Minks, Fishes, Macaques: New Wrongs and Re-newed Remedies

The sudden ‘culling’ of millions of minks in Denmark and other European countries has variously been called, by practitioners in this branch of animal exploitation, “dramatic”, “incredibly sad and shocking”, and “devastating”. It surely is all of these things (except that a scientist shouldn’t be using the nonsense word ‘incredibly’), especially for the minks themselves, but hardly more so this year than any other. Most of the minks will have been losing their lives just a very short time before the allotted span, since only the breeding females are allowed to live for more than a season. The real difference this year is a commercial one. The animals are being destroyed not for profit, but because their crowded indoors life provides ideal conditions for the Covid-19 virus. With so many back-up hosts immediately available, the virus isn’t even penalized for killing its present billet: hence the fear that it may be mutating into something even more virulent.

In fact the word ‘cull’, suggesting a judicious selection, perhaps taken out for the sake of the remaining population, is quite disingenuous here. This is a wholesale slaughter, whose start-to-end wrongfulness is only redeemed minkby the declared intention of some of the countries – Netherlands, Ireland, perhaps others – to prohibit this variety of animal-farming in future. (A current petition on the subject is linked in the notes below.)

To the slaughter on the farms themselves is added a sort of collateral population of minks: the ones being used to trial new and more effective ways of farming and breeding. It’s safe to say that every commercial exploitation of animals has this back-room population serving it. The ‘sad and shocked’ speaker quoted above was in fact thinking of his own team of 6000 or so ‘research’ minks at Aarhus University in Denmark. His work there has been, on the face of it, beneficial to the animals. He studies “the behaviour and welfare of farmed mink, with the aim of giving them a better life as they are raised for fur.” Even so, it’s difficult to think very well of this research. I can’t see that it does more than provide statistical backing for what ought to be the very platitudes of practical husbandry: for instance, that ‘enriched’ cages and gentle handling tend to give the animals confidence, whereas unpleasant events (such as brief confinement in a “small trap”) have the reverse effect, making them nervous and fearful. The conclusions of one Aarhus paper earlier this year were that “we would recommend farmers to (1) avoid negative handling, and (2) if [it’s] necessary to handle mink, to adopt the best possible handling methods.”

Perhaps there’s a bit more to the research than that – more promise of a “better life” for the minks, that is – but there’s also a good deal less. Such research is necessarily good PR for mink-farming, since it allows farmers to use these minimum decencies and claim, as the research itself does, that by doing so they “enhance mink welfare”. ‘Enhance’! So the minks are already doing well; giving them a tube to hide in, and not handling them roughly, constitute a bonus (I can find no mention of the water which these semi-aquatic animals have to do without). It’s not a surprise, then, that the funds for this research at Aarhus University come from sources that include the Danish Pelt Levy Foundation and the trade collective called Kopenhagen Fur (“ensuring the highest standards of animal welfare”).

Then there’s this emphasis on relieving the animals of the sense of fear. It’s a laudable aim, in so far as there’s general agreement that fear is the worst of the common distresses of captive animals. The cattle-slaughter specialist Temple Grandin says, “Fear is so bad for animals, I think it’s worse than pain.” But of course there’s a swindle involved here, for these animals have good reason to be afraid. Their docility, which makes them much easier to handle (and easier also to show in promotional films), is really a trick being played upon them, the wolf dressing up as grandma. The only honourable way to relieve them of fear in this case is to stop being the cause of it.

But of course the history of animal welfarism has largely consisted in managing the symptoms and leaving the essential wrong intact. This is partly what has prompted Dr Gill Langley, a dedicated specialist in non-animal research technologies, to propose in the latest issue of the journal Alternatives to Laboratory Animals that the 3Rs (reduction, refinement, replacement), a classic welfare initiative, have “had their day”.

These three “principles of humane experimental technique” were first put forward in a book of that title written by William Russell and Rex Burch and published in 1959. They have been part of British and EU law since 1986. Their consequences in reduced animal suffering can’t well be measured, but must surely have been very great. The book was re-issued in 2009, slightly revised in order to make it easier for non-English readers rather than because it needed up-dating. In fact the European Union’s “final goal of full replacement”, a commitment of 2010, is already implicit in the book, whose authors say with clear emphasis that “absolute replacement may be regarded as the absolute ideal”. They also, incidentally, devote six pages to research into fear and anxiety – still one of the most ingeniously nasty branches of animal research, and continually renewed in the search for effective, or at least different, tranquillizers and anti-depressants. Russell and Burch showed how such research might be conducted “without at any stage of the process inflicting any fear on the animal.”

But yes, the aim of the 3Rs has always been to minimize the harms of animal research, rather than to put what practitioners would regard as a premature end to the practice. Accordingly the 3Rs address only the welfare of animals, not their rights. And Dr Langley argues that many scientists have little interest even in animal welfare, except as a bureaucratic complication of their work. Outside Europe, in countries where the 3Rs have less or no authority, there’s not even much of a bureaucratic complication for them to bother about. (I notice that a Chinese scientist who studies bats and other animals as disease-carriers is quoted as saying “I don’t like animals”.) To engage the interest and commitment of such people, she proposes that the case should be put in its more positive form: “not replacement methods, but advanced techniques: no longer alternative or humane research . . . but human-relevant and human-specific: not 20th century, but 21st century toxicology.” In short, the 3Rs have “had their day” because animal research itself has: it’s out of date.

If only this were so! But, taking the human relevance first, there’s a whole corpus of research which can’t be human-specific, because, as we’ve just seen, it’s mink-specific or otherwise bat-specific or specific to any of the other species which may catch the scientific or commercial eye.

There’s fish-specific research, for instance, a mushrooming category already reviewed elsewhere in this blog. Unlike the research at Aarhus, very little of this has to do with welfare, and it supports a class of farming, ‘aquaculture’, that is briskly growing rather than, like mink-farming, in decline. Thus a report in last week’s issue of the journal Science, titled ‘Tomorrow’s Catch’, speaks of “dramatic gains for aquaculture” coming from new research. The writer seems dazzled by the numbers and superlatives: whether of fishes, farm sizes, dollars, prospects, they’re all cause for astonishment and congratulation. “Everybody in the field is excited”, says a scientist from Rutgers University. Someone from Hendrix Genetics (“Better breeding today for a brighter life tomorrow”), admiring the newly accelerated growth-rates of farmed salmon, says “My colleagues in poultry can only dream of these kinds of percentages.” And you can be certain they are dreaming of them, and fully intending to make the dreams real at the earliest opportunity.

The point is that there’s nothing in the least ‘20th century’ about the animal research which is hustling fish-farming into its future. An account of the industry recently published in the journal Trends in Genetics makes this clear: already you can throw away your notes on such last-year technologies as ‘transcription activator-like nucleases (TALENS) or ‘zinc finger nucleases’ (ZFN), because they’ve been “largely superseded by the advent of the re-purposed CRISPR /Cas9 system”. The development of the gene-editing technique CRISPR (a.k.a. clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) was the theme of 2020’s Nobel Prize for chemistry. It’s this year’s science. Some of the things about fishes which it will enable silver-pacific-salmonaquaculturists to control are growth rate, colouring, resistance to disease and infestation (crucial, as we’ve seen, in grossly overcrowded populations), sterility (more cost-effective and eases control of the patent), boniness (the aim being to eliminate the little bones that inconvenience consumers), and, to summarize, cash-value. And that last objective, of course, never dates.

But the animal research aimed at illuminating and correcting human physiology is keenly go-ahead in just the same way – using CRISPR itself of course, but many other new technologies too. Optogenetics, for instance: this technology was voted ‘Method of the Year’ by the journal Nature Methods as long ago as 2010, but has been briskly developing ever since. It involves injecting into the brains of mammals (usually mice or monkeys) a virus carrying light-sensitive proteins, so that scientists can then use an implanted light-source to activate particular nerve-cells, and thereby modify animal capacity or behaviour. The final aim is correction of human brain disorders, and there are now more than 66 neurological laboratories in the world that are using monkeys in this sort of experimentation. There will surely be many more soon: one participant in Canada is quoted in Science exclaiming that she “can’t wait to test” some of the newer techniques in optogenetics, and looks forward to “a boom in studies to influence and understand the brain circuits of some of our closest animal relatives.” You’ll notice that the word ‘closest’ is used there for its strictly scientific relevance, free of ethical content: the closer, the more useful.

macaqueThe Science article in question, titled ‘Efforts to control monkey brains get a boost’, is headed with a photograph of a macaque monkey in the wild. I’ve pondered that for a while. Why advertise the contrast? Can some sub-editor be making an ethical point (for the ethics of animal research do sometimes get a mention in this journal)? No, I conclude that the picture simply represents generic ‘macaque’, much as the term ‘mink’ is used as a sort of collective noun, all minks really being fur, whether temporarily on foot or ready-to-wear. Likewise, whether kitted with the optogenetic prosthetics or innocently looking about them in nature, macaques are uniformly brain-carriers, and we’ve set ourselves to get at it: a human-centred predatory project for the 21st century.

In such a setting, the 3Rs can’t be said to have had their day. Outside Europe their day has scarcely arrived. When it does arrive – that is, if ever they form part of the law governing research in all countries – even then there’ll be more for them to do. For there is nothing peculiarly science-specific about the 3Rs; they would apply equally well to any other scene of animal exploitation. Remember in particular that any adequate alternative to animal-use becomes a mandatory ‘replacement’ under 3Rs regulations. The 3Rs would therefore put an end to meat and dairy farming (replacement technology: veganism), to zoos (replaced by nature documentaries), and of course to animal-fur, for which replacements have been available since well before Russell and Burch first published their principles of humane research. When the 3Rs really have done all they usefully can, we shall indeed have a truly human-relevant science, and more largely a fully animal-relevant ethics: in short a humane way of life at last.

Notes and references:

The petition, mentioned above and addressed to the Prime Minister of Denmark, may have come too late now, but it’s here: https://animalpetitions.org/933352/death-is-not-disease-prevention-no-more-culling-of-innocent-animals/

Articles in Science about mink-farming, aquaculture, and optogenetics are in the issues for 13 and 20 November, and 30 October of 2020 respectively. The research paper on mink-welfare, titled ‘Barren housing and negative handling decrease the exploratory approach in farmed mink’, is published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, January 2020, and online here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159119301637?via%3Dihub

An example of a promotional film about mink-farming can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwPsStvktks

The quotation from Temple Grandin comes in her book Animals in Translation, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.189. There is more about Dr Grandin’s work in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/07/07/fitting-them-for-slaughter-the-work-of-temple-grandin-and-others/

Dr Langley’s article appears in the journal ATLA, vol.48 issue 1 supplement, November 2020. It’s a version of an address originally given at the Lush Prize Conference of 2018, and titled ‘The Times They are A-Changin’. The quotation is from p.145. The article can be viewed here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0261192920911340

The 2009 edition of Russell and Burch’s book is edited by Michael Balls and re-titled The Three Rs and the Humanity Criterion (publisher, Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments). Quotations are from pp.36 and 98.

The EU’s “final goal” is thus stated in the Directive 2010/63, part of the preamble at para 10: see
https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A32010L0063

“I don’t like animals” is quoted from an article titled ‘The bat-man tackles Covid-19’ in Science, 2 October 2020.

The article in Trends in Genetics appeared in September 2019, and was titled ‘Potential of Genome Editing to Improve Aquaculture Breeding and Production’. It’s accessible online here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016895251930126X

Fish and fish-farming are the subject of a post in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/our-ancestors-the-fishes/