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:

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

American Psychological Association supports NIH primate researcher Stephen J. Suomi

Research conducted within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) intramural program has been the focus of a PETA campaign over the past several months. Elements of the campaign mirror tactics PETA has used elsewhere to generate media coverage, fundraising, and emails or phone calls to the NIH. The campaign recently reached beyond newspaper, bus, and metro advertisements to include a congressional request to NIH to provide a review of the research.

The American Psychological Association (APA) responded on January 22 with strong statement of support for the scientist and research under attack by PETA.

APA 01.22.15

APA’s letter to the congress members, in its entirety, reads:

“In December 2014 you were one of four members of Congress who sent a letter to Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), requesting that his office commission a bioethics review of a research program directed by the world renowned researcher, Dr. Stephen J. Suomi. On behalf of the American Psychological Association and its Committee on Animal Research and Ethics, I am writing to provide a broader scientific perspective on this research. As you are likely aware, the request you received was a part of a sustained and well publicized campaign against Dr. Suomi’s laboratory by the organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), in support of its mission to put an end to research with nonhuman animals.

Your letter stated that prominent experts have raised concerns about the scientific and ethical justification for these experiments. We believe that the facts do not support PETA’s public statements about this research. Over the past three decades, Dr. Suomi and his collaborators have made significant contributions to the understanding of human and nonhuman animal health and behavior. Dr. Suomi’s work has been critical in understanding how the interactions between genes and the physical and social environments affect individual development, which in turn has enhanced our understanding of and treatments for mental illnesses such as depression, addiction, and autism.

Dr. Suomi and colleagues found that like humans, monkeys share similar variants of genes that make an individual more vulnerable to mood and personality disorders; however, genetics interact with experience in determining such disorders, and mother-infant dynamics in particular have a large influence on later development. Dr. Suomi has successfully produced monkey models of depression and excessive alcohol consumption and his studies provide insight into modes of treatment. Through his work on neonatal imitation, Dr. Suomi discovered potential early signs of atypical social development in monkeys, which has informed the search for screening methods and treatments for autism in human children. Further, through his work on the development of attachment behavior to a caregiver, which is crucial for infant survival in both humans and other animals, Dr. Suomi’s research has had a tremendous impact on the standards for the welfare of nonhuman animals in captivity.

Cover PNAS monkey pic 2

The specific study targeted by PETA was designed to investigate the long-term effects of fluoxetine (Prozac) in children. Given that drugs are typically tested only on adults, the effects of this commonly prescribed anti-depressant on children were unknown. Thus, in response to overwhelming concern raised by parents, physicians, and others involved in child and adolescent health about the safety of this medication for children, Dr. Suomi and his colleagues began a study with baby monkeys to elucidate the effects of fluoxetine in children. Contrary to PETA’s repeated claims that animal research has not improved human health and that modern non-animal research methods are more effective, there are, in fact, no viable non-animal alternatives for identifying the causes of and treatments for disorders that affect the brain and behavior. Studies with a wide variety of nonhuman animal species have been and continue to be integral to basic and applied research on health.

Laboratory animal models generally provide the most scientifically rigorous means of studying normal and abnormal behaviors in order to better understand their underlying mechanisms and to remedy disorders. Monkeys are the ideal model for the work that Dr. Suomi does, because they share approximately 93% of human DNA, they live in social groups with similar mother-infant dynamics as humans, and they develop more quickly than humans. Moreover, the monkeys in Dr. Suomi’s studies are treated humanely, following strict guidelines set forth by the Animal Welfare Act and overseen by numerous entities including the NIH Office for Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, International (AAALAC), and institutional animal care and use committees. And given that Dr. Suomi is an intramural researcher at NIH, you can be certain that his research animals receive premier quality of care.

I understand that it may sometimes be difficult to weigh the qualifications and varying conclusions of “dueling experts,” but let me assure you that Dr. Suomi is a highly regarded member of the APA and the psychological science community at large, as well as a highly sought-after expert in the field of pediatric medicine. In addition to providing information to the U.S. Congress, Dr. Suomi has testified at the World Health Organization and addressed the British House of Commons about the implications of his scientific findings.

Based on the conviction that research with nonhuman animals is a necessary component of basic and applied research on health, APA strongly supports humanely conducted, ethically sound, and scientifically valid research with nonhuman animals. For nearly 100 years, through its Committee on Animal Research and Ethics, APA has promoted informed, serious, and civil dialogue about the role of nonhuman animal research in science. If you should be asked to take further action against Dr. Suomi, I hope you will make it a point to seek out additional information before making a decision. My staff stand ready to provide you with additional information, including assembling experts for a staff briefing or assisting you in any other way on this issue.”


The complete statement can be found here:  APA Suomi-letter 01.22.15


70 year old professor retires and closes lab, PETA claims victory

The retirement of a highly respected senior neuroscientist at the center of a sustained recent publicity campaign by an animal rights group generated a victory claim on Friday when PETA realized that their target had retired. The retirement came after a productive and award-winning 40 year research and teaching career. University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscience Professor Tom Yin’s research led to breakthroughs in understanding how the brain processes and localizes sounds. The highly cited research was continuously funded by the US National Institutes of Health because it contributed fundamentally important new knowledge that is the necessary building block for advances in medicine and science that involves hearing. We have written about Professor Yin’s research previously, for more information see here, here, here.

Yin’s sound localization research was the target of a sustained and multi-dimensional attack by PETA over the past three years. The campaign had provided rich opportunities for stunts, attracted celebrities, generated media attention, and undoubtedly brought in many donors for animal rights groups.

Metro bus displaying PETA ad. Image: Wisconsin State Journal.

Metro bus displaying PETA ad. Image: Wisconsin State Journal.

The scientist’s retirement is unlikely to provide obstacles to PETA’s continued success in using the research for fundraising appeals, as was indicated by the group’s immediate response. Despite the obvious fact that the retirement of a 70 year old scientist is expected, rather than unusual, PETA promptly claimed responsibility and announced that they had secured a victorious end to their campaign.

PETA’s tactic may well serve as a model to other groups because it offers a solid opportunity to claim effectiveness of their campaigns. If so, we might expect to see other scientists seemingly within the realm of retirement age appear as targets of major campaigns that involve bus ads, celebrities, and stunts that misrepresent the research. (Or perhaps they could simply claim all retired scientists did so not as a result of age, or the natural conclusion of long and productive careers, but rather in response to campaigns by those opposed to the research.)

Despite the scientist’s retirement and the lab closing, it seems unlikely that PETA will retire the photos of research animals and misleading claims about Yin’s work that were the center of PETA’s campaign. It is more likely that the campaign will continue to be used by PETA to attract attention and donors, with the promise of more victories in ending research.

PETA also took a page from other animal rights groups that claim credit for the retirement of research animals, despite the fact that it is the scientists and research institutions that find adoptive homes and retire the animals. Like many research institutions, the University of Wisconsin-Madison finds adoptive homes for animals that are no longer in research and whose care and safety can be assured in a home setting. In this case, four of the five cats that were part of Professor Yin’s research were retired into private homes. This is in stark contrast to the PETA policy at its Norfolk, VA shelter of killing on average 2000 dogs and cats per year (

The university, like other research facilities, does not use those adoptions as a vehicle for media attention. By contrast, retired research animals are often featured as centerpieces in fundraising campaigns by animal rights groups. We have written about this previously in the context of a controversial campaign by Beagle Freedom, in which the animal rights group appropriates credit for research facilities’ successful adoption programs. In general, the focus of the adoption programs is on successfully placing the animals. Even the NIH and federal government, while providing over $30 million for retirement of research chimpanzees and committed to tens of millions more for their lifetime support, do so without sustained high-profile media campaigns. Similarly there are rarely press releases from the UW-Madison announcing the animal adoptions or the lab closing due to the scientist’s retirement.

PETA seized the opportunity for their own press release and claim of victory after they realized what had happened. How did they find out? Simply by reading the records that the university regularly sends to PETA and other animal rights groups in response to their regular open records requests. PETA was no doubt pleased by their discovery. Not only could they claim victory for the retirement of the 70 year old scientist, they could also continue to claim PETA themselves were responsible for the research animals’ retirement.

The victory claim is PETA’s central rationale for continued used of the images and claims that were at the center of their campaign. There is little doubt that they will not be retired; rather they are likely to be used for a long time to convey the impression of a success. The question is whether those who hear the victory claim might wonder whether there is anything surprising about the retirement of a 70 year old scientist. Others might be curious enough to learn more about the remarkable accomplishments of that scientist over his 40 year career (see here for more information). In light of current campaigns against other scientists, the question will also become whether PETA has highlighted a new path that paves the way for higher likelihood of being able to claim an unearned victory.


Italian court finds beagle breeders guilty in politically motivated trial

Today, three members of management at Green Hill beagle breeding facility were found guilty of animal mistreatment and each sentenced to a 12-18 month prison sentence. This sentence is a farce, as we will explain. But first, let us return to the beginning.

In 2011, animal rights activists began a high profile campaign against the Green Hill beagle breeding facility in Italy. The facility, owned by Marshall Bioresources, was accused of mistreatment of the beagles . The campaign received enormous help from an Italian TV programme, Striscia la Notizia, that worked to turn public opinion against the breeding facility. In the course of the TV and newspaper reports many lies were told, for example that animal research was undertaken inside the breeding facility, that beagles were sold for cosmetic testing in France, and that dogs were debarked, even if the videos taken by the activists themselves showed dogs barking as normal (such debarking is not permitted in Italy), testing cosmetics on animals was banned at the time and the facility was neither licensed nor equipped to carry out research. Those of you who read Italian can find a summary of the top 10 lies about Green Hill that never made it to court.

Some local and national politicians, spotting a populist cause, joined the campaign. The campaign made headline news when, in April 2012, activists broke into the facility and stole dozens of beagles as the police watched on idly.

Beagles were "liberated" from Green Hill in Italy in full view of police

Beagles were “liberated” from Green Hill in Italy in full view of police

On 18th July 2012, public and political pressure led an Italian court to issue a temporary closure order so that allegations by the Anti-Vivisection League (LAV) and Legambiente could be further investigated. The court also gave the animal rights group responsibility for the 2,500 beagles at Green Hill. Of around 70 inspections that the Italian authorities have made of the facility over the three years prior to the seizure, only one reported any mistreatment; this inspection was requested by the assistant prosecutor and carried out by a veterinarian who had been on the protests against Green Hill (so not biased at all then!).

For example, in January 2012 three experts from the prestigious veterinary institute” l’Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale della Lombardia e dell’Emilia Romagna” conducted a surprise visit during which they thoroughly inspected the documents, facilities and dogs. Their report concluded that there were no problems with the way in which Green Hill was run:

“From surveys carried out and documentation examined there emerge no situations of abuse or situations where there is a risk of mistreatment of animals”

During the recent trial, the four defendants (one was acquitted), were accused of mistreatment because they “forced the animals under unbearable conditions for their characteristics”. The prosecutors alleged that cages contained too many dogs – using data of the number of animals in the facility – yet the regulations are based not on the number of dogs per cage, but the combined weight of those dogs (i.e. three small dogs could not go into the same space as three larger ones). Similarly confused data was used for many other aspects of the trial. Allegations regarding night-day cycle inside the breeding facility, the nutrition of the animals, and the number of pregnancies were used to suggest mistreatment, but the defence demonstrated that these claims were unfounded and that the treatment of the animals was in accordance with the regulations.

The prosecution also accused the facility of high mortality rates of the dogs, though they failed to note that these were comparable with other breeding facilities. The prosecution claimed that 6,000 dogs were killed in a 5 year period before the facility was seized, without saying that to this number included deaths occured at or ssoon after birth and the deaths caused by infectious disease such as parvovirus infections (for example, the parvovirus is a particularly dangerous common disease that affects dogs and there were outbreaks of a new strain that had to be controlled). The average mortality of 1.2 puppies every 6 puppies, is normal when compared to other breeding facilities.

In particular it was alleged by the prosecution that about 54 dogs were killed without reasonable explanations, basing this statement not on the autopsies of the dogs but on the technical data collected by Green Hill in the so-called “dog” sheet, that contains most important data about a dog. However, when a dog has to receive medical treatment this was noted on another sheet called “treatment” sheet that contains more and deeper details about the medical situation of the animal and the clinical development. These treatment sheets were ignored by the prosecuting magistrate. It must be noted that the role of the prosecuting magistrate (PM) in the Italian legal system is quite different to that of the prosecutor in the US or British legal systems; in Italy the PM has not only the duty of presenting the prosecution case, but also that of ensuring that justice is done. The PM is prohibited from withholding evidence that might clear the accused, and must request the judge to acquit them if, during the trial, they become convinced of a defendant’s innocence, or agree that there is no evidence, beyond any reasonable doubt, of their guilt. That  this doesn’t appear to have happened here casts serious doubt on the verdict.

Nonetheless, despite the lack of evidence, the judge found three of the management guilty and sentenced them to 12 to 18 months each. It will take a further 60 days before the motivations behind the sentences are provided by the presiding judge. It should be noted that this decision is the opinion of one judge, whereas the Appellate Court where the appeal will be held consists of three judges who must agree on the verdict, which is why the appellate court often overturns the first court decision.

The judge delivers his verdict (Image from TGCOM24)

The judge delivers his verdict (Image from TGCOM24)

This trial is part of a wider political movement against animal research which has seen extensive limits placed on animal studies. As Science reports:

“The Italian law goes far beyond the restrictions imposed by the directive, already seen by many researchers as quite restrictive. Among other things, the law bans breeding dogs, cats, and nonhuman primates for research purposes, or using them for any other purpose than health research; studies without pain killers or anesthesia, if the animal may experience pain (unless these are themselves the subject of the study); and using animals in studies of addiction, xenotransplantation, and for training purposes (except in higher education for veterinarians and physicians).”

The new laws force research institutions to import all dogs from abroad, increasing the cost of the research and damaging animal welfare by forcing the animals onto long flights. Surely Italian activists would prefer to have the animals bred inside their own country where their own inspectors can monitor animal welfare conditions?

This is not the first time science has been in the docks in Italy. In 2012, six seismologists were sentenced to six years for failing to predict the L’Aquila earthquake in another farcical legal trial. Thankfully they were cleared of these charges in November 2014 after an appeal (at the Appellate court). Appeals are very much a standard part of an Italian trial, and it is almost certain that the Marshall case will be put in front of a judge again. It will be important for animal research advocates to make the case for research clearly in the meantime, as public opinion has appeared to play a large part in the legal outcomes of this trial. Scientists and breeders clearly have a lot to do if they are to prevent a looming disaster for biomedical research in Italy

Marco Delli Zotti
Speaking of Research and Pro-Test Italia

Why I Became an Animal Technologist

Today’s guest post is by animal technologist, Jazzminn Hembree, who explains why she became an animal technologist and what her job involves. If you enjoy this, also check out an older post by Kelly Walton, DVM, where she explains why she became an animal veterinarian.

I’ll start by introducing myself, my name is Jazzminn Hembree and I am a certified laboratory animal technologist. I started in this field when I was 17 as a student helper at the University of Cincinnati, simply because all I wanted to do was work with animals. I graduated high school from Live Oaks CDC with a certificate in Animal Science and Management. Since then I have worked in several positions within animal research, I have been privileged to be co-author on several papers, present data, earn certifications, and do something that I love every day. I could not see myself working in any other field.

Why I Became an animal technologist jazzminn

“I started in this field … because all I wanted to do was work with animals”

Growing up, I always said I wanted to be a veterinarian and open my own clinic. Things have changed. Once I saw the possibilities available when I got into an animal facility, I knew this was my niche. I am inspired by the science behind it, and am passionate about the animals I work with. I have to admit that up until now I have been nervous to tell people what I do, people don’t understand animal research. I think this needs to change, we need to be more open and transparent about what we do, but we have to do so in a responsible manner.

Let me explain what a certified laboratory animal technologist is in the US is. Laboratory Animal Technologist (LATG) is the highest level of certification available through the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS). There are three certification levels: first, Assistant Laboratory animal technician (ALAT), second, Laboratory Animal Technician (LAT), and third, Laboratory Animal Technologist (LATG).

“The future of the profession and biomedical science depends on promoting the benefits of biomedical research through public outreach and ensuring that high-quality training and education programs and materials are available for those working in the profession of laboratory animal science.” – AALAS Public Outreach website

As a Laboratory Animal Technologist today: I work closely with the research staff, the veterinarian, and the facility director to provide excellent care for the animals so the researchers can collect accurate and sound data. My job is to provide the daily care, such as health monitoring, feed and water, properly disinfect and sterilize equipment, and prepare work areas. I also assist in technical procedures such as blood draws and injections, as well as health treatments. Occasionally I might have to monitor the animals’ weight and or size, or food and water consumption. As a team, my co-workers and I are required to keep up to date and accurate documentation for the facility operations. I also assist the supervisor and director with the quality assurance monitoring by testing surfaces to ensure cleanliness, as well as the training of new students and employees within the facility.

Now that you have an idea of what I do I’ll get to ‘How could I work in this field if I love animals so much’? This may sound odd to some, but I do it because I love the animals. I know what we are doing is not only helping humans but also other animals. How would we ever know how to treat a sick pet if we hadn’t researched the disease and tested the treatments? I get to care for and handle animals on a daily basis. I am able to help a sick animal get well again. I know what I am doing today is going to help someone tomorrow. I believe these animals should be respected and honored for what they provide us. I know it is portrayed that the animals in a research facility are sad, distressed, hurting, and scared; frankly this is just not the case. Research animals are loved and cared for better than some companion animals. These rats are not at risk of diseases, they are not scrounging for food or shelter, they are provided sterile food and water, a clean environment, temperature and light controlled rooms, and have caretakers to care for and love them.

I have been on both sides of research, I have worked as a technician doing the daily cleaning and in a lab performing the studies and collecting the data. I know the importance the animal model is to the science, and have seen the outcomes. I was in a lab which mainly studied diabetes and metabolic diseases as a part of a team collaborating with a pharmaceutical company for many years. Having diabetic friends and family, I felt what I was doing could help save their lives one day. I am proud of the papers we published; in fact we won the 2014 Journal of Peptide Science Best Publication Award. I could not be more honored to be part of such a great group of people at the time. I then worked in another lab for a short time in which I was part of the Mouse Metabolic Phenotyping Core, in which we worked on characterizing mouse models in support of quality research. I am now back to working on the daily care side of research with a new perspective of what our job and the animals provide to the researchers and their data.

I hope to share with everyone my strong belief that education, such as technical aining, competency in research procedures, and knowledge of the laws and regulations, are what keep the animals healthy, and results in effective, accurate research data. As I continue to work on my education, I want to inspire others to do the same. I also want to inform people of the critical importance of animal research. I believe the motives and caring nature of the people who take care of the laboratory animals, as well as the laws and the regulations we follow, are misunderstood by many which leads to the impression of cruelty. There are many institutions, regulations, and guidelines established to protect the welfare of the animals used in research. Research institutions are guided by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Public Health and Safety (PHS) Policy on the Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), as well as the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. I believe we, as a field, are failing to educate the general public in the laws and regulations we must follow to protect the animals in our care. As an animal lover myself, I understand the fear the general public has about animal research. What we do in research is very similar to the practices your veterinarian does, we are just trying to come up with new procedures and medications and answer questions to advance both the veterinary field as well as the medical field. I believe part of my job as a Laboratory Animal Technologist is not only to be an advocate for the welfare of laboratory animals and ensure that we follow all regulations and guidelines, but also to teach others the importance of the work being done.

Jazzminn Hembree, LATG

The Uniqueness of Human Suffering

Jeremy Bentham, an 18th century utilitarian philosopher, famously asked: “The question is not ‘can they reason?’ or ‘can they talk?’ but ‘can they suffer?’” A utilitarian philosopher of our times, Peter Singer, latched into that question to write his book Animal Liberation, and so the modern animal rights movement was born. Basically, Peter Singer and many other animal rights activists claim that animals suffer like humans and therefore they should be treated like humans. Put in a more sophisticated way, Peter Singer argues that the moral imperative of equality dictates “equal consideration of interests”, that is, that the interests of all beings receive the same consideration. Animals have an interest in avoiding pain, therefore egalitarianism demands that we respect that interest. It is argued further that claiming human superiority based on our superior intelligence, our ability to talk or our culture is just stacking the cards in our favor because those are the special attributes of our species. By the same token, an elephant may claim moral superiority based on the fact of having a trunk.

However, the whole argument is based on the claim that animals suffer and, moreover, that they suffer like us. Singer and the other animal rightists just assume that they do. I think this is a faulty assumption that needs to be addressed head-on, but I understand why they take umbrage in it: the whole problem of defining suffering seems intractable at first sight. ‘Suffering’, like ‘happiness’ and ‘consciousness’, belong to a class of concepts that are at the same time abstract and fundamental, so that defining them in terms that are non-circular seems nearly impossible. If you look at dictionary definitions of ‘suffering’ you will find that they refer to pain, unpleasantness or perceptions of threat, which are just synonyms or examples of suffering. This does not represent a problem when the idea of suffering is applied to human beings, because we can get accurate descriptions of their suffering from other people. However, when we want to apply this concept to animals we need a clear idea of what we are talking about, otherwise we risk falling into one of two opposite pitfalls: self-serving callousness -choosing to think that animals do not suffer because this is convenient for us; and anthropomorphizing – thinking an animal suffers just because we would suffer if they did that same thing to us. The latter feels intuitively true because is based on empathy, a very powerful human emotion. However, it is not a rational conclusion.

Do all animals suffer? Do all animals suffer equally?

Do all animals suffer? Do all animals suffer equally?

Just like in the case of happiness and consciousness, the problem of suffering can be studied scientifically. In fact, there are a lot of scientific studies related to suffering because one important thing the public demand from scientists is to find solutions to pain and other forms of distress. Just like in the case of happiness and consciousness, science may not have come up (yet) with a complete description of suffering, but it certainly can tell us a lot of things about it. I think that this information can help us form an educated opinion about whether some particular animal suffers or not.

Most people would agree with the idea that not all living beings suffer. One of the most peculiar things about life is that it seems goal-directed: living beings strive towards keeping themselves alive and making more beings like them. However, this does not imply any form of consciousness or intentionality; it is just something that living beings do automatically because otherwise they wouldn’t be living anymore. It is important to underline this fact because this striving to stay alive can be easily confused with the “interest” that Peter Singer talks about. Yes, life perpetuates itself, but that doesn’t mean that living beings are conscious or that they have interests and plans like we do. To think otherwise would be to accept some magical vitalist concept of life that science rejected long ago. Therefore, we can conclude that plants do not suffer, although they grow, reproduce and even fight their enemies with chemical responses. Likewise, we should accept that animals that lack a nervous system (like sponges) or that have only a rudimentary nervous system (like worms) do not suffer.

What about animals that do have a complex nervous system? Do they suffer? Here we must consider that suffering and pain are often confused, but in fact are not identical. Pain produces suffering, but suffering can be produced by things other than pain, generally speaking by negative emotional states. That pain and suffering are not identical is also shown by the fact that people may experience pain and not suffer from it. For example, the pain experienced when practicing some sports, when eating spicy food and by sexual masochists induces positive feelings instead of suffering. Some drugs called dissociative anesthetics (like ketamine) can selectively turn off the emotional part of pain leaving intact its sensory component: we are still able to feel the pain, but just don’t care about it. Given the complexity of this subject, I chose to divide this discussion into two parts: suffering that comes from physical pain and emotional suffering. I will start with the first.

Pain scientists distinguish between three concepts: nociception, pain and suffering. This distinction is even recognized by the Humane Society of the United States, an animal rights organization. To understand nociception consider the case of a patient who is undergoing surgery under general anesthesia. As the skin and organs of this person are being cut, pain sensory nerves faithfully record the damage and send this information to the spinal cord, which continues to the brain. The normal traffic of noxious signals only stop at the cerebral cortex because the large parts of the brain cortex is turned off by the general anesthetic [1, 2]. This basic processing of noxious information is what we call nociception. Of course, in an awake person nociception leads to pain. The important idea, however, is that the processing of information concerning physiological damage involving millions of neurons and sophisticated neural pathways does not imply the existence of pain. In fact, nowadays pain is considered part sensation part emotion; because fundamental aspects of pain are its negative valence (we dislike it) and its salience (we cannot avoid paying attention to it). Pain requires a fairly complex nervous system capable of turning sensations into emotions. Based on these ideas, I think it is reasonable to infer that animals that lack a nervous system of enough complexity do not feel pain, they just have nociception. Behavior consisting in avoiding a noxious stimulus should not necessarily be taken as an indication of pain. After all, even plants react to noxious stimuli. It is difficult to draw the line between animals that have just nociception and those that experience pain. However, it is clear that many animals do not come even close to having a nervous system complex enough to produce the sensation of pain with its associated negative emotions. Animals like the pond snail (11,000 neurons) or the sea slug (28,000 neurons) just don’t have this capacity. By comparison, we have 100 millions neurons just in our gut (the enteric nervous system) and 86 billion neurons in our brain. Of the invertebrates, the only animal that comes close is the octopus, with 300 million neurons, comparable with the rat’s 200 million neurons. This is why countries like the UK and Canada now give cephalopods (octopi, squids and cuttlefish) the same protections given to vertebrates. Of course, the number of neurons is not the only metric to measure the complexity of a nervous system, but using other metrics like number of synapses or overall capacity to process information will give similar results. A table of the number of neurons in different animal species can be found here.

Cephalopods are protected in Canadian and EU regulations

“Countries like the UK and Canada now give cephalopods the same protections given to vertebrates”

But what most people are concerned about are the most complex animals, the mammals and the birds, which we eat, have as pets and use in scientific research. What about them? Do they feel pain? Do they suffer?

A lot can be learned about the relationship between pain and suffering in mammals by studying brain areas involved in the processing of pain in the brain. As I indicated above, pain has a sensory aspect and an emotional aspect. The sensory aspect of pain is processed by the somatosensory cortex, an area shaped like a hairband going from the top to the sides of the brain. It contains a detailed map of the body and processes pain and touch, telling us where these sensations originate (nowadays it is recognized that the dorsal posterior insula also contains a map of the body and is responsible for judgements on the localizations and intensity of pain). The somatosensory cortex is connected to the orbitofrontal cortex, located at the front end of the brain and whose function is to plan actions according with the information it receives. But neither the somatosensory nor the orbitofrontal cortex are responsible for the emotional component of pain. This function is assigned to two other areas of the cortex: the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Generally speaking, the function of the insula is to tell us how bad pain feels and to associate that emotion with a host of other emotions like sadness, fear, anger, joy, disgust and pleasure. Emotions can be understood as motivational states of the brain: they predispose us to act in a certain way, organizing everything we feel in a hierarchical way according to what we need to do. Pain is an emotion that motivates us to stop or escape from whatever is hurting us. This urgent motivational aspect of pain is processed by the ACC. So we could say that the insula and the ACC work together to turn pain into suffering by giving it its “I don’t like it” and “I want to stop it” qualities.

Recent discoveries have revealed that during the evolution of primates (monkeys, apes and humans) there was a reconfiguration of the brain pathways that process pain, culminating with the appearance of completely new pain processing areas in the human brain [2, 3]. To convey the importance of these changes, I must quickly summarize the neural pathways that carry pain signals from the body to the cerebral cortex. Noxious signals are carried by specialized fibers in the nerves from any part of the body to the dorsal horn of the spinal cord (see figure below). From there, the signals travel to the parabrachial nucleus in the brain stem, where they branch out to different nuclei of the thalamus and the forebrain [3]. Located in the middle of the brain, the thalamus function as the central relay of all sensory information, with its different parts or nuclei handling visual, auditory, gustatory, tactile and pain information. Different thalamic nuclei send pain signals to the four areas of the cortex described above: the somatosensory cortex, the orbitofrontal cortex, the insula and the ACC. These pain pathways are present in all mammals, but in primates a new additional pathway emerged that directly links the spinal cord with the nucleus of the thalamus connected to the insula, bypassing the parabrachial nucleus. This means that pain sensations are able to directly reach the part of the cortex where feelings are created. In humans, the size of this direct pathway between the thalamus and the insula is much larger anatomically, and much larger and more complex than in monkeys.

Spinal Cord Diagram Pain

“Noxious signals are carried by specialized fibers in the nerves from any part of the body to the dorsal horn of the spinal cord”

But is there another change in the brain that is unique to humans and a small number of other species including elephants and cetaeceans, but not being found in monkeys: a new part of the insula called the anterior insula [4, 5]. A.D. Craig, a scientist who has studied these changes by mapping the brains of monkeys, apes and humans, thinks that the posterior insula serves to create an emotional map of the state of the body in each moment. The anterior insula, on the other hand, serves to model the state of the body as it was in the past or in hypothetical situations in the future: “if this were to happen, that’s what I would feel”. Craig thinks that this gives us self-awareness by modeling feelings that represent the interior state of the body through time. The representation of hypothetical states of the body performed by the anterior insula is probably also responsible for empathy, the ability to feel what another person is feeling by simulating his body state in our own brain. In relation to suffering, we can see how growing relevance of the insula in generating the negative emotions associated with pain progressively increase the depth of suffering. This process culminates with humans; we are not only able to experience the pain of the present but are also aware of ourselves as beings that have suffered in the past and that may suffer in the future. Animals that lack an anterior insula would not be able to experience this type of suffering. The gradual appearance of the anterior insula in apes like bonobos and chimpanzees seems to correlate with the development of empathy and positive social emotions [4, 6].

In summary, we need to take a gradualist approach when considering the presence of pain and suffering in animals. Invertebrates, with the possible exception of cephalopods, do not appear to have a nervous system complex enough to feel pain, let alone suffering. Their behavior can be explained by simple responses to nociceptive signals. Vertebrates, particularly the ones with highly complex nervous systems like mammals and birds, do experience pain and quite probably suffer from it. However, the deep suffering that we experience as humans beings, rooted in our memory and our capacity to imagine the future, does not seem to exist other than in a rudimentary form in other mammals. Although animals have memories, without an anterior insula they cannot use them to construct a vivid representation of their past suffering, like we do. A measure of self-awareness and deep suffering exists in elephants and cetaceans, which also have a highly developed anterior insula and ACC with von Economo neurons.

Jeremy Bentham and Peter Singer failed to understand the true nature of suffering when they came up with the idea of speciesism. Just like we do not give the same moral status to animals and plants, we cannot give the same moral status to all animal species. When deciding how we should treat them we need to take into consideration whether they can feel pain and, if they do, how they suffer from that pain. The suffering of a mouse, a dog, a monkey and a chimpanzee are not equivalent. By the same token, human suffering has to be given a higher ethical consideration than the suffering of other animals. There is a moral imperative to diminish suffering in all sentient beings, but when difficult choices have to be made, human suffering has to come first. If saying this makes me a speciecist, I will wear that label with pride. But I’d rather call myself a humanist, because for me the priority is to decrease human suffering.

Juan Carlos Marvizon, Ph.D.

The author wishes to thank Dr. Bud Craig for his helpful comments


  1. Craig, A.D., Topographically organized projection to posterior insular cortex from the posterior portion of the ventral medial nucleus in the long-tailed macaque monkey. J Comp Neurol, 2014. 522(1): p. 36-63.
  2. Craig, A.D., The sentient self. Brain Struct Funct, 2010. 214(5-6): p. 563-77.
  3. Craig, A.D., Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 2003. 13(4): p. 500-505.
  4. Bauernfeind, A.L., et al., A volumetric comparison of the insular cortex and its subregions in primates. J Hum Evol, 2013. 64(4): p. 263-79.
  5. Craig, A.D., Significance of the insula for the evolution of human awareness of feelings from the body. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 2011. 1225: p. 72-82.
  6. Rilling, J.K., et al., Differences between chimpanzees and bonobos in neural systems supporting social cognition. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci, 2012. 7(4): p. 369-79.