Target of animal rights protests kicks off animal research ethics forum

This article was written by Chris Barncard and originally posted on the University of Wisconsin-Madison news website. It has been reproduced with permission. The article mentions SR committee member, Dario Ringach, who will be speaking at 7 p.m., Oct. 24 in the Madison Public Library’s Central Branch, 201 W. Mifflin St., Madison, Wisconsin, US.

Any research that includes animals presents ethical questions, but they are questions Dario Ringach believes we rarely address together.

“There is a moral dilemma everyone has to recognize,” says Ringach, a professor of neurobiology and psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Rejecting that isn’t responsible, and is not based on any sound ethical thinking. But once we recognize that, there is a very useful discussion to have.”

Ringach, the next speaker in UW–Madison’s Forum on Animal Research Ethics (FARE) series, believes that nearly all conversation on the controversial topic is driven by the most extreme opinions on the issue.

Dario Ringach
Dario Ringach

He was invited to deliver a lecture — “The Ethical Dilemma of Animal Research,” at 7 p.m., Oct. 24 in the Madison Public Library’s Central Branch, 201 W. Mifflin St. — because he hopes to bring some informed discussion to the middle.

“Dario has been very interactive with the public on this issue,” says Eric Sandgren, director of UW–Madison’s Research Animal Resource Center and a FARE organizer. “He is one of the few people out there from the scientific community actually engaging people in conversation about the ethics of animal research no matter their background or stated feelings on the topic, and that is exactly the point of FARE.”

The forum, which began in 2011 to provide a venue for discourse on the use of animals in science, is free and open to the public. Speakers — including researchers who conduct experiments that include animals, scientists advocating limited use, philosophers and animal rights leaders — have been chosen by a committee representing campus and the Madison community.

Ringach, who studies the way the brain represents images, knows the arguments of those who oppose animal research well.

He became a target of animal rights groups more than a decade ago while working with non-human primates in his UCLA lab, and his family endured some rough treatment.

“In my case, late at night, anywhere between 30 to 40 people wearing ski masks would surround my house, banging on windows, chanting that they are going to burn the house down,” Ringach says.

A colleague was singled out by activists who left an unlit Molotov cocktail on her doorstep as a message — though they got the address wrong, and delivered it to the scientist’s neighbor.

“When this happens, you are forced to ask yourself what kind of beliefs drive these people to act this way,” Ringach says. “That’s how I got interested in the moral philosophy behind this movement.”

That philosophy is not always articulated by the critics of animal research in a way that acknowledges the true moral dilemma, according to Allyson Bennett, a UW–Madison psychology professor who blogs with Ringach on animal research at

“The speakers on the animal rights side often do not articulate their position — as in, are there any instances in which your ethics would allow animal research?” Bennett says. “And they will almost never acknowledge that there is any benefit from animal research. You can’t have a genuine discussion about the ethics without that.”

Ringach’s run-in with protestors was well known, but it did not keep him from writing and speaking about the issue.

“What happened to Dario was a wake-up call to the scientific community,” Bennett says, and one example of intimidation she worries will keep grad students from entering academic research, and chase the work into parts of the world that have not established the sort of structure and oversight established in the United States.

While it was terrifying for Ringach and his family, the experience did not keep him from conducting research with animal models. These days his lab includes mice in its work. And it only served to focus his thinking on the animal research issue.

“I felt an obligation to defend work that I think is producing the benefits that will improve the lives of my children and the children of others. There are lives at stake here,” says Ringach, who plans to leave plenty of time for discussion with the audience after his FARE presentation. “And I believe scientists have the obligation to talk to people about their work, but you should not be obligated to talk to someone who says it is justifiable to kill you.”

To read more about Professor Ringach’s activities within FARE, check out his writings in this area and about the FARE series:

9 thoughts on “Target of animal rights protests kicks off animal research ethics forum

    1. How does the blood pressure of a rodent possibly relate to the blood pressure of a human being? How does the cancer of an animal (sarcoma) relate to the cancer of a human being (carcinoma)? How does an animal separated from us by 70 million years of evolution relate to us and our all-too-human maladies? Please enlighten.

      1. Harlequinclarity has made a clear point. If you say animal models are not predictive because they are dissimilar, how can you claim there are better alternatives that don’t even involve a full living organism.

        Blood pressure of a rodent is relevant to a human because despite millions of years of evolution they still pump blood around the body in essentially the same way.

        In cancers you’ll note that great strides have been made in treating humans through animal models. Herceptin is a humanised mouse antiibody which is now a very successful breast cancer treatment. Also, animals can get carcinoma’s in the same way humans can get sarcomas

        1. Am I not correct in noting that William Harvey studied the heart and blood circulation without recourse to animal experiments? We now use the dog in blood pressure and cardiac research despite its stark difference to the human system. Dogs’ hearts have a highly irregular intermittent pulsation – there is in fact no less reliable guide to man’s heart than the dog. Yet the useless fellow is still being made a model of the human system.
          A dog’s clotting and coronary values are so different from ours that their use in fact led to the death of the initial human patients of bypass surgery – Dr. Kunlin of France had the first success and his work was not based on animal experimentation.
          The circulatory apparatus of quadrupeds renders extrapolation to man at the very least a severely misguided approach.

      2. I am afraid you are very wrong. William Harvey carried out much of his studies in dogs, including how he estimated the rate at which blood went through the human heart.

        In Harvey’s “De Motu Cordis”, published in 1628, he refers to work on over 30 animal species including man and explains how this has led to our present understanding of the physiological basis of blood pressure control.

        I’m afraid Dr Kunlin only seems to appear on obscure animal rights pages. Here is a more scientific look at the role of animals in heart surgery and transplants.

        You might also want to read this on the myth that heart bypass was delayed by animal experiments:

  1. Once again the reasoned scientific argument against animal research is overlooked by disingenuous self-pity: please let us know when you are prepared for real dialogue

      1. The use of any one species as predictors of another species’ reactions is fundamentally flawed. In this epoch, the need for use of intact organisms is obsolete. Only fear of change keeps the system chugging along, developing shot-in-the-dark treatments and suspending thought of cure.

      2. As much as you repeat that mantra, the history of medicine and our understanding of biology shows that animals can provide useful models for human conditions.

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