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Scientific brutality: animals or humans?

May 27, 2015

There is a new editorial in Nature Neuroscience titled “Inhumane treatment of nonhuman primate researchers”. I have titled this post “Scientific Brutality” because of the parallels to the highly active controversy we have today regarding police brutality. Here in Cleveland, Ohio, there is outrage over multiple cases of alleged police brutality, and the potential for violent protest has induced fear in our communities. One similarity in the battle between animal rights activists and animal researchers is the potential for extremist acts of violence toward researchers. There are many stories of death threats and other extreme acts by activists, including threats to actual patients (not researchers), such as the 2013 story of Caterina Simonsen.

The editorial in Nature Neuroscience discusses a unique case regarding Nikos Logothetis at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tubingen, Germany. What is unique is that Logothetis seems to have conceded a victory to activists by declaring that he will cease using non-human primates for research and will transition to using rodents instead. He has not changed his reasoning or ethical position, however. He simply does not want the hassle anymore.

Logothetis’s declaration letter seems to not be public yet, but he did make available a letter that responded to recent accusations about animal cruelty. (The letter is available here, and an article that links to it is available here.) In the rest of this post, I will comment on that letter. Let me first disclose that I have personally killed animals for research. I was required to be educated on humane euthanasia methods as well as my legal requirements to follow committee-approved policies for ethical treatment of the animals. I used rats for the purpose of studying how the brain controls respiration. This involved fully anesthetizing an animal before removing its brain, thus killing the animal. Like all researchers (hopefully), I consider unnecessary pain and distress to be unethical. I suspect Logothetis is opposed to animal cruelty, but I do not think his letter makes this clear.

Now I will explain what provoked the letter. A caregiver in the facility provided video footage to animal rights groups (BUAV and Soko-Tierschutz) who published a report and video. WARNING: it’s a disturbing video. They allege several abuses: severe water depravation, bleeding head implants, infections, restrained monkeys that appear to be extremely distressed, and a case in which a monkey is being violently pulled by a collar around its neck. Logothetis’s letter addresses all but the last incident, and he asserts that the video is intentionally misleading. Regarding water depravation, he states that the level of depravation is neither “distressing” nor “unpleasant”. Regarding the bleeding and infection, he claims that such incidents are very rare and that the infection was an isolated case in which they were required to attempt medical treatment before euthanizing the animal. He does acknowledge that post-operative care could be improved to further reduce such incidents. Regarding the apparently distressed animal, he asserts that the behavior was “almost certainly induced intentionally by the caregiver.” Oddly, he did not address the footage of the violent removal of a monkey from a cage, which I personally found very disturbing.

The primary issue that concerns me about the letter is what seems like an attempt to be philosophically superior rather than just sticking to the facts. The philosophy of what constitutes animal cruelty is a separate topic from that of the facts about laboratory conduct. A lack of separation between these two topics seems to be a source of confusion in many such debates.

For example, the letter suggests that financial support of animal rights is unreasonable when humans are suffering in the world. The letter contains a paragraph that begins with this:

“Donations to organizations such as BUAV or SOKO might sooth the conscience of animal lovers, but are the activities of antivivisectionists appropriate and reasonable in today’s world?”

He then delves into the tragedies of human hunger and poor sanitation in the world, even citing a decision in China to avoid establishing “strict regulations in an animal welfare law” because monkeys might receive better treatment than the humans. As another example of mixing philosophy with facts, he closes his letter with this:

“What society can ignore human suffering to promote the welfare of mice? If the ultimate benefit of patients is not considered a greater good, then we should indeed stop science and research.”

The activists are not suggesting that we should “ignore human suffering to promote the welfare of mice”. Again, I think Logothetis is confusing the debate, as opposed to clearing things up. The editorial I mentioned states,

“We are not trivializing the ethics of animal use in research. In fact, this is an issue of great concern to neuroscientists.”

The editorial also mentions a need to educate the public. Perhaps the “great concern” of neuroscientists is not so obvious to the activists. Clearly, there are plenty of animal rights activists that do not support hateful or violent acts towards researchers. They are not stupid, and they are not philosophically inferior either. It is important to deal with violent extremists, but scientists will need to help others to really see the “great concern”.

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