On the Trail of an Untruth: the Sequel

A few weeks ago, this blog highlighted a plainly false statement in Oxford University’s online account of animal research (titled ‘Research using animals: an overview’) and traced it to its source: namely, the web-site of the PR organisation called Understanding Animal Research. The statement claimed that the numbers of animals used for research in the UK had nearly halved over the last thirty years, whereas in fact the numbers have risen by about 5% since 1987. They really did go down during the rest of that century, but since then have been going briskly upwards, with occasional modest dips. Perhaps this mis-statement may not seem to matter much; I’ll say something about its significance later on. Meanwhile, here is its latter fate.

Since nothing came of outing it in the blog or, before that, of reporting it to the Public Affairs Office which controls the University’s web-site – making five months or so of conscious misrepresentation – we wrote a letter about it to the University’s independent house journal, the excellent Oxford Magazine. This produced a very civil e-mail from the PAO. There had been some doubt as to what data had been used to substantiate the claim, we were told, and it now seemed right to remove it.

So far so good, but a more general claim was allowed to remain, namely that the number of animals had been “dramatically reduced”. We pointed out that this meant the same thing, though less mathematically. Yes, the Office conceded that the claim “referenced old national figures” (2001 figures to be exact). That phrase too was therefore removed, and a larger revision made of the whole web-page.

So let’s re-visit this page. Some of the old favourites are certainly still there. As before, we’re told three times that “There is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.” Perhaps this repetition is thought to have persuasive value, but it rather suggests that the page is pasted together out of contributions from various sources rather than through-composed, a point I’ll come back to. The statement itself is not evidenced, true as it probably is, nor is the more tendentious statement that “Most people believe that in order to achieve medical progress . . . animal use is justified.” In fact the whole page needs foot-noting. Why should we take it all on trust? Academics shouldn’t expect us to.

Then, as before, the point is made at least twice that this research doesn’t only serve humans: “animal research benefits animals too. I’ve always felt that this is a dangerous justification, though one very frequently used. If it’s right, for instance, to make some dogs suffer for the benefit of other dogs, their equals in moral status (whatever we take that status to be), why isn’t it right to make the same rule for humans and their equals (i.e. each other)? But let’s put it the better way round: if it’s wrong to make humans suffer for each other, why isn’t it wrong in the case of the other animal species? Anyway the point is a disingenuous one: we know that these animal beneficiaries are not being helped for their own sakes. They’re mostly farm animals, whose routine dosing with medication is simply a commercial investment, or else they’re pet animals, likewise lent their value by humans. It’s the human valuation, in cash or affection, that does it.

And also still there on the ‘overview’ page, as part of the account of research with non-human primates, is the Escher-like statement, “At the end of its life the animal is humanely killed.” This formulation I used to think was intended as a sort of philosophical conundrum. Now I know it better as a bit of PR, a way of implying, without having to tell a lie, that the monkey has reached its natural term. But of course it is a lie, not just because the killing causes, instead of happily coinciding with, the end of the monkey’s life; the point is that it’s the monkey’s usefulness alive that has ended and prompted the killing, not its life.

Those are some of the familiar details which suggest that nothing essential has changed in the page, or in the habits of mind and practice which it represents. One of the most disturbing features of this ‘overview’ is its preoccupation with the treating of disease, as opposed to prevention or positive health. In fact these latter are not mentioned (except as vaccination). The page begins by stating that “Around half the diseases in the world have no treatment.” Accordingly, animal studies form one part of a “wide range of research techniques” whose aim is to find “cures, vaccines or treatments”. In the course of the text, some of these cures are listed, and their success evidenced. For instance, in the UK alone, “More than 50 million prescriptions are written annually for antibiotics.” (Can this be true?)

No doubt antibiotics, as well as many other such treatments, have been a very great blessing indeed to human health: which of us hasn’t profited from them? But the use of antibiotics – for humans and (notoriously) for animals – has illustrated the flaws in this adversarial model of health. Forty years ago, in the fine pioneering book The Moral Status of Animals (1977), Stephen Clark warned against this “arms race in which our ‘foes’ are always winning . . . Is it not time,” he asked, “to see what other attitudes there might be to the living world?” No doubt it’s unreasonable to look for these “other attitudes” in laboratories where vivisection is used, or in their promotional texts. Still, we can wish they were there. For unfortunately the whole practice of medicine has been conditioned by the militaristic world-view taken by those who service it with science.

Nor is there any suggestion in this ‘overview’ page that change is on the way for the animals. Despite the talk of reduction, replacement, etc., there is no expressed hope or expectation that the cages will ever be empty. In fact it’s noticeable that concessions to the ethical motive tend to appear in subordinate clauses of the type “While we are committed to reducing, replacing and refining animal research . . . “ or “While humans are used extensively in Oxford research . . . ”, the follow-up main clause showing that business must carry on as ever: for instance, “. . . there is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.” The last paragraph of all is headed ‘How will humans benefit in future?’ The given answer is that new drugs and medical technologies will continue to be developed from (among other things) “the carefully regulated use of animals for research”. No end in sight, then.

It’s not possible to know how far this ‘overview’ really does represent the thinking in Oxford’s biomedical sciences. The disconcerting thing about that original mis-statement (to return there) is that any one of the scientists using animals at Oxford would have spotted its absurdity at once. That means that not only is this public account of Oxford University’s scientific practice not composed by the practitioners; they don’t even bother to read it. Even their Ethical Review Committee can’t have looked it over. I suppose that contributions have been canvassed from these people, who have come up with material of various kinds (including, no doubt, accurate numbers, but also resounding phrases like that one about the scientific consensus), and these have been patched together with prose connections and fixatives, and some material from such other sources as UAR, into the finished product which we see (but which they don’t feel the need to see). In fact, nobody has really said it or can take responsibility for it. It’s a PR collage, in which we may be seeing things really thought and done, but which cannot be relied upon at any particular point or as a whole.

This indeed has been the gift of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, of which so much has been said in this blog: we can now enjoy the illusion of knowing what’s going on.

 

Notes and references:

The original post, ‘On the Trail of an Untruth’, can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

‘Research using animals: an overview’ is here: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

A very clear chart showing the statistics of animal research since 1945 is provided on p.13 of the Home Office 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

The Moral Status of Animals by Stephen R. L. Clark was published by Oxford University Press. The quotation is from pp.172-3 of the 1984 paperback edition.

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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde MRCVS, part 2

In part 1 of this post, I mentioned the books written  by the vet James Herriot. His reminiscences are no doubt coloured up for better entertainment, but they’re also authentic records of veterinary life and of the changes, good and bad, brought to it during the later 20th Century. In fact librarians, undeceived by the slapstick elements, shelve them under ‘Animal Husbandry’ (Dewey Decimal 636). So it’s worth having a look at one such book, The Lord God Made Them All, before returning to today’s veterinary scene.

The book was published in 1981, but is set in the years following the Second World War, when veterinary medicine was just starting to take advantage of the antibiotics whose development had been hurried forward by the needs of that war. Herriot astonishes some of his farming clients, and himself also, with the new therapies, and at the end of the book, his partner Siegfried Farnon contemplates the changing scene with characteristic optimism:

Look at all the new advances since the war. Drugs and procedures we never dreamed of. We can look after our animals in a way that would have been impossible a few years ago and the farmers realise this. You’ve seen them crowding into the surgery on market day to ask advice – they’ve gained a new respect for the profession and they know it pays to call the vet now … There are great days ahead!

The suggestion is that the interests of animal, vet, and farmer (the client) would in future be more nearly at one. And certainly the problems of a three-way pull – what the modern British Veterinary Association calls the “veterinary surgeon’s trilemma” – has been well illustrated in the earlier parts of the book. In Chapter Ten, Herriot injects a cow for ‘foul of the foot’ (Fusiformis necrophorus) with one of the new drugs. The foot is miraculously healed, but the site of the injection, the cow’s jugular vein, develops phlebitis, and shortly afterwards the cow dies. Herriot is painfully upset about the cow, of course: “To any conscientious veterinary surgeon, killing a patient is a terrible thought”. Then there is the loss to the farmer, severe enough to raise “the possibility that he might be going to sue me”. Finally, “I had lost the practice a good client, and that was not a pleasant thought either.”

It happens that the farmer in this case is a very sympathetic character, and the disaster stops with the cow, so that the story simply shows two humane people doing their best for an animal – the standard model, one might hope and suppose, of the veterinary scene. But not all the Dales farmers are so humane. One of the cartoons by Larry which illustrate the earlier editions of these books shows Herriot attending to another sick cow, while a farmer gloomily watches, a thought bubble above his head picturing a cash register with money falling out cows on Port Meadowof it. Even the vet, says Herriot, “must always have the farmer’s commercial interest in mind”, and tell him or her “when treatment is obviously unprofitable”. It must be so, while animals are traded goods.

And then there is the larger conflict or contradiction, unaffected by the humanity or otherwise of the farmer or vet. Herriot calls it “the fundamental sadness of a country vet’s work – that so many of our patients are ultimately destined for the butcher’s hook”. He himself, for all his obvious kindness, is necessarily reconciled to this sadness, and is, besides, himself a ‘mighty trougher’, to use his own phrase. When that cow with phlebitis dies, it’s an index of Herriot’s dismay that he can’t face the “nice slice of home-fed ham” laid out for his breakfast, but there seems to be no ironic intention in that phrase: the conscientious man has simply lost his appetite.

However, he surely does feel and intend the irony in those words of Siegfried Farnon’s about looking after our animals in a way that would previously have been impossible. For what, among other things, those new “drugs and procedures” turned out to have made possible were the progressive de-naturing of the life of the farm-animal and the kind of “looking after” which is practised on the modern factory farm – that cruel and squalid scene which vets today find themselves servicing.

And now at last, as I said at the end of the previous post, the veterinary profession seems to be hoping to get some ethical grip on this development, and more generally on the human/animal relation as mediated by the vet. In the BVA’s document Vets Speaking up for Animal Welfare, published in February, the three-way pull is given a proper ethical formulation. In future, it says, the interests of the animals will be

our explicit aim and motivator … working with our clients and being economically viable are enablers for us to improve animal welfare … The veterinary surgeon’s trilemma (arising from our duties to animals, clients and our employers) will never be far away but the BVA, in considering veterinary surgeons’ primary motivation, will provide leadership on the principle of the veterinary profession being animal welfare-focused. [Here and in subsequent quotations, I have added the italics]

Specifically in relation to farming, here are some of the BVA’s intentions, as summarised in the document:

Develop a position on humane, sustainable animal agriculture that includes the importance of animal welfare in sustainable development, defines stakeholders that the veterinary profession should consistently account for (those whose interests would be affected by decisions made) and considers how their interests should be weighed by an animal welfare-focused profession • Review BVA’s own food procurement policy in light of an agreed position on humane, sustainable animal agriculture • Link advocacy on priority animal welfare problems to increased consumer awareness of assurance schemes that seek to address these problems.

The civil service prose makes this all sound rather abstract and office-bound, but the intention is clear enough, that vets should occupy at last their proper role as animal advocates, both individually in their daily work and as a profession. In fact the BVA has already been campaigning alongside – though not, as far as I know, in collaboration with – Animal Aid on the subjects of CCTV in slaughterhouses and non-stun slaughter (see the Times, 12 May, p.22). Before the recent national and local elections, the BVA sent a “manifesto” to all the candidates, putting its concerns on these and other matters. And although the new policy is evidently being purposefully directed by the current President of the BVA, Sean Wensley, it has been based on extensive consultation, during which the profession’s members have made clear that this is what they wish their profession to be like. In fact the policy builds on a slightly earlier publication issued jointly by the BVA and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and entitled Vet Futures, where similar intentions were expressed:

We need to clarify the expectations we have of ourselves – and the public has of us – in terms of challenging any practice that undermines animal health and welfare. Vets and veterinary nurses need to feel confident that they have the authority and expertise to speak out, and will be supported by their peers when they do so. 

The crucial anomaly, Herriot’s “fundamental sadness”, remains, that a vet’s work with farm animals will entail keeping them fit to be killed and eaten before they reach maturity – as children, in fact – just as a research vet’s work means fitting animals for premature death in the laboratory. But it’s significant that the BVA document itself makes the comparison with child-care: “We [i.e. the public] expect a paediatrician to prioritise the best interests of their young patients, enabled by the child’s parents/guardians and the doctor’s skills and resource.” And it’s certain that we don’t expect a paediatrician to prepare children for the table, or for the laboratory bench and incinerator. True, the word ‘interests’ is used there, rather than ‘rights’, a word which does not appear in the BVA document. Still, the concept of rights is plainly implied, and perhaps most plainly of all where the document speaks of animal welfare as “a rapidly evolving social concern, following on from moral progress towards women, minority groups, people with disabilities, children and others”. That sequence has been habitually and convincingly put forward as part of the animal rights argument. Now at last the veterinary profession has acknowledged it, and means to act accordingly.

Of course Mr Hyde is meanwhile still busily at work in the profession, notably in the research world (which unfortunately the BVA does not even mention). The Royal Veterinary College, for instance, seems to have taken no part in the new vision. The Animal Health Trust (the “pre-eminent” charity studying and treating ill-health in animals) is a licensee with the Home Office, and joins the RVC among the signatories to the vivisectors’ ‘Concordat’. Veterinary journals still publish gruesome laboratory research, and their solemn cautions to prospective authors, as to the welfare of the animals used, turn out to be no more than reminders of the 1986 Act. And so on. In fact readers of Robert Louis Stevenson will recall that the savage Mr Hyde does finally prevail over Dr Jekyll, though at the prompt cost of his own life. Since March of last year, UK vets have (quite rightly) been permitted to title themselves ‘Dr’: let’s hope it’s a prognosis of their increasing commitment to the more civilized of those two models of the human being, the one that doesn’t start by destroying its fellows and end by destroying itself.

 

[References: the BVA’s Vets Speaking up for Animal Welfare: BVA Animal Welfare Strategy (2016) and the joint BVA/RCVS Vet Futures: a Vision for the Veterinary Profession for 2030 (2015) can both be read online. The quotations from The Lord God Made Them All (Michael Joseph 1981) are taken from the BCA edition of the same year, pp.348, 84-5, and 234.]