Author Archives: Editor

Understanding the animal, not just its parts

A recent article in the Atlantic, “How Brain Scientists Forgot That Brains Have Owners” is making headlines. The journalist claims that in an article published in early February, titled “Neuroscience Needs Behavior: Correcting Reductionist Bias”, fancy new technologies have led the field of neuroscience astray. The original scientific publication does draw attention to an area of neuroscience that neglects behavior, and outlines the importance of measuring behavior and the brain. However, behavior is not necessary in all areas of neuroscience, and adding behavior to some neuroscience studies could be problematic. Furthermore, the overall goal of the scientific publication was only to suggest that the field of neuroscience is lacking in scientists interested in studying the whole brain rather than the just studying the sum of its parts.

The field of neuroscience is diverse. Take for example the 9 themes at the Society for Neuroscience Conference in 2016:

  1. Development
  2. Neural Excitability, Synapses, and Glia [Neurophysiology]
  3. Neurodegenerative Disorders and Injury
  4. Sensory Systems
  5. Motor Systems
  6. Integrative Physiology and Behavior
  7. Motivation and Emotion
  8. Cognition
  9. Techniques [Technologies]

Glancing over these themes it is apparent that many scientists specialize in different types of neuroscience. Thus, some neuroscientists may study behavior and some may not need to study behavior. For example, neuroscientists investigating questions about technologies or neurophysiology may not need to study behavior at all — it depends on the question. Those only interested in the integration of physiology and behavior would study both the brain and behavior. And those studying cognition or motor systems might conduct experiments on behavior without directly measuring the brain. Whether neuroscientists study brain and/or behavior depends on the research questions they are asking.

Although both publications neglected to discuss the diversity of neuroscience, the main theme of the scientific publication was to change the way scientists interested in the integration of physiology and behavior approach their research questions. Too many neuroscientists focus on using as many new technologies as possible, and then use behavior as an afterthought. The issue here is that some of these new technologies are not yet well understood. Thus, scientists’ research questions using these technologies could be misguided.

Furthermore, behavior is a separate area of research on its own and should never be treated as an afterthought. Thus, the authors suggest that neuroscience needs more interdisciplinary scientists who understand and study the relationships between brain and behavior. It needs scientists that can merge all areas of the field.

All neuroscientists however, no matter their specific question, will help advance the field in different ways. And all neuroscientists do not need to study behavior. However, Interdisciplinary scientists in particular may set the stage for understanding the whole animal and how the brain operates within it. Furthermore, these scientists may help increase the translation of research from animal to human.

The problem of neuroscience without interdisciplinary scientists

A possible issue with scientists only studying one part of the animal (i.e. the brain) is that they neglect the rest of the animal. The authors suggest many neuroscientists only interested in the brain use a top-down approach (brain-behavior) to infer how behavior operates — and this is problematic. A recent experiment on understanding a simple computer demonstrates the potential flaws in a top-down approach. Briefly, computer scientists tested whether the processes of three classic videogames could be inferred by only studying the microprocessor that operated the videogames. In contrast to the brain, the scientists already understood how this computer system operates. After much investigation of the hardware of the microprocessor and how it functions, it remained unclear how the processes in the videogames operated. Thus, by using a top-down approach to understand behavior we will not be able to understand the brain

The bigger problem with measuring the brain and inferring behavior without studying behavior is that you are only studying one part of the animal. Consider the blind men and the elephant:

blind-men-and-the-elephant

Quite simply, if I am blind-folded and given an elephant’s ear then I may think it is a fan. For me to understand and determine that I am holding an elephant’s ear, I would need to investigate the whole elephant — beyond a small part and beyond all parts individually. Interdisciplinary scientists study the “whole elephant.”

However, only studying the ear of an elephant isn’t completely problematic. I can measure what it is composed of, stick electrodes in it to see how it responds, pour different chemicals on it to see how it reacts, measure how it grows over time, test it in different scenarios etc. Thus, I can learn many different aspects about this so called fan. However, what I cannot do is infer its function or purpose without considering the whole elephant. Also, I may be unable to determine which findings are related to the potential functions, and which findings are not related to the potential functions.

The elephant and the blind men, also apply to all experiments using animal models for understanding human biology. If I do not investigate or consider the whole “elephant” I may never determine that the “ear” I am looking at has a similar function to “ears” in many other animals. More generally, if I only study neural circuitry in a mouse without considering the mouse as a whole (anatomy, organs, cells, behavior, environment, development, evolution, etc.) then it won’t help me determine how — or if – the neural circuitry may function similarly in the human.

Development is particularly important — and often forgotten — ­when studying the whole animal. You cannot just study the “ear” of the “elephant” at a specific time point in a specific environment because the structure or function may change over time. Consider the development of a frog:

development-of-a-frog

In the tadpole stage the frog has a long tail for swimming and gills for breathing underwater. As it develops into an adult frog, however, the tail is reabsorbed and the frog exchanges its gills for lungs. Developmental context is necessary for understanding the whole animal.

The necessity of neuroscience with interdisciplinary scientists

Interdisciplinary scientists study both neural circuitry and behavior to understand the processes of the brain. However, this does not mean that they study parts of the brain, then study some behaviors, and understand the system. It also does not mean that they take a top-down approach (brain to behavior) or bottom-up approach (behavior to brain) — the choice here should depend on the specific research question. Interdisciplinary scientists study both brain and behavior at the same time. By studying both at the same time they can see how behavior emerges from neural circuitry and how neural circuitry emerges from behavior. The two are dependent on one another, they are not separate.

Consider this optical illusion:

optical-illusion-face-and-candlestick

If I just look at the picture on the left, I might only see a chalice and begin describing all of its visual properties and then infer its function. However, if I look at the picture on the right then it might become apparent that the picture is both a chalice and two people looking at each other. If I have too narrow of a focus — only studying the chalice — then I completely miss understanding that this is an optical illusion. Understanding the whole is important, and one part is not the greater than the other.

However, as mentioned earlier when trying to identify the function of an elephant’s ear, if I do not have a starting point for inferring function or mechanism then I could be asking the wrong questions. This is the point that the authors in the original scientific publication also make. If you do not study the behavior of the animal or process that you are interested in, then you will be asking all the wrong questions concerning neural circuitry. One cannot understand the game of chess by just analyzing all the pieces and the board. You must first observe how the game is played, and then you can determine what makes the pieces and the board important.

This is example of watching chess being played first and then analyzing the pieces and the board, represents a top-down approach. However, as already mentioned, the approach you take is particular to the question you are interested in. Different approaches give you different answers. And in the unknown world of brain and behavior, we may really not know enough to properly infer how something functions.

Regardless, this example of chess also applies to all experiments using animal models. For example, I might have learned how to play chess on a large and heavy wooden board with specially molded iron pieces. And as long as I understand the rules and processes of chess, then I can play chess on any board — be it big or small, plastic or wood, physical or virtual. But if I spend all my time studying the chess pieces and never watching how the game is played, then it might be difficult for me to identify which chess piece does what on a different chess set. Just like it would be difficult for me to determine which brain areas of a mouse might be analogous to which brain areas in a human without measuring behavior.

The authors also explain that multiple neural circuits may be responsible for a single behavior, and a single neural circuit may be responsible for multiple behaviors. This further complicates the issue of studying one part of the animal over the other. Thus, one specific neural circuit does not map to one specific behavior.

neural-activity-in-animals-and-the-behaviours-associated

In conclusion, the neuroscientists who published the original scientific article are correct: behavior is necessary and you must study it if you want to understand the brain. However, all the fancy techniques neuroscientists have developed, independent of behavior, help us ask specific questions about neural circuitry and about behavior. Also, all scientists experimenting on animals —not just neuroscientists — should understand the arguments used in this paper and apply it to their own experiments. This will help us better understand how findings in one species might relate to findings in another, and thus help the translation of all science using animal models.

Justin Varholick

Latest animal research statistics from Belgium, Greece and Poland

Speaking of Research try to keep on top of the latest statistics coming from governments around the world. This post will look at three countries which have recently published their 2015 statistics.

Belgium

Belgium’s three regions (Brussels, Flanders, and Wallonia) independently publish the statistics for their region. We have collated the results (1-3) into a single table covering all of Belgium.

Animal research in Belgium for 2015 by species [Click to Enlarge]

Animal research in Belgium for 2015 by species [Click to Enlarge]

There were 566,603 procedures in Belgium in 2015, down almost 15% from the previous year. The numbers fell in all three regions of Belgium, with the number of procedures in Flanders falling 14%, Brussels falling 7% and Wallonia falling 18%. By species, the biggest falls were in fish (down 24%), rats (down 46%) and guinea pigs (down 19%). This all follows a general downward trend in numbers over the past two decades.

Trends in Belgian animal experiments 1997-2015.

Trends in Belgian animal experiments 1997-2015.

Unusually for a European country, rabbits were used more than rats in 2015 (not true in 2014). Mice, rats, fish and birds still accounted for 87% of research, rising to 85% when rabbits were included.

animal-research-by-species-in-belgium-pie-chart-2015

Links:

(1) Brussels – Statistieken in verband met het gebruik van proefdieren in het brussels hoofdstedelijk gewest in 2015
(2) Flanders – Proefdieren in Vlaanderen in 2015 uitgedrukt in cijfers
(3) Wallonia – Statistiques d’utilisation des animaux dans les experiences en wallonie en 2015
(4) Belgium 2014 Statistics

Greece

Greece published its 2015 statistics recently (5).

Animal research in Greece for 2015 by species [Click to Enlarge]

Animal research in Greece for 2015 by species [Click to Enlarge]

There were 47,784 procedures on animals in Greece in 2015, a rise of 13% (5,541 procedures) from the previous year. Over 97%  were mice, fish, rats and birds (mainly mice and fish). The number of fish more than tripled to 13,817 procedures. Unlike the previous year, there were procedures on cats (47), dogs (4) and primates (3). These species account for less than 0.15% of animals used.

animal-research-by-species-in-greece-pie-chart-2015

The severity statistics show that 70% were classed as non-recovery or mild. 6.5% were classified as severe.

Severity of animal experiments in Greece

Links:

(5) Greece 2015 – Πληροφορίες σχετικά µε τη χρήση ζώων για επιστηµονικούς σκοπούς στην Ελλάδα για το έτος 2015

Poland

After the publication of the 2014 statistics we had to make an editor’s note because we spotted some unusual trends. It turned out that Poland had erroneously added over 400,000 fish to their statistics. We have concerns about the 2015 data which is why we have not written it up in full.

The 2015 statistics show that there were 174,456 procedures on animals in 2015. This is a 25% fall compared with the previous year (6).

This data may be incorrect

This data may be incorrect. See text below.

Our concerns are twofold. Firstly, the number of procedures on fish – 11,561 – is exactly the same as the data for 2014. This seems exceptionally unlikely. Secondly, there appears to be a discrepancy between numbers of animal procedures in the severity tables for 2015, and the numbers in the basic data. For example, the severity tables show 88,776 procedures on mice. The general data for 2015 shows 88,601 procedures.

For these reasons, we recommend caution when using this data. Speaking of Research will continue to try and get to the bottom of this data (as we did for the 2014 statistics).

Links

(6) Poland 2015 – Zwierzęta wykorzystane w procedurach w 2015
(7) Poland 2014 Statistics

Speaking of Research

Help us help you!

The Speaking of Research website provides a wealth of information for the public about why animal research remains an important part of scientific, medical and veterinary discoveries. While our news blog may be most relevant to those involved in the field, the static pages provide information about the animal model, medical developments, regulations, statistics and more. So we believe the more easily the public can find our website, the better for everyone in the field.

So what happens when a member of the public searches for “animal testing” (which, according to Google Trends, is searched for around three times as much as “animal research”)?

animal-testing-search-annotated

Eight of nine search results on the first page provide a negative idea of animal research. The last one provides arguments from both sides. No wonder that young people are now opposed to animal research by a 14 percentage point margin.

pew-research-animal-research

There is, however, something you can do. Google’s algorithms mean that websites that are linked to by .edu and .gov websites will be more trusted and be pushed further up the search results. See more on the video below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNHR6IQJGZs

We need you to get www.speakingofresearch.com added to your University department website (or Government website if you are that position). So please send an email to your department website editor (and convince friends in other life science departments to do likewise) to ask them to add links to pro-research organisations on an appropriate page. Many of you will have direct control over sections of your department’s page, so please take a few seconds to add the middle section of the letter below.

Dear Webmaster

Please can you add the following paragraph to our departmental website, on our page about animal research here: <insert url>

For more information about the role of animals in research we recommend the following website:

http://www.speakingofresearch.com – Speaking of Research: Providing accurate information about the important role of animal experiments in medical and veterinary research.

Kind Regards

<insert name>

Why not help a few key organisations by asking them to add more than one website, such as:

http://www.speakingofresearch.com – Speaking of Research
http://www.amprogress.org – Americans for Medical Progress
http://www.fbresearch.org – Foundation for Biomedical Research
http://www.animalresearch.info – Animal Research Information

With your help we can ensure the public sees the facts about animal research!

Speaking of Research

Canada’s animal research in numbers for 2015

The statistics for animal research conducted in Canada in 2015 have been released by the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC). These numbers reflect research conducted by CCAC-certified institutions and by people working at CCAC-certified institutions, even if the research involves animals located outside of Canada. The criteria for CCAC certification can be found here. This also means that not all animals used for research in Canada are included in these reports. The CCAC reports that in 2015, 3,570,352 animals were used for research, teaching, and testing in Canada. This is a decrease of 4.8% from the 3,750,125 animals that were used in 2014.

Animal research in Canada for 2015 by species [Click to Enlarge]

Animal research in Canada for 2015 by species [Click to Enlarge]

Similar to other countries, mice remain the most popular species used for animal research, with an overall increase of 12%. Fish are a close second in terms of use in 2015, though there was a decrease of 26% in their use compared to 2014. The number of cattle used in research approximately doubled compared to 2014. All other reported species saw decreases in reported use.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

84.2% of the animals used in research and testing were conducted on mice, rats, fish, and birds, which was slightly lower than in other countries. However, with the inclusion of cattle, this percentage rises to 93.9%.  Similarly to other countries, monkeys (4,942), cats (5,035), and dogs (9,573) comprised a small proportion of animals used for research, together accounting for 0.5% of all research animals, with an overall decrease of 5,592 animals from 2014 for these species.

CCAC

Pain, suffering, and harm were also measured and classified under four categories of invasiveness:

  • None: Experiments which cause little of no discomfort or stress
  • Mild: Experiments which cause minor stress or pain of short duration
  • Moderate: Expierments which cause moderate to severe distress or discomfort
  • Severe: Procedures which cause severe pain near, at, or above the pain tolerance threshold of unanesthetized conscious animals.

It is important to understand that every animal in a group will receive the highest category of any single animal in that group, so if a study involved giving different animals different doses of a compound (in a single study), then all animals would receive a category of invasiveness equal to that received by the highest dose group. For further details on what these categories mean, please see here. In 2015, 31.1% of experiments were classified as “none” (this includes studies where the animal are anaesthetised and never woken up), 37.4% were considered “mild”, 29.5% were “moderate”, and 2% were “severe”.

Animals can be used in more than one protocol, provided these additional protocols do not result in pain. Some animals have been counted more than once in this dataset, which is why the total is higher than the total number of animals used in 2015. These data cannot be compared accurately to animal data reports prior to 2012.

Animals can be used in more than one protocol, provided these additional protocols do not result in pain. Some animals have been counted more than once in this dataset, which is why the total is higher than the total number of animals used in 2015. These data cannot be compared accurately to animal data reports prior to 2012.

Overall, there seems to be an upward trend in the number of animals used in research in Canada over the last 20 years, although this pattern is not particularly clear due to annual fluctuations. These fluctuations may be a consequence of the accounting procedures used (which changed in 2012), and may only reflect animals used in CCAC-certified institutions.

Trends in Canadian animal experiments 1996-2015. 2010 data temporarily unavailable due to an accounting error being fixed.

Trends in Canadian animal experiments 1996-2015. 2010 data temporarily unavailable due to an accounting error being fixed.

Finally, the CCAC Animal Data Report 2015 provides some information on animal use. The most common purpose of animal experiments was for basic research (61.2%), followed by “development of products or appliances for human or veterinary medicine” (16.0%); studies into human and animal diseases or disorders (12.9%); Regulatory tests (“animal testing”) (5.5%); and finally education and training (4.4%).

For more information see our Briefing on Animal Research in Canada.

Jeremy Bailoo

The USDA’s removal of information about animal research is a step backwards for transparency

Speaking of Research has considerable concerns about the wealth of information that has been removed from the USDA website in the last week. The USDA has removed access to an online database that allowed the public to easily obtain documents involving the Horse Protection Act (HPA) and the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).This information includes the annual reports showing the number of animals used in research each year, and the animal welfare reports that are produced. [Direct links to annual reports were broken, but the reports still exist on the USDA website – Ed.]

According to Science Magazine, tens of thousands of reports have been removed, relating to around 1200 research labs and 6500 non-research facilities that are registered or licensed by the USDA. A statement from the USDA says:

Based on our commitment to being transparent, remaining responsive to our stakeholders’ informational needs, and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals, APHIS is implementing actions to remove documents it posts on APHIS’ website involving the Horse Protection Act (HPA) and the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) that contain personal information

No doubt many will see some irony in starting a statement about the removal of information with “Based on our commitment to being transparent”. That said, it is not yet clear if reports are being removed permanently or simply temporarily removed until they have been assessed for privacy issues. Though the previously public information will still be available through FOIA requests, the statement concludes by saying “If the same records are frequently requested via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process, APHIS may post the appropriately redacted versions to its website”.

It is not just animal rights groups who have expressed concern. Matthew Bailey, President of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, said:

“I would certainly agree that protection of personal information is of utmost importance, especially given the rich history of targeting the individuals involved in animal research. However, this change also makes it more time consuming, although not impossible, for organizations like FBR to analyze trends in animal use in research.”

Speaking of Research also has concerns. We believe the availability of data can foster an environment of openness and transparency about animal research. When information is hidden, particularly where it was once available, the public will naturally wonder why many stakeholders have cause for concern: the public wonders what is being hidden and why, and researchers must devote even more resources to combatting the public perception that they are not transparent.

USDA Statistics showing number of animas used in research

Speaking of Research uses the type of information that was available to help explain the realities of animal research to the public and media.

The USDA’s decision is also out of step with the direction of travel of many other countries. Approximately one month ago, after urgings from Speaking of Research, the EU website added a new page providing links to the annual statistical reports on animal research of member countries.

In our own commitment to openness, Speaking of Research has uploaded the Annual Reports of the USDA’s animal research to its website. They are available on our US Statistics page, or can be found below. We will be looking at what other information we can practically add in coming weeks.

Thousands of removed USDA documents have now been archived here.

Speaking of Research

Germany’s animal research in numbers for 2015

The statistics for animal research conducted in Germany in 2015 were submitted to the European Commission last week. We have summarised the data below. We compare that to the 2014 statistics also available on their website.

Tierversuche

Animal research in Germany for 2015 by species [Click to Enlarge]

Germany used 2,799,961 animals in 2015, with an overall decrease (15.5%) in animal use when compared to 2014. Similar to other countries, mice remain the most popular species used in animal research, with an increase in use of 5% compared to 2014. Fish, birds, other rodents and other non-mammals saw sizable percentage decreases in their overall use compared to 2014, albeit compared to the total number of animals used, these relative differences are still small. Fish in particular saw a decrease because of differences in reporting between 2014 and 2015. According to the Bundesministerium für Ernährung und Landwirtschaf (BMEL), in 2014, “708,462 “other fish” (including about 563,600 fish larvae) were reported (21.38 percent). By 2015, however, the share of animals in the “other fish” category was only 2.88% (80,777 animals).”

Tierversuche

Mice, rats and fish account for 91% of all animal procedures, rising to 95% if you include rabbits. Similarly to 2014, Germany remains one of the few European countries where rabbits are the fourth most commonly used species in 2015. Dogs, cats and primates accounted for 0.31% of all animals, despite a doubling in the number of animals used for these species.

Tierversuche

Click to Enlarge

This year was the second year where there was retrospective assessment and reporting of severity (i.e. reporting how much an animal actually suffered rather than how much it was predicted to suffer prior to the study). The report showed that 43% of procedures were classed as mild, 17% as moderate, 4% as severe, and 36% as non-recovery, where an animal is anaesthetised for surgery, and then not woken up afterwards. Compared to 2014, there were some noticeable shifts in relation to severity. While the number of procedures which caused animals moderate and severe levels of stress and distress decreased, the numbers of procedures that were terminal increased.

Severity of animal experiments in Germany

Click to Enlarge

Looking at the historical data, we see that like several other countries, the number of animal experiments increased steadily between 2000-2012. The sharp increase in 2014 followed by a decrease in 2015, reflect in part differences in the accounting procedures used between 2014 and 2015. Thus, it is too early to say whether the fall in 2015 is a one-off or a sign of a future drop-off in animal experiments. It is likely that this drop also partly reflects a decrease in funding to science during the recession and economic turmoil of the past few years. Next year’s data may provide some insight into whether and how this trend will continue.

Trends in German animal experiments 2000-15. Click to Enlarge.

Trends in German animal experiments 2000-15. Click to Enlarge.

Other interesting information provided by the annual statistical release includes:

  • 8% of animals used were bred within the EU [Table 3]
  • The main purpose of research was “Basic Research” (58.7%), followed by “Regulatory use and Routine production” (22.5%), “Maintenance of colonies of established genetically altered animals, not used in other procedures”, “Translational and applied Research” (13.6%), and all other uses (5.2 %) [Table 9]
  • Two-thirds of the total dogs, cats and primates were used for Regulatory testing [Table 9]
  • 40% of animals were genetically altered, compared with 60% which were not. Over 98% of the genetically altered animals were mice or zebrafish [Table 20]

For further information about animal research (Tierversuche) in Germany see our background briefing, available in English and German.

Speaking of Research

2015 Statistics: http://www.bmel.de/SharedDocs/Downloads/Tier/Tierschutz/Versuchstierdaten2015.pdf?__blob=publicationFile

2014 Statistics: http://www.bmel.de/SharedDocs/Downloads/Tier/Tierschutz/Versuchstierdaten2014.pdf?__blob=publicationFile

N.B. Some our more eagle-eyed readers may have noted the 2014 statistics referenced in this article do not correspond to those we published a year ago. This is because the German authorities changed the counting methodologies for 2015 and re-released an altered 2014 statistics so that they could be fairly compared to the 2015 data.

More thoughts on animal suffering

My recent article “Not just intelligence: Why humans deserve to be treated better than animals” elicited many thoughtful comments and plenty of debate, both on this blog and in Reddit. In this new post I have compiled some new thoughts that came up during the debate. To view the full discussion, please follow the hyperlinks.

Do animals have the ability to suffer?

I think that, strictly speaking, most animals species do not have the ability to suffer. These will include animals like corals, jellyfish, starfish, worms, clams, snails and insects that comprise millions of species with nervous systems so small that cannot possibly endow them with enough consciousness to suffer. In comparison, the species of chordates that can be said to suffer are a tiny minority. My work is in pain neuroscience, where we make quite nuanced distinctions between suffering, distress, pain and nociception. We know that many species have nociception, but we cannot infer from that that they feel pain, and even less that they suffer. Other show the same physiological signs of distress that we have (elevated levels of cortisol in the blood), but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they suffer. There are animals that clearly do not have nociception, pain, distress or suffering, like sponges. On the other end of the cognitive scale, it is clear that humans do suffer. At what point in the evolutionary tree the ability to suffer appears is not an easy question to answer.

automaton

Philosophers have been speaking of suffering as an absolute, something that exist in itself. In fact, neuroscience points out that suffering cannot exist without consciousness and is not independent of certain cognitive abilities like emotions and memory. An animal can only be said to be suffering inasmuch as it is conscious of this suffering, which links the problem of suffering with the “hard problem” of consciousness. This is because an unconscious animal would be just an automaton, something that responds to stimuli without having a subjective experience of those stimuli. As long as a being is self-conscious, including having extended consciousness, the life of that being has value of its own. So, like it often happens when we look at the living world, there is a gradient of minds between complete automatons and fully conscious human beings. Consciousness, and its attending capacities to suffer and be happy, develops gradually with evolution. So suffering, like consciousness, had to develop gradually during evolution. I doubt that there is a threshold, a hard line, with suffering on one side and not suffering on the other, so we have to wrap our minds around the fact that some animals have more capacity for suffering than others. Therefore, different species should be treated according to their mental capacities, which is, if you want, a hard form of speciesism. But it is what we do all the time, for example, when we kill the fleas that afflict our dog. Clearly, the dog has more moral standing in our eyes than the fleas.

In addition to consciousness, I think that suffering requires the presence of a self because otherwise the existence of the subjective experience of suffering doesn’t make sense. This is a variant of the problem of consciousness: do non-human animals have a self? That’s doubtful. Maybe apes and dolphins do, rats and mice probably don’t. But, again, that is highly speculative. Hence, there has to be a scale of suffering. In that scale, humans are capable of much deeper suffering (and much deeper happiness) because we can see ourselves as selves with an existence extending in time, so we not only suffer in the present, but we can see that we have suffered in the past and that we will suffer in the future. Without episodic memory and extended consciousness, animals do not have selves with that continuity in time.

An endangered fox in the California Channel Islands

An endangered fox in the California Channel Islands

Questioning the ability of animals to suffer doesn’t mean that scientists are looking for a justification to inflict pain on animals. Rather, here scientists face two different moral imperatives. The first is the fundamental dictate of science of looking for the truth unhindered by cultural and societal biases. This leads us to examine the questions of animal pain and suffering in an objective way. The second moral imperative is not to be cruel to animals that can potentially suffer. It is because of this and the cautionary principle that we treat animals like rats and mice as if they can suffer, even when we don’t know for sure that they can. However, we do know with absolute certitude that humans can suffer, which is an additional argument to put human suffering before putative animal suffering. Therefore, it is morally justifiable to use animals in biomedical research to alleviate human suffering, while at the same time taking all possible measures to minimize the distress of animals involved in research.

We need a definition of suffering for many practical matters and not just for animal research. Of course, we should treat animals, and even plants, with respect and not harm less for frivolous reason. But sometimes it is necessary to harm animals. There are many cases in which is necessary to kill animals to protect the environment – the case of pigs and goats in the California Channel Islands comes to mind. In those cases we need to balance two wrongs against each other: the suffering caused to the animals and the destruction of the environment produced by them, possibly including the extinction of some species. Animal research is another example: we need to use animals to find the cure for human diseases. When we look at the ethics involved in those cases, we need to carefully consider whether the animals involved do suffer or not, and how much weight we put on that suffering.

Feral pigs are an invasive species in the California Channel Islands

Feral pigs are an invasive species in the California Channel Islands

Suffering is not the only relevant issue in the animal research debate

Some animal rights proponents argue that mental abilities are a red herring because the only question that is relevant in the animal rights debate is whether animals can suffer. This is not true for two reasons.

First, this is in direct contradiction to what other animal rights proponents say: that animal rights go beyond the right to life and the right not to suffer, and also include the right to be free, the right not to be used for somebody’s else goals, etc. Then the question of whether animals have the mental capacities that enables them to know whether they are free or to care about whether they are being used are completely relevant.

Second, the way we treat a being is also determined by the intrinsic value we give to that being. For example, a species has an intrinsic value, so when a species goes extinct this means a terrible loss, and a deep moral wrong. Humans deserve respect not just because they suffer, but because of their intrinsic value. And that intrinsic value is based on our rich mental lives, our ability not just to suffer but also to be happy, to enjoy beauty, to find meaning in our lives. Therefore, mental capacities beyond the ability to suffer or to think intelligently are fundamental. It’s not just about humans, the same reasoning is used to give a dog more intrinsic value than the fleas that it carries in its fur.

But even if we accept the narrow framing that suffering is the only relevant question, suffering does not exist in isolation of all other mental functions. In particular, there cannot be suffering without consciousness because if there is no subjective awareness of the suffering, then it is not really taking place. Also, suffering, like happiness, acquires a deeper meaning for beings like us that can put it in a context of a life with a past and a future, in the middle of a society and a culture that creates a much richer context for any of our experiences.

Ultimately, the thing that worries me the most about the whole animal rights movement is how it has come to degrade the idea of what it means to be human by denying our rich mental abilities and making us equals to animals. Instead of elevating animals to human status, it degrades humans to animal status. Therefore, the animal rights movement is really a form of misanthropy, a radical anti-Humanism.

by Juan Carlos Marvizon