Category Archives: Campus Activism

Say NO to the harassment of Christine Lattin by PETA activists

Please leave a comment of support at the bottom of this article for Christine, and please share with your colleagues to raise awareness of the vile and irresponsible tactics of PETA in their targeting of a young researcher at Yale University.

What would someone need to do to deserve threats online, protests at their place of work, and the publication of their image and home address? According to PETA, they would just need to be a researcher that works on animals.

PETA activists protesting outside the annual meeting of the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology in Long Beach, California, in June 2017

Christine Lattin is a post-doctoral researcher at Yale University who studies birds in order to better understand the impact of stress on animals and humans. In her own words:

The focus of my research is to understand how different neurotransmitters and hormones help animals successfully choose mates, raise young, escape from predators, and survive harsh winters and other challenging conditions. One of the major areas of my research is the stress response. While stress helps animals and humans survive and cope with challenges, too much stress is bad and leads to health problems. Understanding stress in wild animal populations is important because stressors like habitat destruction, climate change, and species invasions now affect most, if not all, animal species.

Christine believes in openness and transparency, which is why she runs a website where she explains more about her research – this can help educate the public on the importance of the work she does. It is well worth a read: www.christinelattin.com. All of Dr Lattin’s work has been approved by the Yale Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and all of it must comply with the Ornithological Council’s ‘Guidelines to the use of wild birds in research’.

PETA do not like animal research, and PETA do not like Christine Lattin. Why did they choose to focus on her? Who knows. Is it because she is young? Female? Not yet tenured? While avian research is not a common target for animal rights groups, the fact she studies stress would fit the typical choice of target.

In May, PETA set up an alert to allow individuals to send emails to administrators at Yale University, demanding that the institution “put an immediate end to Lattin’s experiments on birds”. Her research is presented as cruel, curiosity-driven torture. These misleading claims are put next to images of Christine for any activist to see.

Let us briefly examine some of the claims made by PETA:

“Some birds were fed crude oil, and others’ legs were wounded without any pain relief. After weeks and sometimes months of repeated abuse, they’re then killed. Not only are the experiments extremely cruel, they’re also wasteful because important physiological differences between species make the results inapplicable to humans or other birds.”

The oil research provides an example of how Christine’s research is misrepresented. Context is crucial. The study involved putting small amounts of oil into the food (equal to 1% of food weight) of captured wild sparrows. While there were no obvious outward signs this had any effect, and many potential biomarkers of oil exposure in the blood were also normal, blood sampling revealed that birds were not able to secrete normal concentrations of stress hormones after exposure to a standardized stressor (a brief period of restraint in a clean, breathable cloth bag) and an injection of adrenocorticotropic hormone. Contrary to the PETA claim that such research was not applicable to other species, Christine explicitly states the relevance of her research to other birds in her publication: “as a passerine species, they are taxonomically similar to many birds living in coastal and riparian areas contaminated by oil, such as seaside sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus) and tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor).” Furthermore, this research is already being used by other researchers to show health problems and deaths observed in wild dolphins and sea turtles after Deepwater Horizon were due to oil exposure. On the claim that birds’ “legs were wounded without any pain relief”, this is categorically false. A brief glimpse at the original paper shows that the birds were anesthetised (using isoflurane, the general anesthetic recommended by the Ornithological Council because of its safety in birds):

“[W]e administered a small superficial wound to either the left or right thigh of birds using a 4 mm biopsy punch […] Prior to wounding we anesthetized birds using isoflurane.”

The PETA alert began a string of abuse on Twitter:

PETA activist tweets against Christine Lattin

Click to Enlarge

From the merely aggressive “All you do is torture and slaughter birds for USELESS research” to the outright threatening “She should be put out of her misery” and “I am the bump in the night for you Christine Lattin unless you resign”. One hopes that PETA will be policing these comments and reporting them to Twitter, though I sadly doubt it.

It is worth taking a moment to thank the many people who came to Christine’s aid on Twitter (and there were many people). One user noted:

Another noted the hypocrisy of PETA, noting a recent incident where PETA had to pay $49,000 to settle a lawsuit after they stole and put down a young girl’s pet chihuahua.

As some might expect, the comments have not been limited to Twitter. As a result of the PETA campaign, Christine has received numerous hateful and threatening emails. No researcher, particularly one still taking their first steps in research, should have to deal with this sort of harassment.

In the latest stunt, PETA activist (note the PETA email address), has organised a protest outside Christine’s home.

A screenshot from a home protest set up by PETA activist to be outside the home of Christine Lattin. Her address has been blotted out, and we have highlighted certain details in red.

There are four things to note from this event:

  1. A protest is planned outside Christine’s home (where her husband and child also live)
  2. Inflammatory language and false claims are made in the text.
  3. It is set up by an official PETA campaigner, Katerina Davidovich. The fact she is an official PETA campaigner is evidenced by her PETA email address.
  4. She/PETA will be providing all materials for the protest.

PETA are irresponsible in their decision to put the home address of Christine and her family in the public domain, next to false claims. We roundly condemn PETA for their actions and hope they not only remove all details of their upcoming home protest but also issue a prominent apology to Christine for the harassment she has received.

Please join us in condemning this campaign of harassment by PETA. We hope many scientists will leave a message of support for Christine alongside their name, role, and institution.

Speaking of Research

While we encourage constructive dialogue and discussion in our comments, the comment section on this particular post is only for messages of support for Dr Lattin and all other comments will be removed.

Doors Open: Explaining animal research at the University of Ottawa

Every June, the city of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada holds a “Doors Open” event, as part of a larger province-wide initiative to open facilities such as museums, hospitals, and historical sites to the community in ways which aren’t part of their everyday operations. The Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Ottawa opened its labs to the public, offering tours and displays describing the work they do, including their animal research. The University’s Animal Care and Veterinary Service (ACVS) and Animal Ethics & Compliance (AEC) office also participated, with family-friendly informational displays and activities.

The director of the University’s Brain and Mind Research Institute, Dr. David Park, hosted the event this year, as the Faculty of Medicine felt it would be a great way to highlight the leading edge research done at the University. Dr. Diane Lagace, a researcher in the department, demonstrated the preclinical work she is involved with in her lab, using rats and mice in stroke research. Dr Lagace also studies how adult-generated stem cells play a part in how we can recover from strokes.

Displays featured information about animal use at the university, and research-related activities for children. Photo credit: Hilalion (San) Ahn

The animal care displays were run by the ACVS and AEC. Their displays included enriched caging for rats, enrichment devices and treats for the research animals, as well as a demo for children on how to use microchips to identify some species. Volunteers provided the public with informational pamphlets and explanations on the university’s animal care and use program, as well as the regulatory framework that protects animals used in research.

Dr. Holly Orlando, University Veterinarian and Director of ACVS, wanted her department to take part because she felt that it is important to be transparent about the work that we do with animals in science. By doing so, her department could help to clarify misconceptions that the public may have about work with animals, as well as helping to develop engagement with the community. Marie Bédard, the AEC Director, agrees and has been developing materials for the public and explaining the regulatory frameworks for animal use in science.

I also took part, as the Registered Veterinary Technician who manages the zebrafish operations at the University. I brought live zebrafish larvae at various points of development for visitors to observe under microscopes. I also brought examples of what we feed the fish, and how we house them.

Zebrafish larvae on display. Photo credit: Hilalion (San) Ahn.

The facility tours were very popular, with guests able to observe the work of the Animal Behaviour Core facility, which utilizes procedures such as a water maze, climbing, treadmill and other exercise tests to study both how brain deficits occur and can be repaired after a stroke, as well as when and what forms of exercise are helpful for stroke recovery. Guests also observed a Parkinson’s Disease model in fruit flies, which helps researchers to better understand the genetics and other causes behind Parkinson’s disease.

Over 250 people registered for the event and went on tours of the facility. Feedback was very positive, and the public had very thoughtful questions about the operations of both the labs and the animal facility. People were overheard stating that they “never would have imagined that this is happening here in Ottawa”, and more than one youngster exclaimed that they wanted to work with us.

The Director of Animal Ethics and Compliance, discusses enriched rat caging. Photo credit: Hilalion (San) Ahn

This one day event was a great step forward in openness with regards to animal research at the University. A great team did a fantastic job organizing and running the day, which seemed to go off without a hitch. I am looking forward to attending again next year, with an even bigger display!

Christine Archer

Back to school: Graduate students learn about animal research and outreach

In the Spring of 2016, a course was taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison titled “Broader Impacts: Public Outreach, Engagement, and Education about Animal Research”. This course was developed by Audrey Buelo, the 2015/2016 Michael D. Hayre Fellow for Public Outreach awarded by Americans for Medical Progress—with the advice and help of Professor Allyson J. Bennett, a faculty member in the UW-Madison Psychology Department (and SR member). In this course, students learned about animal research and how to conduct outreach with the public. Three different perspectives of the course outcomes are described below–the course organizer, a teaching assistant and the last by a student in the course.

Course organizer perspective: Audrey

The Broader Impacts course was taught for a wide variety of PhD students at UW-Madison (most of whom were working in animal research) and came from fields including neuroscience, veterinary, psychobiology, and biomedical fields.

audrey-buelo-hayre-fellow

The class was organized into two phases and provided a solid foundation for both academic and layperson dialogue surrounding animal research. Phase 1 aimed to educate the students on wide variety of fields relating to animal research: philosophy and ethics of animal research, policy, regulation, principles of science, public opinion surrounding animal research, and the wide range of views shared by individuals and organizations. Phase 2 focused primarily on creating an outreach program, including choosing and understanding your audience, using social media to share information and encourage dialogue, and implementing outreach effectively.

Multiple guest-lecturers volunteered their time to speak with the students–including several previous Hayre fellows and Speaking of Research members–each providing expertise in their fields. This included: a director of research ethics in a scientific society, a science communication specialist, an animal welfare scientist, IACUC members, and a professor in social marketing and outreach.

By the end of the course, each of the students created a proposal for an outreach program to the wider public. The proposals included educating middle school students about the scientific method and the importance of animal research; social media campaigns to stimulate discussion about the use of animals in research; and a day-long symposium to inform and engage medical doctors about the role of animal research in medical progress, in addition to many other innovative and interesting outreach proposals. These broad-reaching programs, along with the breadth of knowledge the students gained throughout the semester, have the potential to change the attitudes of many and create a ripple effect of animal research dialogue and openness that reaches far beyond the scope of this course.

The feedback from the students in the Broader Impacts course was overwhelmingly positive, nonetheless this Hayre fellowship has more to come. The materials will be revised based on the feedback received by the students and then will be freely available on the Americans for Medical Progress website in November. Every university that values animal research as an important tool of science is encouraged to use the materials to implement their own Broader Impacts course. Preparing future scientists is key to changing the current dialogue on animal research, and a significant component of the course emphasized students developing their own personal dialogue surrounding animal research, as the most compelling outreach is the one that is personable and honest.

To sign off, I’d like to thank Americans for Medical Progress for their support in creating this project and providing their expertise for each step. Also, I extend my gratitude to each student who took the course and worked hard each week, as well as the seminar leaders, guest lecturers, and course organizer who volunteered their time to ensure it went smoothly.  Without all of you, this would not have been possible.

Teaching Assistant Perspective: Marissa

While Audrey designed and oversaw the course from afar, on a weekly basis, a team of three self-motivated, volunteer graduate students ran the actual course in Madison, Wisconsin.  All three graduate student seminar leaders had unique, first-hand experience in animal research and felt strongly about the importance scientists and researcher’s contribution to animal research advocacy. I am one of those seminar leaders and a fifth year Ph. D. student in the Endocrinology and Reproductive Physiology program. My research focus utilizes the use of a non-human primate model, the marmoset monkey, to study molecular and physiological mechanisms of hormones on female reproductive behavior. Throughout my graduate career, aside from direct involvement in animal research, I have also been involved in outreach efforts at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, WNPRC, which was the major motivator for getting involved with leading the course. I found the experience of leading this course to be very rewarding because I not only got the chance to share with fellow graduate students the passion and excitement that I have regarding the outcomes of animal research and in communicating with the public how important animal research is for society, I was also thoroughly impressed by the ideas my fellow graduate students in the course developed in their outreach proposals by the end of the course.

During the final seminar period, students presented their outreach proposals to the class.

During the final seminar period, students presented their outreach proposals to the class

The role of ‘seminar leader’ entailed distributing materials, clarifying assignments, introducing speakers, and most importantly (from my perspective) leading discussions on the material and individual projects. The guest speakers throughout the semester provided a lot of expert information for the students and it was astounding to watch each of the student’s individual projects evolve over the semester; incorporating the different concepts and discussion provided through the guest lectures. The variety of different proposals and angles for animal research proposed by the students in the course was also incredible to observe. The students chose very different target audiences and also incorporated an array of techniques for outreach, including clever uses for technology in getting the message across to their target audiences to affect behavior and opinion change of the general public.

The outcome of this course left me with a very positive outlook on the future of animal research outreach. It has also really highlighted how essential it is that academics and scientists get exposed to different techniques and concepts that make outreach programs successful. One of the key takeaway messages I as a seminar leader can take away from this experience is that, with the right knowledge and tools for outreach design and execution, all researchers and scientists can contribute to outreach efforts in order to sustain animal research in science, and also to gain public support and understanding for our research.

Student perspective: Caleigh

As a student in the Broader Impacts seminar, I was exposed to many different resources for animal research advocacy.  I learned a lot about the history of animal research, the differences between protection for research animals and other animals, and also how activists or those in industry may perceive animal research. Expanding my knowledge on animal research advocacy gave me tools to better communicate with both my peers and the public.

In addition to the course materials, it was really inspiring to talk with students from all over campus about animal research advocacy. Having a structured place to talk with my peers about animal research was really rewarding. I felt like there was a lot of support on campus—from medical and veterinary students to PhD researchers. One of the coolest parts of the class was creating an outreach project that would bring correct information about animal research to the public. The outreach project discussions really brought out the passion and creativity in a lot of students, and sparked many great conversations. I would recommend this course to anyone that does animal research or is interested in learning more about it.

Students and seminar leaders of Broader Impacts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Students and seminar leaders of Broader Impacts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Scientific community unites in defence of primate research

The Backstory

It’s been a busy few weeks for those who wish to explain the role of primates in research. Last week the NIH held a workshop on “Ensuring the Continued Responsible Oversight of Research with Non-Human Primates” (watch it back here). The Congressionally mandated workshop resulted from report language that was associated with a PETA campaign. PETA hoped the workshop would question whether primates should be used in research at all. Instead PETA were disappointed when many experts came together to talk about how primates remained important to medical and scientific research. Days before the event, PETA activist, Professor John Gluck, wrote to the New York Times to criticise the use of primates in research. Speaking of Research posted a response – “The ethics and value of responsible animal research” – that was signed by over 100 scientists. Other organisations have subsequently written back to the newspaper with letters published this week.

Over in the UK, a group of 21 academics (primarily anthropologists) including Sir David Attenborough (notable broadcaster and naturalist) wrote to the online-only Independent newspaper to call for an end to certain neuroscience experiments involving primates. This provoked a backlash from the research community, who accused him of being “seduced by pseudoscience“. They may have had a point – Attenborough’s letter,  organised by Cruelty Free International, backed itself up with a recent paper “Non-human primates in neuroscience research: The case against its scientific necessity” (authored by two staff at Cruelty Free International). The UK Expert Group for Non-Human Primate Neuroscience Research told The Independent:

“We are disappointed to see that David Attenborough and a number of scientists have been misled by the pseudoscience in the paper by CFI, an organisation intent on ending research with all animals, not just primates. “

The paper (by Bailey & Taylor, 2016) itself suggests that several medical advances – such as Deep Brain Stimulation – did not rely on animal studies. This would not seem to match what can be seen in the academic literature, indeed Alim Benabid, who won a Lasker Award for his role in developing the technique noted the important role of animal models, including primates.

Researchers Unite!

There are many other events which have played into a frustration by primate researchers, but the response was huge. Understanding Animal Research coordinated a letter on the role of primates in research. Within a few days hundreds of primate researchers and neuroscientists had signed up. Notable signatories included: Sir John Gurdon, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and the 2009 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, for their work in reprogramming mature cells into early stem cells; Sir John E Walker, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for elucidating the mechanisms behind the synthesis of ATP; Professor Mahlon DeLong and Alim Benabid, who jointly won the 2014 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for their research developing Deep Brain Stimulation as a surgical treatment for Parkinson’s (the same discovery that the Bailey & Taylor, 2016, paper suggested did not require  primates); and Professor Miguel Nicolelis, whose Walk Again project allowed a young paraplegic in an exo-skeleton to kick a football.

neuroscience-starsOver twenty organisations, including Speaking of Research, the Society for Neuroscience (SFN), and the American Psychological Association (APA) signed their support ( a full list of signatories can be found here). The letter was published by the UK newspaper, The Guardian, on 13th September (and the following day in print), along with an accompanying article.

Furthermore, around 400 researchers also signed on to the letter:

Nonhuman primates have long played a key role in life-changing medical advances. A recent white paper by nine scientific societies in the US produced a list of fifty medical advances from the last fifty years made possible through studies on nonhuman primates. These included: treatments for leprosy, HIV and Parkinson’s; the MMR and hepatitis B vaccines; and earlier diagnosis and better treatment for polycystic ovary syndrome and breast cancer.

The biological similarities between humans and other primates means that they are sometimes the only effective model for complex neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. More than ten million people suffer from Parkinson’s worldwide, and a recent study estimated that one in three people born in 2015 will develop dementia in their lifetime. Primate research offers treatments, and hope for future treatments, to patients and their families. Already over two hundred thousand Parkinson’s patients have had their life dramatically improved thanks to Deep Brain Stimulation surgery, which reduces the tremors of sufferers. This treatment was developed from research carried out in a few hundred monkeys in the 1980-90s.

Given that primates are intelligent and sensitive animals, such research requires a higher level of ethical justification. The scientific community continues to work together to minimise the suffering of primates wherever possible. We welcome the worldwide effort to Replace, Refine and Reduce the use of primates in research.

We, the undersigned, believe that if we are to effectively combat the scourge of neurodegenerative and other crippling diseases, we will require the careful and considered use of nonhuman primates. Stringent regulations across the developed world exist to ensure that primates are only used where there is no other available model – be that the use of a mouse or a non-animal alternative and to protect the wellbeing of those animals still required. The use of primates is not undertaken lightly, however, while not all primate research results in a new treatment, it nonetheless plays a role in developing both the basic and applied knowledge that is crucial for medical advances.

A segment of the letter printed in the Guardian

A segment of the letter printed in the Guardian

Get involved – show your support!

While, the letter itself is published. Understanding Animal Research are continuing the accept signatories from neuroscientists and primate researchers (signatories must be from academia and must hold a PhD, MD or equivalent). These are being updated on a regular basis on their website.

So if you wish to sign – click here: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/PrimateLetter

Already they are up to over 550 signatories – just one week after they started collecting (considerably more than the 21 signatories that Cruelty Free International managed in their letter, and with a lot more expertise in the area of Neuroscience).

Speaking of Research

We mightn’t like it, but there are ethical reasons to use animals in medical research

Trichur Vidyasagar, University of Melbourne

The media regularly report impressive medical advances. However, in most cases, there is a reluctance by scientists, the universities, or research institutions they work for, and the media to mention animals used in that research, let alone non-human primates. Such omission misleads the public and works against long-term sustainability of a very important means of advancing knowledge about health and disease.

Consider the recent report by Ali Rezai and colleagues, in the journal Nature, of a patient with quadriplegia who was able to use his hands by just thinking about the action. The signals in the brain recorded by implanted electrodes were analysed and fed into the muscles of the arm to activate the hand directly.

When journalists report on such bionic devices, rarely is there mention of the decades of research using macaques that eventually made these early brain-machine interfaces a reality for human patients. The public is shielded from this fact, thereby lending false credence to claims by animal rights groups that medical breakthroughs come from human trials with animal experiments playing no part.

Development of such brain-machine interfaces requires detailed understanding of how the primate brain processes information and many experiments on macaques using different interfaces and computing algorithms. Human ethics committees will not let you try this on a patient until such animal research is done.

Image: Understanding Animal Research

Image: Understanding Animal Research

 

These devices are still not perfect and our understanding of brain function at a neuronal level needs more sophistication. In some cases, the macaque neural circuitry one discovers may not quite match the human’s, but usually it is as close as we can get to the human scenario, needing further fine-tuning in direct human trials. However, to eliminate all animal research and try everything out on humans without much inkling of their effects is dangerous and therefore highly unethical.

The technique Dr Rezai’s team used on human patients draws heavily upon work done on monkeys by many groups. This can be seen by looking at the paper and the references it cites.

Another case in point is the technique of deep brain stimulation using implanted electrodes, which is becoming an effective means of treating symptoms in many Parkinson’s patients. This is now possible largely due to the decades of work on macaques to understand in detail the complex circuitry involved in motor control. Macaques continue to be used to refine deep brain stimulation in humans.

Ethical choices

The number of monkeys used for such long-term neuroscience experiments is relatively small, with just two used in the study above. Many more are used for understanding disease processes and developing treatment methods or vaccines in the case of infectious diseases such as malaria, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and Zika.

Approximately 60,000 monkeys are used for experiments for all purposes each year in the United States, Europe and Australia.

However, if one looks at what is at stake without these experiments on non-human primates, one must acknowledge a stark reality. In many cases, the situation is similar to that which once existed with polio. Nearly 100,000 monkeys were used in the 1950s to develop the polio vaccine. Before that, millions of people worldwide, mostly children, were infected with polio every year. Around 10% died and many were left crippled.

Now, thanks to the vaccine, polio is almost eradicated.

Similarly, about 200 million people contract malaria every year, of whom 600,000 (75% being children) die, despite all efforts to control the mosquitoes that transmit the disease. Development of a vaccine is our best chance, but again primates are necessary for this, as other species are not similarly susceptible to the parasitic infection.

Circumstances are similar with other devastating ailments such as Ebola, HIV and Zika. The ethical choice is often between using a few hundred monkeys or condemning thousands or more humans to suffer or die from each one of these diseases year after year.

image-20160505-19765-sm1aov
Reports of medical breakthroughs conveniently leave out animals used in the process.
Novartis AG/Flickr, CC BY

In the popular press and in protests against primate research, there is sometimes no distinction made between great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas) and monkeys such as macaques, leading to misplaced emotional reactions. To my knowledge, invasive experiments on great apes are not done anywhere, because of the recognition of their cognitive proximity to humans.

While the ape and human lineages separated six million years ago, there is an additional 20 to 35 million years of evolutionary distance from monkeys, which clearly lack the sophisticated cognitive capacities of the apes.

With urgent medical issues of today such as HIV, Ebola, malaria, Zika, diabetes and neurological conditions such as stroke and Parkinson’s disease, monkeys are adequate to study the basic physiology and pathology and to develop treatment methods. There is nothing extra to be gained from studying apes.

Alternatives have limitations

Opponents of animal research often cite the impressive developments of computer modelling, in-vitro techniques and non-invasive experiments in humans as alternatives to animal experiments. These have indeed given us great insights and are frequently used also by the very same scientists who use animals.

However, there are still critical areas where animal experimentation will be required for a long time to come.

Modelling can be done only on data already obtained and therefore can only build upon the hypotheses such data supported. The modelling also needs validation by going back to the lab to know whether the model’s predictions are correct.

Real science cannot work in a virtual world. It is the synergy between computation and real experiments that advances computational research.

In-vitro studies on isolated cells from a cell line cultured in the lab or directly taken from an animal are useful alternatives. This approach is widely used in medical research. However, these cells are not the same as the complex system provided by the whole animal. Unless one delves into the physiology and pathology of various body functions and tries to understand how they relate to each other and to the environment, any insights gained from studying single cells in in-vitro systems will be limited.

Though many studies can be done non-invasively on humans and we have indeed gained much knowledge on various questions, invasive experiments on animals are necessary. In many human experiments we can study the input to the system and the output, but we are fairly limited in understanding what goes on in between. For example, interactions between diet, the microbiome, the digestive system and disease are so complex that important relationships that have to be understood to advance therapy can only be worked out in animal models.

Of course, animals are not perfect models for the human body. They can never be. Species evolve and change.

However, many parts of our bodies have remained the same over millions of years of evolution. In fact, much of our basic knowledge about how impulses are transmitted along a nerve fibre has come from studying the squid, but our understanding also gets gradually modified by more recent experiments in mammals.

Higher cognitive functions and the complex operations of the motor system have to be studied in mammals. For a small number of these studies, nothing less than a non-human primate is adequate.

The choice of species for every experiment is usually carefully considered by investigators, funding bodies and ethics committees, from both ethical and scientific viewpoints. That is why the use of non-human primates is usually a small percentage of all animals used for research. In the state of Victoria, this constitutes only 0.02%.

Medical history can vouch for the fact that the benefits from undertaking animal experiments are worth the effort in the long run and that such experimentation is sometimes the only ethical choice. Taken overall, the principle of least harm should and does prevail. There may come a day when non-invasive experiments in humans may be able to tell us almost everything that animal experiments do today, but that is probably still a long way off.

Priorities in animal use

The ethical pressure put on research seems to be in stark contrast to that on the food industry. It is hypocritical for a society to contemplate seriously restricting the use of the relatively small number of animals for research that could save lives when far more animals are allowed to be slaughtered just to satisfy the palate. This is despite meat being a health and environmental concern.

To put this in perspective, for every animal used in research (mostly mice, fish and rats), approximately 2,000 animals are used for food, with actual numbers varying between countries and the organisations that collect the data.

The ratio becomes even more dramatic when you consider the use of non-human primates alone. In Victoria, for every monkey used in research, more than one million animals are used for meat production. However, the monitoring of the welfare of farm animals is not in any way comparable to that which experimental animals receive.

Reduced use of livestock can greatly reduce mankind’s ecological footprint and also improve our health. This is an ethical, health and environmental imperative. Animal experiments, including some on non-human primates, are also an ethical and medical imperative.

Trichur Vidyasagar, Professor, Department of Optometry and Vision Sciences and Melbourne Neuroscience Institute, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Debating Animal Research in Australia

The Ethics Centre, an independent not-for-profit organisation in Australia, held its second IQ2 debate on the motion: “Animal rights should trump human interests“. Supporting the motion was shark attack survivor, Paul de Gelder, animal lawyer, Ruth Hatten, and philanthropist Philip Wollen. Opposing the motion was ethicist Dr Leslie Cannold, Commissioner at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, and primate researcher Professor James Bourne. See more about the speakers.

A vote was taken before and after, with a huge swing of over 30% of the audience switching over to “against” the motion, in part due to the wonderful speech by Prof Bourne. 

Opinions of audience at IQ2 debate on animal rights

Click to Enlarge

As an animal researcher, Prof James Bourne focused on the use of animals in medical and scientific research. He is the Group Leader at Monash University’s Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute and a Senior Fellow with the federal government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). James’ work with NHMRC is exploring regenerative therapies for babies with brain injuries. 

Below we produce a transcript (with permission) of his speech, which contributed to the massive swing in audience opinion.

Thank you, good evening.

Like many of you I am appalled at our age of factory farming, our wilful blindness to exploitation, our rampant self-interest as a species and the seemingly inevitable destruction of every sphere of our environment.

But like all scientists I am also an optimist.  I hold true that medical research using animal models, and let me be clear – experimenting on animals themselves – is necessary in many areas of medical research if humanity wishes to improve life – life for both humans and animals.

There are two points I am grateful to convey tonight:

  1. The use of some animals in medical research remains necessary. Remembering for every monkey in research over 4 million are used in the food and dairy industry.
  2. Medical research on animals should only occur within a regulated ethical framework directed at the welfare of the animal.

I find myself here tonight after a relatively sudden and unexpected journey that began recently when the scientific community in Australia heard of a Green’s private member’s Bill in the Senate seeking to ban the importation of non-human primates for research purposes.

As a scientist whose work utilises monkeys I knew that a ban on importation would lead very quickly to a level of in-breeding in Australian facilities that would render valuable research impossible and force it into countries known for their unregulated practices.

James Bourne at the IQ2 debate. Image from www.ethics.org.au

James Bourne at the IQ2 debate. Image from http://www.ethics.org.au

I was motivated to enter this political debate because despite the woes and wrongs of our contemporary age, reason is still the best chance humanity has to right those wrongs and improve our world.

Reason always comes off second-best in the face of fear and suspicion. Fear and suspicion characterises much of the debate about animals in research and is cloaked in deliberate and wilful misinformation.

Images of horrific animal experiments undertaken in the 50’s regularly feature today in animal rights literature, even though these experiments have been outlawed for many years.

The Bill, defeated as it was, recycled many myths about animal experimentation… dangerous myths that computers and petri dishes can replace animals, that experiments inflict unnecessary cruelty and suffering, that baby monkeys are every day being ripped out the arms of their dead mothers in the jungle by poachers and then traded through unregulated corrupt profiteering to end up being tortured by mad scientists addicted to outdated scientific models.

The fact that a proposal of this kind can even be seriously considered today is evidence that the scientific community has not only been cowed into burying its collective head, but as a body-politic we are only a few steps away from reverting to a darker age where the quality of life – for both humans and animals – will be considerably lessened.

Indeed, while humanity is making ever more incredible scientific advances, regular polling shows a growing and alarming public disagreement about basic scientific facts, including human evolution, the safety of vaccines and whether human-caused climate change is real.

But let me indulge here in some very recent examples of why I believe non-human primate research is important.

Recently researchers infected monkeys with the Zika virus because it is the closest scientist can get to understanding in real time what is happening when humans are infected with this virus.

In 2015, the world witnessed the worst epidemic of the Ebola virus to date. Monkeys were treated with an antibody isolated from a human Ebola survivor and developed almost complete protection against a lethal dose of Ebola.

And yet opponents of animal research argue that knowledge gained from monkey research is inapplicable to humans.  This claim is utterly and dangerously false. Anyone that argues that insights gained from animals are meaningless, is either poorly informed or knowingly untruthful.

The political reality, however, is that the imagery and language peddled by animal research opponents is utterly confronting.

The facts, if you care to accept them, are:

First, non-human primates used for research in Australia are sourced from regulated breeding facilities overseas. They are not taken from the jungle.

macaque monkey animal research israel

An example of an overseas primate breeding facility.

Second, All animal research in Australia is conducted under the strictest scrutiny and follows the principles of reduction, refinement and replacement known as the 3Rs. Under these principles, animal-based research is only approved by a qualified animal ethics committee, which includes members of the lay public, welfare organisations and veterinarians.

Third, Non-human primates are used only in exceptional circumstances – when no other model is possible – as a last resort – when finding an answer simply cannot be provided by another animal model, cell-based system, computer modelling or human experimentation.

While we make incredible advances every day in computer technology, there is currently, and unfortunately, no alternative approach that can replicate the vast complexity of human disorder and disease.  Researchers are, however, continuously looking for non-animal based alternatives and this has already led to a significant reduction in the number of non-human primates used in research in Australia.

Furthermore, every researcher understands the great duty of care they must apply. Minimising the risk of pain and distress is of utmost importance when designing a study.

However, researchers remain hesitant to speak out as history tells us that this can have significant repercussions on the individual and the research program. I fear with recent activist developments in Europe, global scientific advances in health have been retarded.

You might find my work abhorrent, but it is framed in the highest possible duty of care to the animal and it seeks to address critical challenges in global health. If we proceed down a path to banning animal research – it is not only the science that will suffer but also, more importantly, the patients who would have benefitted from the outcomes.

I believe in a utilitarian sense, much like our speakers tonight, that in suffering the animals are our equals.[1]

So I cannot, and never will, defend factory farming, zoos and circuses or horse and dog racing, but ask you to please consider that in the face of this determined movement to stop all animal experimentation to remind ourselves that animal based medical research is driven, in Australia, by compassion and that the motivation to understand and improve our world – for all life – should always triumph over suspicion and fear.

Thank you.

James Bourne

[1] Eminent Australian moral philosopher, Peter Singer (Animal Liberation, 1975), paraphrasing utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1802)