Paper reveals research cruelty and official wrongdoing

September 30, 2011 2 comments

I’ve finally managed to wring a journal article out of my PhD thesis on the evolution of UK animal research policy. It is published in the latest edition of the journal ‘Society & Animals’, whose focus is self-explanatory.

The article is actually based on a paper I gave at the inspirational Minding Animals Conference which took place in Newcastle, Australia in July 2009, and for which I was honoured to be presented with the Best Conference Paper prize by Professor Peter Singer. You can download a copy of the article from here.

In a nutshell, the article provides shocking insights into the true level of suffering inflicted on animal in laboratories, as well as the connivance of researchers and the Home Office in evading the law and covering up wrongdoing.

These are some of the verbatim observations recorded by researchers as primates endured a lingering and agonising death as a result of xenotransplantation experiments:

• “Uncoordinated limb spasms” and “stroke”
• “in a collapsed state” and “found dead”
• “Gastro-intestinal toxicity, resulting in severe diarrhoea”
• “very distressed”
• “body and limb tremors”
• “grinding teeth, eyes rolling . . .”

We urgently need to learn the lessons of this scandal so we can prevent such futile cruelty under the updated law resulting from the new EU Directive on animal experiments.

Report on animal-human hybrid research is ethically and politically regressive

Last Friday (22 July 2011), the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) – an association of scientists from industry, academia and government – released a report on experimentation involving the insertion of human material into nonhuman animals (‘Animals Containing Human Material’ [ACHM]). Media coverage interpreted the report as calling for ‘tighter regulation of animal tests’. However, the report’s recommendations are unlikely to make any practical difference to the current practice of weak regulation. On the contrary, by reinforcing established prejudices and behaviours, the report tends to promote both an expansion in animal experimentation and the persistence of this practice.

False assurances on animal welfare

Although it is presented as a ‘study of the scientific, social, ethical, safety and regulatory aspects of research involving animals, and non-human embryos, containing human material’, the language of the report reveals that it also has a significant political element and purpose.

It is seriously misleading for the report to assert that inserting human cells, tissue and genetic information into non-human animals and then experimenting on them, can in any way be consistent with ‘protecting their welfare’. On the contrary, these are actions that deliberately and knowingly endanger the welfare of these individuals through, for example, causing them to suffer painful and distressing diseases such as migraine, anxiety disorders, osteoporosis, diabetes, heart disease or cancer. In a domestic setting, such cruel treatment would be a criminal act.

Ethically impoverished

The AMS decided to limit the scope of the report’s ethical analysis; they make the assumption that harmful and potentially harmful uses of non-human animals are generally morally justified. Therefore the report fails to justify why it is morally unacceptable to inflict pain, suffering and distress on living people but morally acceptable in the case of non-human animals.

This omission is an example of Lukes’ famous 2nd dimension of power, where social questions that might challenge powerful interest groups and the institutionalised social practices that they support are simply not addressed. As a consequence, in dealing with ethical issues, the report rejects analysis and reason in favour of a dogmatic approach rooted in ‘religious and ethnic traditions that draw on an array of sources such as canonical texts, authoritative readings, overlapping (even contradictory platitudes), community norms’ (Vance, 1992: 1718).

The report also misrepresents the previous ethics reports which it cites as a justification for its approach to ethical issues. For example, while the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report concluded that animal experiments can be morally acceptable, it cited major conditions and qualifications:

  1. ‘The involvement of animals in research cannot be justified simply by the fact that animals are used or abused in other ways…’
  2. ‘Genuine willingness is also required to test and, where necessary, revise one’s own moral framework.’
  3. ‘For moral justification of animal research… the question of why alternatives are not available and what is required to make them available must also be asked.’

Far from following in the footsteps of the Nuffield report, the approach taken by the ACHM report directly contradicts these recommendations. This is disappointing as the institutional members of the Nuffield Council (e.g. Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council) are also partners of the AMS. As is often the case, they fail to honour their more reflective ethical pronouncements in their lobbying and policy activities.

Maintaining weak regulation

The report misrepresents the way the regulatory framework is supposed to work and its ethical implications, possibly due to the lack of public policy expertise on both the Working Group and the Review Group. Thus, in the press release announcing the report, chairman Professor Bobrow states: ‘The very great majority of [possible ACHM] experiments present no issues beyond the general use of animals in research and these should proceed under current regulation; a limited number of experiments should be permissible subject to scrutiny by the expert body we recommend…’  (emphasis added).

In fact, the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 and associated Guidance state that programmes of potentially painful animal experiments can only proceed if they pass a cost-benefit test. However the working group appears to contradict its own descriptions of a ‘strict’ regulatory system by assuming that animal experimentation proposals are/should be automatically approved rather than subject to independent cost-benefit analysis. This common assumption in pro-animal research statements reveals how the ‘regulatory’ system actually operates in practice – animal experimentation proposals are generally rubber-stamped rather than independently assessed. In practice, the law and regulations mainly serve to give the impression of strict regulation, and hence conceal and enshrine the real lack of consideration for animal welfare.

On the one hand, this call for automatic approval of animal experiments reinforces the prejudices about human moral supremacy and the moral status of nonhuman animals that are implicit in such a cavalier approach to animal research. But, of more practical consequence, the report’s lack of consideration for animal welfare further weakens scientists’ motivation to meet the ethical imperative to work towards a world where nonhuman animals are not subject to pain, distress and death in biomedical research (again, a Nuffield recommendation).

Media coverage claiming that the report calls for tighter regulation of animal tests arises from the preceding quote from Professor Bobrow. In the context of the need for a rapid response to the report’s publication, such an interpretation is understandable. However, a closer reading of the report – with the benefit of relevant policy expertise – shows this to be dubious.

In the context of an assumption that such proposals will be authorised, the proposed additional levels of scrutiny add little more to current processes whereby the Animal Procedures Committee already considers: ‘applications of any kind raising novel or contentious issues, or giving rise to serious societal concerns’. Apart from providing some definition for this category, it is hard to see how the ACHM report actually adds to the current regime (or intends to for that matter). It raises the question of whether the report is in some respects a PR exercise: falsely reassuring the public that animal experimentation is strictly regulated in order to prevent that very situation from occurring.

Reference

Vance, R.P. (1992). ‘An Introduction to the Philosophical Presuppositions of the Animal Liberation/Rights Movement’, Journal of the American Medical Association 268;13: 1715-1719.

The mysterious flying beagles

On the day before East Yorkshire Council’s planning committee considers an application for a new beagle breeding establishment, a recent Ministerial reply to a Parliamentary Question raises concerns about the Home Office’s regulation (or lack of) of painful experiments on dogs.

A few weeks ago, Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, tabled a fairly straightforward PQ asking how many dogs of each breed were imported into the UK for use in lab tests over the last four years. Worryingly, the most recent statistics (Table 2)  show that  232 dogs were acquired from other EU countries and, worryingly, 771 from ‘other sources’ which looks like non-European countries.  11 are from ‘non-designated sources’ in the UK which is intriguing.

As is so often the case in animal research regulation, there are exemptions to tough-looking clauses. In this case, according to the official Guidance on the operation of the relevant law there are supposed to be very strong controls on the source of cats and dogs to ensure they come from licensed breeding establishments (see e.g. paragraph 8.2). Presumably this is partly due to public concern over the use of stolen pets or animals from shelters. Although banned about 100 years ago in the UK, such incidents continued until the 1980s. 

However, there is a loophole. The Secretary of State will grant a specific exemption if applicants can persuade them of (a) the need for that species for those procedures and (b) the unavailability of suitable animals (for the purposes of the experiment) of such species from UK designated establishments.

The general tenor of UK animal research regulation is ‘rubber-stamping exercise’. The worrying number of exemptions to the rules governing the supply of dogs is consistent with that approach.

However, what was even more intriguing was the first sentence in the reply given in the name of the junior minister Lynne Featherstone: ‘The Home Office does not record the information requested.’ But if the Home Office has carefully considered applications for exemptions that permit the import of these dogs, then how can they not possess this basic information? It’s hard not to think that they are trying to hide something.

It seems like a year of new Government has changed nothing. It’s the same old evasive, cavalier, pro-industry Home Office with no meaningful regard for animal welfare or the public’s right to information about the cruelties permitted by the Government in their name.

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Why are British badgers still threatened with slaughter?

May 14, 2011 6 comments

A very useful article by Adam Spencer in the latest edition of the journal ‘Politics’ provides a handy summary of the history of ‘Bovine TB’ (bTB) policy and the issue of badger culling. Most importantly, it provides insights into why the systematic slaughter of thousands of wild animals is still a possibility, despite the considerable scientific evidence against its effectiveness and overwhelming public opposition.

The persecution of badgers under the guise of bTB ‘control’ started 40 years ago when a TB-infected badger was discovered. This circumstantial evidence has led to badgers being the number 1 scapegoat for the disease, despite the lack of direct evidence that badgers actually transmit the disease to cattle. 

This has created a legacy of futile slaughter. The draconian badger culling strategy that followed Lord Zuckerman’s 1980 review was based on the assumption that badgers were a reservoir of TB-infection and ‘could’ (NB – not ‘did’) spread it to cattle. However, the 1986 Dunnett review found bTB had fallen across the country irrespective of whether culling had taken place. Spencer goes on to note that MAFF’s eye was taken off the bTB ball by the BSE crisis. Hence the lack of resources for testing and monitoring cows seems to have had the greatest impact on the subsequent increase in bTB.

Despite a generation of various badger culling methods, yet another review by Krebs in 1996 was once again incapable of reaching a clear conclusion over the effectiveness of badger culling. So an Independent Scientific Group (ISG) was set up in 1998 to oversee a new badger culling trial (the ‘RBCT’) which was supposed to finally settle the issue.

Interim findings published in 2003 found that the ‘reactive’ culling method established by the Dunnett review in 1986 actually caused an increase in bTB cases!  

It raises the question of why farmers and MAFF officials were prepared to assume that badger culling was justified despite any direct evidence, yet for 15 years or so were able to ignore the evidence in front of their eyes that culling was making things worse. What kind of mentality allows such a twisted view of the world?

In 2006, the ISG concluded that a proactive culling method actually led to an increase in adjoining areas (29%) that outweighed the decrease in the culling zone (19%).

You would have thought that would have been the death knell for badger culling, rather than badgers. Yet the ISG were outraged when the subsequent Government consultation document went out of its way to distort the evidence to lead respondents to support culling, complaining: ‘…  the scientific basis for any badger culling is neither accurately portrayed nor carefully explored in the consultation document’.

Despite the Government’s attempt to predetermine the outcome, the response was one of massive public opposition to culling – over 95% of the 47,000 respondents. 

If science and public opinion are supposed to lead policy-making, then badger culling should be dead in the water. Yet following the ISG report, the Labour Government hesitated for a year before it ruled out badger culling completely, the new Coalition Government is clearly keen to proceed, and the Welsh Assembly’s cull has only been delayed by legal challenges by the Badger Trust.

One of the judgments in that challenge gives an insight into the underlying problems with policy-making that lead to cruel and pointless persecution of wild animals. According to Spencer: ‘… ministers had unlawfully failed to carry out a balancing exercise weighing the harm involved against the potential benefit of the cull’. Furthermore, the Welsh Government’s notion that a 9% reduction in bTB met the legal test of a ‘significant reduction’ in cases was basically laughed out of court.  

In other words, the Welsh Government was oblivious to the suffering they were to inflict on animals and were happy to give into farmers’ demands regardless of the lack of evidence to support even the feeble predicted benefits. But, the big question raised for me by Spencer’s account is, why?

My own research into the politics of animal experimentation and policy conflict generally allows us to point to the following factors:

  1. Firstly, there is no dedicated body in Government to speak up for animals.
  2. Secondly, this is compounded by the absence of significant legal mechanisms to ensure that animals and their wellbeing are represented in the policy process.
  3. Thirdly, farming and agriculture interests have developed very close relationships with Government over the years, especially since 1945.  On the other hand, animal protection groups are, to all intents and purposes, excluded from Government.

Lastly, there is clearly an entrenched mentality in sections of the farming industry and Government that see the persecution of wild animals as at best, a matter of moral indifference and possibly, as a desirable end in itself. Maybe it’s the sense of power they get from destroying animals with impunity? Practising sadistic cruelty to animals seems to be an aspiration for many social climbers, especially in rural areas.    

Badgers and other wild animals are particularly vulnerable to persecution. A joint committee of animal welfare advisory groups has recently noted there is no such body to advise the Government on the welfare of wild animals harmed by human activity. It should be remembered that the Government tends to ignores progressive animal protection advice from the bodies that do exist. For wild animals, the Government doesn’t even have to go to the trouble of dismissing inconvenient advisors. 

More recently evidence (pp. 29-30) has emerged indicating that increases in bTB in the surrounding areas following a proactive cull fade away, while the decreases in cases within the area are maintained.  But at best the net decrease is less than 20% over 12 years, and achieving that insignificant figure requires a huge level of continuous slaughter and meeting other conditions that are practically impossible under the Coalition Government’s proposals. As the ISG noted in their final report: “we consider it likely that licensing farmers (or their appointees) to cull badgers would not only fail to achieve a beneficial effect, but would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB and spreading the disease in space, whether licences were issued to individual farmers or to groups” (p.170).

So for bTB, the real problem isn’t a reservoir of infection in badgers, but seems to be the much more toxic reservoir of cruelty and prejudice in farming and Government.

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Government puts fox in charge of chicken coop

April 28, 2011 2 comments

Yesterday (26 April 2011) Conservative DEFRA Minister Jim Paice announced the creation of a new ‘Animal Health and Welfare Board for England‘ (AHWBE) to advice ministers on… what? Well, as usual the devil is in the detail here. 

Given the use of the word ‘welfare’ in the title, you could be forgiven for assuming that reducing the suffering experienced by the billion animals farmed and killed for food every year in Britain might be part of its strategy. However, the terms of reference reveal that the welfare of animals is actually of no inherent concern to this key body. The primary focus of the AHWBE is dealing with diseases in farmed animals – or ‘livestock’ as they refer to them. This seems to be all about protecting the financial interests of producers, and animals are just seen as units of production from which (rather than ‘whom’) every last penny of profit must be exploited.

DEFRA emphasises the need for the AHWBE to have the confidence and respect of industry – but says nothing about protecting the public interest and the wellbeing of animals. This is what’s called ‘regulatory capture’ – where vested interests take over the Government that is supposed to prevent their activities damaging the public, the environment and animals. It is very worrying that the core values that underpin current Government policy appear to lack any sincere regard for animals. 

The announcement is a classic example of how the language of ‘animal welfare’ is deployed by those with a vested interest in the intensive exploitation of animals. The aim is to fool the public into thinking they genuinely care about animals. Perhaps some methods of reducing animal disease will – coincidentally – mitigate their pain and distress. But ultimately the policies that emerge will probably be those that are cheapest in the short term for producers rather than the most ethical or economically sustainable ones.  The result could be another BSE-style catastrophe.

Meanwhile, the Farm Animal Welfare Council has been reformed to become the ‘Farm Animal Welfare Committee‘ (how much did that pointless rebanding cost?) and has the powers to make recommendations to improve animal welfare. But its ability to achieve this is undermined by:

  1. Improving animal welfare is an optional rather than mandatory part of its role
  2. Most members come from industry rather than representing the public interest or animal welfare
  3. It appears to be below the AHWBE in the Government ‘food chain’, so the AHWBE strategy is likely to impede any attempt by FAWC to improve animal welfare

If how we treat animals is a measure of how civilised we are, then I fear the Government might be taking us back to the dark ages.

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Why do ‘normal’ people do terrible things?

April 13, 2011 4 comments

Last night I attended a great talk at Sheffield Hallam University by Dr Les Mitchell, entitled ‘Moral Disengagement and Support for Nonhuman Animal Farming’. It explored the various factors that promote violence towards animals, including humans. We need to understand these causes to build a truly just and flourishing society.

Les referred to the work of psychologists such as Milgram, Zimbardo and Bandura. Milgram was the guy who found that most ordinary people will obey an order by an authority figure to inflict an agonising and potentially lethal electric shock to another human. Zimbardo conducted the infamous Stanford prison experiment, where volunteers were split into a group of ‘guards’ and a group of ‘prisoners’. He found that the guards soon indulged in sadistic abuse of prisoners, not only because they had the power to do so, but because both guards and prisoners were ‘de-individuated’.

The guards’ anonymity eroded their sense of moral responsibility while the prisoners’ anonymity stripped them of their status as individual persons. Les also cited Hannah Arendt’s legendary phrase – ‘the banality of evil’ – that she used to describe the surreal ‘normality’ of those accused of genocide at the Nuremburg War Crimes Trial. The overarching point was that ‘societal channels’ encourage certain types of behaviour, such as moral indifference to the terrible abuse of non-humans in factory farming.

This means that those who participate in or acquiesce to appalling atrocities are not usually ‘monsters’. Humans are not the perfectly autonomous rational agents we often like to think we are. We are just another species of animal after all. While this should provoke reflection and undermine our delusion of moral superiority , it also demonstrates practical problems in achieving justice and respect for all sentient beings, given the obvious limits of appeals to human reason.

But, as Les pointed out, one strategy that can make a difference is challenging the euphemisms that are used to obscure violent abuse – for example when animal researchers say they ‘work with’ animals, rather than being honest about the pain and distress they cause to non-consenting individuals. Talking of individuals – asserting the individualism and personality of animals is also vital. They are not just numbers or units of production.

And we must evolve better societal channels – such as cultural norms and political institutions – that promote ethical ways of living rather than sustaining our brutal tyranny over other animals.

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Nature undermines animal research debate

February 25, 2011 1 comment

There’s an interesting feature in his week’s Nature on animal experiments. Unfortunately, the issue is set up with the usual ‘Violent extremists vs life-saving scientists’ format – a rather blatant attempt at positioning any and all critics of animal experimentation in a negative light. At the same time, the violence inflicted by animal researchers is denied.

Another recurring aspect of these skewed reports are the expressions of support for institutions developing ‘programmes to explain what goes on within their walls’. This does seem rather contrived given the selfsame institutions have habitually gone out of their way to conceal relevant information through intimidatory legal actions or spin. On the latter, the UK Information Tribunal concluded that the abstracts of research proposals written by researchers and published by the Home Office:

“… appear generally to adopt a style and tone intended to persuade the reader as to the value of the proposed experiments. This is in contrast to the style of the licence applications, which are more neutral in tone. This perception of a positive spin having been applied to the published information was increased by the absence from the abstracts of the detail about the experiments themselves.” 

Researchers need to develop a less elitist attitude and accept the public has an ethical and democratic right to ultimate control over their activities. Clauses in the new EU Directive may force more honesty, but the UK Government will no doubt do its best to implement these measures in as meagre way as possible.

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