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:  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:

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:  The film was released on the membership film-streaming service MUBI this month, and some interesting pages are devoted to it here:

Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter are quoted from an interview with Cineeuropa here:

The Guardian review, with a foolish punning title, was published on 10 September and can be read here:

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: The Early Day Motions can be seen at and at

The Roslin Institute mission, and information about its new facilities, are quoted from its web-site here: The cloned sheep Dolly was another Roslin achievement, featured in this blog here:

MARC (full name the Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center) is quoted from its web-site here: Its research into reproduction is featured at

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:

Agriness is quoted from its web-site here:

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:

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:

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 “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 tomorrow.


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:  The summaries submitted in 2018 and discussed above can be found here:

Likewise, a more general account of ASRU was posted in this blog under the title ‘Policing the Lab’:  ASRU’s report for 2018 was published this month, and can be read here:  Quotations are from pp.37, 24, and 10.

The special ASRU reports are posted online here: 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   The figures given above for pig and poultry inspections come from DEFRA’s publication On-farm welfare inspections 2016, online at

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:

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:

The wood-cut ‘Abattoir’ is from The Vegan Animals’ Manifesto by the artist and activist Sue Coe: see

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,


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:

A report on the Logothetis affair can be found in the journal Science here:

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:

China Daily reported on the 2016 proposals on 18 January 2016 here:

CAPN is quoted from its web-site, which is well worth viewing:

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

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 consequently 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:  and

The Mirror article, published on 26 March, can be read here:

The Guardian article, published on 28 March) is here: c

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: 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 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 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 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 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 report is published here:

The Care2 petition is available here:

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:

UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights can be read here:

The picture, Monkey Business: Deadly Virus, is by the artist Sue Coe, who is featured in this blog on 25 September 2017:


Here Come the Concordat Folk

With the season of Advent comes the annual awards ceremony of the Concordat on Openness, celebrating another year of the animal-research community’s keen presence in the limelight of its own publicity. Speeches, awards, thanks, mutual congratulation, promises of even greater things in the future: there’s something of the school prize-day about it all, as I’ve commented before. But if these events, and therefore the blog-posts that have been shadowing them, do seem somewhat repetitious, it’s not because things are standing still.

The Concordat, now in its fifth year, continues to grow: there are now 122 signed-up institutions. All of them are required to make online statements of policy about the work that they do or fund others to do; they are urged, in addition, to provide figures and further details of the work, preferably with case studies, videos, virtual tours of laboratories, and so on, with the result that one could now fidget away whole hours online, viewing what animal research institutions are happy for others to know about their activities. And real-life “outreach” likewise proliferates, with open days, staff and family tours, school visits, and work placements, all tending to “embed” (this year’s favourite Concordat word) the institutions in their communities. Remember that a few years ago this sort of work was nearly invisible, except when it burst out as scandals. Now it simply comes at you with a will: advent indeed.

Nor evidently is the work itself, as supported by all this public relations effort, likely to diminish significantly any time soon. That’s by no means part of the Concordat’s purpose, although all signatories have to show commitment to the talismanic 3Rs (reduction, refinement, replacement). By way of illustration, the most recent batch of animal-research statistics – from Northern Ireland, which submits its numbers separately from Great Britain – shows a sprightly upwardness. Although its total of ‘animal procedures’ for 2018 (28,790) wouldn’t get it into the same league as the ‘Top Ten’ (that’s what Understanding Animal Research calls the ten UK universities which score the most procedures), still it represents an increase of 16.3% over the 2017 number, which itself had shown a rise of 11.4% over the year before that. Queen’s University Belfast, a Concordat signatory, accounted for over half that 2018 total. In fact, since the Concordat was formally launched in 2014, the numbers of procedures at Queen’s has risen by 48%.

Of course, I didn’t have to pry out these numbers; they’re on the university’s own web-site or on UAR’s. In fact the UAR’s news report on Northern Ireland’s numbers in 2018 was plainly and pre-emptively headed ‘Increase in Animal Research in Northern Ireland. The fact was neither hidden nor apologised for; a much more sophisticated public relations policy than that is now in use. In fact the policy was already implied in the change of name in 2008 from the old ‘Research Defence Society’ (founded exactly one hundred years earlier) to ‘Understanding Animal Research’. As the Concordat web-site tells some of its more reluctant signatories, “We need to shout about why we do what we do.”

And they might indeed learn how to shout from the example of this year’s winner of the Concordat’s ‘Website or Use of New Media’ award: Reading University. Back in July, Reading introduced its annual research statistics with a story inviting readers to “Name our life-saving baby llama”. Prudently fending off in advance unsuitable or uncooperative suggestions, the university offered the witty and topical choice “Jeremy or Boris?” (because – don’t forget – animal research is serious, but it’s also fun.) Apparently, perhaps one must now also say ironically, ‘Jeremy’ won. That result is now hidden away in university news stories of the moment (and it did take me a while to find), but the birth of the “cute baby llama” (UAR’s phrase) into its animal-research heritage still occupies a prominent page of its own: no point in wasting a good stunt.

Meanwhile elsewhere in its animal research pages, under the heading ‘Further Improvements’, Reading University announces progress on “a new state-of-the-art Health and Life Sciences Building”, with a “high-specification biological resource unit” for its animal accommodation and research. Liberated by the Concordat spirit of show-and-tell from the secretive knots which poor Oxford University tied itself in when it was planning its equivalent facility less than fifteen years ago, Reading makes its own proud news story of the project. Yes, a very great change is occurring.

And all this is not exactly boasting; it’s just confidently making known. Back in 2015 the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics published a report on vivisection titled Normalizing the Unthinkable. Perhaps ‘unthinkable’ was a curious word to select for a practice which has been institutionalized in the UK for well over 150 years (and the phrase was in fact borrowed from a 1980s article about atomic weaponry), but yes, ‘normalizing’ is the word we want. The Oxford Centre’s report didn’t have the Concordat in mind: the project was hardly underway at that time, and is not mentioned. But that’s what the Concordat is doing: making animal research familiar and accepted, emptying it of surprises, in short making a “non-story” of it (the phrase was used in last year’s Concordat Annual Report) – except of course where the story is about a ‘medical break-through’.

That’s surely why the Concordat authorities habitually urge signatories to include in their publicity some account of the real ‘costs’ to animals of their research. Every year, the Concordat issues a report of the year’s progress, and every year this matter of declaring costs in animal suffering is noted as a point of difficulty, one that’s “challenging for many signatories”. It’s understandable (so this year’s report concedes) that they should be chary of “providing any information that might show their research or institution in a negative light” [p.17]. But failing to do so not only makes all the talk about openness fraudulent; it also tucks away exactly the sort of information which can subsequently be found and embarrassingly sensationalized by undercover reporters, whistle-blowers, or other dissenting parties.

The Concordat does not anywhere imply, as a way of dealing with this problem, that research which is likely to entail severe suffering to the animals might simply be abjured. And after all, one doesn’t have to show it in pictures or videos, because fortunately it was discovered during the ‘Public Dialogue’ which preceded and guided the devising of the Concordat that lay people “did not want to see graphic or shocking images” [17]. One just has to get the news out first, and thereby own it; the key word always is “proactive”. Members of the Concordat sign up to this principle of pre-emptive publicity as one of their promises, and the happy result is noted in the report: “Fewer reactive communications on the use of animals in research, due to more information proactively in the public domain.” [2]

So the “lasting change” which the Concordat urges upon its signatories is not in the animal research itself: the aim is “to change the way that everyone thinks about animal research” [my italics]. Nor is this just a way of keeping things as they are. It is that, certainly, and Reading University’s case study of research on dairy cattle is wholly characteristic in that respect: noting that “emissions from the dairy industry . . . have a significant negative impact on the environment”, the university is apparently “leading the way in understanding how our dairy industry can play its part in tackling climate change.” “our”, you see; we’ve got the industry, whether you like it or not, so let’s see how its breeding and feeding practices, already the product of decades of pitiless research, can be improved so that a bit less damage is caused by it.

But in fact the Concordat must, if successful, provide a positive boost for animal research. And it has already been remarkably successful: not perhaps so far in persuading the public – “signatories do not feel that there is evidence of impacts beyond the research sector at this time”, the report says – but certainly in raising the status of animal research professionally. Signatories report “increased profile of animal facilities within their establishments, leading to greater investment . . . [2] That new building at Reading University, with its “high-specification biological resource unit”, is one such investment. There will surely be more. Queen’s Belfast has got to put all those extra animals somewhere, for instance, and these days it can be somewhere in plain view. That’s where it’s going to be least conspicuous.


Notes and references:

The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research Awards event on 3 December can be viewed here:  Or there’s a text of the programme here:

Page numbers in square brackets refer to the 2019 Annual Report, which can be read here:

Other quotations, numbers, etc., come from the web-sites of the Concordat, UAR, or Reading University. The quotation about changing the way that “everyone thinks about animal research” is part of an introduction to a new category of exemplary Concordat signatory: ‘Leaders in Openness’.

Accounts of Concordat public relations in previous years appeared in this blog on 11 December 2018, 18 December 2017, and 18 December 2016.

The Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics report Normalizing the Unthinkable was re-published, together with essays by various hands, as The Ethical Case against Animal Experiments, ed. Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey, University of Illinois Press, 2018. The original report was reviewed in this blog here:



The Science of Handing on Misery

An article in the journal Science speaks about orphanages in Pakistan, and of the many children there whose mothers, unable to find paid work in that very conservative society, have been obliged to surrender them. Understandably, these children sometimes show symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, including anxiety and depression. That’s not the only unhappy human scene touched upon in the article, although it’s the only present-day one. The author, Andrew Curry, also speaks of the 1945 famine in Holland, of the Holocaust, and of the American Civil War – a strange assortment of very good reasons to pity the human experience.

The article is titled ‘A Painful Legacy’, because what brings these disasters together in a science journal is the hypothesis that stress and emotional trauma may alter biology in ways that can be transmitted to succeeding generations: not directly, by altering genes themselves, but by modifying the epigenome, defined in the article as “a swirl of biological factors that affect how genes are expressed”. Studies of the children of parents that have suffered in such disasters have discovered “subtle biological alterations – changes so lasting that children might even pass them to their own offspring.” If that really is happening, some revision of evolutionary theory may be necessary, incorporating to some degree the inheritance of acquired characteristics – of undesired and unfavourable ones, at least.

But the word ‘pain’ is always a sort of skull and crossbones for the reader of science journals: it signals vivisection. Whether or not humans do pass their misery down the generations, modern research habitually makes sure that other animal species inherit it, forcing them to try out our pain for us. Most cruelly and haphazardly is this so when the pain in question is the sort suffered by the mind, as in the present instance. And sure enough, the first word of this article’s sub-title is “Mice …” So yes, it’s mice being made to suffer, although mention is also made of experiments on rats, crickets, worms, water fleas, more vaguely “many organisms”, and even more casually just “animals”. (The author mostly calls humans “people”, a non-scientific word which helps to keep us categorically distinct from this scene of zoological service and sacrifice.)

Heredity being the theme, the target of the so-called “mouse intervention” is motherhood. The scientist principally featured in the article, Professor Isabelle Mansuy of Zurich University – a woman, you’ll notice – “separates mouse mothers from their pups at unpredictable intervals and further disrupts parenting by confining the mothers in tubes or dropping them in water, both stressful experiences for mice [in case you wondered].” And this account, unpleasantly reminiscent of Harry Harlow’s notorious experiments with monkeys, continues thus:

When the mothers return to the cage and their pups, they’re frantic and distracted. They often ignore the pups, compounding the stress of the separation on their offspring.

Actually there is a brief pause for ethics after that unsavoury pair of sentences. Two lines of the article reassure us that this contrived misery “has a purpose”, which is “to gain understanding for better child health”.

We aren’t given much reason to expect this purpose to be achieved (and of course, as this article celebrating the work implies, the success of the science and of the scientists does not depend on practical results). For a start there’s the obvious and familiar reservation, expressed already in the second word of the sub-title: “Mice hint at how people’s emotional trauma may affect the biology of their children.” It can only be a hint, for as Professor Mansuy admits, in a break from tormenting her mouse families, “mice and people are different, showing the limits of mouse models.” Among other discontinuities, human histories are full of personal and social unknowns, producing ills whose causes can’t be conveniently traced and measured like the ones which Professor Mansuy devises. Her solution is to look for the right sort of humans, people whose life stories (says Curry) “have similarities to what the mice in Mansuy’s lab experience.” So now we’re looking about for humans to go with the mice!

But let’s suppose that these “epigenetic effects” are indeed confirmed in humans. How will the discovery be made beneficial to them? Curry does his best to make a dramatic ‘breakthrough’ story of it all, with some atmospherics (“Mansuy donned a fresh lab coat . . . and gently cracked the door of a darkened room at her lab at UZH.”) and helpful hyperbole: “really scary stuff”, says another scientist about the idea that “the things we’re doing today, that we thought were erased, are affecting our great-great-grandchildren.” Actually it’s rather a familiar idea, isn’t it? At any rate, it’s mooted in the Bible, and is plainer than ever now that the industrial revolution is afflicting its latter generations with climate change. However, “The implications are profound”, Curry insists; they constitute “a powerful argument against everything from smoking to immigration policies that split families.” So for those of us who had always suspected that smoking and splitting families, to say nothing of famine and civil war, were bad things, but couldn’t explain quite why – well, we’re now scientifically vindicated.

But what if, even now that we’re furnished with this “powerful argument”, we can’t always stop these things from happening? Can this science tell us how to prevent or cure their malign effects in later generations? Again there’s a sort of drum-roll in the article: “In a darkened room down the hall from Mansuy’s office, just outside the mouse breeding area, two cages stand side by side on a table . . .” One of the cages is the standard featureless box endured by countless generations of lab mice as their perfunctory home. The other is ‘enriched’ with play-wheels and a maze; it even has an upstairs. It seems that “traumatized mice raised in this enriched environment don’t pass the symptoms of trauma to their offspring”. And perhaps epigenetic change is not just preventable in this way, with equivalents of enriched environment, but actually “reversible”. That makes sense, after all, for as another scientist is quoted as saying, “If it’s epigenetic, it’s responsive to the environment”, which ought to mean good environments as well as bad. And indeed, Professor Mansuy’s research suggests that “life experience can be healing as well as hurtful.” Mirabile dictu!

Returning to the orphanages in Pakistan: we were told at the start of the article that the children there already get “the best possible support”. So the science of the matter as described by Andrew Curry, with all its equipment and expertise, seems to have taken us on a grand tour of predatory experiment and gratuitous suffering, and then landed us back where we were before, using our ordinary common sense and human decency. Well, not quite back there yet, because it’s all still hypothetical. As a geneticist at the finely-named Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York warns us, there have been no “definitive studies, even in mice”; we need to be “open to the idea that there may be nothing there.”  And Professor Mansuy doesn’t deny it; fortunately for all involved – for the ‘people’ involved, that is – “there’s lots more work to be done.” Of course, there always is, and lots more mice, crickets, and other innocents for it to be done on.

Meanwhile I guess that we should go on giving the orphans and other human legatees of sorrow the best possible support, until we know better.


Notes and references:

‘A Painful Legacy’, written by the journalist Andrew Curry, was published in Science, 19 July 2019, pp.212-15.

The cruelty and futility of Harry Harlow’s research into maternal deprivation are discussed in the post ‘How Not to Treat Babies’ here:


More about the Mouse

The unhappy rise of the mouse as an industrialized laboratory animal has already featured in this blog (see ‘Earth-born Companions’, 7 July 2017). Now it seems that the institution described in that post as driving and servicing this development in the UK, the Medical Research Council’s Harwell Institute in Oxfordshire (“ground breaking mammalian genetics”), is likely to close. That would end scientific research there – though not the breeding and supplying of mice to other institutions, which is a separate operation on the same site. The reason for this closure hasn’t been made public. However, there is similar news from another UK centre for research using mice, the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire, which is about to close down its own mouse-breeding department (though in this case not the research itself), and for this a clear public explanation has been given: “The Sanger Institute is increasingly using alternative technologies to deliver its scientific strategy and this has led to fewer mice being needed.”

We might hope and suppose that these two decisions by notable centres for mouse research indicate a waning of professional enthusiasm for such work. And certainly there has been plenty of criticism of it in recent years. A semi-humourous branch of this criticism appears regularly in the Twitter account @justsaysinmice. Announcements in the press of exciting medical ‘breakthroughs’ (“Scientists make breakthrough with potential new tinnitus cure”, “Scientists discover ‘critical breakthrough’ in cure for baldness”) are re-posted there with the deflationary heading ‘In mice’. The Twitter account is run by a scientist who expressly does not intend it as an attack on the research itself; still, it highlights the truth that most of these ‘breakthroughs’ will remain exclusively mouse-related and not be heard of again in public.

It’s hard to know how far the scientists themselves are to blame when their work is casually bounced into human relevance like this. Some of them seem all too content to be pursuing research on mice as if it’s a goal in itself – which professionally it may well be. But perhaps it’s a point of tactics not to make that too obvious. ‘Social transmission of food safety depends on synaptic plasticity in the prefrontal cortex’ announces a recent report in a professional journal, describing research into the way mice influence each other’s choice of food with involuntary scent signals. This is not offered as a study of mouse behaviour, but as a highly technical and invasive piece of neuroscience, and you may notice the definite article – “the prefrontal cortex” – suggesting the discovery of a general truth. Even so, it soon becomes clear that we’re really just learning a bit more about mice (at their own considerable expense). At no point is any relevance to human diet proposed, and since humans are weak in scent-awareness but do have other more reliable ways of learning from each other what’s good to eat, it’s hard to see how there could be any relevance. The article illustrates the way that mice have become not so much a preliminary in medical research, as something like a surrogate for it.

No wonder, then, that one critical study of neuroscience’s preoccupation with mice has likened it to the situation in Hans Christian Anderson’s story ‘The Emperor’s New Emperor's ClothesClothes’: a kind of shared delusion or conspiracy to admire what isn’t really there. As a result of this delusion, “vast investments of both time and money” have been put into research “rarely translating into successful treatment of major disorders in humans” (aka ‘just in mice’).

We’ll come back later to that article, which is itself not quite what at first it seems. Meanwhile what needs noticing is that none of this criticism from within the profession, valuable as it may be, has any ethical dimension – at least, not one that includes the animals. There was an article in the journal Science recently (31 May issue) complaining of sexism in mouse research, and sub-headed “outdated gender stereotypes are influencing experimental design in laboratory animals.” The charge was that researchers have habitually preferred to use male animals, male mice particularly, because they believe that “circulating ovarian hormones make data from female animals messier and more variable than data from males.” In neuroscience, this preference has encouraged the view that the male brain is the standard, from which the female brain is a more or less unpredictable deviation. It’s an interesting and convincing claim, but the proposed cure for this sexism, which is naturally enough to incorporate female animals in all such studies, will evidently involve using more mice than before. Some studies would simply have to be doubled to accommodate both genders.

So although there’s a strong ethical correction being made here, the mice have no part or profit in it. That becomes especially obvious when the author, Rebecca Shansky of the Department of Psychology at Northeastern University, casually lists some of the ruthless research devices in which these mice, male or female, must participate: “tests such as the elevated plus maze [a device to measure anxiety-responses], forced swim and fear conditioning”. Many more of the like to come, then, because Dr Shansky’s mice may help her and others to break the prerogative of the man, but she won’t be helping them against the prerogative of the human. Ethically, the mice are to remain non-entities.

But then even the Sanger Institute (to return to that piece of good news for mice) doesn’t present its increased use of “alternative technologies” as an ethical advance. Although the Institute’s public statement does refer to the welfare of the mice as being put at risk by reductions in staff, and even cites the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act in that connection, it most strangely leaves unmentioned the main long-term objective of that Act, which is exactly to reduce the numbers of animals used in research. Why isn’t the Institute taking any credit for its part in realizing this aim?

I can think of only two reasons. One is that there is no enthusiasm within the profession for the aim, and it would seem tactless therefore to celebrate what the staff and fellow-professionals will see as pure loss. (Conversely, you may recall that the CEO of Understanding Animal Research greeted the Home Office animal count of 3.7 million last year as a healthy sign of “the important contribution that the UK makes to scientific and medical advancement worldwide”: see this blog for 23 July 2018.) The other and closely-related reason is that it simply didn’t occur to the Institute to make the connection: i.e. that reducing numbers has never been a serious objective there.

Back to the emperor’s new clothes. The article in question was written by “a junior professor [Michael Yartsev] trying to learn from the lessons of the past and look into the future”. The ‘emperor’, in Yartsev’s re-telling of the tale, stands for his own chosen field of research, neuroscience; the ‘clothes’ are the research animals which are most commonly used there (what he calls “the standard model organisms”). These he lists as rats, mice, and humans.

Eh? Humans? Are even humans themselves of merely illusory usefulness as test subjects for neuroscience? No, because the Hans Anderson analogy is all wrong. Yartsev is not like the boy who uniquely spots that the emperor has nearly nothing on; quite the contrary, he shares the general confidence in those “standard model organisms” and the “great benefits” they bring. His correction, much like Rebecca Shansky’s, is only that they’re not enough. This is more or less intelligible from his title, once you know: ‘The emperor’s new wardrobe: rebalancing diversity of animal models in neuroscience research’. Not real clothes, then, but more clothes, more species, are what’s needed for progress in that looked-into future, or as he says in his junior-professorial prose, “This necessitates expanding the portfolio of utilized animal models”.

Yartsev’s keen and fresh-minded vision of the future is made all the more dismal to read by its essential conformity. The young scientist scans the whole natural world, noting its rich variety (and making clear whose it is): “Over 8 million species reside on our planet.” And he sees it all as laboratory fodder. Why, he asks, are we leaving so many of these species alone? In the case of “vocal learning”, for instance: true, we’ve branched out into the songbirds here (and how sad and ominous that word is, in this research context!), but what about bats, cetaceans, elephants, non-human primates? We’ve scarcely troubled these mammals on the subject. Nor, for this or any other purpose, do we have to take them merely as they are. It was genetic manipulation which made the mouse so variously useful, but now there are “revolutionary DNA-editing methods that can be applied to any animals”.

This vision of the future was published in the USA, where the legal and moral hindrances to animal research are very much weaker than they are in Europe; mice, after all, do not count as animals at all in the relevant legislation there (nor do “songbirds”). Still, it’s a vision that Europe’s scientists evidently share, as a report from one of their EMBO conferences – which incidentally provides a link to the Yartsev article – makes very plain. One EMBO member is quoted as saying, “For a long time, the good excuse to ignore about 99.9999% of species was that it was technically almost impossible to study them. But this is now changing.” That number is facetiously extended to four decimal points presumably to show how enormous is the variety of life that awaits our exploitation. (By the way, to find out – or to fail to find out – what the initials stand for, go to the EMBO home page; it’s the first and the last information you’re given on the point: “EMBO stands for excellence in the life sciences.” Yes, the true PR touch!)

Remember that the European Directive of 2010 which governs all such studies has, as its “final goal”, the “full replacement of procedures on live animals for scientific and educational purposes”. Why do the people who actually carry out the procedures seem so little aware of this objective that they only qualify their devotion to experimenting on mice to the extent that they can find newer species to try? The explanation is at least partly that the “full replacement” is only to be effected, so the Directive unfortunately stipulates, when “it is scientifically possible to do so”. The date is thus made the scientists’ own property, and they therefore can and do push it steadily into the further distance ahead of them as they move towards Yartsev’s and EMBO’s exciting future. Meanwhile, the rise of such organisations as Understanding Animal Research and its European equivalents, and of in-house PR teams to manage web-sites and other publicity, enables the scientists simply to farm out the ethics and concentrate on their own professional aims.

How strictly professional those aims are becomes disconcertingly clear at the end of the Yartsev article. All that talk of new techniques and new laboratory species, which you might expect to culminate in a vision of world-wide neuroscience-led mental health, turns out, in the last sentence, to be “for the overall benefit of the neuroscience research community”. But then whether the emperor’s clothes were real or not didn’t make any essential difference to his attendant subjects either.

So much for the mouse as viewed, used, and existentially depreciated by practitioners of the life sciences. For the mouse in its true and proper relation to ourselves, I refer you to the Robert Burns poem ‘To a mouse’, which is discussed at the end of the post cited in my first sentence above.


Notes and references:

The post ‘Earth born Companions’ can be read here:

The Harwell Institute news is reported in the Guardian newspaper here: , and the closure of the Sanger Institute breeding programme is announced here:

The article ‘Social transmission of food safety’ appeared in Science, 7 June 2019.

The ‘emperor’s new wardrobe’ article was published in the issue of Science dated 27 October 2017, and can be read here:

EMBO actually stands for European Molecular Biology Organisation. The report cited, with its snappy Americanized title ‘Model organisms: new kids on the block’, can be read here:

The “final goal” is stated very early in Directive 2010/63/EU, at paragraph 10 of the preamble: see

The illustration showing the emperor in his ‘new clothes’, with admiring public, is by Hans Anderson’s contemporary illustrator Vilhelm Pederson.

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:

Quotations about Dr Mysore’s research are from his own pages on the Johns Hopkins web-site at and from the NPR transcript of the relevant broadcast here: (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: The defence of her research put up by Speaking of Research is here:

The article proposing the ARROW guidelines can be read here:

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