas/news/future-of-cattle-production-revealed-at-bsas-bull-fertility-event

The quoted article from Animal (abstract only) can be found here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/animal/article/how-does-barley-supplementation-in-lambs-grazing-alfalfa-affect-meat-sensory-quality-and-authentication/4F480D4F24ABB4AD4E747AD1198D9D48

Quotations from Animals in Translation are taken from the paperback edition (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006), page numbers in square brackets. The paper titled ‘Animals are not Things’ can be read here: http://www.grandin.com/welfare/animals.are.not.things.html

Other Temple Grandin quotations are taken from articles posted on her ‘Humane Slaughter’ web-site, http://www.grandin.com/

Sue Coe is quoted from an interview posted at https://responsibleeatingandliving.com/favorites/gary-steiner-and-sue-coe-the-vegan-imperative/ For more about Sue Coe in this blog, see https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/the-vegan-animals-manifesto-by-sue-coe/

The BSAS conference presentation on density of pigs is at https://bsas.org.uk/articles/animal-bytes/pig-performance-not-affected-by-higher-stocking-rates

The photograph above is of a noticeboard in Witney, Oxfordshire, a mile or so from the large Muchmeats Slaughterhouse. Oxfordshire Animal Save holds vigils on the access road to this animal save 1slaughterhouse from time to time, and the photo on the left is from one such occasion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Trail of an Untruth

Oxford University’s online introduction to animal research, headed ‘Research using animals: an overview’, takes the form of a questions and answer session. Your simple requests for guidance (“Why is animal research necessary?”, “Is it morally right to use animals in research?”, “Aren’t animals too different from humans to tell us anything useful?”, etc.) are answered with firm authority (“No.” starts the answer to that last question) but in relaxed, even incorrect, English (“they share a huge amount of similarities with humans.”).

Your fourteenth question (a slight whine imputed to it by this time) is this: “We may have used animals in the past to develop medical treatments, but are they really needed in the 21st century?” It receives the following answer: “Yes. New techniques have dramatically reduced the number of animals needed – the number has almost halved over the last 30 years – but there is overwhelming scientific consensus … etc.” No comparative figures, for the University or for the UK, are supplied to justify that astonishing claim between the dashes. However, it clearly refers to the nation as a whole, and of course the national numbers are readily available. They show that in the 29 years between 1987, when the counting system introduced by the 1986 Act came into use, and 2016, when the national statistics were last published, there has been an increase of about 5%. (If 1986 were taken as the reference date, the increase would be larger, but the two numbers are not properly comparable.) Not a steady increase, it’s true: there was a fall in the numbers till the year 2001, to about 2.6 million, then a steady rise to the 2016 number of 3.94 million. This history needs to be kept in mind during what follows.

Why should the University’s Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee (ACER), whose duty it is among other things to keep the University and the wider public informed on this subject, make such a wild and therefore discreditable claim about numbers? The answer, as I discovered by asking, is that it didn’t. Apparently ACER itself doesn’t compose the official public account of animal research at the University. The account is put together in the University’s Public Affairs Office. Presumably that’s why these animal research pages, which date from about 2011 and hardly alter except when the annual numbers change, nevertheless appear in the category ‘News and Events’. We’re dealing, as it turns out, not with the voice of authority but with PR.

So how did the Public Affairs Office come by this false claim? Unlike ACER, this is a department of the University which doesn’t willingly answer questions (its preference is evidently for what the Concordat on Openness calls “public-facing communication tools”: i.e. one-way traffic). Therefore I had to start with a guess. In its search for tonic material about animal research, where would the Public Affairs Office look? Surely it would go to its fellow-professionals at Understanding Animal Research. The UAR web-site is there for just such a purpose. “Click here to find everything you need to know about animal research”, it says – this particular encouragement specifically but rather puzzlingly directed at “scientists”. To journalists, the appeal is more frankly utilitarian: “the pages below give you quick access to our media centre, where you will find guidelines, quick facts, and links to other good information sources.” Quick facts: just what the Public Affairs Office would have been hoping for. So that’s the trail I followed.

But this is a very large web-site, branching out indeed into subordinate web-sites: one a sort of encyclopaedia of the subject (AnimalResearch.info), another a “global information service about animal rights extremism” (AnimalRightsExtremism.info), a third dealing with the industry’s Concordat on Openness. As the UAR’s name implies, the general premise of the whole site is that not disputation but knowledge is what brings us to a right attitude: that is, to approval of animal research as a necessary resource when other satisfactory means do not exist. This is what UAR habitually refers to as “the middle ground”, though what exactly it’s in the middle of is not clear: certainly there is a more radical position (in favour of abolition), but no position more reactionary than UAR’s (anything goes, for instance) is countenanced by UK law.

In general the tone of the web-site is merely positivistic, rather than defensive or strident. Here is UAR on the subject ‘Goat’, for instance. (That title itself, making the animal sound like a useful material, oil or aluminium perhaps, makes further comment unnecessary.) “Goats”, we’re told,

are gaining acceptance as an established model for biomedical research and surgical training . . . Moreover, a unique advantage to using livestock or companion animal species is that it also allows for ‘dual-purpose’ research: that is, research that not only benefits human health by greater understanding of biological processes, but can also advance animal agriculture so that we have a continued supply of abundant, safe, affordable, and high quality meat and dairy products.

Besides, the “friendly and docile nature of the goat” make it a particularly “desirable animal model for research and teaching programs”. At the end of this survey of the animal – a text whose spelling suggests that it comes from an American source, though none is cited – we’re told that “214 experimental procedures used goat [again] for research in 2016 in the UK.” 214? Wake up, UK: you’re missing opportunities!

Other animal species can be followed in an ‘A-Z of animals’. (I’m still looking for the source of that claim.) Ferrets, for instance: among their points of utility has apparently been the testing of the notorious drug thalidomide, which “induces birth defects in very few species”. That’s odd, because elsewhere we’re told that thalidomide would have shown up as harmful to unborn babies if only testing on animals had then been required, because “it had very similar effects in many species.” This latter version is perhaps the more reliable, since it appears in a section expressly devoted to correcting common misunderstandings, headed ‘Myths and Facts’.

Countering the ignorance and disingenuousness of its opponents is an essential part of UAR’s mission, and a certain amount of acerbity, jeering even, is thought legitimate here. (This is especially so in the pieces written by UAR’s Head of Policy and Media, Chris Magee. His account of Frances Power Cobbe was the subject of a post in VERO’s blog on 1 August 2017.) Accordingly, the ‘myths’ are presented adversarially, as ill-informed assertions, rather than as polite questions (“Research on animals is not relevant to people because animals are different from people”, rather than Oxford University’s “Aren’t animals too different from humans to tell us anything useful?”). But otherwise this feature on the UAR web-site does bear quite a close resemblance to the University page. And sure enough, when we reach myth number 11, “Animals don’t need to be used in research because there are alternatives”, the factual correction includes these sentences: “Scientists have strong ethical, economic and legal obligations to use animals in research only when necessary. Thus the number of research animals used annually in the UK has almost halved in the last 30 years.” Found it!

I don’t doubt that this was the source for the University’s statement, dismaying as it must be to see a university picking up and disseminating knowledge in this amateurish way. It unhappily illustrates, in fact, just how ‘myths’ (in this loose sense) work. As for UAR, their excuse for setting the myth going is that it was material left over from some earlier year, when it was quite properly posted as a fact. The last time such a claim could justly have been made was in the period 2001-4, when numbers were indeed about half what they had been in the UK’s worst vivisection years of the 1970s. 2004: that was well before UAR even existed under its present name. “Click here”, then, “to find everything you only need to think you know about animal research.”

UAR has promptly removed the claim from its web-site, but of course it’s the habit of myths to live on in spite of the evidence or even of express correction. At the time of writing, Oxford University continues to give the claim currency (though VERO first queried it in mid-April), and who can say where else it’s been taken up and promoted? I know that numbers aren’t the essence of what’s wrong with vivisection. They may even – as this blog has often said – help to obfuscate the matter. They certainly will if they’re not even the right ones.

 

Notes and references:

The Oxford University web-page in question is at http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

You can see a chart of Home Office numbers from 1945 onwards on p.13 of the statistical report for 2016: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/627284/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2016.pdf

“public-facing communication tools” is quoted from the Annual Report of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, 2017, referenced and commented on in this blog last Christmas here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/12/18/advent-pr-style/

UAR’s web-site is at http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/  The account of the goat is on the associated web-site here: http://www.animalresearch.info/en/designing-research/research-animals/goat-capra-aegagrus-hircus/