On the Trail of an Untruth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes and references:

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

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

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

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

 

 

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A Record-breaking Year’s Work in the Lab

The numerical details of Oxford University’s animal research in 2017 have now been made public. Here is a selection, showing the numbers for each species (with 2016 for comparison), and then the severity of the ‘procedures’ involved. A few comments follow the two tables.

 Total number of experimental procedures, by species:

 Species  Number in 2017  Number in 2016
 Mice      229,640      200,157
 Fishes          3,852        14,737
 Rats          2,599         2,174
 Junglefowl               21            291
 Frogs            155           226
 Guinea Pigs              80             81
 Badgers              39             60
 Pigs               5              0
 Ferrets             29            29
 Non-Human Primates               7              8
 Rabbits               2              2
 Total:    236,429   217,765

 

Severity of procedures by species (where moderate or above was recorded):

Species  Severe  Moderate  Mild  Sub-threshold  Non-recovery
 Mice  2,085  38,177  65,063       121,487       2,828
 Fishes     100       950    2,246           9,890            19
 Rats      17       787       403              772          620
 Ferrets      0        19         0                 0           10
Non-Human Primates      0          7         0                 0            2

 The total number: 236,429 represents a rise of 8.5% over the previous year. It’s the largest number of research procedures recorded at the University since the new laboratory was opened in 2007, a year for which the number was 155,901. Almost certainly it’s the largest ever recorded at Oxford under the vivisection law of 1986, but numbers before 2007 aren’t obtainable.

Meaning of ‘procedure’: Remember that this word, in the singular, really means ‘at least one procedure’: for a review of its ambiguity, making a sort of nonsense all these careful numerations, see an earlier post in this blog, at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/home-office-statistics-numbers-words-and-euphemisms/ .  More reliably the numbers should simply be understood as a count of the animals experimented on and (in all but a handful of cases) killed during the year.

Openness: Although the numbers are quite candidly published on the University’s web-site (as required by the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, to which the University is a signatory), they are not exactly out in the open. They appear suddenly far down in the middle of the University’s standard account, ‘Research using animals: an overview’, itself a sub-division of the introductory page, ‘Animal Research’. By that point, the diligent reader will have been softened up with no less than three appearances of some variant of the statement “There is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.” The idea, I suppose, is that he or she will be well prepared to regard the numbers, when they come, as the essential minimum.

Up or down: Accordingly there is no comment on the high-point which this year’s numbers represent, or indeed any comparison with any other year (VERO has added the comparison with 2016). On the contrary, the extended vindication of animal research in which they’re embedded includes the bewildering statement, “New techniques have dramatically reduced the number of animals needed – the number has almost halved over the last 30 years.” As I say, we don’t have Oxford University’s numbers before 2007, but in Great Britain as a whole, the number in 1987 was about 3.6 million. This number, so far from being “almost halved” since then, has in fact been exceeded in every year since 2010 (the number for 2016 was 3.94 million). But just in case we should interpret this rash assertion as conciliatory in spirit, it’s followed in the same sentence with yet a fourth appearance of the familiar refrain: “… but there is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.”

Animals killed without experiments: There’s one valuable innovation this year: a number is provided for the animals bred and killed without being used in ‘procedures’. It’s a number which the Home Office doesn’t ask research institutions for, but ought to. Oxford’s total for the mice, rats, frogs, and zebrafishes which are bred in the University’s laboratories was 35,777.

Non-compliance and the 3Rs: The previous post in this blog was about the policing of the 1986 Act, and the 45 instances of non-compliance in 2016. Two of those instances took place in Oxford’s laboratories. This we learn from the annual report of the University’s Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee (published at the end of 2017), but not in enough detail to know which two they were. The report is a very general summary of the University’s ethical control of animal research, in particular its promotion of the 3Rs (replacement, reduction, refinement). The numbers given above don’t seem a very apt illustration of this activity, sincere as I’m sure it is. But then neither the ACER report, nor even the annual numbers, provide much insight into the attitudes, practices, or animal experiences which really characterize the laboratory scene at Oxford. Everything published about it is PR or PR-minded; the thing itself remains, for outsiders, hard or impossible to see.

Severity: As to the figures for ‘severity’ given above, and what these imply, see Note 4 in last year’s equivalent of this post here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/for-we-are-many/ In fact all of that post, and the previous year’s too (24 April 2016), remain disappointingly up to date. Very little has changed in the world of laboratory OU primateanimals, least of all the commitment of Oxford University practitioners to its continuation. As ever, then, the rhesus macaque monkey looks out through the glass darkly, as we likewise look in.

 

Notes and references:

The University’s animal-research web pages can be found at http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research. The report of the ACER Committee is published in the Oxford University Gazette, issue no. 5189, 7 December 2016. It can be read here: https://www.ox.ac.uk/gazette/2017-2018/7december2017-no5189/notices/#263551

The photograph of the rhesus macaque in the Biomedical Sciences Building appears on the University’s own web-site, I don’t know why, and is used here by permission.

Come See Our Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes and References:

The U.K. laboratory tours are online at http://www.labanimaltour.org/. Come See Our World is at https://www.comeseeourworld.org/. The French tour (which I couldn’t get to work properly) is at http://visite-animalerie.cnrs.fr/#/accueil/

MRC Harwell is featured in this blog at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/07/03/earth-born-companions/, and the Pirbright Institute at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/08/14/the-greenwich-goat/

An account of Dr Kalin’s proposal, and its successful progress through his university’s ethics committee, appeared in the Wisconsin journal Isthmus for 31 July 2014, and can be read here: http://host.madison.com/ct/news/local/health_med_fit/university-of-wisconsin-renews-controversial-maternal-deprivation-research-on-monkeys/article_993e9566-172f-11e4-9063-001a4bcf887a.html. Kalin subsequently decided, for purely scientific reasons as he insisted, not to take the new-born monkeys away from their mothers. Otherwise, the research goes ahead as intended.

 

 

 

For We Are Many

Here are the 2016 animal-research numbers submitted by Oxford University to the Home Office. The selection and arrangement is by VERO, with some earlier numbers for comparison, and some notes and comments to follow:

Totals of animals used in research, by species:

Species Number used in 2015 Number used in 2016
Mice 207,216 200,157
Zebrafish   16,061  14,737
Rats    2,363    2,174
Junglefowl         53       291
Frogs       322       226
Guinea Pigs         81        81
Badgers        66        60
Pigs        10         0
Ferrets        38       29
Non-Human Primates          4         8
Rabbits          2         2
Total: 226,216 217,765
  1. Direction of travel: You’ll notice that there has been a fall of 3 or 4% (8,451 animals) from the 2015 total: a welcome reduction, but although these annual numbers do sometimes show a fall, the consistent trend is still upwards – by about 45% over the last ten years (while the all-U.K. numbers rose by about 33%).
  1. The 3Rs: The annual report of the University’s Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee talks a lot about the 3Rs (reduction, refinement, and replacement) as obligations imposed on researchers by law and by the University’s own Animal Use Policy. There’s now, for instance, an annual ‘3Rs Research Day’ in the University. Good! Yet the numbers continue to rise. No doubt research in the life sciences as a whole has increased during the same period, at Oxford and nationally, and animal research may be a shrinking proportion of the total. It’s certainly not shrinking in any other sense. Back in 2014, the one minister responsible for animal research who has ever shown a strong interest in making the numbers shrink, Norman Baker, set up a review of Section 24 – the ‘secrecy clause’ in the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act. He gave as one of the reasons for removing it the hope that doing so might “increase awareness among the scientific community of current research … minimising the potential for duplication of animal experiments”. And he said “I am fully committed to making a change.” Two and a half years on, that review, and the consultation with “stakeholders” which was part of it, is still being mulled over by the government. According to the present minister, the horse-racing enthusiast Ben Wallace, “a response will be published in due course.”
  1. Ethics by numbers: When I was a child, I had a book about a duck who periodically counted up her offspring using the formula “one, two, three, a lot.” The story showed the hazards of her arithmetic, but recognized also its psychological truth. What can one feel about these giant numbers, year after year? They seem expressive in inverse proportion to their size. Those two rabbits, for instance: two each year (in fact two also in 2014). One wonders at once what kept happening to these couples. (Answer: two rabbits, plus the 81 guinea pigs, have been used each year for training in animal-research skills, a sort of target practice.) But putting aside the psychology of the matter, it’s undoubtedly true that, because the basic unit, the ‘procedure’, is itself so nebulous, our ignorance must actually increase with the numbers. (This problem is aired in a former post, at  https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/home-office-statistics-numbers-words-and-euphemisms/). Conversely, we will only know for certain what’s happening when the numbers fall to nought, which by happy coincidence is also the unique ethical number in this matter.

Next, some records of the levels of suffering implied in those figures above:

Severity of procedures by species (where moderate or above was recorded):

Species Severe Moderate Mild Sub-threshold Non-recovery
Mice 1,420  39,015 61,382          94,617       3,723
Zebrafish   560   1,076   3,154            9,890           57
Rats    42      531      465              479         657
Ferrets      0        18         0                 0           11
Non-Human Primates      0          8         0                 0            0


Severity of procedures by category in the years 2014
16:

Year Severe Moderate Mild Sub-Threshold Non-Recovery
2014 1,533 31,494 110,429      76,083 7,146
2015 2,325 30,683 120,323      66,808 6,077
2016 2,022 40,648   65,591     104,988 4,516
  1. Defining the terms: These numbers do have a more reliable meaning, since the severity categories are quite carefully defined in Home Office guidance, as to both intensity and duration. ‘Moderate’, for instance: into this category would come “chronic low-level pain or discomfort or dysfunction”, signalled by “significant weight-loss or other indicators of poor welfare”, or pain of “significant intensity, but … of no more than a few hours duration”. Even cases where the animal shows “signs of obvious illness” (“piloerection, huddled posture, reluctance to move, isolation from the group”) may be classed as ‘moderate’, provided that “this is promptly detected and animals are killed immediately”, by which is meant within 24 hours. The ‘severe’ category “would include any state that a person would find difficult to tolerate, or disease where clinical signs have progressed to such an extent that it threatens the life of an animals”, or “any situation where animals are in extremis. Ah, happy days in the lab!
  1. The primates: The proportion of procedures which come into the two categories so evocatively described above has increased at Oxford University from about 14.5% in 2014 and 2015 to about 19.5% in 2016. That may be chance fluctuation, but you’ll OU primatenotice that all the experiments with non-human primates appear in this group. I don’t think that one would have deduced that from the account provided on the University’s web-site of the merry lives of games and conviviality which these close relatives of ours enjoy in their “world class facilities”. But then even their deaths are presented as a sort of kindly intervention, by means of the prize euphemism and philosophical conundrum already noted elsewhere in this blog: “At the end of its life the animal is humanely killed.”
  1. A few other numbers: During the year as covered by the report of the University’s Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee, 1318 members of the University held animal-research licences and there were 156 research projects using animals. In both cases, the numbers have gone up slightly on the previous year. Home Office inspectors made 24 unannounced visits. They found no fault with the facilities, but “there were non-compliance issues in relation to three project licences”. These were dealt with “administratively”, which I suppose means put right without further penalty.

 

Notes and references:

The University’s animal-research web pages can be found at http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research. The latest numbers haven’t yet been posted there at time of writing, but no doubt soon will be, alongside much other information – the whole presentation having been greatly improved as to information and frequency of updating. VERO has the numbers now by courtesy of the secretary to the Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee. The reports of that Committee are published in the Oxford University Gazette, the 2015-16 report in issue no. 5153, 8 December 2016.

The quotation from Norman Baker appears in the foreword which he wrote to the consultation document, which can be read at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/313410/Consultation_on_the_review_of_Section_24_of_ASPA.pdf.The quotation from Ben Wallace is from correspondence in October 2016.

The details of severity banding come from Advisory notes on recording and reporting the actual severity of regulated procedures, published by the Home Office, 1 Jan 2014, pp.12-13.

The photograph is of a rhesus macaque monkey in the Biomedical Sciences Building, and is used here by courtesy of the University’s Public Affairs Office. Rather puzzlingly, this mournful picture appears as an illustration to the favourable account of life in the South Parks Road monkey community given on the University’s own News and Events web-pages.

 

 

Experimenting with Mother

I have a constantly growing collection of ‘They’re smarter than you think’ news stories. Here, for instance, is one from the Washington Post a few months ago. It’s headlined “Make Way for Ducklings; they’re smarter … [etc.]” Make Way for Ducklings is a classic children’s book, published in the U.S.A. in 1941 and often re-printed since then. It would therefore be familiar to most Washington Post readers, and the reference is a sub-editor’s way of sweetening the science. But the main theme of that book is the trouble which Mrs Mallard takes to be a good mother to her brood, whereas in the research reported in the news story, which was done in Oxford University’s Zoology Department (of hideous aspect: see post for 12 June 2016), there was no mother duck: the experiment involved creating substitute mothers out of assorted coloured shapes. I shall make a 2-paragraph summary of it, which can be skipped (a more complete non-technical report, illustrated with a video, can be found at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/ducklings-make-way-abstract-thought-oxford-study-finds/).

Newly hatched ducklings (in common with chicks and other baby fowl that quit their nest straight away) have to learn very promptly to identify, and to go on recognizing, their mother. The phenomenon is termed ‘imprinting’. It might seem a very basic act of perception, to know one’s own mother and recognise her anew on each sighting, but imprinting is by no means infallible. These young birds will very readily imprint on anything which stands in for the mother at the crucial time. It’s possible, therefore, to take advantage of this pathetic gullibility in order to discover exactly what faculties of perception and cognition the baby birds are using. Certainly they must rely on such indications as colour and shape, but can they detect and use the more abstract properties in what they see? After all, the apparent colour and shape of the mother must vary with changing light and movement.

The abstract properties or relations which the Oxford research tested were sameness and difference. The newly-hatched mallard ducklings (154 of them) were each given time to imprint on a linked pair of coloured shapes – to call them ‘mother’, in short. They were then presented with two variations of these pairs, one of which preserved an essential relation from the first – sameness or difference of shape or of colour – and one of which did not. The ducklings did indeed seem to use these relations in order to fix upon the right or original ‘mother’. Very much needing a mother, they apparently searched for and found one even in such abstract qualities; or in case that sounds anthropomorphic, here’s how the research summarizes it: “For a duckling critically dependent on proximity to its mother and siblings, defining the attachment stimulus configuration as a library of sensory inputs and logical rules increases the likelihood that the mother and sibling group will be identified with high fidelity in spite of considerable variations in how they are perceived.” You see? Yet such a capacity for conceptualization has hitherto “only been demonstrated … in species with advanced intelligence”. In short, they’re smarter than you think, or used to think.

This phenomenon of imprinting has been a subject of study for many years. One of its pioneers was the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who in the 1930s famously induced greylag goslings to fix upon him as their mother. In his popular and excellent book King Solomon’s Ring (first English publication 1952), he describes the same accomplishment with mallard ducklings, the species used in the Oxford research, although Lorenz’s ducklings seemed to demand vocal identification as well:

If I ceased for even the space of half a minute from my melodious “Quahg, gegegegeg, Quahg, gegegegeg”, the necks of the ducklings became longer and longer corresponding exactly to ‘long faces’ in human children – and did I then not immediately recommence quacking, the shrill weeping began anew. As soon as I was silent, they seemed to think that I had died, or perhaps that I loved them no more: cause enough for crying! [42]

This scene – Lorenz quacking and waddling along in a squatting posture (for the ducklings ‘lost’ him when he stood up) – is worlds and minds away from the blank cubicle with suspended geometrical shapes in which, each one alone, the Oxford ducklings made their decisions. Both have their strengths and weaknesses as science, no doubt.

The original German title of King Solomon’s Ring was Er Redete mit dem Vieh, dem Vogeln und den Fischen (he spoke with animals, birds and fish), for it was a legend about King Solomon king-solomons-ringthat he had a magic ring which gave him this communicative power. And much of Lorenz’s research, as well as his home life, was indeed conducted in that style: “It is only by living with animals”, he said, “that one can attain a real understanding of their ways” [147]. Of course he was often charged with imputing, to the animals, strictly human thoughts and emotions. He defended himself in this way:

You think I humanize the animal? … Believe me, I am not mistakenly assigning human properties to animals: on the contrary, I am showing you what an enormous amount of animal inheritance remains in man, to this day.” [152]

I mention this because the question  of “assigning human properties” is a controversial one in all research into animal minds. One academic psychologist, Jennifer Vonk, by way of comment on a study of reasoning power in crows, has summarized the two parties to the controversy thus: on the one side are those who too readily grant “abilities to animals that are interesting largely because they potentially break down the human-erected divide between humans and other animals”; on the other are those who insist on “Morgan’s canon” – that is, the rule pronounced at the turn of the twentieth century by the experimental psychologist Conway Lloyd Morgan, that animal behaviour ought never to be interpreted as showing a ‘higher’ human-like faculty, if it can be adequately explained by a faculty “which stands lower in the psychological scale”.

No doubt it’s a matter of emphasis rather than incompatibility: one side looking for Darwinian continuities, the other preferring strictly behaviourist interpretations. We could happily leave them to work out their differences in the specialist journals, except that there are ethical consequences involved. I notice, for instance, that one of Jennifer Vonk’s references for the Lloyd Morgan side is an article from the journal Behavioural Brain Research declaratively titled ‘Darwin’s mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and non-human minds’. Included among its authors is Daniel J. Povinelli. This is the psychologist whose work with chimpanzees at the New Iberia Research Center (University of Louisiana) is indignantly dispraised by Steven Wise in his book Rattling the Cage (1999). The point which Wise makes against Povinelli is that he treated the chimpanzee mentality with such Lloyd Morganish scepticism (for instance, in the providing of a carelessly bleak physical and social environment for the animals to grow up in), that he had pre-stunted the minds which he then studied and found wanting.

Not that the more Darwinian perspective guarantees a raised status for animals. It’s noticeable that when research of this ‘smarter than you think’ kind gets into the more popular media, it at once becomes affected by the sort of quips and puns which count for merry sparkle in that world. In the case of birds, there’s many a play on ‘bird-brained’, ‘free-range thinkers’, and so on. (Even Dr Vonk gets caught up in it: her comment piece in Current Biology [vol.25.2, 19 Jan 2015] is facetiously titled ‘Corvid Cognition: something to crow about?’) Such jokes are harmless fun, no doubt, if they are fun, but they tag these animal stories as light relief. Essentially the jokes invite a speciesist smirk at our inferiors and their primitive efforts to be more like us. That scene with the ducklings in King Solomon’s Ring comes in a chapter headed ‘Laughing at Animals’. The book itself is very entertaining, but Lorenz won’t countenance laughter at animals: he calls it “deriding things which, to me, are holy” [39]. He tells the story of the ducklings, for instance, as a joke against his own undignified antics as a searcher for the truth, and not because it’s a good laugh to put babies through their paces: in that scene, after all, they know, and he’s only the tyro trying to know, what it is they want.

I needn’t say that the Oxford research is presented wholly seriously, and was indeed an ingenious piece of work, if hardly conclusive. It seems not to have required a licence under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA), though as Lorenz’s experiment shows, imprinting on the wrong thing surely may involve “distress” of the sort which ASPA is meant to supervise. Anyway, the research did have the approval of its departmental ethics committee, and the ducklings were returned to the Oxford University Farm afterwards (with what mothering prospects there, we don’t know).

All the same, these imprinting experiments make one uneasy for good reason. It’s not just that experimental psychology, essentially the taking apart of behaviour, has often enough entailed taking apart the brain itself (just follow the subject of imprinting into the neuroscience journals). More largely, the theme itself is disquieting. Even Nature (if I may personify it for a moment) with all its frivolous indifference to individual welfare and its short way with weakness, seems to have made an exception in the case of the maternal bond. The mildest of animals is lent anomalous courage during motherhood so that she’ll protect her offspring with selfless bravado. Here, if nowhere else, Nature itself seems to call something in its bloody free-for-all “holy” (to use Lorenz’s word). Or at least we can say factually that it’s in this one bond that the strongest and most absolute passions in animal life – of attachment and of bereavement – are to be found.

And now see how this unique complex of love, fear, and defiance has fared in the laboratory. “Mothers are important, it is generally agreed … but just how important?” – so asked Professor P. L. Broadhurst, introducing animal studies to a new generation in his popular  work The Science of Animal Behaviour (1963). It’s an ominous question coming from an experimental psychologist. In this case, it was preliminary to commending the work of Professor Harry Harlow, the man who had recently set about answering the question, in his Wisconsin laboratory, by depriving baby rhesus monkeys of their real mothers, and tempting them with various inorganic and savagely inadequate alternatives. Harlow’s experiments, metaphorically taking a blunt surgical knife to the principle of motherhood, cast a shadow of real iniquity over the whole of animal research – so much so, that a formal repudiation of them ought to be a condition of getting a licence under ASPA. But especially they have tainted and dishonoured the experimental study of imprinting and all its allotropes. The steady and unapologetic continuation of such study is a reminder, if one needed it, that in bio-science some things may at different times be illegal, but nothing is sacred.

Incidentally, it seems that there was a habit of jocularity in Harlow’s lab. I just mention it.

 

Notes and references:

The Oxford University research is reported in Science, 15 July 2016, vol.353, pp.286-88. The abstract is available online at http://science.sciencemag.org/content/353/6296/286.

The illustration on the title-page of King Solomon’s Ring is by Konrad Lorenz, and shows a greylag goose with neck “outstretched in that gesture which, in geese, means the same as tail-wagging in a dog”.

The comment piece by Jennifer Vonk appeared in Current Biology, 19 Jan 2015, vol.25, pp.69-71, the research itself being reported in the same issue.

Steven Wise discusses Povinelli’s work with chimpanzees in Rattling the Cage: Towards Legal Rights for Animals, U.K. edition by Profile Books, 2000, pp.230-34.

For more about Professor Harlow, see the post for 15 July 2015, ‘How not to Treat Babies’.

 

 

 

Spitting in their Faces

An item appeared on Oxford University’s ‘News and Events’ web-page a few days ago headed ‘Fish can recognise human faces, new research shows’. The fish in question were archer-fish (Toxotes chatareus), a tropical species which is able to bring down its insect prey by shooting water from its mouth. Researchers had presented these fish with images of human faces, and successfully trained them to spit at the ones associated with a food reward.

Probably this news item was also put out as a press release, since it was quickly picked up by the news media – for instance by BBC Radio 4 and by the Times newspaper. For them, it was a performing animal story, of the category ‘They’re smarter than you think!’ The title used by the University may have been deliberately worded with that in mind, because properly it should have read the other way round, ‘Human faces can be recognised by fish’. That is, the question which the research was aimed to address was not really about fish at all, but about the uniqueness or otherwise of the human capacity to recognise each other’s faces: is this capacity innate and peculiar to humans, or is it a particular application of the general visual competence possessed by most animals? If fish can do it, then recognising human faces must be at least partly a skill that can be learnt using powers of the eye not specialised for that purpose. After all, such a skill would have been of no practical advantage to any species of fish in the ordinary course of its evolutionary history, though it may now be earning archer-fish a few pellets of proprietary tropical fish-food in Oxford’s Department of Zoology.

Incidentally, it’s sad to think of these and other picturesque fish spending their lives in that grim stained-concrete heap, surely the most hideous of all Oxford’s science buildings. And not just in the laboratories: in the public part of that building, too, there’s an zoology buildingaquarium of tropical fish, sited in one of the corridors presumably for decorative and instructional purposes, and steadily mis-educating generations of students as to our proper relations with the rest of the natural world.

Anyway, other orders of animal than fish have been similarly quizzed in the past, and this present research does little more than extend and confirm existing data. The authors admit, in the full article as published in Science Reports, that the results so far are “not surprising” (a news-ruining observation which is accordingly omitted from the University’s ‘News and Events’ report). After all, accurate and discriminating eyesight is essential to the survival of many or perhaps most diurnal animals, and especially so, you would suppose, for a fish which takes aim at insects while its eyes are still underwater. Still, the authors look forward to further studies using fish. This routine conclusion to published research – i.e. that more research is needed – illustrates what the zoologist Ray Lankester, one of Oxford’s earliest and keenest vivisectors (of fish, tadpoles, crayfish, among others), said about animal research: that however regulated by law, it would naturally (and quite properly, so he believed) increase in geometrical progression.

As I said, this particular research got into mainstream media as a ‘smart animal’ story. Jenni Russell of the Times (9 June, p.22), happily unaware that the results had been thought unsurprising by the report’s own authors, called it “the week’s most startling news”. She pondered over similar evidences of cleverness in other “creatures” – a term which, tellingly, she seems to use only for non-human animals. Some birds, it seems, have shown themselves to be “just as smart as apes. They empathise, think logically and recognise themselves in a mirror [that popular shibboleth in nature’s class-system]. An octopus that escaped from its tank must have used “real intelligence”, by which I think she means recognisable intelligence, intelligence like ours. The point about the Oxford research, then, was apparently not that fish have remarkable visual acuity, but that they have swum into human relevance by showing they can do something we thought only we could do.

Ms Russell’s piece is headed ‘Not-so-dumb animals deserve our respect’, so she does get a valuable lesson from the subject, however wrong-headedly. She declares herself a meat-eater who thinks “human survival worth experimenting on creatures for” (a familiarly melodramatic formulation), but now she is “wavering”: “I’m going to have to rethink my relationship with the creatures on this planet.” True, it’s all presented in the self-regarding life-style terms commonly used in such journalism: done in the mirror, in fact, of both self and species. And the term “deserve” has school-room force: only those who “can be shown to have complex brains” get the respect. It’s animal deserts, then, not animal rights: a variety of treats for tricks. But with luck some of the article’s readers may see further than its author, and get a more serious ethical message than she intended.

I think anyway that Jenni Russell may have over-interpreted what the archer-fish were recorded as doing, namely ‘recognising’ (telling apart) human faces, rather than, as she has it, ‘reading’ (getting information from) them. She may even have pictured the fish looking up into the living faces of laboratory staff. No such homely scene: the faces, so far from being live and local, were provided by the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. This is the same Max Planck Institute at Tübingen with which Oxford University has had another news-link recently. The Institute’s various cruel experiments upon primates (conducted by way of research into human psychiatric and neurological pathologies), and its harsh management of these animals, were the subject of undercover investigation in 2013-14 by Cruelty Free International and the German group SOKO Tierschutz. Hurrying to Max Planck’s defence last year, the European Animal Research Association condemned the investigation, and announced that “some renown [sic] scientists from different affiliations have already given their expert support”. They quoted two such scientists, though not from different affiliations: both are Oxford professors. One of them, a professor of Experimental Psychology (that subject with its history of uniquely ruthless animal research), explained that the Institute’s work on monkeys was essential not just for human medicine, but also in order “to reduce the long-term need for animal experiments”. Excellent! Vivisection as a way of reducing vivisection: it may not be as plausible a piece of thinking as Ray Lankester’s prognosis, but at least its ‘affiliation’ to the alma mater of Lewis Carroll seems just right.

 

[References: For the ‘News and Events’ piece, with a short video of the fish spitting at a face, see http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-06-07-fish-can-recognise-human-faces-new-research-shows ; for the article in Scientific Reports, http://www.nature.com/articles/srep27523 ; for Cruelty Free International’s report, https://www.crueltyfreeinternational.org/what-we-do/investigations/monkey-experiments-max-planck-institute-germany .]

Multitudes, multitudes

Oxford University has made available the statistics of its animal research for 2015. I reproduce them here (on 24 April, World Day for Animals in Laboratories), with a few comments to follow:

Total Animals used in research, by species:

Species Number used in 2014 Number used in 2015
Mouse 208,905 207,216
Fish (Zebrafish) 13,136 16,051
Rat 3,880 2,363
Frog 280 322
Guinea Pig 81 81
Ferret 27 38
Rabbit 2 2
Non-Human Primates 5 4
Total 226,316 226,077

Severity of Procedures:

Severity % of Procedures
Severe 1
Moderate 14
Mild 53
Non-Recovery 3
Sub-Threshold 29

Severity by Species (% of procedures for main species used):

Species Severe Moderate Mild Non-Recovery Sub-Threshold
Mouse 1 14 54 2 29
Fish (Zebrafish) 6 3 52 0 39
Rat 1 19 33 39 8
Non-Human Primates 0 50 50 0 0

Severity of Procedures (2014 compared to 2015):

Year Severe Moderate Mild Non-Recovery Sub-Threshold
2014 (actual procedures) 1533 31494 110429 7146 76083
2015 (actual procedures) 2325 30683 120323 6077 66808
Change +792 -811 +9894 -1069 -9275
  1. Openness: The numbers in the first table have actually been published by the University on its web-site, the first time such numbers have been made public in that way. Previously, the only number given out was the one for animals accommodated at any one time in the new Biomedical Sciences Building: i.e. the more or less fixed number, 16,000. The University’s new informativeness is very welcome, as far as it goes. I guess that it has been brought about partly by the research industry’s recent ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’ (for comment on this project, see post for 23 December 2015), and partly by the Freedom of Information Act, which meant that the figures could no longer be kept private anyway.
  2. Severity: The tables showing the levels of ‘severity’ of research procedures do not appear on the University’s web-site, and have been provided at VERO’s request. You’ll observe that although the annual total of animals has hardly changed (2014 representing an all-time high, which 2015 doesn’t quite match), the number of experiments causing the highest ‘severe’ level of pain or distress has for some reason increased by about 50%. To appreciate the implications of this, note that the Home Office’s definition of ‘severe’ includes “long-term disease processes where assistance with normal activities such as feeding and drinking are required or where significant deficits in behaviours/activities persist … any state that a person would find difficult to tolerate, or disease where clinical signs have progressed to such an extent that it threatens the life of an animal … A severe classification should be given in any situation where animals are in extremis.”
  3. Non-Recovery: For some comments on the welfare implications of ‘non-recovery’ in laboratories, see the post for 28 October 2015. The reference in these tables is of course to non-recovery from a particular procedure; in the longer run, no animal recovers from a stay in the Biomedical Sciences Building (BSB). In fact, lay people need to remind themselves how greatly the business of killing characterizes the laboratory scene. For instance, the whole of that cohort of 16,000 animals which the BSB accommodates is consumed within four or five weeks. That means that about 620 experimental animals are killed every day. In addition to those, there are the animals killed as surplus or unsuitable, who don’t appear in the statistics. No wonder many of the errors, malpractices, and delinquencies which are catalogued in the annual reports of the Home Office inspectorate arise from this aspect of animal research. Incidentally, the reports do not specify places or people, so I’ve no idea how often, if at all, Oxford University appears in them.

[References: Advisory notes on recording and reporting the actual severity of regulated procedures, January 2014, p.13; Animals in Science Regulation Unit’s Annual Report 2014, Appendix 1: both of these documents can be found on the Home Office web-page https://www.gov.uk/guidance/research-and-testing-using-animals.  The title of the present post is a quotation from the Book of the Prophet Joel, a short book in the Old Testament which includes a most remarkable description of a visitation of locusts (though the locusts are not the “multitudes” in question).]