Setting the record straight: Environmental enrichment in animal research.

One of the most important goals of Speaking of Research is to counter the misinformation and mistaken beliefs about animal research that are so prevalent in society, even among those who ought to know better, and a recent series of articles in Ampersand –  the blog of the organization PRIM&R (Public Responsibility in Medicine & Research) – illustrates the value of taking the time to correct these errors when they occur.

PRIM&R is an organization whose goals are to create a “a strong and vibrant community of ethics-minded research administration and oversight personnel, and providing educational and professional development opportunities that give that community the ongoing knowledge, support, and interaction it needs to raise the bar of research administration and oversight above regulatory compliance“. It’s membership includes over 4,000 individual members, and its educational and professional development programs address a range of issues surrounding research involving human subjects and animals.


So it was rather disappointing to read a blog post entitled 40 years of Research Ethics: Environmental Enrichment which presented the development of environmental enrichment guidelines and practice in a rather superficial manner, and in particular presented PeTA propaganda concerning the 1981 Silver springs case as fact:

The regulatory mandate for environmental enrichment has a long history. In 1970, as a result of amendments to the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), enclosure standards for all warm-blooded animals were developed.  The need for additional regulations became apparent in 1981 when Alex Pacheco, an animal rights activist and cofounder of the then-newly formed organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, discovered and documented violations of the AWA as a volunteer at the Institute for Biological Research in Silver Spring, MD. Pacheco’s work drew public attention to the care of laboratory animals.

In the years following the Silver Spring Monkey case, a number of bills advancing standards for the care of laboratory animals were introduced in the US House and Senate. In 1985, the Food Security Act amended the AWA to mandate exercise for dogs and a “physical environment adequate to promote the psychological well-being of primates.” While initially the research community responded to the mandate for environmental enrichment with hesitation, today such programs are considered fundamental to a comprehensive animal care and use program

In response to this Allyson J. Bennett, PhD, former chair of the Committee on Animal Research and Ethics at the American Psychological Association (APA) – and  Speaking of Research member – , and Sangeeta Panicker, PhD, director of research ethics at the APA, contacted PRIM&R to express their concerns, and to their credit PRIM&R published their email in new post. In their email Allyson Bennett and Sangeeta Panicker pointed out (among other points) that:

Contrary to well established facts, the post implicitly maligned a distinguished member of the psychological science community (involved in the ‘Silver Spring Monkey case’), and lauded the less than honorable tactics of the individual associated with a group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), that is publicly opposed to research with nonhuman animals. Furthermore, based on scant, if any, credible evidence, the blog post credited PETA for almost singlehandedly achieving changes to the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) that led to environmental enrichment requirements for research animals.

and that:

Finally, circling back to the events described in the PRIM&R blog post, we note that not only was the researcher in question exonerated on all but one count of AWA violation by USDA, as well as the US judicial system, but three highly respected scientific organizations—the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society for Neuroscience, and the American Psychological Association—independently investigated the so-called ‘animal abuse’ and found his conduct to be beyond reproach. Furthermore, in light of the baseless accusations against the researcher, we believe it is incumbent upon PRIM&R, the premier organization in the continuing education of institutional animal care and use committees, to acknowledge the impact of this ethically and scientifically sound research with nonhuman primates on the rehabilitation of individuals recovering from strokes and spinal cord injuries.

Mice in a research laboratory. Image courtesy of Understanding Animal Research.
Mice in a research laboratory. Image courtesy of Understanding Animal Research.

So far, so good, but what is really interesting is that it didn’t stop there. A few months later PRIM&R published another article entitled The Evolution of Environmental Enrichment which gave a far more balanced account which acknowledged that the history of environmental enrichment reaches back far longer than 40 years, and how animal researchers, in particular behavioral researchers, have played a key role in shaping its development. In the introduction to their post the writers acknowledge that the impetus for writing this second post came from the email sent by Drs Bennett and Panicker:

In the spirit of transparency and respectful dialog, PRIM&R has written this second post, which we believe is a more considered treatment of an important and complex issue. We thank Drs. Bennett and Panicker for their feedback and for prompting us to take this second look.

What can we learn from this series of posts?

Firstly, the first post shows  how the myths and misrepresentations spread by animal rights organizations have become so pervasive that even many people who should know better take some of them for granted. This is something we have  encountered time and again, and even many scientists who support the use of animals in research don’t appreciate just how high a proportion of the claims made by animal rights groups are pseudoscience.

Secondly, the next two posts show how some (regrettably not all) people are willing to listen when presented with the facts, and how this can spur them to become better informed and reconsider their prior assumptions. This is why it is so important that scientists and supporters of scientific research who know the facts take the opportunity to engage with both specialist and general media to correct misapprehensions and misrepresentations.

You can make a difference!

Speaking of Research