Tag Archives: Ethics

Sanctuary, Zoo, Lab: Name Games or Core Differences?

The announcement of a research partnership between Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago) and Chimp Haven (a federally funded sanctuary for NIH retired chimpanzees) has led to increased dialogue, particularly in regards to what this means for the chimpanzees’ well-being and importantly, the kinds of activities that a sanctuary is allowed to engage with the animals under their care. We previously covered some of this issue, with concerns raised about the the deaths of 9 chimpanzees recently transferred to the Chimp Haven sanctuary (see here and here). In light of continued planning for relocating chimpanzees, the central focus has been on the question of whether the deaths have resulted in serious consideration and thoughtful review to identify any changes that could reduce future risks and best protect other animals’ health and wellbeing.Maynard

The recent announcement of a zoo-sanctuary “research partnership” has again prompted the question of the impact on the relocated chimpanzees’ well-being. Moreover, subsequent discussion has also illustrated a number of areas where facts and solid public information about the transparency and oversight of such research may be critically lacking. The discussion also highlights issues at the core of ethical consideration of chimpanzees. They are issues that not only play a role in decisions about where the chimpanzees should live, and in what activities they should take part; more fundamentally, they are issues that define what is meant by sanctuary and what is meant by research. That definition is central to informed and productive dialogue.

@2016 AJ Bennett comparison table research zoo sanctuary Table 1In many cases it appears that there are widely divergent views of what defines a sanctuary and what is meant by research. This is why, in part, the recent announcement of the Chimp Haven-Lincoln Park Zoo partnership was surprising to many. Particularly surprising was a statement by the sanctuary’s Chair of the Board of Directors that indicated the facility hopes to recruit scientists to bring research funds to the sanctuary in order to continue their research that has been truncated by federal decisions to retire research chimpanzees.Science - David Grimm 7.28.16

In various promotional materials about the new partnership between the zoo and the sanctuary the emphasis was on how the program might benefit understanding of chimpanzees and assist with animal care and conservation goals. At the same time it rapidly became evident that enthusiasm from the zoo and its chimpanzee program director, Dr. Stephen Ross, partially reflects benefits gained from access and use of the large sanctuary chimpanzee population, including research opportunities unavailable in the zoo. Others also appeared to see this use of the sanctuary chimpanzees as appropriate and justified. For example, the zoo’s press release about the partnership includes a congratulatory statement from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a group opposed to NIH’s previous chimpanzee research:

“This important partnership between an accredited zoo and an accredited sanctuary is further evidence that we are in the midst of a new, compassionate era in our treatment of chimpanzees,” says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. “Chimpanzees are amazing animals, and these two organizations are helping to define how best to learn from them, educate about them and most importantly, to care for them.”

Increasing public interest in the ethical justification for zoos

HSUS’ position on the ethical justification for keeping chimpanzees in zoos is not readily apparent, and their statement stops short of endorsing the zoo itself, or the perpetuation of captive chimpanzees via breeding in captivity (something that is banned in research centers and sanctuaries). Yet, others have raised similar questions well before the most recent decisions about NIH-funded chimpanzee research (see, for example, Jamieson, 1985; Regan, 1995)– though with significantly less media coverage. Furthermore, serious and thoughtful consideration of the different uses and human interactions with apes continues well beyond the simple and polarized messages that sometimes dominate the recent public portrayals of the issue  (for example, Norton, Maple, & Hutchins, 1995; Gruen, 2014; Bennett & Panicker, 2016; and many others cited within these references) .

Discussions about the role, ethical justification, and necessity of housing chimpanzees in research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities have arisen not only because of the retirement of NIH chimpanzees. Rather, societal consideration of zoos has also increased over time. Most recently, the tragic death of Harambe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, along with the closure of the 140 year old Buenos Aires zoo, and movement away from keeping elephants in zoos, have sparked much public dialogue.

The tone of reflection is evident in a number of the titles of articles, op-eds, and blog posts. For example:

The ethical justification for keeping chimpanzees in zoos merits serious and well-informed consideration as it forms the foundation of societal decisions. The same kind of consideration is already mandated for research with animals, including chimpanzees, in the US and elsewhere.  In both cases, the public dialogue and public interests are served by providing facts about the animals’ care and treatment, but also by full and balanced presentation of the justification itself.

Intersections between research, zoos, and sanctuaries

Speaking of Research typically focuses solely on animal research and on animal testing rather than other interactions and uses of animals by humans, including zoos, entertainment, and private ownership.  In the case of chimpanzees, however, the intersections between research, zoos, and sanctuaries are now at the forefront of many of the debates, decisions, personal, and the societal deliberations.

There are a number of reasons for this intersection. Among them: the movement of research chimpanzees to sanctuaries and zoos; the fact that US decisions about research chimpanzees has resulted in a likely shift of research opportunities to zoos and other types of facilities; and, most recently, the new partnership between a federally-funded chimpanzee sanctuary and a zoo.  At the same time, the new standards of care and housing for chimpanzees adopted by one federal agency, the NIH, has raised questions about whether the same standards should be extended to all chimpanzees (for further information and discussion see previous posts “Where should US chimpanzees live?” and “Chimpanzee retirement: Facts, myths, and motivation”).

What are the defining characteristics of a sanctuary?

One of the core issues in this debate is: “What should be the defining characteristics of a sanctuary?”   For some people, the central characteristic is only that the animals receive the best possible care to protect their health and well-being. However, as we have written about previously, this characteristic is not exclusive to sanctuaries. Excellent and humane care can be provided in other settings, including research facilities (for further discussion see: “Can we agree? An ongoing dialogue about where retired research chimpanzees should live”).where us chimpanzees live 07.13.16

For other people, the very concept of sanctuary means that the animals are not used as instruments to achieve any human goal, or to meet any human need. And, moreover, that the animals’ dignity and autonomy receive highest consideration. For example, in an edited volume, “The Ethics of Captivity,” philosopher Lori Gruen says: “There are some captive contexts, such as true sanctuaries, where the goal is not just to promote the well-being of the individuals that live there but to also recognize their dignity and treat the residents with respect” (p. 244). She argues in particular that animals should be provided with the opportunity to choose who to spend time with, other animals or observers, and be able to escape others’ gaze. She also contends that:

“Certain features of current captive practices are fundamentally dignity denying. For example, sending prisoners far away from their families or breaking up social groups in zoo settings denies the most basic choices in addition to disrupting social bonds. Such moves can only be justified if they are clearly in the best interests of the captive, not to serve institutional ends” (p. 245).

In a more recent article, Gruen (2016, “The End of Chimpanzee Research,” Hastings Report) writes in opposition to retiring NIH chimpanzees in the dedicated research facilities in which they currently live. She argues:

“Humans, regardless of gender or gender expression, race, ethnicity, ability, and so on, deserve respect. And I believe respect is also owed to chimpanzees. We make sense of our experiences and values through our relationships with others, and when we are instrumentalized in those relationships, our worth, our interests, and the meaning of our experiences is undermined. This is also true in the case of chimpanzees. … Advocates for chimpanzees oppose retirement in place due to this fundamental difference in [human, our emphasis] values—the ethos of a sanctuary respects the choices and dignity of the animals as opposed to that of a laboratory, where animals are used as tools.” [emphasis added]

What defines the sanctuary ethos and “using animals as tools”?

For many viewing and discussing the current situation, it is the argument about ethos and the degree to which the chimpanzees are “used as tools” that pose challenges to dialogue. One reason is that the terms are not clearly defined or operationalized in a way that allows people with a range of perspectives, experiences, expertise, and philosophical positions to be certain they are discussing the same thing.

For example, it is not entirely clear what behaviors and care practices would provide evidence of an “ethos” that “respects the choices and dignity of the animal.” Ironically, it would also seem that in order to provide an understanding of choice and dignity from the animals’ perspective, detailed scientific research on the animals themselves is needed, where the animals are used as tools to achieve the goal of improving the health and wellbeing of other chimpanzees.

No clear line is apparent that would indicate how we might define all of those cases in which chimpanzees are “used as tools.” For instance, while there may be relatively widespread agreement that chimpanzees used in entertainment are being “used as tools,” there may be far less agreement that chimpanzees in zoos fall in the same category. Similarly, whether noninvasive research qualifies as using chimpanzees “as tools” is also likely to be a point of disagreement. Noninvasive research spans studies of chimpanzees’ cognition, language, puzzle-solving, theory of mind, but also their preferences for various foods, housing, or care strategies, their response to human visitors, and any number of other topics  about which hypotheses can be made and tested with experimental, observational, and other scientific approaches.

The justification for any of this work can readily and reasonably be made in terms of benefits for the animals themselves, for the species, for human understanding, for society. Nonetheless, a reasonable case might also be made that noninvasive research is an instance of using the animals “as tools” because the work can lead to scientific publications, positive publicity and reputational enhancement for institutions and individuals, to satisfaction of human curiosity, and also to new knowledge that benefits animals—but animals other than those participating in the study.

Chimpanzees in research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities

Chimpanzees in research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities

The question of whether noninvasive research—the only type currently allowed in NIH-funded or supported research—is an instance of using the animals as instruments for human goals is not the only one. Moving chimpanzees away from their stable social groups, long-time and familiar homes and caregivers, and into a novel setting labelled “sanctuary,” may also qualify as “using the animals as tools.” In this case, the disruption of the animals’ lives and movement to sanctuary may serve as a tool to make humans “feel better” with potentially little added benefit to the animals themselves (see also K.S. Emmerman, in The Ethics of Captivity, edited by L. Gruen, Oxford University Press, 2016).  It is for this reason that many focus on the outcome – in terms of relative benefit and relative risk to the animals’ health and welfare—in order to make judgments about whether moving the animals is really in the animals’ best interests.

Is the Chimp Haven partnership with Lincoln Park Zoo consistent with the “true sanctuary ethos”?

It is partially for all of these reasons that the recent announcement of a research partnership between Lincoln Park Zoo and the federally-funded sanctuary was surprising to many. It was a surprise because many assumed that chimpanzees retired from research would not then serve in research – and, particularly, that they would not be viewed as a resource for the facility’s fund-raising via fees exchanged for research opportunities. The latter appears to be exactly the rationale expressed by the director of the facility and her collaborators in an abstract for presentation at the upcoming scientific meeting (Spaetz, Taylor, & Fultz, 2016):

“With recent decisions ensuring the retirement of additional chimpanzees, sanctuaries may provide an optimal place for behavioral research with the potential for large sample sizes, a variety of enclosures, and on-site support. A future goal for the sanctuary community is to become self-sustaining. In order to do this, sanctuaries must explore different options including fees for researchers and visiting scientists who hope to continue to study the chimpanzees.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that Chimp Haven has taken this approach. It is similar to that of the Pan African Sanctuaries Alliance (PASA) described by another primatologist, Professor Brian Hare at Duke University. For example, on the advantages of sanctuary-researcher partnerships: “Successful research programs in African sanctuaries will provide researchers with an alternative to more traditional laboratories that do not offer the high quality living environment that are found in Africa. African sanctuaries in turn will become the preferred research venue given their many advantages for non-invasive research.”

At the same time, researchers are described as a resource and benefit to sanctuaries:

“Sanctuary apes can benefit from additional resources provided by researchers through research fees (e.g. for management costs or improvements for research), equipment (e.g. computers, veterinary equipment, etc.) or expertise (e.g. disease screening and other veterinary work). The resources of researchers that never made it to Africa before will be spent in ape range countries to aid in maintaining the high level of care found in African sanctuaries.”

In many ways, Hare, Ross, and others who have advanced sanctuaries and zoos as a viable—and  “ethical”—alternative for science aimed at better understanding chimpanzees appear to share with other scientists an understanding of the value of research in terms of benefits to humans, animals, society, and the environment. They also realize that as dedicated research facilities continue to reduce the number of chimpanzees they house, and eventually house none, sanctuaries – along with zoos – will have “cornered the market” for primatologists, comparative psychologists, biologists, neuroscientists, and others with expertise and interest in scientific research that can answer basic science questions and those relevant to animal health and wellbeing.

There are key differences between the African sanctuary system and Chimp Haven, however. Most primary among them is that PASA exists to care for animals orphaned in Africa as a result of poaching and other human activities and that have no other place to go that can provide for their care. By contrast, for many of the chimpanzees slated to be moved from their current facilities, away from their stable social groups and long-time caregivers in dedicated research centers, Chimp Haven is not the only option.

PASA exists to care for animals and not to create additional animals that are dependent on human care and must be maintained in captive settings. By contrast, Lincoln Park Zoo and others actively seek—through breeding programs— to create more animals that must then be maintained in captive settings. Thus, while one program explicitly seeks to reduce the number of chimpanzees that require human care in captive settings, the other perpetuates the practice.

For zoos, many argue that conservation and education goals provide an ethical justification for maintaining the animals in captivity. Others reject the argument. For example, in an article titled “Shifting Toward an Ethics of Sanctuary,” Gruen argues the logical point: “But holding animals captive has no necessary connection to conservation as there are many successful organizations that engage in conservation efforts that do not hold any animals captive.”

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Photo credit: Kathy West

Unresolved questions

A number of questions are likely to remain active points of discussion both within the scientific community and more broadly. They include:

  • Whether continued scientific research should occur—including questions about: what types of work have merit and are justified; who should conduct the work; where it should be conducted; how it should be conducted and supported.
  • How these decisions should be made in absence, or outside of, the well-established and fairly transparent processes for expert and competitive scientific review that has occurred for proposals to NIH and NSF. This is a specific concern for the federal sanctuary that houses federally-owned chimpanzees supported largely by federal funds.
  • Whether retirement in place is the best option for some research chimpanzees.
  • Whether or not sanctuaries should conduct research.
  • Whether or not the federally-funded sanctuary should partner with a zoo.
  • Whether or not zoos should house chimpanzees at all.
  • Whether all chimpanzees in the US should receive the same standards of care as those mandated by the NIH.

In review of those questions and recent events, it is also clear that better dialogue might be facilitated by specifying what is meant by sanctuary. To the extent that research occurs in the federal sanctuary and the sanctuary is used to serve the goals of zoos, it is not at all clear that the term “sanctuary” has the common meaning that appears in public view. That is a problem for a number of reasons. Among them, when it comes to public dialogue and public decisions – both relevant to the federal funding that flows to Chimp Haven* – it is important to be clear about what retirement to sanctuary means and about how it is different from continuing to care for the animals in the facilities in which they currently live.

(*Federal funds provide 75% of the costs for maintaining NIH-owned chimpanzees at Chimp Haven, in 2015, according to NIH, this was $2.77 million. Chimp Haven currently appears to have a $12.9 million federal contract and over $30M in federal funds were invested in facility construction, chimpanzee transfers, and care. There are a number of other chimpanzee sanctuaries in the US, these sanctuaries are not currently part of the federal system and do not appear to be eligible for federal funds.)

Comparison of key features of research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities

The tables accompanying this post (above and below) outline some of the key features that are associated with different types of facilities, some of which may affect animals’ care and others that affect research. The tables cannot account for variation across every facility, but rather shows the typical case for research and zoos, what is known about the federally-funded sanctuary, and what would appear to be the case for a “true” sanctuary as it is defined by Gruen and others. Provision of choice is held up as a central defining element of sanctuary care. Thus, the second table focuses on elements of choice – or autonomy – that are central to the daily lives of animals living in a range of captive settings. As illustrated in both tables, there is a great deal of overlap between the various types of facilities.

Comments that can help further refine this work towards common understanding of the language used in discussion of chimpanzees in the US are welcome. We will return to this topic in the future, with analysis of the information in the tables, comparisons across facilities, and the implications for decision-making about chimpanzees.

Allyson J. Bennett

@2016 AJ Bennett comparison table research zoo sanctuary Table 2

Jeffrey Kahn’s Odd Views on Animal Research

Professor Jeffrey Kahn visited UW Madison to discuss the use of monkeys in medical research.

He is the Robert Henry Levi and Ryda Hecht Levi Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy and the Deputy Director for Policy and Administration at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

Professor Kahn has participated in numerous federal panels and chaired the influential Institute of Medicine (IoM) committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research, which recommended that the NIH phase out most biomedical research on chimpanzees.

Because he is respected and listened to by those in charge of making policy decisions on matters of important medical research and public health issues, his talk at UW Madison drew much attention.

During his comments Prof. Kahn raised several objections about how animal research is regulated in the United States that deserve closer scrutiny.

Unfair application of the principles of utilitarian philosophy

Professor Kahn objected to justifying research based on utilitarianism on the grounds that it is unfair to consistently harm one group (non-human animals) for the benefit of another (humans).

However, the notion that pure utilitarianism forms the basis for an ethical defense of biomedical research is incorrect.

For example, a pure utilitarian view would also call for doing invasive experiments in mentally disabled human beings whose cognitive capabilities are comparable to those of animals used in research, or demand we forcefully harvest the organs of a potential human donor to save the lives of several others.

Of course, we don’t do any of these things. So it was perplexing to hear him state that utilitarianism is “how the system is set up.” 

No, it is definitely not.

Medical research with human and non-human animals is not based on a pure, utilitarian view.  Instead, it is partly based on a graded moral status perspective that posits we owe moral consideration to all living beings, but not to the same degree that we owe consideration to the lives of fellow humans. It is also partly based in our mutual recognition of equal, basic rights for all members of the human family.

These ethical considerations are embedded in federal regulations and NIH guidelines that call for minimizing the number of animal subjects used in any one study, the amount of suffering involved, and require the use the “lowest” species that can be expected to yield meaningful scientific answers.  It is also reflected in specific federal programs aimed at developing alternatives to animal use and, of course, in protections for human subjects.

It is true that NIH has never made explicit the ethical and philosophical principles underlying its research.  Nevertheless, the ethical principles etched in these regulations should be clear to anyone who spend the time to become familiar with them.

A misguided notion of scientific necessity

Professor Kahn views the “scientific necessity” of the work as inextricably linked to the ethics. His views are aligned with the conclusions of the panel that he chaired on chimpanzee research.  Within this framework a project would be morally justified only if all the following three conditions were met:

  1. No suitable alternative is available
  2. The work cannot be performed ethically on human subjects
  3. The work is required in order to accelerate the prevention, control and treatment of life-threatening or debilitating diseases

A large class of studies readily meet the first two requirements. When we seek information about the cellular and molecular mechanisms in a living organism, the technologies available to us at the present are invasive, and the work cannot be performed ethically in human subjects. If we could observe and manipulate molecular pathways and cells in living humans without jeopardizing their well being, then the work would be done in humans. But we don’t yet have such tools. No computer simulation, no in-vitro system, no MRI, no organs-on-a-chip currently available, provide an adequate alternative to animal studies.

The crux of the matter then boils down to the third condition, and therein lies the rub. When you are talking about the process of scientific discovery, this third condition is meaningless when applied to individual scientific projects. Science, as Professor Kahn himself points out, is not necessarily a predictable linear path from point A to point B, because it involves the exploration of the unknown. Science cannot promise that any one experiment can lead to a cure, nor can researchers know ahead of time which specific experiment or line of research will lead to a breakthrough. In Professor Kahn’s own words, “we call it research because we don’t know what the answer is.”  Why does he not realize that demanding a specific outcome in advance is out of the question?  One can only evaluate outcomes in retrospect, as Peter Singer has done offering in his approval for monkey studies in Parkinson’s research. Unfortunately, scientists on NIH study sections do not have the luxury of an oracle that can guide their decisions.

Instead, researchers understand that without animal studies we will not be able to develop new therapies and cures. Our expert scientific opinion is that were we to suspend animal research, most fields of biomedical research would come to a full stop. Meanwhile, patients and their families would pay the price of more human suffering.

Thus, the ethical question should be reframed as not whether one individual study is required but, in the case at the heart of this debate, whether the use of animal models is required to understand the molecular pathways underlying mental disorders so that we can  develop new treatments and cures for them.  Or more generally, if animals are required at all to advance medical knowledge and human health.  The scientific consensus in this matter, as indicated by a recent Nature magazine poll,  is overwhelming:

 

Bonus points should go to UW Professor Eric Sandgren who was nevertheless able to use Professor Kahn’s framework to explain, point by point, why he feels the studies under discussion can be justified. You may agree or disagree with his justification, but you cannot say he did not offer one. In contrast, Professor Kahn simply stated that he was “deeply skeptical” of the necessity of the work, despite acknowledging a lack of familiarity with the details of the study, nor bothering to explain the rationale for this view.

Given that the research at the center of this debate is aimed directly at anxiety disorders, a specific neurological condition that affects millions of humans, one might safely assume that Professor Kahn would express even graver doubts about basic research in animal subjects. He would have likely have rejected outright the research on olfactory cells that eventually allowed paralyzed people (and dogs) to walk again, among numerous advances in knowledge that have led to medical breakthroughs.

Professor Kahn ought to be reminded that the mission of the NIH is “to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability,” and try to understand better the inherent uncertainty and necessity of scientific research.

Do IACUCs and NIH study sections fail to evaluate scientific necessity?

Given his misguided view of necessity, it should not be surprising Professor Kahn believes that neither IACUCs nor NIH study sections are able to assess the scientific need for specific studies. He harshly criticized such committees for taking the claims of any one proposal at “face value.

That is a very strong statement… and a decidedly incorrect one, too.

First, the overall scientific direction of medical research in the country is established by our medical and scientific leadership. In the neurosciences, scientists are guided in their research by NIH’s Neuroscience Blueprint. Among the important scientific directions relevant to this particular discussion—ones that Professor Kahn should have known about—were the Blueprint Neurotherapeutics Network (to advance the development of new drugs for nervous system disorders) and the Blueprint Non-Human Primate Brain Atlas (to provide comprehensive data on gene expression in the rhesus macaque brain , from birth to four years old). Such work is expected to aid research on human brain development and its disorders.

Second, NIH study sections diligently assess proposals with an eye to which studies stand a better chance of advancing our knowledge of function and disease and therefore may have the greatest potential to lead to new cures or fundamentally advancing a field of study. In making their assessments, scientists who participate in study sections use their expertise to assess which research directions and pilot data look most promising. There is never a guarantee that any one study will produce a breakthrough. If there is any one premise it is that animal research has led to numerous advancements in knowledge and medicine that has benefited human and non-human animals alike. This is not taken at face value, rather, it is an indisputable fact of medical history.

Third, once the scientific merit of a proposal has been established, IACUCs provide an additional layer of local scrutiny and compliance oversight. It is perfectly reasonable for IACUCs to ensure the work at the institution maximizes the welfare of the animal subjects in each study, and NIH requires such an assurance for institutions that receive federal funding. (For the small minority of projects that have not yet received NIH review, the IACUCs seek local expertise to evaluate the scientific merit of the study.)

Is funding “unnecessary” research a waste of resources?

Another miscalculation derived from Professor Kahn’s flawed view of “necessity” is the claim that if research is “unnecessary” according to his definition, then it is also unethical, especially considering the limited funding resources we have available at the moment.

It is perfectly legitimate for a society to assess how it distributes its resources, but in doing so the entire budget ought to be considered.

One may ask, for example, how Professor Kahn feels about resources spent on drones for the military, the Hubble telescope, unmanned trips to Mars, funding for theoretical physics, game theory, or the Arts.

Or, more to the point, one could ask for a more detailed justification of why society should spend its resources on philosophers and bioethicists?

Should society prioritize the support of bioethics over the development of a vaccine for Ebola or a cure for cancer, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s?

Which is one more crucial to our social welfare and which is more “unnecessary”?

Who will direct medical research?

Scientists must participate more in public life because social policies need to be decided on the basis of rational grounds and facts. These include important issues ranging from climate change, to the goals of the space program, to the protection of endangered species, to the use of embryonic stem cells or animals in biomedical research.

When scientifically inaccurate statements emanate from someone who has demonstrable influence on public policy decisions, scientists have a duty to speak up and correct the mistakes.

Animal research poses a legitimate moral dilemma. Decisions to pursue different lines of research that are perceived as controversial — be it research involving animals subjects or embryonic stem cells — cannot be assessed fairly without the active participation of scientists, physicians, patients and their families, because all are stakeholders in the work.

Unless these stakeholders get involved in such debates, we may find that their interests are not taken into account when the future direction of medical research is determined.

Dario Ringach

 

Harlow Dead, Bioethicists Outraged

harlow plaque jpeg (2)

The philosophy and bioethics community was rocked and in turmoil Friday when they learned that groundbreaking experimental psychologist Professor Harry Harlow had died over 30 years ago. Harlow’s iconic studies of mother and infant monkeys have endured for decades as the centerpiece of philosophical debate and animal rights campaigns.  With news of his death, philosophers worried that they would now need to turn their attention to new questions, learn about current research, and address persistent, urgent needs in public consideration of scientific research and medical progress. Scientists and advocates for a more serious contemporary public dialogue were relieved and immediately offered their assistance to help others get up to speed on current research.

To close the chapter, psychologists at the University of Wisconsin provided the following 40 year retrospective on Harlow’s work and its long-term impact (see below).

Internet reaction to the scientists’ offering was swift, fierce, and predictable.

“We will never allow Harlow to die,” said one leading philosopher, “The fact is that Harlow did studies that are controversial and we intend to continue making that fact known until science grinds to a halt and scientists admit that we should be in charge of all the laboratories and decisions about experiments. It is clear to us that we need far more talk and far less action. Research is complicated and unpredictable–all that messiness just needs to get cleaned up before research should be undertaken.”

Animal rights activists agreed, saying:

“For many decades Harlow and his monkeys have been our go-to graphics for protest signs, internet sites, and articles. It would simply be outrageously expensive and really hard to replace those now. Furthermore, Harlow’s name recognition and iconic monkey pictures are invaluable, irreplaceable, and stand by themselves. It would be a crime to confuse the picture with propaganda and gobbledygook from extremist eggheads who delusionally believe that science and animal research has changed anything.”

Others decried what they viewed as inappropriate humorous responses to the belated shock at Harlow’s passing.

“It is clear to us that scientists are truly diabolical bastards who think torturing animals is funny. Scientists shouldn’t be allowed to joke. What’s next? Telling people who suffer from disease that they should just exercise and quit eating cheeseburgers?” said a representative from a group fighting for legislation to outlaw food choice and ban healthcare for non-vegans and those with genetic predispositions for various diseases.

A journalist reporting on the controversial discovery of Harlow’s death was overheard grumbling, “But what will new generations of reporters write about? Anyway, the new research is pretty much the same as the old research, minus all the complicated biology, chemistry, and genetic stuff, so it may as well be Harlow himself doing it.”

A fringe group of philosophers derisively called the “Ivory Tower Outcasts” for their work aimed at cross-disciplinary partnerships in public engagement with contemporary ethical issues made a terse statement via a pseudonymous social media site.

“We told you so. Harlow is dead. Move on. New facts, problems require thought+action (ps- trolley software needs upgrade, man at switch quit)”

Harlow himself remained silent. For the most part, his papers, groundbreaking discoveries, and long-lasting impact on understanding people and animals remained undisturbed by the new controversy.

Statement from Psychologists:

Harlow’s career spanned 40+ years and produced breakthroughs in understanding learning, memory, cognition and behavior in monkeys1 (see Figure 1). In a time period where other animals were generally thought of as dumb machines, Harlow’s work demonstrated the opposite — that monkeys, like humans, have complex cognitive abilities and emotional attachments. Harlow and his colleagues developed now classic ways to measure cognition2,3. For example, the Wisconsin General Test Apparatus (WGTA; see Figure 1), in which monkeys uncover food beneath different types of colored toys and objects, allowed scientists to understand how monkeys learn new things, remember, and discriminate between different colors, shapes, quantities, and patterns.

The discoveries of Harlow and his colleagues in the 1930s and forward provided the foundation not only for changes in how people view other animals, but also for understanding how the brain works, how it develops, and –ultimately–how to better care for people and other animals.

Figure 1

Figure 1

In the last decade of his long career, Harlow, his wife Margaret– a developmental psychologist, and their colleagues, again rocked the scientific world with a discovery that fundamentally changed our biological understanding.3 Contrary to prevailing views in the 1950s and before, the Harlows’ studies of infant monkeys definitively demonstrated that mother-infant bonds and physical contact—not just provision of food—are fundamentally important to normal behavioral and biological development. Those studies provided an enduring empirical foundation for decades of subsequent work that shed new light on the interplay between childhood experiences, genes, and biology in shaping vulnerability, resilience, and recovery in lifespan health.

For a brief time at the very end of his career, Harlow performed a small number of studies that have served as the touchstone for philosophers, animal rights groups, and others interested in whether and how animal research should be done. The most controversial of the studies are known by their colloquial name “pit of despair” and were aimed at creating an animal model of depression. In this work, fewer than 20 monkeys were placed in extreme isolation for short periods (average of 6 weeks) following initial infant rearing in a nursery.

At the time, the late 1960s, the presence of brain chemicals had recently been identified as potentially critical players in behavior and mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. New understanding and treatment of the diseases was desperately needed to address the suffering of millions of people. Available treatments were crude. They included permanent institutionalization– often in abject conditions, lobotomy (removing part of the brain), malaria, insulin, or electric shock therapies. As some scientists worked to uncover the role of brain chemicals in behavior and mood, others worked to produce drugs that could alter those chemical networks to relieve their negative effects. In both cases, animal models based on similar brain chemistry and biology were needed in order to test whether new treatments were safe and effective. It was within this context that Harlow and his colleagues in psychiatry studied, in small numbers, monkeys who exhibited depressive-like behaviors.

By the 1970s and over the next decades, scientists produced medications that effectively treat diseases like schizophrenia and depression for many people. The therapies are not perfect and do not work for everyone, which is why research continues to identify additional and new treatments. Regardless, there is no question that the suffering of millions of people has been reduced, and continues to be alleviated, as a result of new medications and new understanding of the biological basis of disease.

Infant rhesus monkeys playing in nursery.  Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

Infant rhesus monkeys playing in nursery. Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

Looking back while moving forward

Nearly 50 years later, it is difficult to imagine the time before MRI and neuroimaging and before the many effective treatments for depression, schizophrenia and other diseases. It is perhaps even more difficult to imagine a time in which people believed that genes and biology were destiny, that other animals were automatons, or that mothers were only important because they provided food to their children. Casting an eye back to the treatment of monkeys, children, and vulnerable human populations in medical and scientific research 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago, is difficult as well. Standards for ethical consideration, protections for human and animal participants in research, and the perspectives of scientists, philosophers, and the public have all continued to change as knowledge grows. Yet, what has not changed is an enduring tension between the public’s desire for progress in understanding the world and in reducing disease and the very fact that the science required to make that progress involves difficult choices.

There are no guarantees that a specific scientific research project will succeed in producing the discoveries it seeks. Nor is there a way to know in advance how far-ranging the effect of those discoveries may be, or how they may serve as the necessary foundation for work far distant. In the case of Harlow’s work, the discoveries cast a bright light on a path that continues to advance new understanding of how the brain, genes, and experiences affect people’s health and well-being.

Mother and infant swing final

Mother and juvenile rhesus macaque at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the 30 years since Harlow’s death, new technologies and new discoveries—including brain imaging (MRI, PET), knowledge about epigenetics (how genes are turned on and off), and pharmacotherapies—have been made, refined, and put into use in contemporary science. As a result, scientists today can answer questions that Harlow could not. They continue to do so not because the world has remained unchanged, or because they lack ethics and compassion, but because they see the urgent need posed by suffering and the possibility of addressing global health problems via scientific research.

Harlow’s legacy is a complicated one, but one worth considering beyond a simple single image because it is a legacy of knowledge that illustrates exactly how science continues to move forward from understanding built in the past. An accurate view of how science works, what it has achieved, what can and cannot be done, are all at the heart of a serious consideration of the consequences of choices about what scientific research should be done and how. Harlow and his studies may well be a touchstone to start and continue that dialogue. But it should then be one that also includes the full range of the work, its context and complexity, rather than just the easy cartoon evoked to draw the crowd and then loom with no new words.

Allyson J. Bennett, PhD

The author is a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The views and ideas expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent those of her employer.

Suomi SJ & Leroy, HA (1982) In Memoriam: Harry F. Harlow (1905-1982). American Journal of Primatology 2:319-342. (Note: contains a complete bibliography of Harlow’s published work.)

2Harlow HF & Bromer J (1938). A test-apparatus for monkeys. Psychological Record 2:434-436.

3Harlow HF (1949). The formation of learning sets. Psychological Review 56:51-65

4Harlow HF (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist 13:673-685.

Stop Harassing Scientists!

Harassment is the act of systematic and/or continued unwanted and annoying actions of one party or a group, including threats and demands. The purposes may vary, but in the case of animal extremists it consists of personal malice, their attempt to force scientists engaged in legal, regulated research to quit their job, and to merely gain sadistic pleasure from making others feel fearful of or anxious.  That pretty much encapsulates the legal definition of harassment.

Anyone familiar with the tactic of animal rights groups, documented in videos, pictures, their own “demo wrap up” reports, and anonymous communiqués of criminal acts, can recognize that the goal of their “home visits” has no other purpose but to intimidate and threaten others to comply with their views.  (You can learn more here, here, here, here, here and here, just to mention a handful of incidents.)  

The truth is that there is no public to be reached at a scientist’s front door, there is no public to “educate” about their views — which is what they claim to be doing.  Neighbors and their families who do not want to listen to their shrieks, screams and insults have nowhere to take refuge, but must see their peace and privacy disturbed as well.  Everyone is entitled to express their views on the use of animals in research, but they are not entitled to mount campaigns of harassment, which celebrate blatant criminal acts such as fire-bombings, against individuals they simply disagree with.

One of the reasons scientists  work with animals to advance medical research is because they were so charged by our society.  The mission of the National Institutes of Health is “[…] to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.”

Those who disagree with this societal goal (for example, because they hold that disease is merely the result of personal life choices, because they believe animals ought to have the same basic rights to humans, or because they believe the same work can be achieved without the use of animals) are free and welcome to make their points to the public, to lobby their representatives, to form their own political parties, to make their voice heard at the ballot box, and to advocate for a change in the law as they see fit.  We will certainly offer our viewpoint in return, but we do not oppose animal activists airing their views in public.  In the end, it is for society as a whole to decide if we consider the work ethically permissible and worth of scientific pursuit.

Harassment, threats, coercion  and emotional blackmail, on the other hand, will no longer be tolerated.

Stop it!

Now!

Please join us in a counter-demonstration.

When: February 15, 10:15am sharp!
Where: Franz Hall Lobby @ UCLA (near Hilgard and Westholme)  http://maps.ucla.edu/campus/

Other relevant articles:

https://speakingofresearch.com/2014/02/03/join-pro-test-for-science-to-end-the-age-of-terror/

https://speakingofresearch.com/2014/01/31/reflections-of-an-animal-rights-arsonist/

http://unlikelyactivist.com/2014/02/04/why-give-your-time-to-stand-up-for-science/

http://unlikelyactivist.com/2014/02/04/insecure-bullies-never-like-resistance/

What if animals could tweet?

Georgianne Nienaber, a political and investigative reporter for the Huffington Post, posted an article entitled “What if Lab Animals Could Tweet?”
The  article was prompted by a recent Gallup poll showing an increase disparity in the moral acceptability of “medical testing on animals”.  Younger people, in the 18-34 years bracket, showed a decline of about 19% from 2001 to 2013.  For those 55 and older, support went from 63% to 61%.  A two percent decline that may not be statistically significant.

The data for the younger population should be of some concern to those that support the regulated and responsible use of animals in medical research. A number of animal rights organizations spend enormous effort and time targeting K-12 children and college students with their message.  Perhaps, the Gallup poll reflects the fruits of their work.

It seems evident that as these young adults grow up and confront illnesses they begin to appreciate modern medicine and see the moral dilemma of medical research in a different light.  Otherwise, the data should have shown a parallel decline for all age groups, as seen on the same Gallup poll on the moral acceptability of gay and lesbian relations.   This is not what the data show in the case of animal research.

Nevertheless, scientists and the medical research leadership should take note of these trends and realize that we all need to spend more time counteracting the message of animal rights groups directed at K-12 and college level students.

What is truly irritating about this article is that a legitimate journalist appears to engage in  the same kind of misinformation campaign as animal rights organizations.

She writes:

Non-human primates are about to venture into the realm inhabited by philosophers, and SAEN’s presser made me queasy just thinking about animals’ abilities to literally read minds when they are housed in deplorable conditions in the nation’s laboratories.

This sentence is immediately followed by the image below, attributed to Michael Budkie of SAEN.

Image

In the context in which it appears, Ms. Nienaber implies in her article that such deplorable conditions are the ones to be found in US Labs today.  This is most curious, as it takes only a few minutes to find out that the image does not belong to SAEN nor was it taken in a laboratory in the U.S.  Instead, it seems the image first appeared in a DailyMail article back in 2006 describing experiments in Zhongshan University, China. The original article does not stipulate when the image was taken.

When challenged in the comments section of her article regarding the origin of the image Ms. Nienaber deflects the conversation and points instead to a similar study carried out in the US.  The study, however,  offers in its Fig 1 the image of a juvenile monkey wearing goggles — one is relaxed and playing with a toy.  Obviously, not good enough for the purpose of her article.

Ms Nienaber goes on to write:

I am hoping trolls in favor of scientific research do not jump on this post as an opportunity to vent their positions on animal research. Instead, let’s engage in some critical thinking.

Really?  So much for an invitation to public debate from a critical thinker and investigative journalist!

Perhaps Ms Nienaber could exercise her critical thinking by finding out where the medicines in her cabinet came from.  Perhaps, she should ask her pediatrician how the vaccines she gives her children were developed. Perhaps she could have taken the time to understand what the studies of amblyopia are trying to find out (Hint: here)?  Or perhaps she could have taken some time to find out how Mr. Budkie operates and check more carefully the sources of the materials she receives from animal rights organizations.

Sadly, Ms Nienaber critical thinking took her instead to ponder on a different question.

What if Lab animals could tweet?  — she asks.

Yes, what if?

If they could reason as and talk humans, if they could follow our moral principles, perhaps, as in Kafka’s “A report for an Academy,” they would no longer consider themselves non-human animals…  they would be part of the human community and tweet: “Ms. Nienaber — please, next time do your research.”

PeTA tries to save face… and fails.

During the past month the University of Wisconsin responded to an aggressive media campaign by PeTA suggesting photos of animal studies they obtained are “proof” of violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

PeTA filed complaints with the USDA and the National Institutes of Health demanding an investigation.  The university responded point-by-point to PeTA complaint stating that none of them were substantiated.

The USDA took PeTA’s complaint seriously, conducted a focused inspection of the study in question, and found the claims by PeTA to be groundless.  As reported by the Capitol Times, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Badger Herald, the USDA found no wrongdoing, no violations of the law.  Not one.

How did PeTA respond to the outcome?

Kathy Guillermo, Senior Vice President, Laboratory Investigations, went to Jane Velez-Mitchell (a PeTA supporter) and told her that “we report them [the alleged violations] to the federal authorities, to the USDA and the National Institutes of Health.” But, she added, “We [PeTA] don’t expect much about those agencies.”

What does Guillermo mean that they do not “expect much” when they file their claims with the authorities?

The USDA did take the claims seriously and took action as they requested.  They investigated the UW and found PeTA’s allegations to be untrue.  What Kathy Guillermo probably means is that when they file a claim PeTA does not expect that the findings will support their allegations. This would make perfect sense, as they probably know beforehand the allegations to be groundless. What PeTA truly expects from their claims is that their propaganda be picked up by the media before they are caught in their game and, unfortunately, they are rather successful in doing just that.

Sadly, it happened again.  In response to the USDA inspection PeTA found a former UW veterinarian that supposedly wrote a letter in support of PeTA’s claims which is being covered by the media.  But what did this veterinarian say exactly?

[…] Brown said the clear inspection report, which cited “no noncompliant items,” is not the fault of the USDA, or the veterinarian staff, but rather the fault of the administration.

According to Brown, who said he is familiar with the specific inspector who evaluated UW’s research facilities and is confident in her work, it is not in the nature of a USDA inspection to point out what is ethically “wrong,” but rather to cite noncompliance.

Hold on.  What is Brown saying?!  He is saying the inspector is known to him, that he has confidence in her work and, by inference, in the result of her inspections.  What is the problem then?  The problem is that in Brown’s eyes the work is unethical.  In other words, he acknowledges the work is legal, regulated, and that no violations of the law took place but, nevertheless, the work is unethical and he wanted the UW administration to take action.

His statement is hardly in support of PeTA’s claims.  To the contrary, it validates the position of the UW and puts confidence in the work by the USDA inspector.  You see, PeTA’s claimed a violation of the Animal Welfare Act — not that the work is unethical.

If PeTA believes the responsible and regulated use of animals to advance medical knowledge and human health is unethical, then they should try to convince the public and our legislators of such view. Instead, their preference to mislead the public and misrepresent the work of scientists are signs they simply cannot make a compelling case to the public.

Consciousness and Moral Status

A group of scientists recently gathered at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference and issued the following declaration which as been widely covered in the media:

The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

Their good intentions duly noted, this is not a declaration of a scientific fact.

The truth is that we have no idea what a “conscious state” is.  We do not know what neural substrates “generate consciousness”.  We do not know how to recognize what is “intentional behavior” and what is not.  We do not know if consciousness if a property that arises only in biological systems. Nor do we know if consciousness is a binary or graded property. These are all open questions. Any assertion that non-human animals are capable of exhibiting “conscious states” as those experienced by humans is at best a working hypothesis based on vague concepts that need to be clarified.

Note that if we truly had the scientific knowledge and understanding to back up the declaration we should be able to answer the following simple questions.  Is a fly’s escape behavior to a swat intentional or a mere reflex?  What about single-cell organisms that follow up gradients of nutrients?  Are they conscious?  Is their movement towards the food intentional?  The authors must surely have a way to answer these questions to have decided to include the octopus in their list of conscious animals, while leaving the salmon out.  But they do not really have an answer.  If we had one we could also offer a resolution to one of the biggest problems in philosophy — the problem of other minds.  PZ Myers already offered a similar criticism of the declaration and I hope other scientists will jump into this debate as well.

Of course, there are animal activists that had already reached the conclusion that animals are conscious simply by staring into their eyes, they mockingly applaud the new recognition by this group of scientists, and move on to suggest the following:

Some of the conclusions reached in this declaration are the product of scientists who, to this day, still conduct experiments on animals […] Their own declaration will now be used as evidence that it’s time to stop using these animals in captivity and start finding new ways of making a living.

Is this so?  Can the declaration, assuming it is scientifically valid, be used to argue in such a way?  This may be possible if and only if one accepts the following assumptions.  First, that the declaration means that consciousness is a binary property — either you have it or not.  Thus if animals are conscious they are conscious to the same degree as a normal human (thereby denying the possibility graded levels of consciousness). Second, that consciousness is the only morally relevant property that determines the moral status of a living being.  If one accepts these two assumptions the moral status of human and non-human animals ought to be the same. But both assumptions are wrong.  Not even the scientists involved in the declaration would agree with the first assumption.  People do not think we owe the same moral consideration to the serial killer and to the Dalai Lama, although both are equally conscious. Similarly, we reject the notion that the moral status of a patient in a minimally conscious state is the same as that of a worm. Thus, consciousness alone is insufficient to establish the moral status of living beings.

Opponents of animal research continue to insinuate that the only reason for scientists to experiment on animals is because it supports our livelihood.  No, this is not the real reason. The reason for this work is that humans have ability to reduce and eliminate suffering from the world by means of their scientific work.  Due to current limitations in technology, in some cases, medical research cannot move forward without access to living organisms at the level of single cells and even molecules. Scientists acknowledge that we owe moral consideration to other living beings, but not to the same degree as human life.  We do confront this moral dilemma by carrying out the work while minimizing the number, pain and suffering of animals subjects.  Opponents of animal research, on the other hand, readily ask us to stop the work, but fail to provide a moral justification.