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/

Brothers and Cousins

Statistics of the animal research done in Britain during 2016 have now been published. They show a decrease of about 5% or 206,000 in the annual total of ‘procedures’ (down, but not very far down, to 3.94 million). The Home Office press release announcing the statistics was headed with that notable news – notable not so much because the achievement is very great (after all, the 2015 figure had been the highest number of ‘procedures’ ever recorded), but because it represents only the second time in about fifteen years that the numbers have not gone up. And the total in 2016 is still larger than it was in 1986, when the present Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act was introduced with the aim and expectation (for a time actually realised) of pushing the numbers steadily down.

Now is a good moment to recall that aim, because the European Union’s Directive 2010/63, which has been co-ordinating the laws on animal research in all 28 member states, is about to be revised. Although the U.K. will probably not belong to the Union by the time any revisions come into effect, its own practice will certainly be influenced by them. In fact, because science is an internationally collaborative business, published in international journals, the rules and standards established in the Union are certain to have some influence in all countries where animals are used in research.

Article 58 of the Directive requires the European Commission (the E.U.’s executive) to “review” its contents no later than 10 November 2017. In doing so, the Commission must take into account “advancements in the development of alternative methods not entailing the use of animals, in particular of non-human primates”. Specifying OU primateprimates in this way, the Directive’s authors no doubt had in mind a ‘declaration’ which the European Parliament had adopted back in 2007, urging the Commission “to establish a timetable for replacing the use of all primates in scientific experiments with alternatives”. Anyway, by way of limbering up for the review, the Commission asked one of its advisory committees, the Science Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks (SCHEER), to set up a Working Group to study and report on “the need for non-human primates in biomedical research, production and testing of products and devices”. Under this same title, with its ready-made implication that such a need really does exist, SCHEER accordingly published its conclusions (formally an ‘Opinion’) a few weeks ago. These conclusions, on such an especially controversial aspect of animal research, may be taken as indicative of what animals have to hope for from the coming review.

We’re deep inside the E.U. machine here: a working group reporting to a standing committee commissioned to advise the executive on the revision of a parliamentary directive setting the parameters for (and here we at last come out into the open) actual laws in the 28 member states. And the advice itself frequently does have a machine-generated feel to it, of truth made out of words rather than real things, and all the more conveniently incontrovertible for that. “It is indeed important to consider the limitations of the NHP when choosing which species to use in a drug-safety test: the use of an appropriate species or combination of species/models is essential to obtaining the most reliable and translatable information.”[p.63] Has anything been said here that isn’t necessarily true? Is anyone arguing, for instance, that an inappropriate species would produce more reliable information? This key word ‘appropriate’, with its built-in wisdom, is much used in the authors’ proposals: “appropriate training”“appropriate standards”, and of course “appropriate use of NHPs”.

Another such passe-partout word is ‘robust’: the authors variously recommend “robust scrutiny”, “robust peer review procedures”, “robust study design”, and so on. One wonders why scientists hadn’t thought of the great merits of robustness before. Anyway, everything will surely be better in this robust and appropriate new world.

But not very much better. Distinctly this is a technical account of the subject: how to make things as they are work properly (the machine again). There are some good suggestions to that end, certainly. For instance the authors recognize, as one of the barriers to progress in animal-free research, the weight of professional habit and institutionalized practice; they advise that training courses for animal researchers should include “non-animal technologies”, so that transition is easier and more acceptable [p.64]. Also I must concede that, for all the tautologies and self-evident truths, there’s a 12-page bibliography to back up what the committee says. But the rationale for all this attention, why it matters whether there’s a ‘need’ for NHPs in science or not – in short, the morality of it – is almost untouched. Two pages (out of 66 in the main text) make a hurried tour of the topic, though it is of course alluded to from time to time elsewhere. But then all members of the Working Group were scientists. Accordingly, the section headed ‘Minority Opinion’, which looks rather promising in the table of contents with the whole of page 23 to itself, proves, when one reaches it, to be blank, apart from the word “None”.

The committee recognises, as a political fact, that “polls of the European public repeatedly show low levels of acceptance of the use of NHPs in research” [p.24]. Approval for the use of NHPs in the U.K., for instance, was about 17% when last canvassed (see, in this blog, ‘Animal Pains and Human Attitudes: the new Ipsos Mori survey’, 26 September 2016). However, there is at least “greater acceptance of animal research where animal use and suffering are minimised in line with the 3Rs principle” [i.e. Replacement, Reduction, Refinement: p.25]. This is no doubt true, although it’s a somewhat disingenuous way of putting things: where acceptance has not been ‘great’ in the first place, it shouldn’t really be said to become “greater”. And I suspect that approval would actually have been even lower if the respondents had known, as this SCHEER report records, that nearly three quarters of ‘procedures’ conducted on NHPs in the E.U. are for “regulatory use and routine production” [p.15].

What these quotations illustrate is how the “3Rs principle” is seen by scientists as a sort of ethical machine labouring away to turn expediency into good conduct, rather as the “invisible hand” of the free market was supposed by Adam Smith to convert self-interested actions into social good. In this capacity, it’s expected to satisfy or at least placate opponents of animal research. That it does not do so, and that the whole managerial attitude to “ethical considerations” understates their seriousness, is evident in the consultation document which is published alongside the SCHEER report (but which came before it in time, of course).

I must say that this 234-page consultation document is conspicuous proof at least of the diligence and fair-mindedness of the committee, which here records in the left-hand column, and replies to in the right, hundreds of queries and comments. It wasn’t in the committee’s remit to deal with ethics except as a general premise, but at least the moral passion is now allowed printed expression in raw, ungentrified form: “cruel”, “inhuman”, “abhorrent”, “nearest cousins”, “brothers”, “freedom”. True, the committee makes little attempt to address this sort of complaint (there being plenty of other more strictly scientific representations). “Stop this insane abuse!!” says one contribution (well yes, two exclamation marks, but then, as the great Aneurin Bevan used to say, “In public life, those who would change things must shout to be heard”). To such, the committee can only reply with a slightly pompous set formula: “This is a personal opinion. The comment does not provide any suggestions for improvements of the scientific basis of the SCHEER preliminary Opinion and/or any scientific evidence.” Still, such remonstrations, earnest and unscientific, are at least recorded here. Thank you to those who did speak up with this authentic human indignation.

When it issued its previous ‘opinion’ on animal research, just prior to the making of the 2010 Directive, this same science committee was called SCHER. The second ‘E’, recently added, stands for ‘emerging’, and refers to novel or reappearing infectious diseases. It’s an ominous alteration for NHPs, because this is one of the areas of research in which the committee, so far from sketching out a diminution in their use, foresees an increase. NHPs, so SCHEER claims, “provide essential models for understanding and combatting (re)emerging infectious pathogens.” Thus, for recent research into whooping cough, “a new baboon model was developed” [p.47]. That rather euphemistic phrase actually means that research was conducted, for the first time, on juvenile baboons (from two to six months old): the opposite of the 3Rs, then. SCHEER justifies such retrogressions by speaking of “realistic dangers” [p.47]. Danger, which might properly be seen as a test and validation of our ethics, is evidently expected to frighten them away. And after all, even the great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos), whom the E.U. Directive in principle protects absolutely from scientific exploitation, may be used “in relation to an unexpected outbreak of a life-threatening or debilitating clinical condition in human beings” [Article 55.2].

So, shall a timetable be drawn up for ending the use of NHPs in European research, as the E.U. parliament was dreaming ten years ago? SCHEER’s 12,000 word answer resembles the one being given in a famous Saul Steinberg cartoon from 1961. A well-fed manager of some sort, comfortably leaning back at his desk, addresses a petitioner with a mass of words, illegible but obviously full of patronizing civilities and bureaucratic reassurances. The words coalesce, above the petitioner’s head, into a giant ‘NO’.

Notes and references:

The 2016 statistics can be viewed here:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/627284/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2016.pdf

These new statistics record about 3,600 procedures using NHPs. The SCHEER report uses the all-E.U. figure of 8898, which was the total in 2014. Note that the Home Office numbers don’t include Northern Ireland: i.e. they cover animal research in Great Britain rather than the U.K.

The 2007 Declaration of the European Parliament on primates in scientific experiments is published online at http://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/lab_animals/pdf/fische_suite.pdf

The SCHEER report is at https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/scientific_committees/scheer/docs/scheer_o_004.pdf

The results of the public consultation are published at https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/scientific_committees/scheer/docs/followup_cons_primates_en.pdf

Aneurin Bevan is quoted in Michael Foot, Loyalists and Loners, Collins, 1987, p.36. Among other political achievements, Bevan was the Minister of Health from 1945 to 1951, therefore the man responsible for establishing the U.K.’s National Health Service.

The photograph is of a rhesus macaque monkey in Oxford University’s Biomedical Sciences Building, and is used here by permission of the University’s Public Affairs Office.