Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

The latest Science Blogs hot topic on Dario Ringach’s decision to cease his research struck a Bushwellian nerve or two thousand. Here’s an excerpt from Predators Unleashed (see Investors.com, 8/24/2006).

A group named Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty has reportedly posted on its Web site the home telephone numbers, addresses and the children’s schools of those who work for or do business with Huntingdon Life Sciences, a contract animal-research firm.

Last March, in the midst of a bunch of other tumultuous life events, I received a disconcerting e-mail from Dark Overlords Pharmaceuticals, Inc.’s (DOPI – pronounced just how you think it is) vice president of corporate sercurity. He informed me that my name, home address, and home phone number (yes, I’m listed) had appeared on the web site of a rather vociferous animal rights group, SHAC (see above quote and footnote below). Fortunately, my kids sport my husband’s surname so their school was not listed. There are any number of ways someone might have associated my name and home address with my employment at DOPI, but typically, I am cautious about revealing this.

The e-mail detailed current activities of the group, the precautions which my family and I should take, and what DOPI was doing about it. The latter’s actions included contacting the New Jersey State Police and the FBI. Shortly after the notification, the problematic web site and the long lists of names (100 from DOPI alone) were removed. DOPI’s diligent security VP still keeps me updated, most recently of the benignly named Hugs for Puppies, a local animal rights group with ties to SHAC. Because I am conveniently located near a local chapter of Hugs, there’s lingering concern by the VP that we could be targetted. Nothing untoward has happened yet, but that first e-mail was damned unnerving.

My department doesn’t conduct in vivo experiments but we use animal tissues for ex vivo assays, and certainly my senior staff and I are key players in the mature projects which use animals for disease models, pharmacokinetic/pharmacodynamic and toxicological studies. As noted in Young Jake’s and Orac’s entries, animal research is the cornerstone for a large chunk of biomedical studies. I’ll re-emphasize that the computer models as replacements for in vivo studies are woefully inadequate. Computational modeling for much more defined systems like proteins is complex and not all that predictive when it comes to projection of hard numbers associated with ligand interaction. Now take an in vivo system and add n to the nth power degrees of freedom. We’re a long way from the utility of computational methods as a viable replacement for in vivo studies.

Like others, for example, His Boraliciousness, I believe there is a distinction between animal welfare and animal rights. Although I must confess that I am scratching my head over Bora’s argument that the AR movement is equivalent to conservative ideology (AR folks are pretty varied in my experience), I do think he makes a good point on “hyper-urbanism” and removal from nature on the part of many AR activists. Having grown up on a farm myself, I was just as likely to be scratching an animal behind its ears one morning, then eating its meat a couple months later. With a nod to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I honestly did know the source of my food. This “pet you one day, eat you the next” attitude may seem dissociative to the urbanite vegan, but we respected the animals, and took pains to be sure they were healthy and lived happy complacent lives. But, yes, we farm types were rank speciesists.

In my research history, I worked with plants, marine invertebrates and bacteria during my undergrad, graduate and post-doctoral studies. It was when I started my first “real job” that mammals were on the table, so to speak. Prior to the ease of producing good recombinant protein, we had to “harvest” tissue as our enzyme sources. These sources included rat intestine, bovine adrenal glands, porcine kidney, and human prostate glands and testicles. OK, I confess that I didn’t follow my male colleagues around with snippers (as tempting as that might be for some of ‘em), but obtained these from patients (informed consent) through clinical colleagues at comprehensive cancer centers and veterans’ hospitals.

The human glands came in handy for a prostate cancer research program. I was the project leader at the time. I didn’t want to feel like a useless paper-pushing, computer-tapping, corporate-platitude-spouting manager, so I always tried to keep my hand in the lab. My direct reports hustled me out of the in vitro assay suites since I invariably gummed up the obtuse HPLC software, thus making a pest of myself. I found my niche by helping with the necropsies of the tumor studies and by dosing rats and mice. I also trained to use the nude mouse facility so I could dose the mice therein and remove tissues for ex vivo assays.

By engaging in these studies, I learned about the strict protocols of our animal use committee, which were (and are) aimed at the welfare of the animals. I learned to effectively and efficiently sacrifice the rats and mice which were always anesthetized first. I always handled them gently. I never enjoyed, nor became callous to, these rodent sacrifices at the Great Altar of Science. In a spate of magical thinking, before each sacrifice, I paraphrased the Native American prayers offered to the buffalo before they killed them. I highly doubt that my apologies made much difference to the BALB/c nudes, but it kept me respectful of just what the little wrinkly buggers were giving up for my edification.

I have to admit that I am relieved I am well removed from direct research with dogs and primates, but nonetheless, I fully support their necessity, and I also fully support their justification before an animal use committee. Experiments with larger animals are very expensive so they must be planned out carefully. Plus the welfare oversights for these animals (at least within the vivarium halls of DOPI) are quite strict. In one of my previous projects, the only viable animal disease model was in chimpanzees. The elevation of Pan made it so expensive that we went “straight to man.” However, this entailed a lot of tox studies in mice, rats, and yes, dogs. The FDA requires multiple species for tox, and I expect the guys who volunteered for the Phase I trials appreciated this.

As far as human life being equivalent to a dog’s or a mouse’s, well, Peter Singer doesn’t take it far enough. As a former botany major, I appreciate that the members of the plant kingdom are just as living as we humans are. So what’s with the prejudice against non-sentient chlorophyll bearing organisms? If I were true to my view of “what is life,” I’d have to adopt Jainism. I’d wait for fruit to drop from a tree, I would eschew eating root vegetables and would wear a mask so as not to breathe in microorganisms since I might harm them. That’s not a practical way to live. Thus, I am a speciesist, and on the hit list of Hugs for Puppies and SHAC.

Footnote: I have not linked SHAC nor Hugs for Puppies so that Science Blogs might avoid undesirable trackbacks. If you’re interested, a Google search is easy enough. Color me paranoid, but if your name was on a hit list, you’d be jittery, too.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike the Mad Biologist
    September 3, 2006

    If it’s any consolation, the SHAC USA site has the following: “We apologize, but this site has been shut down for legal reasons.”

    What’s infuriating is that these same morons would probably oppose using animals to determine antibiotic resistance breakpoints (i.e., how much antibiotic is needed to be effective). Insane.

  2. #2 Doc Bushwell
    September 3, 2006

    Heh. Yeah, shortly after DOPI and other local businesses found out that their employees were listed on SHAC USA, it was shut down thanks to the FBI.

    I’m sure the use of animals for determination of resistance breakpoints would be opposed by these groups since any form of animal research is taboo in their book. I’m not sure what their alternatives would be. One scenario could be no new medicines (some non-animal rights activists might argue for this position, too, for other reasons) or use of humans. Yeah, that’s the ticket. How about using prisoners? In fact, this chilling development was recently reported in the NYT: Panel Suggests Using Inmates in Drug Trials.

  3. #3 JKB
    September 3, 2006

    Color me paranoid, but if your name was on a hit list, you’d be jittery, too.

    It’s always good to have an objective criteria for paranoia.

    Good article.

  4. #4 Stentor
    September 3, 2006

    I think Peter Singer has a pretty good reason for not caring about plants. He doesn’t say all lives are equal, he says all suffering is equal. Since plants (and many “lower animals”) can’t feel anything, they can’t suffer, and hence they don’t count. I’m sure you disagree with the “equal suffering” principle, but it’s not at all inconsistent for someone who agrees with it to not accord plants any rights.

  5. #5 Doc Bushwell
    September 3, 2006

    I’m sure you disagree with the “equal suffering” principle, but it’s not at all inconsistent for someone who agrees with it to not accord plants any rights.

    Thanks for the reminder on Singer’s stance. Yes, he based this on “suffering” and thus it is not inconsistent as you correctly point out. You’re also correct that I do not agree with this since my basis is not “suffering” but “living.” Plants are respiring, growing, reproducing organisms and I hold them in as much wonder as I do animals.

  6. #6 Tony Martin
    September 9, 2006

    It’s easy to justify what you do by saying “it saves lives” but the fact you hide what you do from the public is very telling. Similarly, the public doesn’t want to see how their meat gets to their table. It is one of those ‘inconvenient truths’. You have a lot in common with the American President. He can get away with squashing the US Constitution, run illegal prison camps, wage war and cleverly deal with torture. After all, he’s stopped numerous terrorists from their evil ways. He is saving lives.

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