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, who 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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

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).]

 

Pharming Today

A chart showing the numbers of animals used in experiments in U.K. universities during 2014 (the most recent reportable year) puts Oxford University top, with its grand score of 226,739 – ahead of its nearest rival Edinburgh by about 25,000.

It may be that Oxford University’s scientific leadership takes quiet satisfaction in this result, if they’ve noticed it, as tending happily to confirm the University’s pre-eminence in biomedical science. After all, wasn’t this what their new building was for, to secure Oxford’s traditional place as the nation’s prime Laboratory, South Parks Roadcentre of animal research? However, as posted on the Oxford Students for Animals facebook page (and many others), the new information is headed ‘How many animals has your university killed?’, so it’s evidently not intended to please the contestant institutions, or the students whom they train in the practice. Accordingly there’s a defensive (but temperate) comment underneath it, from a medical scientist at Nottingham. He compares the lives of the U.K.’s laboratory animals favourably with those of animals on factory farms, and ends with this advice: shut the meat industry down FIRST before you try and curb the use of animals for discovering the drugs that cure our diseases.”

In one form or another, it’s a very familiar defence or put-off – as old, perhaps, as the vivisection debate itself (though not for that reason either right or wrong). It was certainly in use when the question first came before the British Parliament by means of a Royal Commission in 1875-6. Among those who tried it was the man who later became Oxford University’s first professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson. Part of his evidence tending to show that laboratory animals didn’t need legal protection was that ‘game’ animals were much worse off: the man had been a keen hare-courser, so of course he would have known what he was talking about. In 1927 the same argument was used by H. G. Wells in an article for the Sunday Express, in whose pages George Bernard Shaw soon afterwards demolished its moral logic thus: “This defence fits every possible crime from pitch-and-toss to manslaughter. Its disadvantage is that it is not plausible enough to impose on the simplest village constable.” Pitch-and-toss, incidentally, was a game of mixed skill and chance, played with coins, and was at one time illegal as a form of gambling, if played in the street: not as bad as picking pockets, no doubt, which in turn was not as bad as … etc., etc., until the argument comes to rest just short of mass murder.

Still, the defence is being made in this present instance by a researcher at Nottingham University, an institution which, though itself a user of animals in research (scoring a modest 17,924), does also accommodate the laboratories of the excellent Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (FRAME). It therefore surely deserves a more considered reply than the Shaw quotation, and I shall try to give at least part of one.

Why, then, don’t anti-vivisectionists turn their attentions to the far greater suffering (numerically, certainly, and perhaps also in most other respects) endured by factory-farmed animals?

The first thing to say is that of course they do. I’ve used the word ‘turn’ to highlight the sleight of hand in the argument; most, if not all, anti-vivisectionists can and do have both wrongs clearly in view concurrently, as well as a whole range of others. It’s all one subject, though individuals and organisations may specialize within it: hence the one collective term by which Peter Singer identified it in the first sentence of Animal Liberation in 1975, “the tyranny of human over non-human animals”.

But vivisection is, besides, bound in with factory farming in a more particular and unpleasant way. The move from husbandry to mass-processing of farm-animals has been made possible at every stage by scientific research, including biomedical research. (Burdon Sanderson himself devoted his early vivisectional research to disease in cattle.) When Ruth Harrison first showed the public what was happening on Britain’s farms, in her book Animal Machines (1964), she made this fact very clear: “every batch of animals reaching market is a sequel to another experiment or part of an experiment.” The livestock farm and its farmer were being made dependants of the laboratory and the scientist. How far this has gone since then can be read in any issue of Farmers Weekly.

For even while Ruth Harrison was publicizing the wretched effects of this development, other voices were busily promoting it. One such was a 1965 volume in the ‘Teach Yourself’ series (of all innocent publishing brands), entitled Modern Poultry Keeping. The word ‘keeping’ has an old-fashioned suggestion of husbandry about it, but any readers of this book foolish enough to be expecting to teach themselves a job in agreeably rural surroundings, perhaps amateurishly collecting eggs in a basket, like the wholesome woman on the old Ovaltine tins, were indignantly corrected. It was now a “highly specialized business calling for men [N.B.] with a wide technical knowledge”. Raising table-poultry, for instance, “consists wholly in rearing birds that will carry the maximum amount of flesh in the shortest possible time, at the lowest cost.” You need maths, biology, and a good grounding in what the book calls “light engineering” to get that right – or someone else does, to get it right for you. And of course that “technical knowledge” also includes knowledge of the pharmacopoeia: oestrogen pellets to ‘caponize’ the would-be cockerels, antibiotics against disease, and so on.

Then there’s animal behaviour. The Nottingham scientist specifies this in his comment, reasonably enough, as one of the things that cannot be studied without the use of real animals, and indeed it’s been responsible for some of the most cruel and shameful scenes in laboratory history. Another book contemporary with Animal Machines, P. L. Broadhurst’s Science of Animal Behaviour (1963), reviewed some of these scenes, but not apologetically; on the contrary, the author took the view that the “exploitation in the service of man of the behavioural resources of animals has  cowhardly begun.” In particular he looked forward to a time when the “pitifully small” role so far played by animals in food-production would be greatly expanded, using the knowledge gained in the laboratory of what they can be induced or compelled to do: not just to make food out of themselves at minimum expense, that is, but also to pick fruit or mind machinery, or more generally to be what his book, with naïve but untouching enthusiasm, calls “slave labour”.

So much for agriculture as envisioned from the laboratory. That things on the farm are only as bad as they are, and not as they might have been (and may yet be), can at least partly be attributed to the ‘curbing’ of such dreams at source. It’s very much harder to correct them once they’ve become real.

*     *     *

The man usually regarded as the founder of experimental physiology, the Frenchman Claude Bernard – a bust of whom stood on our own Burdon Sanderson’s mantelpiece in Oxford – proudly described and championed his science’s characterizing spirit as “éminemment conquérant et dominateur”. That spirit of tyranny was glaringly evident in Bernard’s own work, so much so that one of his assistants subsequently wrote, “I cry off, and am prepared to see not only science, but even mankind, perish rather than have recourse to such means of saving it.” Unfortunately Bernard’s version of the scientific spirit has survived through more than 150 years of vivisection right up to the hideous attempts of recent years at xeno-transplantation and even (not in the U.K.) the transplanting of animal heads. It’s not only farming which is pervertable by science such as this. No doubt biomedical research has produced valuable knowledge and great benefits. But some of that research, both the valuable and even more tragically the worthless, has been at a cost to animal lives, and to human decency, which no real or speculative benefit to ourselves should have been allowed to justify. So far from leaving such research to itself for a while, it’s our duty to all animals, including ourselves, to do continuously everything we can to curb it.

 

References:

G. B. Shaw is quoted from Shaw on Vivisection, ed. Bowker, 1949, p.35; Animal Machines, 2013 (2nd edition), pp.37-8; J. I. Portsmouth, Modern Poultry Keeping, pp.2 & 5; Science of Animal Behaviour, p.132 & foreword; Claude Bernard and George Hoggan are quoted in John Vyvyan, In Pity and in Anger, 1988, pp.46 & 77.

 

Public Labs

The last Oxford University Gazette of the Michaelmas term included the annual report from the Animal Care and Ethical Review committee: 2000 or so words about animal research at the University, for the proper conduct of which that committee is responsible. There were, voluntarily published in this way for the first time, a few statistics. Thus, 222,436 animals were used in 2014, an increase of about 19% on the previous year (comparing unfavourably to the slight decrease nationally); 1211 personal licences to use animals have been in force during the year 2015, a number which also seems to be on the increase; and, to supervise that work over the  1 Lab Mansfield Rd DSC_0984 same period, the Home Office inspectors made 30 visits to the University’s various “animal facilities”.

Mainly, however, and rather oddly for an annual publication, the report was about regulations and management, things which don’t change much from year to year. This makes dull reading (who does read it, one wonders; but then, who reads this?). All the same, there’s a victory implied in it. The more laborious the bureaucracy presented in the report , the more thoroughly it affirms that a scientist is not a fit person to judge the ethics of his or her own work. The old appeals to the exceptional tender-heartedness of physiologists (see earlier post, ‘The Real Benjulia’) or to their professional dignity (“You are proposing that physiologists … shall be licensed and regulated like publicans and prostitutes”, one of them indignantly told the Royal Commission on the subject in 1876) have no force now, persist as they may (and do). And of course this bureaucracy, though most immediately the product of various commissions, reports, statutes, etc., which have cumulatively proposed and created it, is really the work of all those adversaries of vivisection who have battered at the practice for the last 150 years and more.

What happened recently at Imperial College London is a clear reminder of that fact, as also of the fact that the victory is incomplete, that no system is sloven-proof or even delinquent-proof, and that the only way to do such research ethically is to take the animals out of it altogether. The malpractices of various sorts at that institution, which the British Union Against Vivisection (as it was then called) recorded and made public in 2012-13, had been missed or accepted by the institution’s own ethical supervision, and by the Home Office inspectors. The BUAV exposé prompted an independent report (the Brown Report, December 2013), and out of that came the much more purposeful management of animal research which is already being boasted about on the new ICL web-site.

In fact this ICL web-site won the “highly commended prize” two or three weeks ago at the Annual Openness Awards, an evening of mutual congratulation for the various corporate members of the ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’. Since most of the people involved in the bad old days at ICL are presumably still at work there, this suggests some very smart PR. And the Concordat itself turns out to be, as suspected when it was announced in 2013, essentially a PR project. That solemnly portentous word ‘Concordat’, with its grand sound and perfectly ordinary meaning, is itself a ripe product of the profession, and I only wish that we had access to a record of all the brain-storming that led up to its triumphant selection. Anyway, it’s difficult to trust the sort of openness which boasts of itself in this fashion. The test of its authenticity will be what happens to Section 24, the ‘secrecy clause’, of the 1986 Act, still apparently being reviewed by the government. If the members of the Concordat are willing to scrap it, that will certainly be done.

Back to the animal research web-sites. ICL’s has a noticeable resemblance to Oxford University’s. Is there one consultancy designing all such sites? As to the Oxford pages, these days they appear in the University web-site’s News and Events category – inexplicably, since they include no news or events, and in fact don’t seem to have altered significantly since 2011 (the date of the last animal numbers which they provide). There is one newish feature, however: a short film which shows some of the animals off-duty, and draws particular attention to the ‘enrichment’ of their homes – wood-shavings, plastic tubing, hiding-places, and so on. These things no doubt do represent, for the animals, a real improvement upon the wretched ‘standard’ cages with which generations of their captors had apparently been quite satisfied. But the ranks and stacks of these new custom-made dwelling-boxes shown in the film reminds one that for some people such changes are also good business, as indeed vivisection always has been. And even the scientists get a professional ride out of it, because enrichment itself has become a research topic.

In illustration of this last point, I shall conclude with two extracts from an article in the highly-regarded Comparative Medicine, a publication sponsored by the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science. The first extract identifies some of the effects of enrichment, and in doing so provides some insights into the way of life enjoyed by these animals, with or without the upgrade:

As an example of a behavioral study, a comparison of C57BL/6 and 129S6/SvEv mice found that housing in an enriched compared with a standard environment increased exploratory activity in the plus-maze test and reduced habituation in the locomotor activity test in C57BL6 mice, whereas 129S6/SvEv mice showed increased hot-plate latencies and reduced aggression. Furthermore, EE accentuated strain differences in the plus-maze, locomotor activity, hot plate, and forced swim tests, whereas strain differences in the plus-maze and resident-intruder tests were not retained across environments.

The second extract helpfully warns us against attaching too much importance to such improvements, and ends with an absolutely model euphemism. In fact, brief as it is, this is a really choice bit of scientific prose. Next time, perhaps, I shall do a proper critical appreciation of it.

However, animal wellbeing, as reflected by normal growth, development, and reproduction with low likelihood of injury, illness, distress, or maladaptive behavior, can exist even in housing situations in which the animal cannot perform its entire repertoire of species-appropriate behaviors, particularly if the animal will be maintained for a relatively short portion of its lifespan.  [see Comp Med. 2011 Aug; 61(4): 314–321]