In light of the recent cases of researchers quitting animal research under the duress of threats and attacks by Animal Rights groups, e.g., Dr. Ringach at UCLA, this may be a good time to repost this old rant from May 23, 2005 (originally here, then reposted here on January 16, 2006):
I joined in late to that discussion, not because I missed it, but because I did not know what to say before I knew more about the case, and also because I have my own, very strong views on the general matter. I assumed that an animal rightist would show up, and I did not want to get banned from Pharyngula for the use of foul language in exchange with such a person.
I am glad I waited, as the two additional articles cleared up some stuff. This is a topic I wanted to write on my blog since I started it, yet could never make myself actually do it (though I copied/pasted some forum comments early on and asked a question about it here).
I got into biology because I love animals. I have a cat, a dog, some tetras, used to have horses... I was going to be a vet, but war interfered, I came to the State s, and I had to start all over again, thus I chose grad school and basic science over repeating the whole vet school.
My research is on whole animals, i.e., I have done hundreds of surgeries (and even more euthanasias). While I have acquired mastery of the skills which makes it easier, I still never like killing an animal. And I work with what is essentially poultry - a highly unintelligent and not very pretty bird: the Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica).
We spend at least 6 months discussing eve ry experiment that we may want to do (and may have already got NIH funding for beforehand) before we decide if it is worth doing and if we are certain that we have perfected the experimental design in a way that will maximize the usefulness of the experim ent. The important guiding principle is that we want to minimize the number of animals we use, minimize the pain, and maximize the benefit we gain from doing the experiment.
Then, we spend a couple of months dealing with IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Commitee) over the details of all the proposed experiments before they are approved, although they had initially approved the experiments as described in our grant proposal (NIH requires the IACUC approval to be sent with the proposal). Often we have to modify the procedure, or even abandon an experiment, due to IACUC non-approval (IACUCs are semi-fascist organizations IMHO).
Our old tech was a vet, and I am an almost-vet, so they let us do stuff alone, though they sometimes pop-up to check in o n us: they want to know when and where we do procedures so they can come and see. For each new procedure (e.g., lesioning a different brain nucleus than the one we did last week), the IACUC vet is there to make sure that we do it "right".
Recently we had to switch from injectable anesthesia (ketamine/rompun mix) to inhalation anesthesia under completely sterile conditions (the latter being completely neccessary for avian surgery but IACUC does not follow reason or scientific evidence - just emotion). My wife, who is a nurse, laughs at me - and I have funny pictures to show: wearing a
mask, a hat, sterile gloves and the iddy-biddy (100g) bird with an inhalation mask on a sterile field...it's a riot. That level of sterility and anesthesia is not used in humans!
Eleven years ago, when I just started, we did surgeries on a desk, the anesthetised bird secured to the desk with masking tape, cleaned our tools with alcohol swabs, and had never had any infections or other problems - the birds' immune system is just too strong for such stuff to occur. Actually, the "old" system was faster and we had more deaths in-surgery with inhalation surgery and the vet present as the bird remains anesthetised too long (while the vet is slowly checking every step and talking through it). I used to do 20 pinealectomies per day. Now I am happy if I can do six and all birds survive. But, as I sad, IACUC has nothing to do with reason, science, or investigators' experience. They often insist on practices that are actually worse for animals' well-being than what the investigators, who have spent decades studying the particular species, suggest.
As a result, less and less people use whole animals in research. The hassle is just too great. People are switching to in vitro studies, mostly molecular biology. But results of molecular studies are just hypotheses to be tested in whole
animals. We do expensive molecular stuff, the results are picked up by scientists in Asia, Europe and elsewhere and tested in whole animals, often leading to patents and money.
Even in my own work, I am writing proposals guided not by the importance of experiments that need to be done, but by how likely is it that the experiments will be approved by IACUC. Most of the latest stuff was pure behavio ral testing, non-invasive measurements, and selective breeding protocols - we are going back to the stuff that could have been
done in the 19th century because a bunch of bureaucrats do not let us do sophisticated stuff.
I have written a lot (especially in the fourth part of my WWDD series of posts) on the negative effects of the "bandwagon" mentality in science, and the utility of old techniques in asking new questions. I have made the most exciting discoveries using, as a technique, only COUNTING (OK, I had to count every day for three years, but still....). But, what we need is the freedom to use whatever technique and approach is suitable for a particular question we are asking. Everything else is slowing down science.
In the end, the activity of IACUCs has a chilling effect on animal research in the USA, producing, de facto, a result favorable to PETA and ALF: precipitous decline in whole-animal research in this country (I wish I could lay my hands on the actual numbers so I can document this, but IACUC, like other paranoid organizations, will not let me see the files). I have told them that they are the most efficient executive cell of the domestic terrorist organization. You bet they did not like that! Do you think I can get them haule d away to Guantanamo?
IACUCs have the same effect on using animals in teaching, particularly at med schools. Using computer simulations does not come close to the experience of the real hot animal. Not to mention that every simulation looks the same, whi le every individual animal looks different. No matter how many dogs you have opened up, each looks different
inside. Sure, each has a heart, a stomach, a liver etc, but the relative sizes and positions, consistency, color, etc. are all different. If you l ook in an atlas of human anatomy (or any mammalian anatomy), there are three major arteries coming of the aortic arch right after the aorta leaves the heart. If you have dissected, for instance, a couple of hundred
cats, you would have seen anywhere betwe en one and six arteries coming off the aorta. The diversity of the innards is not reflected in atlases and simulations and ill-prepares the future surgeons.
I am aware that the UK system is even stricter than in the US, as the anti-vivisection movement i s much stronger there than the PETA is in the USA. However, in the USA every University has its own IACUC and they differ from each other.
In my school, we have hundreds of people working on animals as we have a big vet school, as well as large departme nts in zoology, animal science, poultry science, plus you need rabbits for the department of immunology (and some biochemists use them, too). However, the number of people has dropped precipituously lately, mostly after the arrival of the new Chair of the IACUC who looks and behaves just like John Bolton. He is under scrutiny now, and may get ditched because so many people complained (and while the experiments and grants are stalled University loses the overhead funds), but starting that process took year s of effort. However, talking to some other people in other schools, it appears that their IACUCs are just as bad if not worse. A guy from UVA, for instance, was amazed that I was allowed to remove eyes from birds - something unimaginable in many other schools. I am assuming that having a vet school on campus actually helps in this matter. Thus, it's the matter of luck: what kind of idiot is running your IACUC.
The influence of animal rights groups, who purposefully and successfully blur the lines betw een themselves and genuine animal protection organizations is growing, especially in urban areas, where people are, of necessity alienated from nature. The emotions run high. The "Bambi" view of life is rampant. Kids of farmers and hunters have been expos ed to freshly killed animals and will find the dog dissection in the classroom interesting. Actually, seeing it done CORRECTLY by a vet, as opposed to what they've seen at home on the farm, may teach them something about respect towards animals and the ex istence of animal pain.
Not all, or even most, urbanites are rabid animal rightists. A small subset is. However, you are hard pressed to find any of them in rural communities. In other words, most animal rightists are urban, but not most urbanites are a nimal rightists. I have seen somewhere (in a book collection of studies on the problem) the stats for their membership, and it is hugely urban, mostly in their thirties, mostly single women with no kids: a population that does not replace itself through h aving and indoctrinating own kids, thus needs to recruit.
The inability of people, blinded by pathological emotion, to make a distinction between animal protection (important and wonderful activity) and animal rights (a philosophically untenable position leading to terrorist behavior), is one of my pet peeves (see the links at the end of this post for detailed explnations of the distinction between the two). I had to deal, in the past, with students who had taken an "ethics" course with Tom Regan - they were a pain to deal with: all anger, no reason. Fortunately, he has retired, though he seems to be churning out books every couple of months or so, and is constantly on the radio and in the papers. The very use of language of "rights" is legally improper, philosophically untenable, and intentionally misleading.
Two main ideologues of the movement, Tom Regan and Peter Singer have, with no outside help, destroyed each other's arguments a long time ago. The rest of them are just emotional sheep, bombing r esearch facilities, threatening the lives of researchers, and releasing the animals into the wild where they are promptly slaughtered by predators within hours - isn't that terrorism?
Debating an animal rightist is in many ways more difficult than debati ng a Creationist. It takes a mind trained in logic and a thorough immersion in the issue. I have seen it done by competent people and do not feel competent enough myself to do it.
Usually an animal rightist starts the argument with a Regan argument. Once you start deconstructing it he/she switches to a Singer argument, although the two are completely logically incompatible (though we have seen time and again the great capacity of a human mind to hold simultaneously two or more mutually exclusive beliefs). You start eviscerating Singer's argument, the person quickly switches back to Regan. By quickly switching back and forth a few times like this, the animal rightist places you in a trap in which you may err and say contradictory things to which the respo nse is "Gotcha!". This activity should be left to the professionals with experience.
Our treatment of animals is a proper subject matter of ethics, but using the language of "rights" and following it through is what turns the argument upside down and int o the looney-land. The word "rights" in the ethical and legal sense HAS to be applied only to humans. When people try to extend it to animals, all sort of nonsense results.
One of the commenters on Pharyngula wrote:
"Since the 1970s, literally hundreds of books and articles have been published on the subject by academics, most of them professional philosophers. The majority of those writers are sympathetic to animal liberation.  Of course, those who write in the field are no doubt not a representative sample of all philosophers and academics, but it should at least give pause to those who ridicule the idea of animal liberation."
Well, since 1850s, literally hundreds of books and articles have been published on Creationism, mo st by academics, most of them professional philosophers. The majority of THOSE writers are sympathetic to Creationism.... On the other hand, people who actually know something about evolution do not bother to write about Creationism very often - it is a d istraction. There are thousands in the former group, millions in the latter. I bet the situation is the same in animal rights world. Those who support it tend to write about it. Those who don't, don't bother, though they overwhelmingly outnumber the forme r, leaving the illusion that the animal rights philosophy is more broadly supported than it really
"As for the idea that Singer and Regan have annihilated each other's arguments, you could say the same about John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant (in whose footsteps Singer and Regan follow; or perhaps I should say, on whose shoulders they stand)".
Mill and Kant are Dead White Philosophers and the fact that they annihilated each other's argument (if they did) paved the way for p hilosophy to move on. This would be a pitiful world if Mill and Kant were still the latest word in philosophy. Same goes for Regan and Singer. Both are the thing of the past - the subject of study by HISTORIANS of philosophy, just like Mill and Kant. J ust like Darwin, for that matter: a genius for sure, but biology did not get stuck on the "Origin" as a sacred text and has, instead, used the subsequent 150-something years wisely and built an impressive scientific edifice.
Comparison between animal rightists and Creationists is not just for the fun effect, or because both indulge in similar debating tactics. The similarity is deeper: both groups are anti-evolutionary, though one comes from the Conservative core, and the other is a distant radial offshoot off the Liberal core. How?
First step in the AR (animal rights) argument is seemingly evolutionary: arguing for the geneological unity of Life, in orde r to put animals on the same level of the playing field.
The second step is already contradicting evolution by making humans "special", i.e., separate from other species by a particular trait: only humans are villains and thus worth killing.
The thi rd step is very anti-evolutionary as the AR-ists construct a Great Chain of Being. All species need to be linearized so AR can draw a line somewhere, animals above it having rights, organisms below the line not having rights.
The criteria for ordering species on the Chain, and for drawing the cut-off line are usually invoking intelligence, possibility of consciousness, or ability to perceive pain. However, the emotionality of the criteria is revealed by the actual Chains they propose and the position s of the cut-off lines: such Chains Of Being are even more anti-evolutionary than NZBear's TTLB Ecosystem.
Above the line are cute, fuzzy, furry, pretty animals. Below the line are ugly, venomous, dangerous critters with "ick" factor. Mammals and bir ds tend to be above the line, but rarely rattlesnakes, alligators, snapping turtles and bullfrogs (including Jeremiah). Some RA-ists would like to protect the tuna, but not the sharks, barracudas, lampreys and hagfish. The only invertebrates having righ ts are Monarch butterflies (though lobster is being mentioned recently).
Even worse, every AR-ist constructs his/her own Great Chain Of Being and decides where to draw the line, resulting in internecine struggles. Not a single one, however, follows the "rights" logic to its final conclusion: Thou shalt not kill bacteria! If you want to make an AR-ist mad, you only need to utter a single word: "Cabbage". It hits the nerve and provokes fits of outrage precisely because there is no argument against it.
OK, this post is getting too long. I urge you to go look through the comments on the two Pharyngula posts I linked to at the very beginning (you can skip over my comments there as most of it is right here), as well as check out the links below, particularly Brian O'Connor's blog. I have missed a number of points here, but you can see them in some of my earlier posts, e.g., here and here.
I do not personally endorse everything on the following websites, webpages, and blogs, but they are useful sources of information for further discussion and contain further good links: Objectivist Center, Sover Net, Animal Law, Ampef, RDS, AALAS, Animal Crackers blog (Brian O'Connor), VARE, Animal Scam, Anti-PETA, Animal Rights, NAIA, Animal Welfare, Animal Law, Fur Comission, Animal Advocacy, Animal Concerns, WAF, Fat Pet, People Eating Tasty Animals..