Category Archives: News

Celebrating the life of Oliver Smithies

In 2008 I was honoured to meet Dr Oliver Smithies at the eponymous Smithies -Maeda Laboratories at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. I was invited to speak to him, and members of his laboratory about the importance of outreach on the animal research issue. Despite the prestige of a Nobel Prize (which he won in 2007), he was a down-to-earth, likeable scientist whose passion for genetics had helped him to the ultimate scientific reward. His attitude to his scientific endeavours can best be summed up from his words at a ceremony honouring him at UNC:

“I don’t go to work every day; I go to play every day. And that’s my advice to students here today: find something you love so much that you can say – as I can say – I never did a day’s work in my life.”

Tom Holder meets Nobel Prize Laureate Oliver Smithies

Speaking of Research founder, Tom Holder, meets Dr Oliver Smithies at the Smithies-Maeda Laboratories in 2008

Born in Yorkshire, England and educated at the University of Oxford, where he gained his undergraduate degree and DPhil, Smithies moved to the Canada in 1954 to start his post-doc research before finally moving to the US in 1960 (read his Nobel biography).

His early notable work, while working at the University of Toronto, was to develop a technique of gel electrophoresis using a potato starch matrix. His method, using Danish potato starch, is still used in medical research and forensics today, to help identify certain proteins (read more here).

Image by The Scientist. Click to Enlarge.

Image by The Scientist. Click to Enlarge.

Dr Oliver Smithies won his Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2007, shared with Mario Capecchi and Sir Martin Evans, for “their discoveries of principles for introducing specific gene modifications in mice by the use of embryonic stem cells”. The relevant research by Smithies was conducted at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s where he developed a method of gene targeting in mice by replacing single mouse genes using homologous recombination – changing specific regions of genome in cultured mouse cells. He continued to use this method at UNC in order to create genetically modified animal models of human diseases and conditions. Gene editing techniques continue to advance and support medical advances.

Sadly, on the 10th January 2017, Oliver Smithies passed away, aged 91. He leaves behind a scientific legacy that will forever influence the field of genetics. He is survived by his wife, Dr. Nobuyo Maeda, Robert H. Wagner Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the School of Medicine.

The following video was created by UNC-Chapel Hill, in Memoriam.

Oliver Smithies, 1925-2017

Tom Holder

Looking Back, Looking Forward – Welcoming in 2017

Major scientific awards in 2016 showed the important role of animal models. The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine celebrated Dr Yoshinori Ohsumi’s work on yeast and mice, which helped him uncover the “mechanisms of autophagy”. A few weeks earlier the Lasker Awards highlighted the work in numerous animal models including frogs, rabbits and primates, in the discovery of how cells sense and respond to changes in oxygen levels, and their work in understanding and treating Hepatitis C. Check back later this year to see what the 2017 Nobels and Laskers show about the need for animal models.

2016 showed a number of animal research breakthroughs (a few of which Speaking of Research even wrote articles about). In February studies showed that the HPV vaccine, developed using rabbits, mice and primates, had helped reduce infections of HPV (which can cause cervical cancer) by over 60%. April produced news about how optogenetics could bring about a number of drug-free treatments. This news was based on studies in mice and fish. In August, research on sheep by Australian and American researchers helped to create a new device for recording electrical signals inside the brain – hopefully reducing the need for invasive surgery in some situations. Work on lambs by Dr Robert Tranquillo, at the University of Minnesota, could help create synthetic blood vessels and heart valves that grow as the patient does. In October, Dr Stuart Baker, at Newcastle University, described his work with humans and primates to drive forward a new technology aimed at helping stroke patients recover (see also what he wrote about the importance of animal research).

Research on primates also came into the spotlight during 2016, causing many scientists to stand together in defence of their use. In February, Speaking of Research wrote a letter to the Australian Senate Committee on Environmental Protection about a proposed bill to ban the import of primates for biomedical research. After the New York Times published an article by animal research critic, Dr John Gluck, 90 scientists signed onto a response about the moral imperative for responsible animal research. Nine scientific organisations produced a white paper highlighting the importance of non-human primates in research. Soon after, hundreds of primate researchers and neuroscientists, including Nobel Prize Laureates and Lasker Award winners signed a letter defending the important role of primates to medical science.

A segment of the letter printed in the Guardian

A segment of the letter printed in the Guardian


Moving to great apes, there was a continued dialogue on Speaking of Research about the future of the NIH’s retired research chimpanzees. Here is a selection of posts on the issue:

2016 has seen eighteen countries provide their 2015 annual animal statistics (including the US); we intend to keep these statistics updated throughout 2016. These statistics were just one example of transparency. The University of Leicester showed the power of positive engagement with the media when they invited a journalist and cameraman from the largest newspaper in the UK. The resulting article was a fantastic piece about animal research. Other good examples of openness included a new website by Novo Nordisk and the University of Edinburgh, Biomedical Research Awareness Day, and the “Broader Impacts” programme at the University of Wisconsin- Our list of animal research institutions’ animal research position statements reached 287, having passed 200 in February.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

Speaking of Research is keen to debunk the scientific nonsense put out by some animal rights groups. Some of our more popular posts in 2016 included:

Speaking of debunking nonsense, February marked the 10 year anniversary of the Pro-Test movement which challenged the misinformation of animal rights groups in Oxford and defended the building of the new Oxford Biomedical Facility.

Our request for new committee members has brought a large amount of interest, so expect some new and interesting perspectives. The first of these, by new committee member Christine Archer, explains how she became a veterinary technician working with aquatic animals and reptiles. We are still interested in hearing from potential new members, particularly those who work in science communications at research institutions.

We also continued to have guest posts as part of our Speaking of Your Research (SYR) series of posts. If you are a researcher who has a story to tell about your research, please get in touch.

Speaking of Research thank you for your enormous support in 2016 and hope you will continue to support us in 2017.

Speaking of Research

The Netherlands publishes 2015 animal research statistics

There were 479,580 procedures on animals in the Netherlands for scientific purposes in 2015, down almost 15% from the previous year. This was according to the latest report by the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (Nederlandse Voedsel- en Warenautoriteit, NVWA).


Species of animals used for research in Netherlands in 2015. Click to Enlarge.

There were falls in the number of most species used, with the exception of rats (up by under 0.5%) and other non-mammals (up 62%), of which most of the rise were frogs. Larger falls came from cows (down 56%), chickens (down 40%) and pigs (36%).


Click to Enlarge.

Mice, rats, birds and fish are the most commonly used animals, together accounting for over 90% of all procedures – this is similar to previous years and the figures found in many other EU countries. Dogs, cats and primates together account for less than 0.3% of all procedures in the Netherlands.


Trends in animal procedures for research in the Netherlands 1999-2015. Click to Enlarge.

In 2014 the Netherlands began to produce a set of statistics in accordance with the EU’s method of counting (though they included 2013 figures for comparison). There is a minor difference between how the EU and Netherlands count animal procedures. Primarily in that the Dutch system includes animals killed without a prior procedure (for example, the killing of a mouse for tissue samples that has had no other intervention).

According to the report:

The EU system [is] based on:

The total number of animal studies registered in 2015 (528,159 procedures) minus the number of animals killed without preceding procedure (48,579 procedures) is the number of animal studies for the European registration (479,580 procedures).

We have chosen to use statistics according the EU method of counting for our entire analysis as it makes for an easier comparison with other EU countries. As we can see, both methods tend to reflect the same rises and falls in animal numbers. While the EU counting statistics do not go far back enough to see a trend, we can notice a downwards direction in the Dutch counting methods of number of procedures.

Severity of animal experiments in Holland

2015 was the second year for which the Netherlands has included statistics on the retrospective assessment 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 72.2% of procedures were classed as mild (78% in 2014), 19.3% as moderate (17% in 2014), 3.6% as severe (2.7% in 2014), and 4.9% as non-recovery (2% in 2014), where an animal is anaesthetised for surgery, and then not woken up afterwards. As this is the second year of retrospective assessment, the methods used are continuing to be developed (such grimace scales).

animal testing, animal research, vivisection, animal experiment

Most animals used in the Netherlands were mice.

Here is some other interesting information provided by the annual statistical release.

  • 7%  animals were genetically modified, 95.8% of which were mice.
  • Anaesthesia was not used in 66.5% of procedures because it was unnecessary, it was used in 31.1% of procedures where it was needed, and the remaining 2.37% was procedures where anaesthesia was not applied because it would disrupt the study. They record analgesia separately, that’s 83.9% (not used, not needed) – 9.24% (used) – 6.89% (not used, disruptive
  • The main purpose of research was applied research (29.7%), followed by toxicology testing (28.6%), fundamental scientific research (26.4%), breeding (10.7%) and finally education (4.09%)

For animal research statistics of countries around the world please see our statistics page.

Source of Dutch Statistics:

See previous years’ reports:

New Zealand publishes statistics showing use of animals in research in 2015

Today, the Ministry for Primary Industries in New Zealand published its 2015 annual report on “Statistics on the Use of Animals in Research, Testing and Teaching”.  It shows the number of animals used in research in 2015 was 225,310, down 27% from the previous year.

Species of animals used for research, testing and teaching in New Zealand in 2015. Click to Enlarge.

Species of animals used for research, testing and teaching in New Zealand in 2015. Click to Enlarge.

While the fall in animals used seems very large, the past fifteen years show such fluctuations are normal, with 30% rises and falls appearing as a regular feature. Overall there seems no clear trend up or down.

Trends in animal used in research in New Zealand 2000-2015. Click to Enlarge.

Trends in animal used in research in New Zealand 2000-2015. Click to Enlarge.

Whereas in most countries mice, rats, fish and birds account for over 90% of animals in research, in New Zealand it is under 50%. Instead over 40% of animals are cattle, sheep and deer (down from 45% in 2014), reflecting the huge amount of agricultural research being done. Interesting only 1% of cattle and deer die or are euthanised (compared with 99% of the mice). See Appendix 1 for more information on the proportion euthanised.


No primates are used in research in New Zealand, nor have they been for a while. Dogs and cats accounted for just under 0.6% of research.

Here is some other interesting information provided by the annual statistical release. Page numbers refer to the source  in the annual report.

  • 46% of research is conducted by universities (31%) and crown research institutes (15%) , most of the rest is done by commercial organisations (42%). The proportion done by commercial organisations is up from the previous year, though actual numbers are down. [p. 18]
  • Only 3.4% of animals used in 2015 were transgenic, though this is up from 1.9% in 2014. [p. 7]
  • Only 39% of animals die or are euthanised; this tends to polarise between high rates for mice and rats, and a very low proportion for sheep and cattle. The number euthanised is up slightly from 2014, when it was 34%, and reflects the higher proportion of small animal species used in 2015. [p. 17]
  • A large rise in veterinary research made it the most common purpose of research (39.5%). This was followed by animal husbandry research (20.2%), teaching (19.5%) and basic biological research (18.3%). This is a big change from 2014 when basic research was the biggest reason for using animals.
Severity of research. Image from MPI. Click to Enlarge.

Severity of research. Image from MPI. Click to Enlarge.

The Animal Welfare Regulations also demand researchers to grade animal manipulations according to a five point scale:

  • “no impact or virtually no impact” – manipulations that causes no stress or pain or virtually no stress or pain
  • “little impact” – manipulations of minor impact and short duration
  • “moderate impact” – manipulations of minor impact and long duration or moderate impact and short duration
  • “high impact” – manipulations of moderate impact and long duration or high impact and short duration
  • “very high impact” – manipulations of high impact and long duration.

In 2015, 17.4% of animals were involved in research with no, or virtually no negative impact on the animal. 58.2% had little impact on the animal, 19.3% had moderate impact, and 5.5% were considered high  or very high impact. These last categories are up 1.6 percentage points from 2014.

We aim to keep our readers abreast of the latest developments in animal statistics worldwide. Keep your eyes out for more stats on the horizon.

Source of New Zealand animal research statistics.

See previous years’ publications on Speaking of Research:

Cows are the most common species of research animal in New Zealand. Image from Massey University.

Cows are the most common species of research animal in New Zealand. Image from Massey University.

Why I am proud to be a Registered Veterinary Technician in animal research

Christine Archer is a registered veterinary technician at the University of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada.  She has worked in animal research for over seven years.  She currently works with aquatic animals and reptiles in biological research. In this post, Christine looks at the interests and motivations that led her to become a laboratory animal technician, and her interest and love of aquatic animals. Fish account for 43% of research animals in Canada, with amphibians adding a further 3%. 


While I can’t say that I was ever a typical kid growing up in rural Canada, my surroundings definitely shaped my interests as I grew. I was always interested in the “gross” animals, from fish to frogs, and throw some snakes in there, too. I’d drive my mother crazy, catching animals in dubiously secure containers and bringing them home, only to have her insist that I take them right back where they came from. Just about the only exception was this big female wolf spider I rescued from a trough that ended up having an egg sac, which eventually resulted in many tiny spiders all over our house. I remember I’d also saved some newts from a tiny marsh that was being bulldozed for a new house. I hand fed them and kept them for years. They even went on vacation with us, in their not so dubiously secure critter keeper. All the while, I was also keeping many, many aquariums in my parents’ house, and breeding all manner of tropical fish. We had tanks in just about every room, even the bathrooms.

After a false start in engineering, I ended up studying biology in university, but I was so enamored with all of the sciences that I couldn’t decide what I really wanted to do with myself. When I was finishing up my undergrad, my cat Monty got very sick. The process of his treatment and recovery got me very interested in veterinary medicine. While I was feeling rather burnt out by my university studies at this point, I looked into taking a college program that would offer me practical hands-on skills in addition to the science of veterinary medicine. I went to college for veterinary technology, eager to consume all of the veterinary medical knowledge I could, especially everything that pertained to those “weird” animals that I loved. In the middle of my program, I took an internship at a large medical research facility. This is where I found what I was meant to do with my life. Marrying my love for science and the scientific method with my newfound love for veterinary medicine. The only thing missing (so far) were the weird animals I am so fond of. I learned about rodents and rabbits and the nuances of their biology. I learned about the 3 Rs and how essential good animal welfare is to doing good science. Throughout my life, I’d always felt like the weird kid who stood up for the weird animals that everyone didn’t like. I was a voice for them. Now, in research, I realized that I can continue to speak for my charges, no matter what species they are.

Racks of zebrafish at the University of Ottawa

Racks of zebrafish at the University of Ottawa

I finished school and became a Registered Veterinary Technician. I worked in cardiovascular research in a number of roles, working with traditional research animals like rodents and rabbits, and the occasional pig. It was great to be surrounded by colleagues who shared my interest in animal welfare and working hard to ensure that our charges’ welfare needs were being met every day. And then, one day, I got a call. The university’s aquatics and reptile facility needed an RVT for the summer, and my supervisor wondered if I would be interested. I couldn’t believe it. The opportunity to take part in veterinary nursing and the husbandry of all of those “weird” animals I’m still totally obsessed with? I’m there. However, I was reminded that it was only for the summer. Still, totally worth it. I said my tearful goodbyes to my colleagues at the rodent facility and started my position working with zebrafish, goldfish, trout, frogs, lizards, and even the occasional snake. That was more than three summers ago. I am still proudly caring for the veterinary and welfare needs of these animals today, as I was made a permanent staff member of the facility. I am so honored to be able to work with the animals I love, surrounded by passionate people working on everything from CRISPR research with zebrafish, to biomechanics work with fish that can walk on land. We still have so much to learn about these animals and their specific welfare needs, and I am thankful every day to be on the ground floor, working with colleagues who want to advance science while ensuring these animals, these weird, wonderful creatures, get the best possible care from the humans that depend on them.

Fish Facility at the University of Ottawa

Frogs (Silurana Tropicalis) at the University of Ottawa

On an average day in my facility, I can be found setting up zebrafish breedings and collecting embryos, or culturing live food like rotifers and brine shrimp for the fish to eat. My job requires me to be adept at multiple skills, from understanding the husbandry and welfare needs for our many diverse animals, to working with our staff veterinarians on developing and improving methods to anesthetize fish and frogs. Animal welfare is very important to me, and I strongly believe that the quality of my work has a direct impact on the quality of life of the animals I care for, which in turn has an impact on the quality of the research that my colleagues can perform. I work every day with multiple researchers to help ensure they are able to do the best work possible thanks to animals which are healthy, happy, and leading enriched lives.

I am proud to be a Registered Veterinary Technician in animal research, because I care very much about animal welfare and having the opportunity to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves is something I will never tire of.

Christine Archer

Not just intelligence: Why humans deserve to be treated better than animals

One of the cornerstone ideas of the animal rights movement is that there are no fundamental differences between humans and animals: humans are just animals, only more intelligent (Ryder, 1991). Therefore, some argue, since having a larger brain is just another quirk, like having larger tusks, animals should have many of the same rights as humans. In particular, they should have a right to life, a right to freedom and a right not be used by humans. Moreover, the well-being of humans should not be put above the well-being of animals (Singer, 1991), so that doing research on animals cannot be justified by improvements in human health, as scientists claim (Ringach, 2011; Bennett and Ringach, 2016). Of course, all of this flies in the face of the values of all human societies from prehistory to date, which have used animals for food, clothing, work and entertainment. No matter, says the animal right activist, that is unethical and has to stop (Reagan, 1985).

In the past, justification for human primacy over animals came from religions that stated that humans are superior to animals because they have an immortal soul, and that God commanded humans to rule over animals. However, the Theory of Evolution and modern physiology have pushed back against those beliefs, showing that there is an evolutionary continuum between animals and humans and that there are no fundamental differences between the physiology of the humans and other mammals (Rachels, 1990) . If the only difference between humans and animals is that of a higher intelligence, does that justify that we treat ourselves better than the animals? Or is this just self-interested behavior, “speciesism”, as the animal rights proponent Richard Ryder has called it (Ryder, 1991)? To strengthen their case, animal right proponents invoke the “marginal case”: these include infants and those with significant mental impairment who, lacking superior intelligence, then should presumably be treated the same way as animals (Reagan, 1985; Singer, 1991). Otherwise, they argue, we should be prepared to give animals the same rights that we readily give these marginal case humans.

However, modern neuroscience has in fact uncovered many differences between humans and the rest of the animals that makes us unique. These differences are not limited to a quantitative difference in intelligence but extend to many other mental and behavioral abilities that make us completely unique (Penn et al., 2008), a qualitatively different type of being.  Below I provide a list of the most important of those abilities.


  1. Theory of Mind is the ability to understand what other people are feeling and thinking [pp. 172-178 in (Blackmore, 2004); pp. 48-54 in (Gazzaniga, 2008)]. We do that by running inside our heads a model of what is happening in other person’s mind. Of course, the model is not always right, but nevertheless it is extremely valuable because it lets us predict the behavior of people around us. Theory of mind seems to require the right anterior insula, a part of the brain cortex that evolved very rapidly in apes. The function of the right anterior insula is to create hypothetical models of the internal state of our body in different circumstances (Craig, 2010, 2011). For example, when we imagine what it would feel like to stab our toe, is the right anterior insula doing that. Likewise, the right anterior insula can make a model of the internal state of the body of another person. Of course, theory of mind is much more than that and involves the cognitive abilities of many other parts of the brain. Research on theory of mind has revealed it to be uniquely human (Penn and Povinelli, 2007), although some studies claims to have found it in rudimentary form in chimpanzees (Call and Tomasello, 2008; Yamamoto et al., 2013). One negative aspect of theory of mind is that it often creates the delusion of attributing human consciousness to inanimate objects or animals. The same way we project our thoughts and feelings to a person that we see behaving in a way similar to us, we project human thoughts and feelings to an animal or an object we see doing something that resembles human behavior. This delusional form of theory of mind is responsible for the anthropomorphizing of animals that is so common in modern culture.
  1. Episodic memory. There are two basic forms of memory: procedural and declarative [pp. 303-306 in (Gazzaniga, 2008)]. Procedural memory is present in both humans and animals and consists in the retention of perceptual, motor and cognitive skills that are then expressed non-consciously. For example, when we walk, swim, ski, listen to music, type on a keyboard or process the visual information we get from a television screen, we use procedural memory. Declarative memory stores information about facts and beliefs about the world, and can be further divided into semantic and episodic memory. Semantic memory is about facts in the world that stand by themselves, independently of our self, whereas episodic memory is remembering things that happened to us. That is, episodic memory retains events as they were experienced by ourselves in a particular place and time. Episodic memory appears to be uniquely human, because it involves subjective experiences, a concept of self and subjective time. This is important because it allows us to travel mentally in time through subjective experiences, while animals are locked in the present of their current motivational state.


  1. Humans emotions. Mammals, birds and some other animals have a set of six basic emotions listed by Ekman: anger, fear, disgust, joy, sadness and surprise. However, we humans are able to feel many other emotions that regulate our social behavior and the way we view the world: guilt, shame, pride, honor, awe, interest, envy, nostalgia, hope, despair, contempt and many others. While emotions like love and loyalty may be present in mammals that live in hierarchical societies, emotions like guilt, shame and their counterparts pride and honor seem to be uniquely human. There is much controversy these days on whether dogs feel guilt and shame, there is evidence that they do not, but they may also have acquired this emotion as a way to interact with humans. What is clear is that many of the emotions that we value as human are not present in animals.



  1. Empathy and compassion. Empathy is defined as the capacity to feel what another person is feeling from their own frame of reference. It is a well-established fact that many animals react to distress by other animals by showing signs of distress themselves. However, this does not seem to represent true empathy as defined above, but a genetically encoded stress response in anticipation of harm. Since empathy requires feeling what the other person is feeling from their own frame of reference, it seems to require theory of mind. Only if we stripe the requirement of adopting the other’s frame of reference we can say that animals have empathy. Empathy involves the newly evolved anterior insula in humans (Preis et al., 2013), bonobos and chimpanzees (Rilling et al., 2012). Compassion is currently thought to be different from empathy because it involves many other parts of the brain. It seems to be associated with complex cultural and cognitive elements. Therefore, it seems safe to assume that animals are not able to feel compassion.
  1. Language and culture. Although animals do communicate with each other using sounds, signs and body language, human language is a qualitative leap from any form of animal communication in its unique ability to convey factual information and not just emotional states. In that, human language is linked to our ability to store huge amounts of semantic and episodic memory, as defined above. The human brain has a unique capacity to quickly learn spoken languages during a portal that closes around 5-6 years of age. Attempts to teach sign languages to apes has produced only limited success and can be attributed to a humanization of the brain of those animals, raised inside human culture. The effectiveness of spoken and written language to store information across many generations gave raise to human cultures. The working of the human brain cannot be understood without taking culture into account. Culture completely shapes the way we think, feel, perceive and behave. Although there are documented cases of transmission of learned information across generations in animals, producing what we could call an animal culture, no animal is as shaped by culture as we are.
  1. Esthetic sense or the appreciation of beauty also seems to be uniquely human. Of course, animals can produce great beauty in the form of colorful bodies, songs and artful behavior. What seems to be lacking is their ability to appreciate and value that beauty beyond stereotypical mating and territorial behaviors. Even attempts to teach chimps to produce art by drawing have largely failed.
  1. Ethics is the ability to appreciate fairness, justice and rights. It is at the very core of our ability to form stable societies and to cooperate to achieve common goals. It depends on theory of mind (which allows us to “put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes”); on social emotions like guilt, shame, pride and contempt; on empathy and compassion, and on cultural heritage. Lacking all those mental abilities, animals have no sense of ethics. Even though some studies have shown that monkeys have a primitive sense of fairness (particularly when it applies to their own interest), it is but a pale anticipation of our sense of justice. It simply goes to show how that ethics is rooted in our evolutionary history. The fact that animals cannot even remotely comprehend the concept of rights is a strong argument for why they should not have rights. What sense does it make to give animals something that they do not know that they lack?


  1. Extended consciousness. They question of what is consciousness has been called by scientists and philosophers “the hard problem” due to the difficulty of answering it (Blackmore, 2004). Therefore, the related question of whether animals have consciousness, or what animals have it, remains similarly unanswered in the strict sense. However, based on their behavior, we commonly assume that animals like cats, dogs and horses are conscious and able to make some autonomous decisions. On the other hand, unless we invoke some mystical definition of consciousness, it is safe to assume that animals with small nervous systems, like jellyfish, worms, starfish, snails and clams have no consciousness whatsoever. They are like plants: living beings able to react to the environment as automatons. That leaves a lot of animals for which it is hard to guess whether they are conscious or not: insects, fish, octopi, lizards and small mammals like mice and rats. What has been becoming clear is that we humans possess a kind of consciousness that no other animal has: the ability to see ourselves as selves extending from the pass to the future [pp. 309-321 (Gazzaniga, 2008)]. This special kind of consciousness has been called by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio “extended consciousness” [Chapter 7 in (Damasio, 1999)] and allow us a sort of “mental time travel” to relive events in the past and predict what may happen to us in the future (Suddendorf and Corballis, 2007). Extended consciousness is based on our ability to have episodic memory and theory of mind. Episodic memory configures remembered events around the image of the self, whereas theory of mind allows us to create a model of our own mind as it was during a past event or to hypothesize how it would be in a future event. I should also point out that a few animals (apes, dolphins and elephants) may turn out to have episodic memory, theory of mind and hence extended consciousness. However, this is still very much in doubt.
  1. Suffering and happiness. It is a common mistake to confuse suffering with pain and happiness with joy. Pain is the representation of a bodily state and the emotion associated with it (Craig, 2003). Likewise, joy is an emotion associated with an excited but pleasant body state in an agreeable environment. Suffering and happiness are much deeper than that, and refer to the totality of a mental state, encompassing cognition, emotion and state of consciousness. Although suffering and happiness are normally associated with certain emotions, there is not always a correspondence with them. For example, one can be happy while feeling scared or sad, or suffer even in the presence of a passing joy. The error of philosophers like Peter Singer (Singer, 1991) and Tom Reagan (Reagan, 1985) is that they consider suffering as something that occurs independently of cognition and other mental abilities, when it does not. Arguably, happiness and suffering require some continuity in time, which would seem to require extended consciousness. Furthermore, conceptions of happiness extending to antiquity refer to lifelong attitudes like hedonism (the quest for personal pleasure) and eudemonia (working to acquire virtue or to achieve goals that transcend oneself), pointing to the fact that human happiness depends on cultural values. In view of all this, we need to wonder whether happiness and suffering can exist in beings that have no episodic memory, no extended consciousness, no sense of self, and no culture. Can happiness and suffering really be attributed to animals lacking these mental abilities? Or is this an illusion, an anthropomorphizing caused by the overreaching of our theory of mind? Without going to that extreme, it is quite clear that we humans have a capacity to be happy and to suffer that goes far beyond what animals can experience. So human suffering counts more than any suffering than an animal could have.

There are many more differences between human and animals. However, the ones that I have listed here are important because they give us our special feeling of humaneness. All of them are based on scientific facts about the human mind that are slowly being unraveled by neuroscience, not on religious beliefs or on ideology. However, what cannot be based on science is the value we attribute to those differences. Ultimately, this is a decision based on our ethical intuition. Still, for most people what determines how much consideration we should give to a being is its ability to be conscious; to feel empathy; to feel guilt and pride and shame and all other human emotions; to be happy as we are happy and to suffer like we suffer.

An important corollary of the ideas proposed here is to utterly refute the “marginal case” argument. Thus, even when a human brain is damaged by disease, accident or old age, most of the properties that I have listed here remain because they are deeply engrained in the way the human brain works. Theory of mind and extended consciousness appear early in human life and are the last things to go in a deteriorating brain. It takes coma to deprive us of them. A person may have a reduced intelligence or other cognitive disabilities, but s/he still has theory of mind, empathy, compassion, extended consciousness and all those human emotions. That is why when we encounter those people we recognize them as humans and we know we should treat them as humans. They are not animals and should never be treated as such. Intelligence is just a tiny part of what it means to be human.

Another important idea is that there are vast differences in the mental abilities of animals and, therefore, in the way they should be treated. Many animals, like jellyfish, worms and clams, do not have any mental capabilities at all, do not feel pain, and can be treated the same as plants. In the other side of the mental spectrum, it is possible that we will find that the great apes, dolphins and elephants have some form of theory of mind and extended consciousness, and therefore deserve a special treatment compared to other animals. Dog and cats have evolved special ways to communicate with humans that make them special in our eyes. So, when it comes to ethical consideration, animals should not be put in a general category, but each species should be assigned its own value. Otherwise, we may find ourselves in the quandary of not being able to rid our dog of fleas because these insects have the same “rights” as the dog. This is, in fact, what we have been doing all along: to establish a hierarchy of animals that deserve more or less consideration based on their mental abilities, putting humans at the top. Speciesism is unavoidable because we cannot treat different species of animals the same way.

Let me finish by saying that this is not an argument to treat animals cruelly or poorly. It is only an argument to treat humans better than animals and to keep using animals for our benefit. We should care about the welfare of animals, even as we try to understand how similar and how different they are from ourselves. What moves us to treat animals well is our empathy, our compassion, our sense of fairness and our cultural values. Things that animals do not have. Ultimately, we must treat animals right not because of what they are, but because of who we are.

by Juan Carlos Marvizon, Ph.D.


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Rise in animal experiments in Denmark in 2015

Last week we looked at the 2015 animal research statistics for Spain, this week we move our attention to Denmark.  The newly published report by the Animal Research Inspectorate (Dyreforsøgstilsynet) shows that the number of procedures on animals carried out in Denmark in 2015 was 241,657, up 21% from 2014. The number of animals used is likely to be very similar.

Animal Research in Denmark in 2015. Click to Enlarge

Animal Research in Denmark in 2015. Click to Enlarge

There were rises in the number of procedures on all the main species – mice, rats, fish and birds. Fish saw one of the larger increases, up over 8,000 (77%) from 2014. The only major decrease was a 70% fall in the number of procedures on dogs – which fell from 224 to 68.

Mice, rats, fish and birds accounted for over 96% of research in Denmark.

Mice, rats, fish and birds accounted for over 96% of research in Denmark.

Mice, rats, fish and birds accounted for over 96% of research animals in Denmark, similar to many other EU countries. Dogs and cats accounted for just 0.05% of research animals, with no primates used in either 2015 or 2014.

Severity of animal experiments in Denmark

The new EU guidelines also require retrospective reporting of animal suffering in experiments. Of the 241,657 procedures in Denmark in 2015, over 90% were mild or moderate, 8.7% were non-recovery (where the animal is fully anaesthetised before surgery and then never woken up) and just 0.9% were severe. The proportion of severe experiments is below what has been reported in many other European countries. Most severe experiments were on mice. For more information see Figure 6 of the Government statistical release (in Spanish).

Animal Research Trends in Denmark

Animal Research Trends in Denmark

The number of animals used in testing and research since 2009 has gently decreased from over 290,000 to just over 240,000, a 17% decrease. The Danish report shows in 1980 the number of experiments was over 350,000, falling to 330,000 by 1990 and 300,000 in 2000. All of this evidences a long term decline in the number of animal procedures.

Other insights that could be gleaned from the statistics:

  • 16.1% of studies involved the use of genetically altered animals.
  • The most common use of animals was Translational and applied research (51%), followed by Basic Research (37%) and Regulatory use (9%).

We aim to keep our readers abreast of the latest developments in animal statistics worldwide. Keep your eyes out for more stats on the horizon.

Source of Danish statistics.