The Chronicle Review

Animal Research: Groupthink in Both Camps

Thomas Peter, Reuters

A primate station in Sukhumi, capital of the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia, was in Soviet times a leading institute for the study of diseases by way of experimenting with primates. But the station has been struggling to keep its scientific work running since Abkhazia broke away in the early 1990s. Its former population of about 6,000 monkeys has been reduced to some 300 primates, and money from the unrecognized Abkhaz government is meager.
November 07, 2010

Professors like me, with established research credentials at animal-research-intensive universities who are also members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, are rare. But a dual identity as a research faculty member and an animal advocate affords a unique perspective on both camps.

A striking similarity between the two is that animal researchers and defenders of animals both employ groupthink, a mode of thought that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, where members striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.

We faculty members with deep concerns for animal welfare are often viewed by our groupthink scientific colleagues as untrustworthy or even treasonous agents provocateurs, since we are inclined to raise both ethical and scientific objections to invasive and lethal animal experimentation, especially when it involves primates and companion animals—that is, dogs and cats.

Meanwhile, our animal-rights associates suspect us of insufficient ardor for animal welfare, since we acknowledge that not all research involving animals is torture, and many of us do not object when transgenic mice are painlessly euthanized after being well cared for during their short lives.

Groupthink among animal advocates, unless it leads to violence, is harmless enough, but it's self-defeating when the goal is to rally public opposition to vivisection (a term that encompasses both the dissection of living animals for teaching, and performing invasive, intentionally mutilating or maiming surgeries on living animals as a way to do research). A huge reservoir of empathy for our fellow primates and for companion animals goes untapped when PETA demonstrators protest biomedical research on mice or trivia like presidential fly swatting. It may well be that a Gandhi-like respect for all animal life represents the ultimate in human ethical evolution, but until that "consummation devoutly to be wished" is realized, apes and monkeys and dogs and cats are being confined, vivisected, and killed while animal advocates are ignored as a lunatic fringe.

Groupthink at universities that perform experiments on animals has far more dire consequences for the animals involved. Researchers view animals as a means to an end rather than as ends in their own right, as we consider ourselves. That perspective has led some researchers to subject animals to what the public construes as excessive suffering in the quest for scientific advancement.

The Laboratory Animal Welfare Act was passed by Congress in 1966 in response to public outrage over abuse of dogs in research laboratories exposed in a Life magazine photo essay titled "Concentration Camps for Lost and Stolen Pets." A later amendment to that law required the establishment of Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees to oversee all use of primates, dogs, and cats in research and teaching. Animal-research universities complied, but the overwhelming majority of committee members are the researchers themselves. Their groupthink routinely countenances such ethically disquieting treatment of animal subjects that it is difficult to avoid the cynical conclusion that the intention of the Animal Welfare Act is routinely circumvented by researchers who strictly adhere to its letter only in order to avoid accomplishing its goal. Even defenders of the committee system acknowledge that the committees do not reject animal protocols that involve inflicting suffering, although that was the role animal protectionists had expected them to assume.

One especially disturbing example of primate vivisection repeatedly approved by many university animal-care-and-use committees is a decades-long series of highly invasive experiments performed on rhesus monkeys to learn more about the neuronal circuitry of visual tracking in the brain. The luckless monkeys undergo multiple surgeries to have coils implanted in both eyes; holes drilled in their skulls to allow researchers to selectively destroy some parts of their brains and put recording electrodes in others; and head-immobilization surgeries in which screws, bolts, and plates are directly attached to their skulls. The monkeys are anesthetized during these surgeries. After a recovery period, they are intentionally dehydrated to produce a water-deprivation "work ethic" so that they will visually track moving objects for the reward of a sip of water.

First impressions are usually correct in questions of cruelty to animals, and most of us cannot bear to even look at pictures of these monkeys, with their electrode-implanted brains and bolted heads, being put through their paces in a desperate attempt to get a life-sustaining sip of water. Such treatment is justified in the corresponding grant application by invoking the possibility that the resulting data may allow us to find the cause and cure for human diseases such as Alzheimer's.

But those of us who have spent decades in research on Alzheimer's disease recognize that such a justification is an ethical bait and switch, since the neural pathway being investigated in these experiments is not even involved in Alzheimer's disease. These experiments in the basic neuroscience of visual tracking are so thoroughly unrelated to the neuropathology of Alzheimer's disease that in more than 28 years of research in the neuroscience of the disease, I have never come across a single reference to them in any scientific literature on neurodegenerative disease. 

When neuroscience researchers concoct connections between their vivisection of primates and far-fetched, entirely theoretical potential future benefit for human welfare, they are tacitly admitting that the general public, which ultimately pays for their research, would recoil in horror from their more grotesque monkey experiments and would overwhelmingly condemn the work if they knew that those experiments were not directly related to human welfare. Such experiments are always carried out far away from public scrutiny, and the researchers performing them will never submit photographs of their research subjects for the cover of Science or Nature.

Since most invasive monkey research is not directly linked to alleviating human suffering, what is the real motivation of scientists doing such things to our cousin primates? The investigators are not sadists, although they may seem to be from the monkey's point of view. Researchers simply see themselves as doing neuroscience, reasoning that if you want to learn about how brains are wired, the easiest and most direct way is to selectively damage a living brain and see what happens.

Science is an intrinsically amoral (not to be confused with immoral) enterprise, and good science, by which we mean valid as opposed to invalid science, can be pursued either ethically or unethically. The infamous Tuskegee and, more recently brought to light, Guatemalan syphilis experiments performed on unwitting and unwilling human subjects were not bad science as long as they produced valid results about the natural history of syphilis infection. But they are very good examples of scientists behaving badly. And so it is when neuroscientists pursue neuroscience without regard to the suffering they inflict while doing so. 

Companion animals—dogs and cats—fare no better than primates when they, too, are forced to rely on the tender mercies of university animal-care-and-use committees. The committee at the University of California at San Diego, for example, continued to approve dog-vivisection labs in the institution's pharmacology course for first-year medical students, killing dozens of dogs every year, long after such lethal demonstrations had been discontinued at 95 percent of American medical schools. 

Hundreds of San Diego physicians, including UCSD medical-school faculty members, signed a petition in 1999 urging an end to the dog labs. After that was ignored, a formal complaint was lodged with the animal-care-and-use committee in 2002, accusing it of ignoring federal guidelines that require a good-faith effort to replace animal labs in education when alternatives become available. It seemed incontestable to the petitioning physicians that dog vivisection and euthanasia in first-year pharmacology could be replaced by alternative educational methods, given that 95 percent of medical schools in the United States killed no animals—let along dogs—in their pharmacology courses.

The response of the animal-care-and-use committee to this complaint was that the vivisection and euthanasia of dogs in the pharmacology course raised "no animal-welfare issues." Such a dismissal seemed like Orwellian newspeak to the doctors arguing against the dog labs, and public protests followed. Eventually, after years of internal faculty dissent, newspaper articles, editorials, e-mail campaigns, and adverse publicity in general, the UCSD Faculty Council and School of Medicine department chairs reviewed the issue and recommended in 2003 that the dog labs not be a part of the core curriculum, finally accomplishing what the animal-care-and-use committee should have done decades before.

These examples of animal abuse happen to come from the University of California and concern monkeys and dogs, but other research universities behave similarly, and cats suffer the same fate. The rubber-stamp approval of anything any researcher with a grant wants to inflict upon these animals is all the more infuriating to animal advocates in light of the fact that the Animal Welfare Act is very narrowly tailored to apply to just these creatures and a very few others, while excluding from its presumed protections the overwhelming majority of animals used in research.

In defending themselves against accusations of animal cruelty, research universities like to emphasize that 97.5 percent of animals used in research are rats or mice, and less than 0.1 percent are the monkeys, dogs, and cats more likely to inspire empathy and sympathy.  Much to the chagrin of more-radical advocates for kindness to animals, defenders of primates and companion animals are asking for an end to vivisection of only that 0.1 percent.

Oddly enough, animal advocates and animal researchers share a paradoxical consensus, arrived at with antithetical ethical reasoning, that primates and companion animals deserve no special ethical status or protections not afforded to other animals. Animal-rights advocates like those at PETA believe that all sentient beings are worthy of respect and deserve protection from the willful infliction of pain or suffering. They fear that rescuing only monkeys, dogs, and cats from the vivisection will dissipate any growing public pressure to abolish vivisection altogether, leaving the vast majority of experimental animals beyond the pale of public compassion. They consequently refuse to designate any particular species as special, but in so doing they risk allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good.

Enthusiastic vivisectors agree with the animal-rights advocates that there is nothing special about primates or companion animals. But in their ethical universe, only humans warrant ethical consideration, and all nonhuman animals should be fair game for vivisection. Ironically, it is at just this point of their agreement—about monkeys and companion animals not being special—where both groups' values differ most from those of the general population.

People have a natural empathy for their fellow primates because we recognize ourselves in them. Most of us also recognize a special bond with dogs and cats, after 10,000 years of selective breeding have produced companion animals hard-wired to love humans. One animal-laboratory technician at UCSD quit his job because a dog he was transporting to her fate on the vivisection table tried to shake hands with him.

It seems to many that treating dogs and cats the same as rodents or as animals killed for food would constitute a deep betrayal of an ancient bond between species. In short, primates warrant special status because they are so much like us, while dogs and cats deserve special protections because they like us so much.

You might think that in a dispute when one party asks the other to meet it 0.1 percent of the way, a mutually agreeable resolution could be readily reached. But no, researchers will not renounce vivisection of monkeys, dogs, or cats.

Research universities' animal-care-and-use committees dominated by animal experimenters routinely approve such vivisections because it is simply human nature to become hardened, if not indifferent, to pain we routinely inflict on others. As George Bernard Shaw put it, "Custom will reconcile people to any atrocity."

Just as we would not assign wolves the task of enforcing safeguards for sheep, independent agencies outside research-intensive universities are necessary to rein in scientists. Recall that the enactment of the Animal Welfare Act was instigated not by scientists but by an outraged public.

Other precedents have been established for societal constraint of animal researchers. The European Union has effectively banned vivisection of great apes, although some European scientists are attempting to get the ban repealed so that they can infect chimpanzees with hepatitis C. A similar Great Ape Protection Act is working its way through Congress. In 2009 the Swiss Supreme Court denied the Polytechnic School of the University of Zurich a license for a monkey-research project about learning processes that involved maximal suffering for the animals on the Swiss scale of severity. The court concluded that the costs of pain and suffering to the animals were not counterbalanced by benefit for humans. 

Even within the research university, some extra-academic constraints have been applied to animal use. In 2009, Oklahoma State University rejected a federally financed project to inject baboons with anthrax bacillus to test vaccines and treatments. "The administration," it stated, "had simply decided that OSU will not have primates euthanized on its campus." And in Dane County, in Wisconsin, a resolution is pending before the city council supporting the creation of a citizens' advisory panel to study whether experimenting with monkeys is humane and ethical. The results will no doubt affect the thousands of monkeys experimented on at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. 

All these efforts reflect a growing awareness that neuroscientists wedded to primate vivisection as a way to conduct research are simply too biased by their own training, research agendas, and career considerations to objectively perform the kind of ethical cost-benefit analysis required before permitting primate vivisection. The trend toward outside supervision of animal vivisection parallels the point made by Georges Clemenceau, a French statesman and physician, who said, "War is too important to be left to the generals." Ethically aware citizens are increasingly concluding that primate vivisection is too important to be left to the researchers who dominate their university animal-care-and-use committees.

Lawrence A. Hansen, M.D., is a professor of neuroscience and pathology at the University of California at San Diego, where he also leads the neuropathology core of the Shiley-Marcos Alzheimer's Disease Research Center.