Counting, Culling, and Refraining from Bad Language

Oxford University has now published its animal research statistics for 2020. The total of experimental procedures was 169,511, a drop of 25% from 2019, and the lowest total since 2011. The only other institution to have published its 2020 numbers, King’s College London, records a similar reduction. Neither university has commented publicly on the matter, though you’d think it was dramatic enough to merit explanation. However, one may guess that this fall in animal numbers has been, not success in devising other ways of doing research, but the Covid effect, causing research projects to be postponed or cancelled. Whether the animals marked down for those projects are still waiting or have been destroyed for want of the staff to care for them is something the university has not volunteered, and indeed seems reluctant to divulge (I’ve asked).

The culling of lab animals in the USA, as a consequence of the pandemic, was commented on in the VERO blog for 8 April last year. There’s a bill now before the U.S. Congress which aims to protect animals in research laboratories and in other institutions (zoos, breeding farms, etc.) from “natural and man-made disasters”. Its short name is the PREPARED Act (Providing Responsible Emergency Plans for Animals at Risk of Emerging Disasters), and it would require all such establishments to make detailed contingency plans for the protection and re-homing of their animals. The drafting of this bill preceded the pandemic, but would very adequately have accommodated it, for Covid is of course both kinds of disaster, natural and man-made. However, the Act will have come too late for lab animals this time (itself having been delayed by the pandemic), and the traditional response to all mistakes and mishaps in laboratories – that is, killing the animals involved – has been used instead.

The PREPARED Act is one of a number of measures presently before Congress which are aimed at improving the lives of animals in the USA. One of the most impressive is the Farm System Reform Act, which would shift agriculture away from the huge factory farms (above a certain size would actually be prohibited by 2040), and towards smaller farms with pasture-based livestock or exclusively plant-food production. It’s a change which would, according to its sponsor, Senator Cory Booker, mend America’s “savagely broken food system” to the benefit of all the people and animals presently caught up in it.

If there’s a utopian hopefulness about the Farm System Reform Act (the more admirable for that), the Humane Research and Testing Act seems to have a more realistic chance of success. It proposes to establish a national centre for devising and promoting alternatives to animals in research, and this is a formalization of something that is supposed to be already happening under the finely named National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act 1993 (Section 404C). It also proposes a more inclusive count of the animals being used: all vertebrates – rather than, as at present, all except the vast majority of them (that is, the rodents, birds and fish). Every research institution receiving federal funds would be required to publish its count annually, together with a plan showing how it proposes to reduce the numbers in future.

Much of this would align the USA with practice in the UK, where such demands don’t seem to have lamed science in the way predicted by practitioners beforehand. But of course the Humane Research Act is being vigorously resisted, notably by the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), the organisation which many years ago successfully pushed for that exemption of rodents, birds and fish from the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act. In fact the NABR has been lobbying also against various animal-related measures in this year’s federal budget (the Fiscal Year 2021 Omnibus Appropriations Bill). These include the restoring to public view of records of inspections made by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) which were removed from its web-site in 2017; the mandatory recording by USDA of every instance of non-compliance with the Animal Welfare Act; and, with reference to the Food and Drug Administration, a direction to prefer non-animal testing wherever possible. Viewing these modestly animal-friendly measures, the NABR complains that “The House has filled their bills with bad language”. It’s an arresting phraseology to a British ear, but its meaning is clarified in the heading to their campaign in this case: “Remove Animals Rights Language from FY21 Approps Bills”.

The NABR’s own language is, of course, not “bad” in this sense at all. Like most such professional voices, it prefers inexplicit terminology: devitalized phrases like “animal models”; scarcely visible misrepresentations like “research with animals” (it’s a partnership, you see; in fact we’re told that medical discovery has been one of the most important results of “our partnership with dogs”); or just a helpful verbal fog, as in “the application of newly found knowledge is often proved feasible in non-human primate models”. The message is, ‘Move on; there’s nothing to see here.’

The NABR knows well that language is a hidden persuader. It would no doubt approve of the fashionable euphemism “depopulation” for another of Covid’s consequences, the mass culling of farm flocks and herds which have become untradeable or otherwise uneconomic as a result of the pandemic. Or there’s the term “focussed”, used by USDA for the inspections it makes of what it believes to be the more dependable research establishments: the word is suggestive of close and attentive scrutiny, a patently excellent thing, but it also means, without saying so, that something will be left out. In fact USDA is using the word exactly to mean exclusive. As an animal-law academic at Harvard has said, “An inspector could just look at a sampling of paperwork – and not a single animal.”

“paperwork – and not a single animal”: it could be the motto of the whole euphemism front in animal research. That phrase animal research is indeed the foundational instance, substituting a vague abstraction for the original and highly descriptive term vivisection. Practitioners have commonly argued that vivisection is inaccurate, since it includes the idea of cutting – i.e. some form of surgery – whereas much research using animals is non-invasive. It’s true that the word was coined in the eighteenth century, when nearly all such experimental work did indeed involve surgery, the exposure and study of organic functions by cutting. But just as atomic physics outran the etymology of its root word (a-tom meaning ‘not to be cut’), yet has remained untroubled by the contradiction, so might vivisection have done. Physiologists, however, understood the pictorial force of the word, and abandoned it early on for the opposition to use. It was no small part of the courage of Professor George Rolleston, giving his evidence to the Royal Commission in 1875 (as described in the post previous to this one), to declare that he would use the word inclusively and “not in its etymological sense” (neither the Commission nor the Act which followed it had the word in its title). He was effectively legitimizing the opposition case and advising his colleagues that they had a professional duty to answer it.

They didn’t, of course, follow his example, and the word is now used almost exclusively by outsiders to the profession, as a pejorative. Unused by scientists for so long, it has an antiquarian flavour much to the advantage of practitioners: a great weight of historical scandal and criticism was off-loaded and disclaimed when animal research became the accepted term. But vivisection survived and needs encouraging. It appears in the title of the valuable 1987 essay collection Vivisection in Historical Perspective (a reviewer from the Wellcome Institute called the title “unfortunate” and feared the word might deter his fellow-scientists from reading the book). I note its more recent use also throughout the text of a similarly impartial account of the subject provided at politics.co.uk. But if the word seems out-dated, then at least we can preserve its key element and speak wherever possible of live-animal research and of living animals.

But so much of the public material and even administrative machinery of this business has a euphemizing effect, whether or not by conscious purpose, that escaping the fog seems nearly impossible. We have seen, in the Vivotecnia scandal (discussed in this blog for 15 April), how the fine-sounding agencies supposed to supervise standards at that laboratory were in practice a covert for misconduct. Even the numbers such as this post started with, the annual parades of figures, with their hyper-accuracy asserting a candour which may or may not be really there, seem to daze more than inform. Perhaps they even habituate us to think of animals in the mass, and to forget the “single animal”.

rhesus at OU

I don’t know the solution to this, except in that authenticating phrase which Goya incised into one of his series of fearsome etchings called The Disasters of War: “Yo lo vi” (I saw this). What comes out of laboratories as having been witnessed and recorded in secret, as in the Vivotecnia case, is the only authentic information. Failing that, a strenuously critical reading of what’s officially provided is always and at least required.

Notes and references:

The photograph shows a rhesus macaque monkey in the Biomedical Sciences Building of Oxford University (reproduced by permission of the university’s Public Affairs Office). Fifteen of these non-human primates were used and killed there in 2020, in the severity categories mild (1), moderate (10), and severe (4).

Oxford University’s 2020 statistics, including species of animal used and severity categories, are posted here (the surrounding text is unaltered from previous years): https://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview.

The text of the proposed PREPARED Act can be read here: https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/1442/text. Senator Booker was interviewed by the Guardian newspaper about his farm reforms: see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/15/a-savagely-broken-food-system-cory-booker-wants-radical-reform-now

 The NABR is quoted from these two web-pages: https://www.nabr.org/take-action/fy21-approps-activism  and https://www.nabr.org/biomedical-research/importance-biomedical-research. The species excepted from the terms of the Animal Welfare Act do get some legal protections, as described here by another pro-research organisation: https://speakingofresearch.com/2016/05/23/when-are-rats-mice-birds-and-fish-protected-by-us-federal-laws/

USDA’s “focussed” inspections are reported (including the quotation) in Science, ‘USDA now only partially inspects some animal labs’, 7 May 2021, p.558.

The book Vivisection in Historical Perspective, ed. Nicholaas A.Rupke, is published by Croom Helm, 1987. The quoted review of it can be read here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1139874/pdf/medhist00063-0114.pdf. The politics.co.uk page on vivisection, a fair and readable account, is here: https://www.politics.co.uk/reference/vivisection/

The quoted evidence of George Rolleston, professor of physiology and anatomy at Oxford University, is recorded in Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, London, HMSO, 1876, p.62.

The photograph shows a rhesus macaque monkey in the Biomedical Sciences Building of Oxford University (by permission of the university’s Public Affairs Office). Fifteen of these non-human primates were used and killed there in 2020, in the severity categories mild (1), moderate (10), and severe (4).