Join 3,564 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Kitten Vivisection Controversy
July 25, 2012 8:45 PM   Subscribe

WalesOnline reported earlier this week on a UK government funded experiment in which kittens had their eyes stitched shut in an examination of how the brain reacts to sensory deprivation. In a related poll, nearly 11,000 Mirror readers were nearly split in their support for the experiment. The University of Cardiff has vigorously defended the experiment, saying the study will lead medical researchers to an "improved understanding of the brain to treat older children or adults, whose amblyopia has been missed or not treated adequately in time."
posted by GnomeChompsky (70 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
i like science

i like kittens

i do not like this post
posted by elizardbits at 8:50 PM on July 25, 2012 [15 favorites]


Stupid scientists.

Should have performed the tests on subjects without a constituency.

Like, say, scientists who would sew kitties' eyes shut to study the effects of sensory deprivation.
posted by notyou at 8:50 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


This is a reprehensible experiment and all and all but here is a cat meme.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 8:51 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I thought these guys already won the Nobel for experiments (on cats) done in the 1950s and 60s.

My mom worked for Torsten the year he won the Nobel. And it's how we got our first cat. And why my mom realized it's lucky I have 3-D vision.
posted by rtha at 8:51 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


.
posted by Jikido at 8:53 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


This isn't vivisection. The animals would have been sedated during the surgery. Vivisection conjures images of conscious animals being cut open - this experiment doesn't even sound like it was necessarily painful: "One vet working for BUAV raised his concern that the sutures could have caused pain"; “The eyelid sutures would have been painful, at least for a short period after the surgery." Well, okay, we cause animals suffering for a lot of reasons less useful than performing medical research. The suturing lasted for seven days at most. That doesn't seem disproportionate to the potential good being achieved here.
posted by Dasein at 8:54 PM on July 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


This makes me sad but I'm not necessarily against it if it was important, I just wonder... who decided that kittens were the best possible creatures to use for this. Were they out of baby seals?
posted by gracedissolved at 8:56 PM on July 25, 2012 [14 favorites]


Once again Science needs better PR.
posted by 2bucksplus at 8:56 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I had hoped that perception research wouldn't rely on selective rearing any more- what more will we learn from it?
posted by Jpfed at 8:56 PM on July 25, 2012


A lot of visual cortex researchers use cats because their eyes are on the front of their face, like ours. And monkeys are extremely expensive.
posted by rtha at 8:57 PM on July 25, 2012


Once again Science needs better PR.

I would counter that Science needs fewer kittens.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:02 PM on July 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


Because we should only use ugly animals.
posted by Justinian at 9:03 PM on July 25, 2012 [16 favorites]


I work in a field that is related (retina research) and all I can think of is, why not Zebrafish? Or Clawed toad tadpoles?

Or anything else that isn't cuddly and adorable?
posted by Slackermagee at 9:03 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Because we should only use ugly animals.

Or, you know, computer models.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:07 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


The domestic cat as an animal model in neuroscience has a long history and has led to a number of important discoveries. Reporting on this as a brand-new awful thing scientists have made up is mawkish and disingenuous. If anything, science is working toward fewer and less traumatic procedures, resulting in the loss of fewer animals. For example, I'm tangentially involved with a project that collects intracranial readings from ferrets. Where earlier the animals were euthanized to identify precise electrode placement, MRI is now used instead, resulting in the death of far fewer animals.
posted by Nomyte at 9:07 PM on July 25, 2012 [19 favorites]


Fuck. What the fuck. Fuck. What the fuck.
posted by ericb at 9:07 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or, you know, computer models.

Yes. Computer models. Of the, uh, human brain.
posted by Justinian at 9:09 PM on July 25, 2012 [16 favorites]


> Or, you know, computer models.

Computer models model first-hand data. They do not provide data. Data comes from animal and human models.
posted by Nomyte at 9:09 PM on July 25, 2012 [29 favorites]


Or, you know, computer models.

This is going to sound rhetorical, and I guess it partly is, because I'm skeptical, but I really want to know: do we already have computer models of vision and neurology that are sophisticated enough we can learn about likely real world effects we don't yet understand by changing parameters?
posted by weston at 9:11 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have the affliction under study. I was not treated at all because my condition was missed.

While I am not against experiments, even on animals, if this is done avoiding cruelty, I think a lot if repetitive experiments get done.
I wonder how truly necessary this was.

I don't even think unnecessary experiments should be done on cockroaches or ear-wigs , or slugs and these are to me fairly icky critters.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:15 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


As mentioned in the article they should hire people for this sort of thing. Could you find people who would wear a bilndfold, sit in a dark room, or even have their eyes sutured shut for 7 days? Yes, no doubt you could. People can consent, kittens cannot.

This is like those episodes of Star Trek where they examine whether we should benefit from harm done to a different species. On Trek, no doubt they would destroy the results after 45 minutes of hand-wringing.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:18 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Actually, Ad hominem, they would need to hire young children to get the specimens they needed for this study. If children can't consent to sex, I doubt they can consent to having their eyes sewn shut.
posted by GnomeChompsky at 9:20 PM on July 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


Computer models model first-hand data. They do not provide data. Data comes from animal and human models.

Absolutely.

As mentioned above, this is not a new thing -- we have been doing this to millions of animals for centuries now. And despite a reported reduction in the use of animals by scientists for both legitimate medical reasons and evil other reasons (cosmetics testing, for example), this is continuing.

The cute animals get the press because they're cute, yes, but I don't want *any* animals tested in horrible ways. And yes, stitching a baby's eyes shut is fucking horrible, whether under sedation or no, whether animal or human, whether adorable or butt-ugly.

We should strive to be better than that.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:20 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


weston - speaking as a researcher who builds models of the primary visual cortex in cats and primates - no, we do not have models that are anywhere close to being sophisticated enough to predict, for example, the response to treatment. And regardless, the nature of modelling is that you *need* ecperiments to then further validate the predictions of that model. Models do not eliminate the need for experimentation.

Ad hominem - to use humans in an equivalent experiment you would need to use infants or very young children. Adults that can consent are far past the developmental stage at which you could answer the questions being address by these experiments.
posted by aiglet at 9:22 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Celsius1414: The cute animals get the press because they're cute, yes, but I don't want *any* animals tested in horrible ways. And yes, stitching a baby's eyes shut is fucking horrible, whether under sedation or no, whether animal or human, whether adorable or butt-ugly.

We should strive to be better than that.


So we should what, just stop medical research? There is a ton of medical research that must be tested on animals or not pursued, full stop. There is no alternate avenue for most of this.

You can't even test it on people instead (not right now anyway), because the ethics committees wouldn't touch it until it had been tested on an animal model.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:23 PM on July 25, 2012 [8 favorites]


Oh, and related: Apparently adult dogs can consent (at least in the opinion of a few reputable scientists). Article here. Full study here. I suppose you could argue that dogs don't have consent if they're trained to do something, but my dog definitely withholds consent from things we've trained it to do!
posted by GnomeChompsky at 9:23 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dear General Public:

Medicine is often an unpleasant business. It should come as no surprise, then, that medical research can be very unpleasant indeed, because there one is dealing with even higher levels of uncertainty. If you or someone you love are the beneficiary of any modern medicine, those drugs, procedures, and diagnostics were certainly built on a broad and deep foundation of animal research, some of which was just as necessary s it was not for the faint of heart.

While I readily agree that science needs better PR, the public also needs better Science Relations. I'm not saying that every experiment is automatically justified (indeed, this is why there is substantial bureaucracy in place to provide oversight over animal research), but no one is performing surgery on kittens for fun. Anyone horrified to learn that such research is conducted has a responsibility to inquire as to the benefits and the justifications before they declare it to be wanton cruelty.
posted by belarius at 9:23 PM on July 25, 2012 [34 favorites]


Arrgh - experiments and addressed of course
posted by aiglet at 9:23 PM on July 25, 2012


I don't want to turn this into a MetaFilter-based flame war about animal testing (although it's right there in the title!), so I am going to back away from this topic.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:23 PM on July 25, 2012


do we already have computer models of vision and neurology that are sophisticated enough we can learn about likely real world effects we don't yet understand by changing parameters?

Not even remotely. It's fair to argue against animal testing, I think, but if you want major breakthroughs in medicine then that's the price you have to pay. It's a crappy world we live in sometimes.

I wince when I hear what they do to rats in brain injury research, but the findings can be pretty miraculous.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 9:23 PM on July 25, 2012


If children can't consent to sex

Sex is an odd case. Parents can consent to medical procedures on behalf of children. I'm not going to be the one to suggest we test on babies instead of kittens. Most people find babies to be even cuter than kittens, imagine the outcry.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:24 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's true, Ad hominem. Anyone know what the rules are to parents consenting to medical experimentation on their children? Obviously it's allowed to some extent (experimental treatments and such).
posted by GnomeChompsky at 9:27 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Most people find babies to be even cuter than kittens

*falls into the "not most people" category*
posted by tzikeh at 9:34 PM on July 25, 2012 [11 favorites]


Oh, weird. I indexed this article for pubmed.
posted by gaspode at 9:34 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) said it had uncovered evidence of the trials being undertaken by academics from Cardiff University.

This makes it sound like it was some sort of super-sekrit investigation, but, well, "results of the tests were published in a research paper unveiled earlier this year called [sic] the European Journal of Neuroscience."

The chief executive of the group [BUAV] – which opposes all forms of animal experimentation – labelled it “unacceptable cruel research”.

The leader and several employees of an organization which opposes all forms of animal experimentation opposes experimentation on animals which will elicit greater sympathy/outrage than mice and rats and fish and fruit flies?! No way. You're kidding. Really.
posted by desuetude at 9:38 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm not a scientist, but that looks fucked up.
posted by Redfield at 9:43 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Redfield: I'm not a scientist, but that looks fucked up.

It's not, it's a completely ordinary animal study. It sounds like it's been flagged by animal rights groups because it involves kittens, which are cute, and surgery on their eyes, which sounds visceral... but I'm not hearing any evidence of unnecessary or unusual cruelty or any violations of ethical animal-handling procedures. I'm pretty sure it's only in the news because animal-rights groups knew it would be more likely to get public support than say, a procedure involving rats and bone marrow.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:55 PM on July 25, 2012 [15 favorites]


I'm super conflicted about this type of research. All I know for now is that there's no way that I could do it. I'm also pretty sure -- on a personal level I mean -- that I'd like to see aggressive pursuit of alternatives to animal research wherever possible, rather than it just being written off as a necessary cost of worthwhile progress. I think if I were King I would even strike the Animal Welfare/Human Welfare balance somewhat more on the side of animals than it is under the current regime. I realize that I do not make these decisions, and that many other perfectly reasonable people would disagree with me.

I could go on a lot longer (and have, in other threads) but I don't really want to get into it too deeply right now. The things we do in the name of research.
posted by Scientist at 10:02 PM on July 25, 2012


I'd like to see aggressive pursuit of alternatives to animal research wherever possible, rather than it just being written off as a necessary cost of worthwhile progress

Do you have any idea how hard it is to get permission to do this kind of research? If there were alternatives, it wouldn't be approved.
posted by Dasein at 10:05 PM on July 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


As mentioned in the article they should hire people for this sort of thing. Could you find people who would wear a bilndfold, sit in a dark room, or even have their eyes sutured shut for 7 days? Yes, no doubt you could. People can consent, kittens cannot.

Human consent, even informed human consent, is still ethically fraught. There is a lot of stuff that you could pay volunteers to submit to that would never pass IRB.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 10:23 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


I work in a field that is related (retina research) and all I can think of is, why not Zebrafish? Clawed toad tadpoles?

Why don't you ask P. Z. Myers who works all the time with zebrafish?

Or anything else that isn't cuddly and adorable?

Right, because only cuddly and adorable things are capable of suffering.
posted by smcameron at 10:31 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Most people find babies to be even cuter than kittens

*falls into the "not most people" category*


If I could give birth to kittens instead of babies I totally would. But then I would have to bear the burden of being the first woman to give birth to kittens. Just think of all the reporters and gawkers fighting to take a glimpse of "that magical lady that had kittens". Then I would have to go into hiding, lest the scientists kidnap me and my kittens to use me for never-ending experiments.

On second thought, never mind - I'll just go back to not giving birth to anything.
posted by littlesq at 10:38 PM on July 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


From the amblyopia link above:

Amblyopia is usually easily diagnosed with a complete examination of the eyes. Special tests are usually not needed.

Not to be dismissive of anyone suffering from this condition (indeed I have a form of it), but if this is "usually easily" detected, what small percent of the population of sufferers are going to be helped by torturing kittens? Was there any sort of cost/benefit analysis? Can there even be an impartial measurement of the animal suffering versus human benefit?
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 11:16 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Out of curiosity...

People against animal testing: if you could eliminate all of the suffering of test animals through history and accept the erasure of all scientific knowledge so derived, would you?
posted by klanawa at 11:29 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well if its spotted early enough by an optician. And then treated. And the treatment works. My nephew has it, but his was spotted and hes been wearing his eye patch so he'll probably be ok. I don't have lazy eye, but my left eye is much weaker and slowly but consistently getting worse than the right.

If not treated successfully, it can lead to effective blindness in that eye - which puts you at much higher risk of full blindness if anything happens to the good eye, let alone the problems of having a hefty blind side when driving or other problems with lack of 3d vision.

Its a choice. We either seek a way to help avoid hundreds of people who lose the vision in their last good eye, or we don't. Better understanding of how the vision system develops in us involves experiments on babies, kiitens or baby monkeys, or we dont do it all.

I also have 5 kittens here at home that opened their eyes a few days ago. They're cute as fuck. I feel sorry for their fellow kitties that were temporarily blinded. I feel sorrier for the children that face blindness as adults because a fairly common problem cannot always be caught and successfully treated.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:59 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Poor kittens.
posted by pracowity at 12:30 AM on July 26, 2012


[A couple of comments deleted; flag, Metatalk, or contact us if you don't think something should be posted on Metafilter. Thanks.]
posted by taz at 12:55 AM on July 26, 2012


Couple things:

1) I'm not sure how it works in the UK, but in the States animal research always must follow guidelines set forth by the Animal Welfare Act (USDA) and the Office of Lab Animal Welfare. Every lab receiving NIH/CDC/etc. funding must adhere to these rules or have their funding and most likely their right to conduct research revoked. There also exists a NGO called AAALAC (Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care), whose certifications are more stringent. Receiving AAALAC certification is voluntary, but virtually all universities seek to meet AAALAC standards. Further, there are institutional bodies within each university that must approve of every animal protocol; i.e. the experiment to be performed (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee IACUC). These typically are staffed with researchers, experienced veterinarians, and also laypersons of the public and the proposed experiments must be approved by this diverse body. Any and all research produced and published (as the above study was) must meet all of these standards (or the local equivalent in the case of the UK) and explicitly spell out that they followed all rules regarding animal welfare in the methods sections of these papers.

2) A significant portion of the approval process involves minimizing animal discomfort. There are clearly defined pain classifications into which every experiment must be categorized, and suitable sedation, pain-alleviation, and post-op care (antibiotics, etc.) must be provided. Costs/convenience are NOT a factor regarding these aspects (i.e. the animal must not be in any kind of extended duress, it doesn't matter if your lab cannot afford the staff/medications - if you want to do the experiment, you had better come up with this stuff). Here is Cornell's, for reference.

3) Scientific value/necessity of experiments is also considered. This is generally guided along Russell and Smyth's The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique and center around the concept of the "Three Rs," or Reduction, Replacement, and Refinement. The link will be more detailed, but the purpose of this is to 1) Minimize the number of animals used in research, 2) Replacing animals with a "less-sentient" species when possible (do you need to use primates? Why not rats? Zebrafish? Is a tissue culture sufficient?) and 3) Refinement of procedure and techniques that further minimize the discomfort to the animal, whether that is a more effective anesthetic, a less traumatic surgical technique, or what have you. Also to be included if this is a novel scientific question to be answered, or verification of previous work (lit search is required) and you must justify the number of animals used through statistical power analysis or similar.

Provided the UK has similar guidelines in place, I doubt the choice of kittens are arbitrary - the experimental protocol would never have been approved in the first place. Cats are still fairly high up on the hierarchy of animals to be used, if there was an alternative available, it would have been preferentially used.
posted by Tikirific at 1:05 AM on July 26, 2012 [8 favorites]


As pointed out earlier in this thread, cats have long been a model animal for understanding vision, visual development and how the visual areas of our brain work.

Cats have the advantage that the way the visual areas in a cat's brain works is pretty similar to the way a monkey's brain works (and presumably also human brains, which are probably very similar to monkeys).

Rats, mice, zebrafish and so on have a considerably different organisation of their visual areas, meaning that performing the same experiment in these animals would not provide as useful data for drawing conclusions about how these things work (or fail) in humans.

You would never get ethical permission to perform these experiments in humans. Monkeys would probably give more applicable results than cats, but under the 3R's (reduce, replace, refine) you should use the least sentient animal that can possibly provide useful data. It's an ethical trade-off between killing animals and the expected benefit of the research. These issues have to be addressed in length when you propose an experiment like this, and would have been rigorously justified.

This is a bullshit animal-rights PR piece that was picked up by WalesOnline.
posted by FrereKhan at 2:11 AM on July 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


You know, this makes me angry. The WalesOnline article is written with this faux breathless outrage, in a cynical attempt to manipulate. The animal rights PR movement stoops to this kind of crap because it's easier than engaging on an intellectual and philosophical level with the scientist, lawyers and ethicians that think about this stuff all the time.

What's the appropriate response from those of us in research? Should we stoop to their level by similarly trying to manipulate the public through lies and half-truths? We don't, because we value the truth and respect the public. And so we fight an uphill battle, because fighting fear with facts is a losing proposition.

Leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.
posted by FrereKhan at 2:16 AM on July 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


Most people find babies to be even cuter than kittens

I try not to find either babies or kittens. It only leads to trouble.
posted by srboisvert at 2:32 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ok, after reading the article, I think that the specific concerns raised by the activists are kind of dumb. Here's my issue with suturing kittens' eyes shut- it's an unnecessary intrusion. Depending on when you remove the sutures, the kittens' visual systems may be impaired for the rest of their lives. The resulting knowledge just isn't that important for what we can achieve now, and I say that as someone who has worked in a perception lab.

Yes, I'm aware that there have been benefits to animal experiments in general. That's not what I'm arguing about. I'm arguing about the specific benefits of selective rearing experiments on animals. Let us imagine that the animals have just a little right to bodily integrity- just not as much as humans have a right to have their lazy eyes treated. I would still oppose this specific experiment at this specific time, because imaging is just not that good yet. If you're going to leave cats with impaired visual systems, then do so when you are poised with imaging technology advanced enough to maximize the expected return on that.

Of course, if you don't think that cats have even a little right to bodily integrity, then our premises differ too much to argue fruitfully.
posted by Jpfed at 2:44 AM on July 26, 2012


Tikirific: UK guidelines are similar to what you've outlined, and if anything, they are perhaps even stricter. When I was still doing research, I remember being told that regulations in other European countries such as Switzerland were much more lax.
posted by adrianhon at 2:50 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Searching for "medical research on animals" brings up this interesting paper specifically about the laws and public opinion in the UK - The ethics of animal research. Talking Point on the use of animals in scientific research - some quotes that seem relevant:
... The UK has gone further than any other country to write such an ethical framework into law by implementing the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. It exceeds the requirements in the European Union's Directive 86/609/EEC on the protection of animals used for experimental and other scientific purposes (...) The Act requires that proposals for research involving the use of animals must be fully assessed in terms of any harm to the animals. This involves detailed examination of the particular procedures and experiments, and the numbers and types of animal used. These are then weighed against the potential benefits of the project. This cost–benefit analysis is almost unique to UK animal research legislation; only German law has a similar requirement.

In addition, the UK government introduced in 1998 further ‘local' controls—that is, an Ethical Review Process at research institutions—which promote good animal welfare and humane science by ensuring that the use of animals at the designated establishment is justified.

Thanks to some extensive opinion polls by MORI (1999a, 2002, 2005), and subsequent polls by YouGov (2006) and ICM (2006), we now have a good understanding of the public's attitudes towards animal research. Although society views animal research as an ethical dilemma, polls show that a high proportion—84% in 1999, 90% in 2002 and 89% in 2005—is ready to accept the use of animals in medical research if the research is for serious medical purposes, suffering is minimized and/or alternatives are fully considered. When asked which factors should be taken into account in the regulatory system, people chose those that—unknown to them—are already part of the UK legislation. In general, they feel that animal welfare should be weighed against health benefits, that cosmetic-testing should not be allowed, that there should be supervision to ensure high standards of welfare, that animals should be used only if there is no alternative, and that spot-checks should be carried out. It is clear that the UK public would widely support the existing regulatory system if they knew more about it.

... Another law, which enables people to get more information, might also help to influence public attitudes towards animal research. The UK Freedom of Information (FOI) Act came into full force on 1 January 2005. (...) In response to the FOI Act, the Home Office now publishes overviews of all new animal research projects, in the form of anonymous project licence summaries, on a dedicated website. This means that the UK now provides more public information about animal research than any other country. The Research Defence Society (RDS; London, UK), an organization representing doctors and scientists in the debate on the use of animals in research and testing, welcomes the greater openness that the FOI Act brings to discussions about animal research. With more and reliable information about how and why animals are used, people should be in a better position to debate the issues. However, there are concerns that extremist groups will try to obtain personal details and information that can identify researchers, and use it to target individuals.

... In the past five years, there have been four major UK independent inquiries into the use of animals in biomedical research (...)

...Approximately 2.7 million regulated animal procedures were conducted in 2003 in the UK—half the number performed 30 years ago. The tight controls governing animal experimentation and the widespread implementation of the 3Rs by the scientific community is largely responsible for this downward trend (...). The principles of replacing, reducing and refining the use of animals in scientific research are central to UK regulation. In fact, the government established the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs; London, UK) in May 2004 to promote and develop high-quality research that takes the 3Rs into account. In support of this, then Science Minister Lord Sainsbury announced in 2005 that the Centre would receive an additional £1.5 million in funding over the next three years.

The ultimate aim of the NC3Rs is to substitute a significant proportion of animal research by investigating the development of alternative techniques, such as human studies, and in vitro and in silico studies. RDS supports this aim, but believes that it is unrealistic to expect this to be possible in every area of scientific research in the immediate future. After all, if the technology to develop these alternatives is not available or does not yet exist, progress is likely to be slow. The main obstacle is still the difficulty of accurately mimicking the complex physiological systems of whole living organisms—a challenge that will be hard to meet.

... The scientific community, with particular commitment shown by the pharmaceutical industry, has responded by investing a large amount of money and effort in developing the science and technology to replace animals wherever possible. However, the development of direct replacement technologies for animals is a slow and difficult process.


etc.

I find those cited poll numbers very interesting - it shows that you get the kind of public opinion you ask for basically. If you ask the question fairly and in an informative way, you get fair and informed answer. If you put it out there in tabloid style by passing as shocking news a 'discovery' of an 'experiment behind closed doors' (because normally experiments are done in the courtyard or in the street, not in labs!), you get only unreflexive shock-outrage-horror about mad scientists being cruel to kittens for no good reason. Predictably.
posted by bitteschoen at 3:10 AM on July 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


Jpfed, are you thinking of fMRI? Because intrinsic optical imaging, voltage-sensitive dye imaging and two-photon calcium imaging all give pretty high-resolution measurements of activity in visual cortex. Two-photon especially so, where you can see individual neurons firing.
posted by FrereKhan at 4:13 AM on July 26, 2012


As someone who has suffered from severe amblyopia since birth, and who has had several operations in an attempt to mediate it; and as someone who worked in the field of animal clinical research for many years, I can only say: NO. No, no, no.
posted by The Sprout Queen at 4:34 AM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


The UK's guidelines are very similar to those described by Tikirific. The bulk of the relevant legislation is in the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, with a few other details scattered here and there. Every scientist working with animals must take a course and sit an exam to apply for a personal license (which includes a list of the procedures they have permission to carry out), every project must be described in a project license, and every lab must have a site license. The Home Office is in charge of rejecting or granting these and keeps track of how they intersect, so they know everywhere a given scientist has worked with animals, and on which projects. The Home Office also carries out both routine and surprise inspections of institutions to make sure that animals' conditions and the scientists' paperwork are all up to standard. The UK's regulations for housing and working with animals are easily among the strictest in Europe, and probably the world.

Every project goes through a local (i.e. within the university) Ethics Review Board which, IIRC, has to include a vet and non-scientists. If they approve it, it gets passed to the Home Office for another round of inspection. The applicant has to defend their choices to use animals at all, to use that particular species, and to use that particular number. The potential for animals' suffering is classified into one of several bands ("mild", "moderate" and "substantial" are typical), and the researchers have to justify why this is necessary. Similarly, there's a scale of how "sensitive" animals are, with fruitflies somewhere near the bottom and big primates (and, interestingly, octopuses) at the top. As you'd imagine, as you go up those scales you have to have a damn good reason for it. The key tenet, as Tikirific described, is "Replace, Reduce, Refine": i.e. only use animals if there's no alternative, use the minimum number possible, and design your experiment carefully such that you won't have to repeat it and you get the maximum possible amount data.

All of this is to say that this sort of experiment is not performed lightly, or as a secret project by some maverick scientist working unsupervised. It will have gone through several stages of review, with the researchers having to argue at each stage that the knowledge gained from this experiment was worth using these animals in this way. I'm not trying to make a strong argument from authority here: just because it has made it past a set of committees that includes vets and laypeople doesn't mean that no-one else should question it. But the fact that it survived such close scrutiny does strongly suggests that it deserves a closer look than the *OMG KITTIES!* tone that this shitty article gave it. As a side note, anyone whose opinion of the use of animals in research is swayed in either direction by how cute that animal looks needs to seriously re-evaluate their priorities, IMO.

And, yes, the project license will have been published here among other places and, eventually, the procedures will be clearly described in the resulting scientific paper. This was not a secret project that the animal rights people "uncovered", its planning stages were published on a government website and another description along with the results were published in an academic journal.

Lastly, and quite apart from all the administrative stuff, scientists who work with animals are not soulless. We're very aware of the moral and ethical issues, spend a lot of time thinking about and discussing it, and none of us actually enjoy it. But we do it because, ultimately, if we stop all animal research then we stop all improvements in medicine. For example, my current job is translating a promising treatment for a degenerative condition that causes progressive paralysis -- many patients dead by 18 months, most dead by puberty -- from the lab into a clinical trial. I don't like doing animal work, but my only other options are to either not develop the treatment or to start asking parents for permission to start jabbing arbitrary concentrations of half a dozen possible formulations into their babies, and seeing which ones survive.
posted by metaBugs at 5:14 AM on July 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


People can consent, kittens cannot.

Because the concept of consent with non-ape and non-cetacean doesn't make sense. That's why we experiment of them in the first place; it's worse to do this to a human, even with consent, than to a rat or cat. Researchers use the least sentient animal that can possibly provide useful data, which in this case is a cat.
posted by spaltavian at 5:38 AM on July 26, 2012


I'm pretty sure the researchers weren't just doing this for shits and giggles. I'm quite happy with the idea that those in science share the same ethical concerns as I do, and do what is needful, not whatever they can get away with. Also already pointed out, the UK is well regulated in this area. Shame on WalesOnline for falling for this scare piece.
posted by Jehan at 5:50 AM on July 26, 2012


Researchers use the least sentient animal that can possibly provide useful data

Actually, they don't. Humans are animals, and many of us (infants, the severely intellectually disabled, late-stage dementia patients, some coma patients, anencephalic children, and many others) are less sentient than the mammals typically used in scientific experiments. Would you use a human in one of those categories for your research? Of course not. So why would you do it on a subject with considerably more sentience and capacity to suffer?

The answer, of course, is speciesism, which values human life as more worthwhile regardless of whether the individual human can actually suffer more.

In my opinion, we should treat non-human animal test subjects with exactly the same concern as we would as human test-subjects with one of those severe impairments. Because their suffering would be similar (if not much greater).
posted by dontjumplarry at 6:37 AM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Serious question - is it really the case that the only way to prevent a kitten from seeing out of one eye is to sew it shut?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:53 AM on July 26, 2012


dontjumplarry, I think you're missing the

... can possibly provide useful data

part of the equation. If the question is about development of an otherwise healthy visual system under a pathology such as amblyopia, then you need a normal brain on which to test. That kind of rules out most of those human subjects you suggested. For a developmental study, one would need an infant. Good luck getting ethical approval for that.

And whether or not you have a point about relative sentience of some humans and some animals, we are speciesist as a society. Our society could not exist without our use of various animals in primary industry and research.

I also note that non-human research subjects are treated with much greater concern than non-human non-research subjects.
posted by FrereKhan at 8:11 AM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Couldn't they use little kitty eye patches instead?
posted by galvanized unicorn at 2:34 PM on July 26, 2012


I like kittens and cats. I'm sad for the kittens that this has to be done. All three of my brothers had severe amblyopia and I shudder to think of what their lives would have been like without (multiple) surgeries.

I also note that non-human research subjects are treated with much greater concern than non-human non-research subjects.

I note that the concern is aimed toward non-human research subjects instead of poor human children whose parents have no money for diagnosis, treatment, or any preventative health care. It may be speciesism, but getting up in arms about kittens rather than children strikes me as focusing on wrong concerns.

I wonder how truly necessary this was. ... I think a lot if repetitive experiments get done.

That is the nature of experiments--to see if there are reproducible findings.
posted by BlueHorse at 2:36 PM on July 26, 2012


FrereKhan: sure, in this case, you'd need a human infant specifically. In many other kinds of research, such as HIV research, you could use a human in one of those other vulnerable categories (I was responding to the more general issue here). Your response to the problem -- "we're a speciesist society so we can get away with it" -- sort of evades the ethical question, don't you think? If you heard about a group of scientists choosing test subjects for intensely painful research based on their skin colour, sexuality or gender, or some other irrelevant prejudice, what would you think of them? Would you say they were justified because they lived in a racist/homophobic/sexist society, so they can get away with it?

Our society could not exist without our use of various animals in primary industry...

Quite the opposite is true, actually. Livestock is a contributor to climate change, the largest current existential threat to human civilisation. A gradual move to veganism (it would take years to work out how to feed the developing world, but it is possible), far from making society "cease to exist", would likely significantly improve our changes of survival.

As for society needing animal models for scientific research, I'm inclined to agree. Animal research has a clear upside for humans, and it is a problem on a much smaller scale than the many other terrible abuses of animals. But that doesn't mean it's the ethical slam-dunk that scientists in this thread are proposing it is. Just because some greater crime is happening elsewhere, doesn't excuse a lesser but still awful crime. Also, I'd remind you that millions of animal test subjects are used in painful experiments like the Draize test for the sake of nothing more essential to human civilisation than a new flavour of shampoo. That's not to mention the significant amount of legitimate scientific research in experimental psychology with somewhat dubious or handwavey clinical applications.
posted by dontjumplarry at 2:38 PM on July 26, 2012


lupus_yonderboy - is it really the case that the only way to prevent a kitten from seeing out of one eye is to sew it shut?

Pretty much. Another reason kittens are used is because they're big enough so you can actually sew one eye shut. This is completely reversible. Eye patches wouldn't work because the animal would try to remove it and there's no reasonable way to make it stay that isn't any less horrible than suturing. I guess you could try something like gluing the eyelid closed or shaving and gluing on an eyepatch but cutting sutures is better than using solvents around the head region, and the sutures are probably less uncomfortable. There are experiments involving rearing newborns in complete darkness, but that doesn't address the issue of monocular vision.

As a few have mentioned, this is mostly stuff done back in the bad old days. I read the paper that first described the receptor that my PhD dissertation is based on in great detail; one tidbit that I gleaned was that, mathematically, a minimum of 101 kittens were sacrificed to generate the data presented in the article. I could replicate all of that data using primary rodent neural tissue cultures - at the cost of one, maybe two on the outside, pregnant rat dames and her unborn young.

Most people in this thread definitely will not want to know what other experiments kittens and cats have been used for.
posted by porpoise at 3:47 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actually, they don't. Humans are animals, and many of us (infants, the severely intellectually disabled, late-stage dementia patients, some coma patients, anencephalic children, and many others) are less sentient than the mammals typically used in scientific experiments. Would you use a human in one of those categories for your research? Of course not. So why would you do it on a subject with considerably more sentience and capacity to suffer?

Humans are used in research all the time.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 4:36 PM on July 26, 2012


Humans may be speciesist, but this is necessarily true for literally every other species on Earth. Life subsists on other life at all but the lowest levels of the food chain, and even there is a constant struggle between organisms for territory and survival. We apply a higher standard to our behavior because we have (presumably) more sophisticated minds that are capable of generating such constructs as ethics and morality that guide our notion of right and wrong, and we wouldn't think to impose these standards on the other species that (again presumably) haven't developed such traits.

I'm not suggesting that we're wolves hunting deer for subsistence - obviously we've progressed far beyond merely needing to kill for food - but at the same time I have to question whether it's appropriate/logical/fair (all concepts we've dreamed up, incidentally) to long for complete egalitarian existence with other species as seems to be suggested by "treat non-human animal test subjects with exactly the same concern as we would as human test-subjects with one of those severe impairments." Like virtually all other social animals, we have an intrinsic need to watch out for our own. Unusually, we also concern ourselves with the well-being of other species as well, as evidenced by the many people in this very thread. I may disagree with their views on animal research, but please realize I share with them an idea that we should try to minimize the suffering of species we're not necessarily beholden to care about; I like this about humanity.

I believe that if we are really to talk about "wider issues" then we're talking about research to free ourselves from disease and suffering - which I think is a basic right afforded to all creatures, if they have the capability to do so. No, we are not hunting prey in order to stave off starvation, but for people with terminal/debilitating disease it very much is a matter of subsistence (right now I'm discussing research as presented in the post). The difficult task is in reconciling our ethics with a fundamental right to exist, and my own opinion is that we're handling things, in the realm of scientific research, with thoughtfulness.
posted by Tikirific at 10:35 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


And to address some points individually:

I wonder how truly necessary this was. ... I think a lot if repetitive experiments get done.

The regulations in place seek to minimize this. Reproducibility is important to verify discovery of scientific principles, but every scientist is required to justify the experiment by showing that it is necessary to confirm/further knowledge.

Also, I'd remind you that millions of animal test subjects are used in painful experiments like the Draize test

That test, according to the link, was designed in 1944, and has changed quite a bit over the years. It's now tested far in advance in tissue cultures and in vitro before they move to in vivo, where the substance is removed immediately at the first sign of irritation. It's subject to the same laws and regulations as any research, the various laws apply to all research scientific and non-scientific. I'm not sure if you were trying to say "look at our history" or "look at what we're doing now," but we've progressed quite a bit from then for the better.
posted by Tikirific at 10:53 PM on July 26, 2012


Your response to the problem -- "we're a speciesist society so we can get away with it" -- sort of evades the ethical question, don't you think?

I was making the point (without judgement) that we are a speciesist society, and are likely to always value benefits to humans more highly than the equal benefit to animals. I think "getting away with it" is explicitly what does not happen -- as a society we also value treating animals well, which actually isn't so speciesist. I think "getting away with it" is also a really unfair characterisation of basic research performed on animals, in which a great deal of thought is invested in doing the smallest number of minimally-invasive experiments on the least sentient species possible, but still obtain useful data.

Implying that scientists think it's an "ethical slam dunk" is a bit disingenuous, considering the number of times scientists have responded in this thread to point out the lengths they go to to ethically balance suffering to the animal and expected research benefit.
posted by FrereKhan at 1:41 AM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


« Older A fascinating interview with Vince Gilligan, showr...  |  Terran Lane's short blog post ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments