What Are Sixty Warblers Worth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes and references:

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



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

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

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

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