Author Archives: allysonjbennett

Guest Post: How do birds see the world?

Professor Aaron Blaisdell

Professor Aaron Blaisdell

Today’s guest post is from Professor Aaron Blaisdell and graduate student Julia Schroeder in the Department of Psychology at the University of California Los Angeles. Prof. Blaisdell’s area of research is animal learning and comparative cognition. He received his Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at Binghamton University in 1999. Julia Schroeder is a graduate student in the Psychology Department at UCLA. This project is the basis of her dissertation research which she hopes to complete by May, 2016. She received a BS in Psychology at Whitman College where she compared rational decision processes in pigeons and humans. You can support their research through their crowdfunding campaign.

How do birds see the world?

How do birds fly around objects without crashing into them? Their object perception must be similar to ours, despite having a dramatically different brain and separate evolutionary history. Birds and mammals share a last common ancestor roughly 275 million years ago! Nevertheless, most birds and mammals, especially primates, rely on sight to navigate their world, find mates, avoid foes and predators, seek food and water, and care for their young.

Vision, both sensation and perception, has been one of the top areas of research in experimental psychology and neuroscience, going back to the visual psychophysics scientists of 19th century Germany. Visual perception and cognition is currently a dominant area of study in cognitive neuroscience. Much of what we’ve learned about human vision actually comes from research in nonhuman primates, especially the macaque monkey. This makes sense, since the human visual system is like that of just monkeys and apes.

One picture that has emerged is that, when we open our eyes, we see a world populated with objects. Our object-centered view of the world is also shared with the rest of the primates.

Pigeon in a test of comparative cognition.

Pigeon in a test of comparative cognition.

What about birds? They also navigate their world using vision. Flying puts high demands on the ability to rapidly detect and process visual information. The last thing a birds wants to do is to fly into an object because it couldn’t see it in time! This suggests that bird brains also engage in visual computational processes similar to that of the primate. But we currently don’t know much about how they do so. We want to know if birds solve the incredibly complex computational process of object perception the same way that primates do.

In our next research project, we plan to test whether bird brains handle object perception the same way that the human brain does. Pigeons will play a video game where they have to rapidly peck objects as they appear on a computer touchscreen located in a Skinner box. As soon as the object is pecked, a small food reward will be delivered to the pigeon from a hopper located below the screen. The faster the pigeons peck at the object, the sooner they get fed. The speed of their responses will tell us how the birds see the objects.

Specifically, we will show the pigeons four different objects, A, B, C, and D, one at a time (actual objects are different colored geometric shapes). The objects will appear in one of four locations on the screen (see a demo here). The objects will appear in a specific order that repeats. The locations in which the objects appear will also repeat. This will allow us to test how pigeons bind features into objects. If pigeons integrate features as humans and other primates have been shown to do, then they should learn that specific objects always appear in a specific location. This is called object-place learning. The object’s identity and location become bound as shared properties of a unique, coherent object. After the pigeons learn to play the game, we can then test for object-place learning by presenting special non-reinforced probe test trials. On these test trials, we will change the order of some of the objects, locations, or both.

Stimuli in learning sequence.

Stimuli in learning sequence.

Changing only the object or location should break the object-place association. Changing both together, however, preserves the object-place association, even though the sequence order has changed. If, like humans, pigeons bind object and location information together into perceptual memory, then changing only the object or the location order should be more disruptive than changing both!

What is life like for a laboratory pigeon?

Like all other vertebrates in research, housing and laboratory conditions for pigeons are well regulated. All research protocols go through the same stringent processes of review by the University’s IACUC, and the health and welfare of each pigeon is overseen by the Division of Laboratory Animal veterinarian staff. They receive the best possible care. In a typical pigeon laboratory, the pigeons are maintained as part of a flock in a vivarium. Birds are typically individually housed in large, comfortable cages, with constant access to water and grit. Feeding times are typically restricted to the afternoon after all subjects have completed their behavioral training. This keeps them motivated to work for food reinforcement in the operant chamber, and maintains subjects at a healthy weight similar to that of pigeons in the wild. Despite being housed in individual cages, the birds can see, hear, and smell the birds in the surrounding cages, thereby simulating a flock as it would be found in the wild. Unlike most mammals, or even parrots, pigeons do not engage in much touching or grooming of each other. Rather, pigeons in a flock hang out in close proximity to one another.

While some labs acquire wild-caught pigeons from their local area, we purchase ours from a vendor that breeds pigeons and other fowl for research purposes. Pigeons are a domesticated species, having lived in human environments since the dawn of agriculture in the Mediterranean region of Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Darwin was a known pigeon fancier, and bred pigeons as part of his own experimental investigations into the process of evolution by natural selection! To this day, there are pigeon fanciers and clubs around the world that breed pigeons for show, racing, and aerial acrobatics.

Why is this research significant?

The bird brain has a very different organization than the brains of humans and other mammals. Birds don’t have a visual cortex, for example. Thus, our research can lend insight into how a brain of such different structure solves the same computational process as does the mammalian brain.

Also, the brain of a pigeon is the size of your thumb! So how can birds, like pigeons, see objects the way that we do with far fewer neurons than in the human or monkey brain? Knowing how birds see the world can tell us a lot about what is unique about human vision, and what we share with other species.

Finally, we can also use our knowledge of how small bird brains efficiently create visual objects out of messy input to find new and powerful ways to build artificial visual systems for small mobile devices, such as drones and robots.

Many neuroscientists believe object perception is one of the most important and central processes of human vision. Nevertheless, object vision has been incredibly difficult to build into robot vision using AI approaches. Perhaps we can reveal the secrets to complex object perception in the small pigeon brain that will allow for breakthroughs in computer vision. This would be a huge win for human society!

Aaron Blaisdell and Julia Schroeder

The antivivisection movement and how to stand up to it

Tom Holder at the Pro-Test for Science RallyIn April 2014 Speaking of Research founder, Tom Holder, published a paper in EMBO reports looking at the structure and motivations of antivivisection groups and organizations, as well as how he got involved in defending animal research. Now, a year after its publication, this article is free-to-view online, or as a pdf. We are reproducing it below with the permission of EMBO reports (long form links have been converted into hyperlinks for the sake of the web format).

Standing up for Science

The antivivisection movement and how to stand up to it

Animal research has been and remains crucial to the development of modern medicine. The reasons for ongoing research are manifold from finding ways to treat cancer to understanding the mechanisms behind neurodegeneration to developing new vaccines against HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. Nearly all of us benefit from medical treatments made possible through animal research, and with so much at stake, it is important that scientists make the case for the importance of using animals in research. With animal rights extremism at an all‐time low, there has never been a better time for scientists to overcome their reluctance to talk about the benefits of their work.

Sadly, polls show that opposition to animal research among young people, for example in the UK and USA, is significantly higher than among those aged over 65 [1], [2]. In my view, this is in part because of the large amount of misinformation propagated across the Internet by opponents of animal research—the “antivivisection” (AV) movement. Moreover, the past decades have seen bouts of intense activism—including harassment, threats and violence directed towards scientists—aimed at shutting down animal research. During the same period, the scientific community have worked diligently to replace, refine and reduce the use of animals in research, making much progress; however, these efforts have not been sufficient to satisfy the passions of some activists.

Part of the problem is that scientists rarely engage with those who are opposed to animal research, which can leave them detached from the need to justify or explain their work. This lack of communication also creates an information vacuum in the public sphere about the need to use animals. In a recent poll in the UK, only 31% of respondents felt “fairly well informed […] about science and scientific research/development” [2].

“With animal rights extremism at an all‐time low, there has never been a better time for scientists to overcome their reluctance to talk about the benefits of their work.”

Ignoring the animal rights community has not worked. Wherever there has been a vacuum of understanding about research, they have filled it with disinformation based on rare instances of negligence and shocking examples of seemingly barbaric experiments, accompanied by stories describing animal research as unnecessary and out‐dated. Some animal rights groups mask their aim to ban animal research behind the noble banner of animal welfare—legitimately criticising incidents involving substandard animal care but then implying that these represent not the exception, but the rule. Yet, the huge improvements in laboratory animal welfare will never satisfy those animal rights groups that have a fundamental ideological opposition to such experiments. Instead, AV groups often buttress their position with unfounded assertions that such methods can be entirely replaced or cannot provide useful results. As activists build a seemingly stronger—even if bogus—case against the value of using animals in research, the public support for, or indifference to, some illegal activities rises.

I actually dislike the term “antivivisection.” It is scientifically inaccurate, as much animal research is non‐invasive and does not involve cutting live animals (vivisection). Nonetheless, those opposed to animal research, particularly in the UK, have taken the word to describe their movement and it is a useful term for their subsection of the wider animal rights movement.

Sidebar A:  Activism and extremism
It is useful to make a distinction between activism and extremism. Activism is the use of legal campaigning techniques to bring about a change. Such activities include letter‐writing campaigns, producing leaflets and peaceful demonstrations—all hallmarks of an open democracy. Extremism is where activism moves beyond the law. This can include vandalism, harassment, breaking into research facilities, and even arson and physical violence.

I first became interested in the issue of animal research and animal rights as a student at Oxford University in the UK in 2005. Studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics, I was probably more qualified to become a politician than I was to discuss animal research, but as I returned to my second year at Oxford, the hot topic was that AV extremists had burned down our student boathouses in protest against the new animal research facility the university was building. I became interested in the subject and spent some time researching AV websites. I was surprised to discover claims that animal research does not work and that it has held back science by many decades. The “33 facts of vivisection”, for example, references 33 claims (sometimes this list is expanded or reduced) as to why animal research does not work. What I found most concerning at the time was that the claims seemed to me to be the result of purposeful misrepresentation.

In early January 2005, it became apparent that a number of Oxford students felt the same way. The (now defunct) Oxford Gossip Internet forum was full of heated debates about animal research, and pro‐research/anti‐AV groups were gathering support on Facebook. At the same time, animal rights groups were posting calls to action to harass students, professors and partners of the university. On 22 January 2006, a communiqué from the Animal Liberation Front read: “This ALF team is calling out to the movement to unite and fight against the University on a maximum impact scale, we must stand up, DO WHATEVER IT TAKES and blow these fucking monsters off the face of the planet. Information, tools and resources are out there for everyone to take part in smashing the University of Oxford, all you need do is find them! All that stands between the animals and victory is our fear, GET OVER IT! Fear is their most valued weapon and the animals cannot afford for us to work within their boundaries. We must target their construction companies and the University’s current and future building projects. We must target professors, teachers, heads, students, investors, partners, supporters and ANYONE that dares to deal in any part of the University in any way. There is no time for debate and there is no time for protest, this is make or break time and from now on, ANYTHING GOES. We cannot fail these animals that will end up in those death chambers.”. This climate of hostility and fear understandably deterred many scientists from speaking up for research, which left the animal rights movement free reign to control the arguments presented in the media.

Ultimately, the galvanisation of the animal research advocacy movement fell to Laurie Pycroft, a then 16‐year old boy of whom British professor Sir Robert Winston described as having: “put the medical and scientific establishment, drug companies and universities to shame”. On 28 January 2006, while visiting his girlfriend, Laurie came across an animal rights demonstration protesting against the construction of the new Oxford Biomedical Research Facility. Frustrated with what he saw, he entered a shop, bought a large piece of card and marker pen and made a placard saying “Support Progress—Build the Oxford Lab!” He stood near the animal rights protest and held up his sign, despite the abuse hurled at him by AV activists.

Laurie wrote a blog entry about his day, announcing that he would hold a pro‐research rally in Oxford on February 25 to coincide with a national animal rights march through Oxford (a “pro‐test,” one of his blog followers wryly noted). In response, a handful of Oxford students approached Laurie and the “Pro‐Test” committee was born. The committee came to the decision that if we wanted people to follow us, we would have to shed our anonymity and come out publicly. To date, none of the committee has received anything nastier than a few vitriolic emails.

The Pro‐Test rally was hugely successful and the headline in the Guardian said it all: “The silent majority finds a voice”. Outnumbering the AV rally more than five‐to‐one, 850 students, scientists and members of the public marched through the streets of Oxford. From this point on, the pro‐research movement expanded rapidly, engaging in school, university, radio and TV debates up and down the country. Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister at the time, signed the Coalition for Medical Progress’s “People’s Petition,” which accumulated more than 20,000 signatures in support of animal research. Moreover, Blair wrote an open letter to the Telegraph newspaper stating his support for animal research and the Pro‐Test movement. In June 2006, Pro‐Test held a second rally, once again bringing hundreds of people to the streets of Oxford.

Oxford University opened its new Biomedical Sciences Building in October 2008, offering state of the art equipment and a “gold standard” in animal care. Perhaps Pro‐Test’s biggest contribution was breaking the taboo that said that those who supported animal research should not say so openly. It is a taboo that must continue to be broken.

In March 2008, I became a fellow in public outreach at Americans for Medical Progress (AMP, USA) and founded Speaking of Research (SR), which aimed to provide accurate information about animal research and help mobilise students and staff to defend it. Over the next year, a committee of researchers, advocates technicians and science communicators came together to help run SR, giving talks, writing articles and reaching out to those affected by AV extremism.

The USA presented different challenges to the UK. National coverage is much harder to come by: incidents in one state are often not reported in the next, causing institutions to believe that tackling activism is “someone else’s problem.” I spent much time touring facilities and it was easy to see stark differences in approach. Those who had been targeted by animal rights protesters in the past had opened up their facilities for local journalists and residents to see. In this way, their local communities could assess for themselves the veracity of animal rights accusations. Those universities that were less open sometimes found themselves on the end of a protracted animal rights campaign. Scientists at UCLA, for example, had their houses flooded and were sent bombs and razor blades by mail. It was beginning to look like Oxford all over again.

In 2009, several weeks after David Jentsch, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry & Behavioural Sciences at UCLA, had his car firebombed by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), he and a small committee, myself included, organised a rally to stand up against this extremism. UCLA Pro‐Test was born; it was later renamed Pro‐Test for Science.

On 22 April 2009, 40 animal rights activists gathered for World Week for Animals in Laboratories. Across the road, approximately 800 scientists, animal technicians and other members of UCLA marched in support of science and in opposition to animal rights extremism. The rally gave scientists an opportunity to explain the importance of animal research to journalists and members of the UCLA community. The Pro‐Test petition launched at the event garnered more than 11,000 signatures and was handed to representatives of the NIH at a second pro‐research rally 1 year later.

As SR marks its sixth birthday, I have learnt the importance of scientists supporting one another. Many researchers have felt isolated by their institution’s leadership, some of whom would rather end controversial research than stand up to activists. SR has always aimed to reach out to those researchers who have been targeted, giving them an outlet to discuss their research when their institution will not.

During 8 years of involvement, I have seen many different approaches to communicating the role of animals in research—everything from open discussion to a complete unwillingness to even acknowledge such research is conducted at an institution. I have also had many opportunities to interact and discuss with those opposed to animal research. This has allowed me to build a picture of how I believe the AV movement functions, how it is structured and the factors affecting its size and strength.

“Many researchers have felt isolated by their institution’s leadership, some of whom would rather end controversial research than stand up to activists”

AV groups and organisations vary in size and structure. Some can count their members on the one hand, while others, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA, USA), claim their membership in millions. Many of the larger animal rights organisations deal with a variety of related issues including animals for food, fur farming, pet ownership and hunting, while smaller groups often focus on just one issue.

Activists are those employed, either professionally or as volunteers, by AV groups (AVGs) and AV organisations (AVOs). While the line between AVGs and AVOs is not clear‐cut, AVOs are usually formal organisations that employ staff and tend to have a much larger turnover and greater assets. Examples of AVOs would include the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV; UK), Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM; USA) and PETA. Conversely, AVGs tend to be smaller, usually less established groups that do not salary their members, but may remunerate them for work done. Examples include Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC; UK), SPEAK (UK), Negotiation is Over (NIO; USA) and Fermare Green Hill (Stop Green Hill; Italy). AVGs may grow into AVOs; both PETA and SAEN (Stop Animal Exploitation Now!, USA) grew from being groups of like‐minded people into tax‐registered non‐profits. However, many AVGs appear to prefer the flexibility associated with their informality and small size.

To study the AV movement, it is important to keep in mind that animal rights activism has become a profession for many of those involved. While many sociologists originally believed that social movements were simply forms of collective action by individuals with common grievances, the view was later criticised as incomplete since many such grievances exist without associated social movements. The development of Resource Mobilisation Theory (RMT) noted that individuals require sufficient resources to be available to form a movement and that this has a significant impact on the potential success of a movement [3]. Figure 1 uses RMT to illustrate the movement of people and resources in the AV movement. Key resources include money, communication tools, influential networks and the activists themselves.

Image Credit Tom Holder, Originally Published in EMBO Reports DOI: 10.1002/embr.201438837

Click to Enlarge

Figure 1. A model of the antivivisection movement
The blue dashed arrows indicate the movement of people within the antivivisection movement: a person might read the website of an AVG and decide to change from non‐supporter (either someone who disagrees with the AV views or has not formed an opinion either way) to a supporter, donating money or spending their time and effort signing petitions. The green arrows denote the movement of resources (e.g. time and money), though it should be noted that these are not exhaustive lists of resources. In return for their time and effort, that person might get a “feel‐good buzz” about helping animals, or from the acceptance of their peers. Later, they might decide to get more involved. This change is the movement from supporter to activist (though the divisions are not clear‐cut). The activist still feels good about what he or she is doing—possibly with a greater social acceptance from their newfound colleagues—and might also find himself or herself remunerated. Note that by giving time or money to any one AVG/AVO, they are choosing not to give those resources to another, so there is a natural competition between these AVGs/AVOs. Years later, the person might find they have less time and will drop back to supporter status, or might find that the massive publicity surrounding an associated movement draws their time and effort (turquoise dashed arrows), such that they stop their involvement with the original AV movement. Such associated movements need not have any relation to animal rights, but the more similar they are to the AV movement, the more competition there will be. Legitimacy is an important resource that both supporters and activists provide. An animal rights group that can only muster 20 supporters at important demonstrations will eventually find its supporters moving to competing AVG/AVOs. When the entire antivivisection movement comes under negative media spotlight, or as laws or police activities make certain activities more difficult, many supporters may move to other associated movements, and many activists may choose to put their expertise into other areas.

The amount of money provided by supporters is not small. In the USA, PETA had an income of US$35.3 million in 2013, while the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) received US$180 million in 2012 from its 11 million supporters. The combined income of the three largest AV organisations in the UK exceeds £5 million. Even non‐registered groups can accrue large sums of money. SHAC activists amassed “around £1 million in donations to SHAC’s collection buckets and bank account”.

Given these sums, it is not surprising to see a certain level of competition for supporters and funding between organisations. The AVOs work hard to break the biggest stories, for example through undercover filming or by trawling through research papers or reports for sensational and often groundless claims about animal abuse. Between 2007 and 2011, for example, SAEN made more than six complaints per year to the USDA, often following up on rejected complaints with accusations that the USDA was failing in its role of regulator (e.g. here). In 2012, PETA alleged animal cruelty relating to sound localisation experiments on cats at the University of Wisconsin‐Madison. Both the USDA and the National Institutes of Health Office of Laboratory Animal cleared the university and found the allegations baseless.

Despite the competition and some friction between animal rights groups, many appear to be closely intertwined, with activists moving between them. Jerry Vlasak, who is currently a press officer for the Animal Liberation Press Office—the mouthpiece for the ALF—has been involved in SPEAK, the Animal Defence League, Sea Shepherd and PCRM. These fluid movements are reminiscent of the way top businessmen move between the boards of firms as the skills gained within the animal rights movement are easily transferable. Alistair Currie moved from Campaign Director at BUAV to Campaign Coordinator at PETA and finally left the AV movement to become a spokesman for Free Tibet. Just as an experienced marketing consultant may move from a clothes firm to a car manufacturer, so a professional activist moves from movement to movement as the relative tides change. This reflects the professional nature of activism; however, some activists have suggested a “contamination” effect from animal rights activism that can make it harder to move out of the AV movement and into unrelated areas of campaigning.

However, it would seem that some prominent activists have also risen through the ranks, particularly of AVGs, on the back of extreme activities they have carried out under the banner of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), an extremist group made up of small autonomous cells. Mel Broughton was convicted of conspiracy to commit arson in 1999 but went on to lead several campaigns, including against Oxford University. Luke Steele was sentenced to 18 months in 2012 for “harassing staff at Harlan laboratories” and now runs several AV organisations including the Anti‐Vivisection Coalition. Those serving prison sentenced gain prestige among parts of the AV community who support them and are quick to welcome them back into the fold upon release.

The tide of resources into the AV movement has ebbed and flowed over time. In 1903, after Stephen Coleridge, head of the National Anti‐Vivisection Society, lost £2,000 (over £200,000 in today’s money) in a libel action brought by the researcher William Bayliss during the Brown Dog Affair [4], the issue of animal research came to the attention of the media. As a result, resources flowed in; NAVS raised £5,735 (over £500,000 in today’s money) in just 4 months. Growing public disquiet about animal research also led to a string of dog protection bills being presented to parliament including the 1906 Dogs Act.

Activism waxed and waned in the following decades. In the 1960s, Ronnie Lee founded Band of Mercy, a direct action hunt saboteur group. Such groups helped to train animal rights activists in direct action methods. In 1975, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer wrote the seminal book, Animal Liberation, which provided the moral case for a new generation of activists [5]. The following year Ronnie Lee founded the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). The 1980s saw the founding of the Animal Rights Militia, who sent bombs to politicians and animal researchers. By the early 1990s, AVGs were becoming more active. Extreme groups such as the Justice Department and Animal Rights Militia were abandoning the doctrine of non‐violence. There were dozens of bomb attacks against researchers and organisations.

In 1996–1997, activists Greg Avery and his first wife Heather Nicholson ran a 10‐month campaign that closed the Consort Kennels, a facility that bred dogs for medical research. In 1997, activists began a similar campaign that would eventually close Hillgrove Cat Farm. These campaigns were, on the face of it, legally conducted protests. Nonetheless, as support flowed in, some activists believed they had licence to take more extreme, illegal, actions: the Hillgrove Cat Farm campaign resulted in 21 jail sentences.

In 1999, Avery founded SHAC, whose members harassed and threatened staff at Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), HLS’s clients and HLS’s clients’ other clients over a period of 10 years. These tactics have spread widely: the same were used in Oxford to target the contractors, and the HLS campaign was exported to the USA in 2004 under the leadership of Kevin Kjonaas, who had spent 2 years working with Avery in the UK. John Cook, the author of a Salon article on SHAC, summarises their tactics thus: “SHAC’s modus operandi is simple, elegant and shockingly effective: Publish the names, home addresses and telephone numbers of executives and employees of Huntingdon and any companies it does business with; identify these individuals as ‘targets’” [6].

The approach of seasoned activists is professional: they take on a campaign, complete it and then look for the next one to start. It seems to me that the speed and size of a campaign is often determined by the donations to the previous campaign; in my analysis, each of Greg Avery’s campaigns was bigger than the last. As such, successful campaign leaders become role models and groom supporters to become activists (Fig 1).

Most campaigns have been relatively short. Consort Kennels was closed in 10 months, Stop Primate Experimentation at Cambridge achieved its goals within 1 year and its successor, SPEAK, forced out the first Oxford lab building contractors in less than 6 months. As a campaign drags on, it can become harder to find supporters to volunteer time and money to the cause. This can increase the pressure to take more desperate measures. Perhaps the most drastic was the grave‐robbing of Gladys Hammond’s body by the Animal Rights Militia (ARM) in 2004. As the Save the Newchurch Guinea Pigs campaign (SNGP) dragged into its fifth year, ARM extremists stole the remains of the deceased mother‐in‐law of one of the guinea pig farm’s owners. Four members of SNGP were later convicted of using the desecration to blackmail the family into shutting down the farm, which happened the following year.

Such actions brought widespread public condemnation and the British police were granted new powers to tackle animal rights extremism. The UK Government set up the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) to deal with domestic extremism. The crackdown and subsequent arrests included Mel Broughton (10 years), Greg Avery (9 years) and Kevin Kjonaas (6 years). Suddenly young activists were deprived of experienced mentors and many AV activists moved into other related movements. For example, Amanda King, a British protester who was previously involved in the campaign against Oxford University and the Newchurch guinea pig campaign, was most recently involved in protesting against the UK Government’s proposed badger cull. Alongside her were veteran hunt saboteurs and campaigners who had protested against HLS and Hillgrove Cat Farm, UK.

AV extremism fell steadily from around 2005, which was likely due to a number of factors. NETCU focused heavily on animal rights extremism, with judges handing down harsher sentences. Pro‐research communication was also increasing with the Coalition for Medical Progress and the Science Media Centre both founded in 2002, and the Pro‐Test movement was gaining widespread media and public support. Finally, the public condemnation that followed high profile incidents, such as the grave‐robbing of Gladys Hammond, made animal rights a less attractive issue for young activists.

While extremism in the UK and USA has fallen to an all‐time low, there are signs that activism is on the rise in other countries. In particular, activists from across Europe are targeting Italian pharmaceutical companies, universities and breeders in a sustained campaign that may pose a serious threat to research in Italy. In the past 2 years, activists have broken into a beagle breeding facility at Green Hill, “liberating” dozens of dogs; blockaded a shipment of beagles to the pharmaceutical company Menarini until the dogs were given to activists; and broken into the University of Milan, where they mixed up the animals’ records and seized approximately 100 animals. Fortunately, a vigorous response is already underway, with the newly formed Pro‐Test Italia attracting hundreds of scientists to rallies in Milan and Rome. Nonetheless, such strong responses are few and far between—after a Brazilian research facility recently shut down after activists raided it, taking almost 200 dogs, there was only minimal response from the scientific community.

“In particular, activists from across Europe are targeting Italian pharmaceutical companies, universities and breeders in a sustained campaign”

Back in the UK, online campaigns against universities seem to be increasing in number and magnitude, while a multi‐faceted campaign by many AVGs and AVOs to prevent airlines transporting primates has left only a few willing to do so. In January 2012, the last of the ferry companies transporting laboratory animals across the English Channel stopped its service as a result of pressure from AV groups.

So what should we be doing now? Thanks to the efforts of pro‐advocacy groups and the outreach activities of many research institutions and scientists, there have been positive developments in how we discuss the use of animals in research. Furthermore, as many extremists in the UK and USA are in jail, or are recently released and under control orders that ban them from being involved in AV activism, there is little danger of extremism.

Scientists must spend more time explaining their work to the public, why animals are vital to biomedical research and the measures taken to minimise their suffering in laboratories. Social networks and online outlets, such as university departmental webpages, science blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, all offer ways for scientists to interact with the public—particularly younger audiences. Understanding Animal Research’s (UAR) “Science Action Network” points the scientific community towards articles that misrepresent animal research and posts links to Twitter with the hashtag #ARnonsense. Scientists who search for this hashtag, or who follow @ARnonsenseRT, can then go to these articles and leave comments correcting the misinformation within them. The result is that members of the public who come across these articles can quickly reassess their content.

Younger scientists often find it the hardest to speak up. Nevertheless, their voices are important. Start small; conversations with friends and family play a crucial part in “normalising” the issue of animal research, as well as practising science communication skills. Simple things like sharing animal research stories on Twitter or making mention of animal research on Facebook provide another avenue for discussion. A step further would be to write for a blog, student or local newspaper. Speaking of Research started a series of guest posts entitled “Speaking of Your Research” to provide scientists and animal care staff with a safe environment to discuss why they use animals. With science becoming more popular with the general public, there has never been a better time to discuss this issue (note the 12+ million likes for the “I Fucking Love Science” Facebook page).

“… scientists still go surprisingly quiet about animal research.”

While researchers directly involved in animal research are in the best position to talk about what they do, they are also open to accusations of bias. Therefore, it is important that the rest of the scientific community helps to explain why such research is carried out. All scientists should promote the value of both basic and applied science in all fields. I know plenty of researchers who have defended the Rothamsted Research Institute’s genetically modified wheat trials in the UK in the face of anti‐GM protests in May 2012. Yet, scientists still go surprisingly quiet about animal research.

Institutions must also speak louder. It was reassuring, for instance, that the Bremen University in Germany legally and financially supported researcher Andreas Kreiter against attempts to shut down his research on macaque monkeys. Yet, in my view, too many research institutions, particularly in the USA, lack clear and open statements about the existence and importance of their animal research programmes. This is especially true of those organisations which fund, but do not carry out, animal research, such as medical research charities. The more details provided, along with pictures and videos, the better; otherwise, activists will be happy to supply their own, unrepresentative images. Organisations also need to work with local communities, inviting residents and journalists to tour facilities and sending scientists to schools in the local area. This can help minimise the resources (of local supporters) available to a new AV campaign (Fig 1). Importantly, such actions must happen in the good times, or else risk being perceived as a cheap public relations stunt.

“The more details provided, along with pictures and videos, the better; otherwise, activists will be happy to supply their own, unrepresentative images”

While we still have a way to go, the UK continues to provide the best practice in pro‐research advocacy. Newspapers regularly report on interesting or promising research involving animals, thereby normalising the animal research issue. Universities and other institutions have driven this change by mentioning the animals used in research more regularly. Nonetheless, the long wait between initial studies in animals and the launch of new treatments means that the public can often lose sight of the link between the two. Those working on clinical research have a duty to recognise the contribution of animals when discussing new therapies with the press. In 2012, more than 40 institutions and organisations signed the Declaration on Openness, pledging to do more to communicate the important research they carry out. This is a positive step that could be emulated in other countries.

Medical research involving animals is important to all of us, and we all have a duty to provide the accurate information the public needs to make up their mind.

References

  1. Pew Research (2009) Scientific Achievements Less Prominent Than a Decade Ago. Washington, DC: The Pew Research Center. http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-5-evolution-climate-change-and-other-issues/
  2. Ipsos Mori (2012) Views on the Use of Animals in Research. London, UK: Ipsos Mori. http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/innovation/docs/I/ipsos-mori-views-on-use-of-animals-in-scientific-research-September-2012
  3. <em>McCarthy JD, Zald Z N (1977) Resource mobilization and social movements: a partial theory. Am J Sociol 82: 12121241 CrossRef
  4. Illman J (2008) Animal Research in Medicine: 100 years of Politics, Protests and Progress. The Story of the Research Defence Society. London: Research Defence Society
  5. Singer P (1985) The Animal Liberation Movement: its Philosophy, its Achievements, and its Future. Nottingham: Russell Press
  6. Cook J (2006) Thugs for puppies. Salon, Feb 7. www.salon.com/2006/02/07/thugs_puppies/

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/embr.201438837

World Week to Speak Up About Animal Research

Banner at UW-Madison, April 2015.

Banner at UW-Madison, April 2015.

Each April a group of people committed to ending all use of animals for any purpose, including medical and scientific research, orchestrate events for a week they designate World Week for Animals in Laboratories (WWAIL). Among the primary objectives of WWAIL is to generate media coverage via picketing and protests. The event often culminates in World Day for Animals in Laboratories (WDAIL).

WWAIL events are primarily coordinated by Michael Budkie, leader of Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN). Budkie is also known for previous misrepresentation of animal research and its rebuttal by federal agencies. Budkie’s group is funded primarily by the Mary T. and Frank L. Hoffman Foundation, a “Biblically based organization” that believes “our call to mission is to restore God’s original creation intent of a plant based diet (Genesis 1:29-30).”  The  mission of the Hoffman Foundation  is quite clear: “To promote through education the elimination of the use of animals in biomedical research and testing, their use as food, or their use for any and all commercial purposes…

Sit-in at UW-Madison during WWAIL (April 18, 2015).

Sit-in at UW-Madison during WWAIL (April 18, 2015).

SAEN is like other absolutist groups whose position is that no matter what potential benefit the work may result in, no use of animals is morally justified. This extends across all animals – from fruit-fly to primate. Furthermore, all uses of animals, regardless of whether there are alternatives and regardless of the need, are treated identically. In other words, the use of a mouse in research aimed at new discoveries to treat childhood disease is considered morally equivalent to the use of a cow to produce hamburger, the use of an elephant in a circus, or a mink for a fur coat.

WWAIL protests are focused specifically on research. Thus, the sites for protest tend to be universities and other research institutions where scientists engage in work that produces the new knowledge and discoveries that drive scientific and medical progress to benefit humans, other animals, and the environment. The protests also target individual scientists with the kind of “home demonstrations” we’ve written about before (see more here and here).  In some cases the protests target businesses that support animal research.

Although the WWAIL activities vary some each year, they have a few consistent themes:

  • First, the primary objective appears to be media coverage. In fact, a quick view of the “successes” claimed by the primary organizing group shows that number of news stories is the prize accomplishment.
  • Second, the number of people participating in the activities is typically a few to a dozen.
  • Third, most of the materials used in the protests, social media coverage, and news releases reliably rely on outdated, out-of-context images and little reference to the protestors’ broad agenda and position.

We agree that public consideration of animal research is important. Stimulating serious, thoughtful education efforts and inclusive public dialogue about science, public interests, medical progress, and animal research are critically valuable to public decision-making and, ultimately, to global health. Informed decisions based in accurate information and in an understanding of the complex issues involved in animal research are in the best interest of the public, science, and other animals.

For that reason, many scientists, universities, educators, advocacy groups, and individuals engage in public outreach, education, and dialogue about scientific research with nonhuman animals. Their goal is to provide the public with accurate and thoughtful information about the range of issues that bear on decisions, policies, and practices related to animal research. Among those topics are:  how science works, its process, timescales between discovery and application, why animal research is conducted, in absence of alternatives; who benefits and what would be lost if it did not occur;  how animals in research are cared for, how ethical review occurs, and how regulation and oversight function.

None of these are simple issues, which is why there are many websites, books, articles, and interviews on the topic. WWAIL provides a unique opportunity for the research community to help point people towards these resources for education, dialogue, and serious consideration of animal research.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we have one example of how to do just that.  The website referenced in the banner shown in the photos here (animalresearch.wisc.edu) provides extensive information about animal research.  The site provides facts, interviews, videos, photos, and links for those interested in learning more about why animal studies occur, the role that they play in scientific and medical progress that serve public interests, how research is conducted, its ethical consideration, and the practices, policies, regulation and oversight that govern animal care.

By contrast, we have the signs held by those below participating in a WWAIL sit-in at UW-Madison on Saturday.  Among the signs are photos of animals from other decades and other countries.  For example, note the repetitive use of a picture of Malish, a monkey who was involved in research in Israel in 2001 (not exactly relevant to UW).  We also see quotes by an actor and numbers that do not reflect those from UW-Madison.  None of these are difficult errors or misrepresentations to correct; but they probably won’t be corrected in absence of voices and sources to provide accurate information.

Sit-in at UW-Madison during WWAIL (April 2015).

Sit-in at UW-Madison during WWAIL (April 2015).

This year, if your university or facility is among those that attract attention during WWAIL,  we ask that you join in the conversation by providing protestors, public, and media your own voice.  Whether it is via banners, websites, or talking with reporters– speak up for science and for public interests in advancing scientific understanding and medical progress. Although it may not matter to those committed to an absolutist agenda, it can matter to those who are interested in building a dialogue based in fact and serious consideration of the complex issues that surround public interests in the future of science, health, and medicine.

Speaking of Research

En Passage, an Approach to the Use and Provenance of Immortalized Cell Lines

This guest post is by Lisa Krugner-Higby, DVM, PhD.  Dr. Krugner-Higby is a scientist and also a research veterinarian within the Research Animal Resource Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Krugner-Higby’s research is in development of extended-release formulations of analgesic and antimicrobial drugs. She previously worked in anti-HIV drug development.

I am always fascinated by the idea promoted by some animal rights activists – repeated in many versions and for many decades – that all preclinical biomedical research can be conducted using in vitro cell culture. I have never found one of them who has spent much time working with cell culture. On the other hand, I have spent approximately seven years of my life working with cell cultures, looking at the stainless steel back wall of a laminar flow work station day after day. One thing I can say about immortalized cell lines, or cells that reproduce indefinitely, is that they are not alive in the same way that a mouse is alive.

 

Cell culture

Cell culture

The first thing that a graduate student learns when they begin to work with cell culture is how to take cells that have overgrown the sterile plastic flask they inhabit and put them into a fresh flask with fresh growth medium. It’s called ‘splitting’ the number of cells and ‘passaging’ them into a new home. Split and passage, split and passage… I knew that with every passage, the cell line became a little more different than normal cells and even a little more different than the original cell line. The remedy for this type of genetic drift was to freeze low passage cells in liquid nitrogen and re-order the line from the repository when the low passage stocks were depleted. I was careful with my sterile technique, cleaned the laminar flow hood, and used a new sterile pipet every time in order to avoid contamination of my cells. Unfortunately, the day came when I opened the incubator door and the flasks were black and fuzzy with fungus, and all of my carefully tended cells were dead. An anguished conversation with the tissue culture core technician revealed that this happened every Spring in North Carolina when the physical plant turned on the air conditioning for the year, blowing a Winter’s worth of fungal spores out of the ductwork and into the air. She recommended doing other things for about 6 weeks until the spore load had blown out of the ducts. I have had other cell line disasters in my scientific career: the malfunctioning incubator thermostat that turned a colleague’s two months’ worth of cell culture growth into flasks of overheated goo or that generally reputable vendor that sold us a case of tissue culture flasks that were not properly sterilized resulting in clouds of bacteria in the warm, moist, nutrient-rich environment of the incubator.

I never thought to ask, in those early days, if the cells that I fussed, worried, and wept over, were actually the cells that they were supposed to be. Raji Cells, A549s, U937s, I knew them all, worked with them every day, and never doubted that they were the cells that I thought that they were. I knew that some cell lines had been contaminated with the HeLa cell line. HeLa cells are very hardy and could spread quite easily from one flask to another. But I thought that was in the past. It turns out that there was more to the story than I realized. Cell lines have a provenance, like paintings or other works of art. They have an origin, a laboratory where the line was first isolated and propagated. From there, it may have been distributed to other laboratories and to repositories like the American Type Culture Collection or ATCC. Some cell lines are used by only a few laboratories, and some become used very widely and in a large number of biomedical disciplines. Whereas some paintings are intentionally forged, many cell lines have now been shown to be unintentionally forged. A recent article in the journal Science estimated that 20% of all immortalized cell lines are not what they were thought to be1.

Download original file2400 × 1999 px jpg View in browser You can attribute the author Show me how Multiphoton fluorescence image of cultured HeLa cells with a fluorescent protein targeted to the Golgi apparatus (orange), microtubules (green) and counterstained for DNA (cyan). Nikon RTS2000MP custom laser scanning microscope. National Institutes of Health (NIH).


Multiphoton fluorescence image of cultured HeLa cells with a fluorescent protein targeted to the Golgi apparatus (orange), microtubules (green) and counterstained for DNA (cyan). Nikon RTS2000MP custom laser scanning microscope. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

We now have better methods of identifying cell lines by their DNA, called short tandem repeat (STR) profiling, and scientific journals are beginning to require this testing for cell lines prior to publication. Currently, 28 scientific journals require STR profiling to establish cell line provenance prior to publishing a manuscript from a particular laboratory. Some scientists are also beginning to create catalogs of contaminated cell lines in an attempt to quantitate the damage done by some misidentified, but widely studied, cell lines. The same Science article, notes that the International Cell Line Authentication Committee (ICLAC) maintains a database of misidentified cell lines that now numbers 475 different lines. A cell line geneticist, Dr. Christopher Korch, recently estimated that just two of the immortalized cell lines that were found to be misidentified, HEp-2 and INT 407, have generated 5,789 and 1,336 articles in scientific journals, respectively. These studies cost an estimated $713 million dollars and generated an estimated $3.5 billion in subsequent work based on those papers1. This is because the usual trajectory for testing a new therapeutic modality, especially in cancer research, is to test a compound or technique in cell culture. It will then be tested in mice that express a tumor derived from the cultured cancer cells. If those studies are successful, the compound and/or technique undergoes further toxicity testing in other animal models before entering its first Phase I trial in human volunteers.

A lot of compounds that show early promise in cell culture and in cell line-injected mice turn out not to have efficacy in animal models or in human patients. Sometimes this is simply a matter of the compound being too toxic to organs or cell types that are not represented in the initial cell culture. Often, the reason why particular compounds or strategies fail is not known, and most granting agencies are not keen to fund laboratories to find out why things don’t work. I have wondered if the failure of some compounds or techniques is in part due to misidentified cell lines. I have also wondered if it is a reason why testing in animal models, particularly in animal models with spontaneously-occurring tumors, is necessary.

Testing anti-cancer compounds in models of spontaneously-occurring tumors in animals and/or testing in human tumor cells taken directly from patients and injected into mice (the ‘mouse hospital’ approach) is more time and resource intensive than screening in immortalized tumor cell lines. This approach, however, has the advantage of knowing that the investigator is not just treating misidentified HeLa cells in error. It is always necessary to go from in vitro cell culture models to in vivo animal models to confirm the viability of a therapy.

Science makes claim to no enduring wisdom, except of its method. Scientists only strive to be more right about something than we were yesterday, and efforts are underway to weed out misidentified cell lines. But the fundamental issues behind cell line misidentification highlight one of the reasons why we should not rely on immortalized cell lines without animal models, and why granting agencies should fund more studies to try to identify the disconnect between the results of in vitro and in vivo studies when things do not go as planned. That is a part of good science and part of creating better cell culture models to refine, reduce, and sometimes replace the use of animals in biomedical research.

Lisa Krugner-Higby, DVM, PhD

1) Line of Attack. Science. 2015. Vol. 347, pp. 938-940.

Chimpanzee Retirement: Facts, Myths, and Motivation

How often have you heard the claim that chimpanzees who have moved to a sanctuary have felt “dirt and grass under their feet, sunshine on their faces” for the first time in their entire lives because they have come from laboratories where they have only known barren, concrete environments?

Yerkes chimpanzees

Chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

You may hear it pretty often if you follow the fundraising and publicity campaigns that are aimed at raising money to support facilities that care for animals retired from research.  Among many examples, are recent comments by Cathy Willis Spraetz, president and CEO of Chimp Haven. Chimp Haven is the US chimpanzee sanctuary supported and administered primarily by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through public, federal funds that assure lifetime retirement care of research chimpanzees. Chimp Haven was founded in 1995 by behavioral scientist Dr. Linda Brent and a group of primatologists and business professionals.

In a recent presentation, Chimp Haven’s current CEO Spraetz said:

“Many of these chimpanzees have spent literally decades in laboratories. And so their experience has been concrete and mesh, not grass, not dirt. And so after decades of being there, coming to Chimp Haven is a novel experience and a very scary one. Many of them do not want to put their feet down on grass or dirt. …  We try to accommodate the chimpanzees and meet them where they are. The good news is that many of them, after a couple of years, actually can transition. But in the meantime, we give them a lot of different spaces so they can feel comfortable where they are.” [Emphasis added.]

Similarly, in a CNN story this weekend“Retired means to sanctuary. Labs are lots of things, but they are certainly not sanctuaries, and so it’s important that the chimps come here,” Spraetz said. She noted that some lab chimps have lived in cages for so long, they’re afraid of grass when they arrive at Chimp Haven. Gradually, they become accustomed to living in a more natural setting.”

The image and language resonate. They evoke emotional responses in compassionate people who care about animal welfare. But are they claims that are representative of the actual situation?

In many cases, they are not at all. For example, the picture below shows chimpanzees in four settings. In each, it is easy to see that the chimpanzees have dirt under their feet and sunshine on their faces.  Where are they?  Two are current research facilities, one is an NIH-funded sanctuary, and one is a publicly-funded zoo.

chimp housing [Autosaved]

Clockwise: Top – Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Atlanta, GA (Note: Yerkes’ chimpanzees are not NIH-owned or supported); Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, IL;  MD Anderson Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine, Bastrop, TX; Chimp Haven, Keithsville, LA.

In fact, the majority of research chimpanzees in the US live in settings that provide outdoor housing, including dirt and sunlight. They also provide extensive and complex climbing structures, opportunities for foraging and tool-use, toys, fresh produce and treats, bedding, interaction with expert and compassionate caregivers, and state-of-the-art medical care and facilities.

Are all the facilities equal in all aspects? No. But neither are the sanctuaries, zoos, and other settings that house chimpanzees in the US– more chimpanzees, in fact, than are housed in research facilities (Chimp Care).*  Furthermore, those research facilities are subject to more extensive standards, greater public oversight, and more public transparency than the zoos, sanctuaries, entertainment, and private homes that house chimpanzees.

Misrepresenting chimpanzees’ current housing and care is a problem.

There are a few explanations for why anyone would make the claim, or use partial truths, to encourage others to believe that most research chimpanzees live in barren concrete environments. One is simple lack of knowledge and experience. Another is a deliberate misrepresentation. Neither serves the animals or partnership with others in order to thoughtfully provide for the chimpanzees’ best long-term care. Nor does it serve the public.

It is likely that many members of the public may not be familiar with accurate representation of the conditions and housing of chimpanzees in NIH-funded primate centers.  That is not the case, however, for many involved in sanctuary efforts and who have first-hand knowledge of the dirt, sunshine, and enriched care that chimpanzees receive in many– if not all– research facilities.

Chimpanzees 2

Chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

The question isn’t whether there is room for continuing improvement in captive chimpanzee care and housing. No one would claim any captive setting is the same as the wild, or that any sanctuary, zoo, or research facility is beyond improvement. (The same is true for the wild, where chimpanzees are subject to many negative outcomes due to human influence and vital conservation efforts require more support.) But in reality, there is often more similarity than difference in chimpanzees’ actual care and housing between many of the best sanctuaries, zoos and research facilities in the US and in other countries. The question is how to identify best practices that balance animal welfare and the facilities’ purposes and then find workable solutions and funds to make them common practices.

Furthermore, a closer comparison of the actual conditions at the federal sanctuary facility and those at the facilities in which the animals currently live is also key to serious, fact-informed evaluation of statements made about the NIH’s progress and eventual decisions about moving chimpanzees from their current homes to Chimp Haven.  In this weekend’s CNN story, the director of Chimp Haven makes a number of arguments in favor of increased funding and speeding the movement of chimpanzees to the Louisiana facility.  Many of those arguments revolve around whether, and how much of a difference there is between the different settings, and whether there is a difference to the animals’ well-being.

The quality of all of those evaluations depends on factual and specific comparison, as well as evidence for meaningful difference in the animals’ well-being.  The balance of benefit and harm includes the known stress to the animals that is caused by moving across country, into new situations, and into new social groups. Although movement to sanctuary may have benefits, it also has costs to the animals. For example, beyond relocation to unfamiliar housing, care practices and caregivers, the animals also face potential disruption of their social groups, introduction to new groups and upheaval in dominance hierarchies. The adverse impact of these stressors is of particular concern for elderly animals and for others who may be especially vulnerable to negative health effects of stress. Thus, consideration of those balances and comparison of different facilities must be taken together to inform decisions about investments that best suit the animals’ needs.

Bastrop chimps tool use

Chimpanzees at MD Anderson Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine, Bastrop, TX.

Federal public funding for retired chimpanzees
Over the past 15 years the US public, through federal legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support, has committed to an estimated $86 million to support the lifetime care, housing, and enrichment of retired research chimpanzees. In 2000, federal legislation (Chimpanzees Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection; CHIMP Act) established the first national chimpanzee sanctuary and committed life-time funding for retired NIH chimpanzees. As a result, in 2002, a $30 million public investment was made to build and fund Chimp Haven. Chimp Haven is the only federally-funded– though not the largest– US chimpanzee sanctuary.  (For more history and information see here: http://dpcpsi.nih.gov/orip/cm/chimpanzee_management_program)

By 2013, following NIH’s decision to retire the majority of its chimpanzees, additional funds were required for Chimp Haven’s ongoing support. Thus, the CHIMP Act Amendments of 2013 were passed by the US House, Senate, and President. Under new legislation, NIH may

“use already-appropriated funds to pay for care of chimpanzees housed in federal sanctuaries if doing so would be more efficient and economical for the NIH.”

An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in 2012 estimated an additional $56M cost to retire and maintain federally funded chimpanzees for a 5 year period (not the animals’ lifespan). The cost to support the entirety of the NIH’s ~500 chimpanzees may be roughly $8M each year; although the cost will likely vary significantly with increasing medical and care needs as the population ages. The CBO analysis also determined that there was no cost savings to moving federally-owned chimpanzees to sanctuary instead of research facilities.

US federal funds provide the majority of revenue for Chimp Haven and support the majority (~75%) of the cost of each NIH chimpanzee retired at Chimp Haven. Chimp Haven was built and funded primarily for retirement of publicly-owned research chimpanzees. However, it is also used for retirement of privately owned animals who are not supported directly via federal funds. In October of 2014, NIH reported an annual expenditure of $4.44M to Chimp Haven for the care of 191 NIH-owned chimpanzees and an average care cost of $63 per day per chimpanzee. The same report includes a range of $32-60 daily care cost for chimpanzees in other NIH facilities that house NIH-owned chimpanzees.

Chimp Haven photo from NAPSA

Chimp Haven, US federal chimpanzee retirement facility. http://www.primatesanctuaries.org/sanctuaries/chimp-haven-inc/

Federal support for chimpanzees goes beyond direct care of research animals. For example, NIH and NSF supported scientific research has produced new knowledge that continues to benefit chimpanzees in the wild and in captivity. Furthermore, federal investment in the nation’s primate research centers from the 1960s on supported continuing advances in chimpanzee housing, care, and enrichment that now drive best practices and chimpanzee health care in zoos, sanctuaries, and research facilities.

chimp haven 2

Chimp Haven, US federal chimpanzee retirement facility. http://www.primatesanctuaries.org/sanctuaries/chimp-haven-inc/

Is misrepresenting research facilities necessary?

It is unfortunate that some of those leading sanctuary publicity and fundraising efforts continue to base their appeals in claims that generally have little basis in current fact. It is also unfortunate that the many campaigns for fundraising for the federal sanctuary fail to let the public know that the NIH and US have, in fact, pledged lifetime support for federally-owned chimpanzees. This level of public support has not always occurred in those countries that have dismantled their chimpanzee research facilities.

Some of the current campaigns centered on US chimpanzees give the impression that NIH ended research and put the chimpanzees out on the street without a dime, leaving others to provide for their “rescue.” That is far from the truth.

Fundraising is required to meet roughly one-quarter of the cost for NIH-owned chimpanzees at Chimp Haven and the full cost for chimpanzees at other sanctuaries.  But for those that care about supporting the animals and decisions in the animals’ best interests, that fundraising should not require a storyline based in half-truth or deliberate misrepresentation of the conditions in other facilities or the efforts of others who care for chimpanzees.

Allyson J. Bennett


* An estimated 1,822 chimpanzees live in the US. The care for roughly half of the chimpanzees in the US, including most of the 206 chimpanzees retired to the federal sanctuary (Chimp Haven), is provided in large measure by federal public funds. According to Chimp Care, a census project from Lincoln Park Zoo, US research facilities house 625 chimpanzees, while a research reserve houses 172.  Private sanctuaries house roughly one fifth of US chimpanzees (N=318). Nearly one-quarter of the chimpanzees in the US live in zoos, both those accredited by a non-public agency, the American Zoological Association, (262) and facilities designated as unaccredited in Chimp Care’s data (174). Chimpanzees in the US are also kept in entertainment venues (14) or by private breeders and private owners who regard them as pets (51). Such private ownership of primates is opposed by leading scientific organizations including the American Society of Primatologists.

American Society of Primatologists’ statement of support for NIH primate research

The nation’s largest primatological scientific society, the American Society of Primalogists (ASP), has posted a strong statement sent January 21 in support for the scientist and research under attack by PETA.  The statement can be found on ASP’s website: https://www.asp.org/index.cfm

ASP home page Jan 2015

In its entirety, the letter reads:

“Members of the Board of Directors of the American Society of Primatologists would like to add our comments to the discussion of the validity and effectiveness of non-human primate research as it pertains to human behavior and medicine. Non-human primate research (on monkeys and apes) has had widespread effect on improving the diagnosis and treatment of many adult and childhood diseases. Studies that have employed the judicious use of non-human primates as models for human illness have improved our understanding of such disorders as autism, childhood leukemia, cerebral palsy, and mental health.1 The long-term research of one scientist, Dr. Stephen Suomi, has been called into question as a result of inaccurate, misguided and inflammatory media accounts. Our comments will address Dr. Suomi’s work and the value of non-human primates in understanding human biology, illness and behavior.

Dr. Suomi’s research has focused on the influence of variable environments and genetics on infant development, and by extension variation in adult behavior2. He and his colleagues found that early changes in the degree of attachment between mother and infant have real biological, not only behavioral influences on adult social behavior3. If this finding seems intuitive, it is evidence that the benefits of research have permeated not only the scientific, but also mainstream media4 and literature. Infant subjects are either mother-reared or reared in same-aged groups of monkeys. Infants may undergo temporary isolation during the study5 to facilitate comparison among groups that are reared differently. The goal of much of this research is to mimic separation that every social animal, including humans, undergo during their lifetimes and to understand why individuals respond differently to separation. One such research focus is the development of risk factors leading to mental illness in humans.

The American Society of Primatologists supports research on non-human primates that is carefully designed and employs rigorous research protocols. Dr. Suomi’s research and consistent funding by the NIH attests to his adherence to prescribed protocols and regulations.

Before research can begin, proposals are thoroughly vetted by both their institutional ethical oversight board (in the United States these are called Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees or IACUCs) and by the review boards of granting agencies (e.g., NIH, NIMH, NSF). This very extensive process requires prospective researchers to respond to questions such as those raised in your letter, e.g., your concern about redundant research. Per both the Animal Welfare Act and Regulations (AWARs) and the Public Health Service Policy on the Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (PHS Policy), research funded by federal and state governments, as well as private foundations, must demonstrate that the project they propose will advance knowledge in the field, be relevant to human biology or behavior, and will not duplicate the efforts of previous research. The number of animals used in experiments must also be justified as well as the conditions in which the animals are housed, the duration of the project, and the protocols implemented during experiments. The scientists employed by the NIH have been leaders in the development of safe, effective, and reliable research protocols whether the research is done on mice or monkeys.

Because of the close genetic relationship between humans and non-human primates, monkeys are important models for studying particular biological phenomena, including the research conduct by Dr. Suomi. Nevertheless, non-human primates are rare in laboratory populations making up < 1% of the laboratory animals used in research (Government statistics from 2010, cited in Phillips et al., 20146). Furthermore, species are carefully matched to proposed studies.

We appreciate your attention to this matter, and ask that you please send us a response letting us know the charge to the NIH Bioethics Review Board.

Respectfully submitted,
Marilyn A. Norconk, President; Justin A. McNulty, Executive Secretary; Kimberley A. Phillips,  President-Elect; Corinna N. Ross, Treasurer; Karen L. Bales, Past-President

 

Supporting science: NIH answers PETA

The National Institutes of Health released a statement Monday in support of a well-respected and long-standing primate research program within the NIH intramural program that has been the subject of an ongoing PETA campaign. The focus of the research program, under the direction of Dr. Stephen J. Suomi, is on:

“examining the behavioral and biological development of non-human primates. Primary objectives are to understand how genetic and environmental factors interact to affect cognitive development, as well as develop interventions that can alter developmental trajectories of individuals whose specific genetic and experiential background put them at risk for adverse developmental outcomes. These studies cannot be carried out in humans and require the use of animal studies to carefully separate experience, genetic, and environmental factors. Ultimately, these findings assist researchers in identifying humans most likely to suffer negative effects in at-risk situations and develop behavioral and drug therapies to improve negative outcomes early in life.”

The NIH statement notes the high value of the research program, as assessed by an external board of scientific experts who concluded that the program:

  “has achieved world class, enduring contributions to our understanding of the developmental, genetic, and environmental origins of risk and vulnerability in early life,” and “could be a truly remarkable point of departure for a unified theory describing the biological embedding of early social conditions and their developmental consequences.”

Cover PNAS monkey pic 2For more about the research, the laboratory, and the animals, see:

NIH’s Response to PETA

NIH’s response to the PETA campaign was thoughtful, thorough, and transparent. The response includes a positive assessment of the value of the research in terms of human health relevance and advances in scientific understanding. It addresses why the research in conducted in monkeys and why it is not possible to use alternative methods, or to conduct the work in humans.

The response also includes a serious, fact-informed consideration of the animals’ welfare. Detailed responses from two of NIH’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees that conducted an extensive evaluation of the research address each element of the concerns raised by PETA and the scientists supporting them (including, Professors John Gluck, Psychology, University of New Mexico; Agustin Fuentes Anthropology, Notre Dame; and Barbara King, Anthropology, William and Mary College; Lawrence Hansen, Pathology, UC-San Diego).

Furthermore, in response to PETA’s complaint, the NIH undertook an exhaustive review via its Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW). Comprehensive responses to each of the concerns raised by PETA are contained in the reports posted on the NIH website. For those who seek more information, facts, and substantive background to inform their consideration of the conduct of the research and the animals’ welfare, we encourage you to read the NICHD IACUC response posted here: NICHD 12.17.15 ACUC_Memo_2_121914

nih statement 01.28.15

Taken together, NIH’s responses provide a strong demonstration of a high level of care and consideration of animal welfare, as well as the risk and benefit balances that are inherent in the conduct of research with both human and nonhuman animals. The response clearly vindicates Dr. Suomi and provides welcome public acknowledgement by the NIH of the importance of his work.

As welcome as the NIH responses are, they are not, however, responses that will satisfy PETA’s absolutist goal of ending all use of nonhuman animals for any purpose, including animal research, but also food, companionship, entertainment, or other uses.

PETA’s complaint about this and other research included language about animal welfare and about alternatives to animal research in order to achieve the same scientific goals. In reality, however, PETA’s position—like that of all absolutists—is not centrally concerned with either viable alternatives to animal studies or with animal welfare. Rather, the position is that no human use of other animals—any animals, whether photogenic and appealing in popular campaigns, or not—is justified, regardless of the outcome or harms. (See here and here for additional discussion.)

As a result, it would seem that no response NIH could give to PETA would be satisfactory unless it was to end all animal research altogether. Or, in the case of a particular project or lab, the only response satisfactory to PETA or other absolutists would be to end that project, or close that lab. At some level then the question to ask may be about the cost: benefit of such responses.

By contrast to the absolute viewpoint, aspects of ethical consideration of animal research that matter to the majority of the broad public and to the scientific community are evidenced by their instantiation in the laws of a democratic society and  in regulatory and community standards, as well as in individuals’  own assessment. These include concern with significant public health challenges and appreciation for the critical role of basic scientific understanding as the foundation for a broad range of advances that benefit the public, other animals, and the environment. They also include acknowledgement of accomplishments and breakthroughs for human and nonhuman health that are accomplished via animal research. At the same time, they include selection of alternatives where possible, attention to animal’s care and welfare, continuing refinements of procedures in accord with evidence, risk and benefit justification, external oversight, and expert scientific evaluation.

In the case of the current NIH campaign and other campaigns against specific animal research there is a well-known pattern. A group like PETA focuses on a research project—usually one involving  animals such as cats, dogs, or primates that will capture broad public interest. The group then uses the highly responsive system of public institutions and government agencies to obtain information, call for investigation, and launch media campaigns to elicit public concern (and donations). The campaigns are typically based in some form of oversimplification and misrepresentation of the research, treatment of animals, availability of alternatives, or value of the science. In the face of public inquiry or media attention, public research institutions under attack typically offer a response focused on the scientific question, accomplishments, absence of non-animal alternatives, and on the animals’ welfare and oversight.

The problem with that pattern is that it ignores the fact that PETA and others’ campaigns are, in many ways, a reflection of a conflict between fundamentally different philosophical viewpoints. These differences cannot be resolved simply by ensuring scientific advances, careful risk and benefit assessment and balance, or high standards for laboratory animal welfare. All the care, training, accreditation, and external oversight in the world will not address the concerns of individuals or groups who are absolutely opposed to the use of animals in research and who believe that no matter the benefit, use of animals in research cannot be justified. Nor will such approaches address those who believe — wrongly, in most cases — that there are existing alternatives to the use of animals in research. Furthermore, each additional layer of oversight and regulation introduced in an attempt to appease those who cannot be appeased may well add substantial administrative hurdles and costs to the scientific effort without achieving meaningful improvements for animal welfare.

From that perspective, and in light of yet another PETA campaign that has resulted in a significant and extensive response from public agencies, the question becomes whether – and what – might be a better path forward. At present, the same path does not look like one that is productive to improving scientific research. Rather, the prediction would be that PETA and other groups will continue to use the transparency and responsiveness of public research institutions to lend steam to popular opinion campaigns that then target individual scientists, laboratories, and institutions. In turn, a great deal of time and energy will go into investigations, responses, and reports that are likely to yield little in terms of animal welfare, little public benefit, little progress to ending animal research, yet potentially high harm to science. At the very least these responses consume resources that would otherwise be devoted to scientific research or practical enforcement of regulations to protect animal welfare.

As we welcome the NIH’s support for Dr. Suomi we must also ask ourselves a question:  How many more cases like this will there be before the leaders of the scientific community take action to prevent the regulatory system from becoming primarily a tool of the animal rights propaganda machine?

Speaking of Research