Killing with Kindness

Those who like the idea of a more “welfare-friendly approach” to the annual slaughter of eight and a half million or so of the UK’s pigs in early childhood (approx. 24 weeks old), will be pleased to know that a project with just that aim in view is among those recently made public by the Home Office in its non-technical summaries of research projects licensed in 2018. The idea is to determine whether ‘low atmospheric pressure stunning’ (LAPS) might be a more acceptable method to the pigs than the more familiar carbon dioxide gas, as a preliminary to being slaughtered. The “behavioural and physiological responses” of the test animals to these alternatives will be compared: “meat quality” too, because of course the pigs aren’t being slaughtered just for their own comfort.

I was thinking that a really welfare-friendly approach worth considering would be not to kill them at all. But that just shows my sentimental amateurism, for as Project 322 (‘Physiological biomarkers of poultry welfare’) warns us in its preamble, “We should not assume that, just because humans might not like certain conditions, chickens would respond accordingly.” The scientists engaged in this project will “implant electrodes into the brains” of their chickens and then study the activity “in brain areas that are known to process emotions” while the birds are experiencing “stimuli” both positive and negative. Interestingly enough, the scientists seem to have a pretty good idea of which will be which, just as you or I might mistakenly suppose that we have, but then they and their fellow-professionals have been doing this sort of work for decades (a point I shall return to later). Meanwhile, Project 157 will be taking this line of research even further with its proposed “autonomous platform for data-collection in poultry sheds”, a device that will actually share the scene with the hens and provide information about it, including “bird condition”. With what may be intended for a touch of humour (I’m trying not to assume anything, even about how scientists think), the device is called ‘Robochick’.

Back with the pigs and Project 291: here too we mustn’t assume we know what they like (or not), even though LAPS, or at any rate the sort of fall in air pressure and oxygen that it uses, is apparently “reported as not unpleasant or painful to humans experiencing similar rates of decompression.” Therefore the pigs will be able to show their preference, having been trained “to indicate that they want to leave a situation”. Of course it will prove a somewhat pathetic accomplishment for them, since any wish they may indicate to leave their fatal situation won’t in practice be granted; all the pigs will be killed as a necessary part of the procedure. That’s 300 of them, admittedly a tiny number compared to those annual millions in slaughterhouses. The same is true of the chickens in their two cohorts of 100 and 1500. The 100 will be “humanely killed”; the 500, after their time with Robochick, will go to commercial slaughter at the usual 39 weeks old – a life-span nearer to that of the house-fly than to their own natural expectation.

Almost certainly these animals will have enjoyed better conditions than are the lot of the ordinary farm animals whose lives they are being used to mimic and supposedly to improve. In fact one of the cases of ‘non-compliance’ recorded by the Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU) in its report on animal research in that same year (a report just now published) shows this to be so: under the heading ‘Failure to provide adequate facilities’, it notes some research during which “commercial standard facilities and transport were used for cattle regulated under ASPA [the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986].Accordingly a ‘letter of reprimand’ was sent, and re-training and re-inspection prescribed.

So they get a better deal in the laboratory than on the ordinary farm. That’s not saying much, certainly, but we can know little about what the farm deal commonly is (as opposed to what the official regulations for it are), since the system of inspection for farms is a sort of anarchy in comparison to the one which ASRU administers. At least five different branches or agencies of the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs are responsible for different aspects of agriculture. Responsibility for animal welfare is shared between APHA (the Animal and Plant Health Agency) and local authorities, both of which have many other things to worry about even on farms. It’s not even known for certain, by these authorities, how many farms there are in England. At any rate only a small fraction of the total farming activity is officially visited in a year, and when animal welfare is given special attention it’s usually in the commercial sense of that phrase (i.e. fit for food), so that the concern is with communicable diseases like TB rather than with humane treatment (another phrase whose special professional meaning differs from ordinary usage). The statistics are available for no year more recent than 2016, but in that year APHA visited only 372 of about 56,000 pig farms, and only 164 of the 27,000 broiler chicken farms.

It’s in order to boost and streamline this chaotic and inherently cruel farming ‘industry’ 45. abattoirthat research projects of the kind described above are funded. It may be better in the lab than on the farm, and certainly those submitting the projects for licence are always keen to highlight any advantages their research may have for the farmed animals in their sights. Still, the essential aim for both lab and farm is to get as many animals as possible to the point of sale in profitable condition, or as Project 44 (vol.2), ‘Nutrition of poultry’, puts it in its own vague yet steely dialect, to “reduce sub-clinical growth performance issues.”

Getting the right food through these farm animals – or rather “determining efficiency of nutrient utilization” (Project 44 again) – is indeed another noticeable theme in these project summaries; also, of course, protecting the animals from disease. Here, the farming of fish seems to be an especially promising field for study. Project 165 proposes to cultivate sea-lice on its colony of fish, in order to “supply them [the lice] into a range of research projects directed at improving salmon health.”  The long-term aims here are “to reduce the suffering of farmed salmon due to sea-lice [animal welfare, you see], and increase the supply for human consumption.” The main point is that, as another project summary (no. 253) exclaims, diseases of fish represent “an enormous threat to food production through aquaculture.” That the aquaculture itself may constitute the disease threat is not a paying research proposition, or so these research summaries seem to show.

As published by the Home Office, the non-technical summaries (NTS) are no longer grouped by subject of interest, as they used to be, but appear in two online ‘volumes’, covering a total of 2400 pages. I have picked out a few of the farm-related projects, but of course there are many other recurring themes. One of them is human obesity, and the associated condition diabetes. As one such project (no.269) explains, “There is a huge clinical need for this research because of the global epidemic of obesity and diabetes.” (“enormous threat”, “huge clinical need”: if these seem surprisingly unscientific hyperboles, remember that the writers are aiming to justify their use of animals). That “epidemic” is no doubt itself farm-related, like some others of the diseases featuring in these NTS, in the sense that it’s causally related to the diet being promoted in such research projects as we’ve already been viewing. Feeding mice and rats grossly unsuitable obesity-generating diets will of course produce knowledge, perhaps even publishable knowledge. If it seems unlikely to do anything actually to correct the epidemic, well, these are biomedical scientists, not epidemiologists or sociologists, still less politicians. They have their special corner in the problem, and will work it assiduously while permitted to do so.

And indeed there they always are, coasting in the slipstream of every hazardous novelty in our way of life (as well as pioneering a few of their own): late-age reproduction, nanotechnology (Project 132 welcomes nanotoxicology as “a fast-growing science discipline”), new chemicals, new medicines. Yes, even licensed medicines themselves, because these generate their own studiable problems: “self-poisoning with medicines (‘attempted suicide’) is responsible for 10% of all medical presentations to hospital in the UK. It’s a sad and shocking statistic, though its precision is somewhat illusory, depending as it does on the obscure phrase “medical presentations”. The quotation is from Project 66, which proposes to study a whole range of poisons (using anaesthetized pigs), including organophosphorus insecticides (OP). What, haven’t these already done the rounds of the laboratories? Certainly, but former research didn’t “mirror what happens in people. The OP has been given in the wrong form and by the wrong route.”

Here surely the tears come into one’s eyes. There need be no end to this fatal mass through-put of animals. Not just new ways of life, new products, new diseases, but new “forms” and new “routes” to rejuvenate research already done however many times. And as we’ve seen, animal welfare itself is a topic open to limitless research; whole departments and careers are devoted to it.

About 150 years ago, the Oxford zoologist Edwin Ray Lankester predicted that vivisection would increase geometrically, each study producing multiple new questions for yet more animals to be required to answer. The prediction proved correct for much of the intervening period. It’s no longer true, at least in the UK, largely because opposition has steadily challenged it in ways now partly incorporated in law and in such agencies as the Animals in Science Regulation Unit. But the practice isn’t shrinking, and these NTS show why.

I say that the challenge to vivisection is incorporated in ASRU and other official organisations, but abolitionism is not. The European Union directive which has provided the ideological setting as well as the regulations for animal research in member states since 2010 does indeed look on those regulations as “an important step towards achieving the final goal of full replacement of procedures on live animals.” UK politicians have promised to carry over, after Brexit, all the standards specified in EU law, but this larger sense of purpose is something which they may not be intending to include. At any rate, when the Green MP Caroline Lucas put it as a parliamentary question to the Home Office minister a couple of years ago, whether that aim towards full replacement would be “fully reflected in domestic law”, the answer, in so far as it yielded any information on the subject at all, seemed to be ‘no’.

That answer was very probably drafted for the minister by ASRU itself. ASRU is an impressive bureaucracy in its way, active in promoting ‘compliant’ practice and (as far as this is ever possible to know) unsecretive. But it manages things as they are, with no ideological direction. As its 2018 report says, “Unlike many government regulators ASRU does not operate for the express purpose of achieving a product to be delivered.” I only wish it did.

On the contrary, however, ASRU seems to regard abolition as an aim likely to compromise sound judgement on questions of lawfulness and cruelty in animal research. We can notice this in the occasional special reports which it issues on particular serious cases. Of the five so far published, three arose out of exposés and complaints made by animal protection organisations. None of these complaints was subsequently endorsed by ASRU investigators (though various sorts of ignorance and negligence were in fact found and dealt with), and in two of the reports the reader is told, by way of caveat, that the complainant group “is committed to ending animal experiments.” But that commitment is surely the native logic of the 3Rs (reduction, refinement, replacement), the promoting of which is part of ASRU’s brief: if saving some animals from experimentation is an agreed good, then saving all of them must be even more so. Why not admit it? They don’t have to fix a date, though after my tour of the 2018 non-technical summaries I would suggest tomorrow.

 

Notes and references:

A more general account of the non-technical summaries was given in this blog in a post titled ‘If You Poison Us, Do We Not Die?’, here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/if-you-poison-us-do-we-not-die/  The summaries submitted in 2018 and discussed above can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/non-technical-summaries-granted-in-2018

Likewise, a more general account of ASRU was posted in this blog under the title ‘Policing the Lab’: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/03/30/policing-the-lab/  ASRU’s report for 2018 was published this month, and can be read here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/887289/Animals_in_Science_Regulation_Unit_annual_report_2018.pdf  Quotations are from pp.37, 24, and 10.

The special ASRU reports are posted online here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/compliance-investigations-by-the-animals-in-science-regulation-unit The quotations are from reports A7(1) and A8(1), published March 2015 and September 2014.

As to regulation of agriculture, a thorough and well-written report on the subject, with many very good reform proposals in it, was commissioned some while ago and published in December 2018 as Farm Inspection and Regulation Review: see https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/764286/farm-inspection-regulatio-review-final-report-2018.pdf   The figures given above for pig and poultry inspections come from DEFRA’s publication On-farm welfare inspections 2016, online at https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/animal-on-farm-welfare-inspections-in-great-britain.

Edwin Ray Lankester was a student at Oxford, and at later times a tutor and, in the 1890s, professor there. His main interests were in evolutionary biology and comparative anatomy. He used vivisection in his teaching and research at Exeter College in the early 1870s, and he championed it in principle, partly because it represented for him, as it did for many of his fellow-professionals, an assertion of the authority and autonomy of science. I’m afraid that I’ve lost for the moment the reference for his statement about the future of vivisection.

The “final goal” spoken of in EU Directive 2010/63 comes in the pre-amble, at para 10: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A32010L0063

Caroline Lucas’s written question, formally to the Secretary of State at the Home Office but answered with the signature of the minister then responsible for animals in science, Ben Wallace, was dated 18 June and the reply 26 June, 2018. Later that year, an ‘Explanatory Memorandum’ for the EU Exit Regulations as they affect the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 stated that implementing the 3Rs “will contribute to the final goal of full replacement of procedures on live animals for scientific and educational purposes as soon as it is scientifically possible to do so, which was an aim enshrined in Directive 2010/63/EU.” This is at least an acknowledgement of that EU goal, though not quite a transposition of it. See para 7.4 here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5bb24a2f40f0b62dc1451ac9/01_10_18_-_ASRU_EM_-_EM_Template_07.2018.pdf

The wood-cut ‘Abattoir’ is from The Vegan Animals’ Manifesto by the artist and activist Sue Coe: see https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/the-vegan-animals-manifesto-by-sue-coe/