The cat’s out of the bag…

If you met me, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I might be an animal-rights activist. With my anti-capitalist views, vegetarianism and armpit hair, it might be easy to imagine me pouring blood over a real-fur enthusiast or hijacking a science laboratory.  While many of my opinions ARE firmly far-left, animal experimentation in medical research is a topic I feel uncomfortable protesting about.

I have just graduated with a biomedical science degree from Cardiff University and can’t help feeling a little defensive about the institution where I spent a happy four years. Over the last few days, the school from which I graduated has faced much controversy from the mainstream media. Even famous comedians, such as Ricky Gervais, have come forward to register their disgust about a research project that occurred in 2010. Cardiff has been condemned by the majority who have come across the story for conducting experiments deemed “cruel and unnecessary” in which newborn kittens’ were raised in total darkness and their eyes sewn up in order to further scientists’ understanding of the mechanisms behind lazy eye.

Gervais told The Mirror, “I am appalled that kittens are being deprived of sight by having their eyelids sewn shut. I thought sickening experiments like these were a thing of the past.”

Much as I do love cats, it seems a lot of the newspapers have been focussing on the emotive and forgetting to mention what actually occurred in the experiments, or why they were necessary.

The Cardiff scientists were investigating the mechanisms behind amblyopia (lazy eye). Lazy eye affects 2-4% of children and occurs where one eye has deteriorated in its ability to process detail. Lazy eye is relatively easy to treat in kids up until about the age of 8 using eye patches. After this age however, the brain increasingly prefers images from one eye and the condition becomes incurable. Once this has occurred, the condition leads to extremely poor vision and frequently, blindness in the affected eye. Severe amblyopia also comes with a significant risk factor for blindness occurring in the good eye.

The results from the research, carried out to elucidate how the brain functions in relation to vision in both eyes, were published in the European Journal of Neuroscience. The experiments featured 31 cats to differing degrees of “sensory experience and deprivation.” One group of kittens were raised (from the moment they were born) in total darkness for up to 12 weeks. A separate group were raised normally but had surgery under anaesthetic to suture an eyelid (monocular deprivation). Optical imagery was captured and this involved opening the skull and placing a camera in the cats’ brains.

Ok, so that doesn’t sound massively pleasant. However, Cardiff’s defence press statement in response to the accusations commented on why it was essential that cats were used for the study instead of other animals.

Cardiff University stated, “Cats had to be used for this study because – apart from primates – they are the only mammals with frontally positioned eyes and therefore the only animals to develop severe amblyopia similar to humans under similar circumstances.”

I’m pretty sure primate research is illegal in this country, and therefore cats were the only available option.

Cardiff also responded to claims that the procedure used was unnecessary given recent advancements in laboratory technology.

“Claims that this research can be replaced with CT scans or computer models are simply not true. The University will always use alternative technology where it exists and only uses animals when absolutely necessary.”

While I’ve never been involved in animal testing directly (and wouldn’t want to be), I have worked briefly for a pharmaceutical company. While I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience of working for “evil” big pharma, the animals I saw were not treated inhumanely. I do know how hard it is for experiments to be approved by the Home Office unless they comply with strict regulations on animal welfare. While animal testing is certainly not a pleasant subject area, the animals are given the best life possible in the situation. The people I met who worked in the animal units were highly-skilled and generally massive animal lovers themselves, treating their subjects with kindness and respect. I am therefore surprised that this experiment has been deemed unacceptable and cruel, if it managed to meet the Home Office’s standards.

Additionally, if the experiments were truly unacceptable, surely the blame lies with the Home Office and not the university? It seems to me that the only reason this project has been picked up on is because kittens were the animals used. I imagine a lot of people would be surprised about the sort of animals that many medical products they use have been tested on: fluffy dogs, fluffy rabbits, fluffy guinea pigs… When the emphasis is on fluffy and cute, rather than the typical lab rat, it tends to change people’s opinions rather sharply.

Unfortunately, it’s usually company policy to put down the animals after the tests have been completed – something that I still have a real problem with. Why can’t the animals be rehoused afterwards?

It is funny how hypocritical we are as a nation when it comes to testing on animals. I think at least that the majority of us would now disagree with cosmetic testing. A point Lush should perhaps have considered before their shop-window female abuse publicity stunt (absent of trigger-warning).  See: http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2012/04/not_so_lush . However, it is a completely different story when it comes to medical testing. People who are appalled at these sorts of experiments tend to forget that while these animals no doubt undergo pain and suffering, they likely lead better lives and far more humane deaths than the billions of livestock that are slaughtered to provide us with food. How eating meat can be deemed more necessary than medicine in a world where a plant-based diet can be more than satisfactory is surely a bit ridiculous.

Without the use of lab animals, modern medicine would be unthinkable. While humans and animals are obviously very different, and human subjects will always be required for phase 1 clinical trials, animals research is still a very necessary part of the medical research process. However, the Home Office will only approve the experiments if it animal use is absolutely necessary. Until a reasonable, reliable replacement is found or  a major law change occurs to allow humans to be guinea pigs against their will at all stages of drug development, the necessary evil of animal testing (even on the cute ones) will remain. If you find yourself morally outraged, consider giving up meat.

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34 Comments

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34 responses to “The cat’s out of the bag…

  1. I’ve never been able to work it out to my own satisfaction — I agree that not eating meat is a far easier thing to do (or very little of it, no more than we need) than to do away with medically necessary stuff, but I still just cringe at the whole idea of animal testing, even rats.

    That said, I and everyone else I know have used something that stemmed from animal testing at some point in our lives. The only way I can think of to manage with it is to 1) eat relatively little meat and no more than I need, and 2) keep myself in as good shape as possible so I will require as little medical intervention as I can manage, even if that can’t be zero.

  2. While I appreciate your point of view and your explantions. I think experimenting on animals for a non-life threatening condition or conditions shold not be done. Two of my children had lazy eye and the symptoms wre and are very obvious. As their mother I would not condone this type of experimentation.

  3. This is probably because I’m a cat person, but I still don’t like this experiment. Poor babies!

  4. I agree with “writeawaystacey” that this is a case of insufficient urgency to justify experimentation on live animals. I won’t join those who villify the experimenters, but I will disagree with the design of the experiment.

    I disagree with your opinion, but respect your viewpoint except for one statement of which you should be ashamed. “Surely the blame lies with the Home Office and not the university,” is nothing more than “if it’s immoral then it’s somebody else’s fault.”

  5. I’m not really sure if it’s fair to compare this kind of testing on the kittens to something that seems worse (like the livestock slaughtering) as an argument for the kitten testing as not so bad. (I just worked for 10 hours so if I read your argument wrong, let me know). I think they’re both sad in their own ways.

    As writeawaystacey said, I appreciate your point of view as well and I think there’s some great points in here and things to make people think a bit more about how we use animals in a negative way for our own species’ betterment.

  6. Nonegiven

    Sadly few human being live a life worth causing the death or prolonged suffering of others … let alone a kitten.

  7. Great post! Please come and check out my blog @ http://thedailydoseofliterature.wordpress.com/. The more followers, the more posts :)

  8. This was a thought provoking post. I hate any cruelty to animals. I hate experiments on animals for any reason, but I am also a hypocrite as I like eating meat. I do think it is morally wrong to use another animal for our own purposes however high-minded they might seem. I tried to be a vegetarian and got really sick however I only eat meat 2 -3 times a week now instead of every night. I wish the whole world was vegetarian and that we didn’t have to kill anything. I also wish all the wars would stop so we don’t have to kill other humans but this is an imperfect world. judysp.wordpress.com :)

  9. You’ve fallen for it – the irrational rationalization that we have a right to use animals, commodify them, and experiment on them – because they weren’t treated that badly and it was for a good cause. I can’t buy it and you shouldn’t either.

    “I am therefore surprised that this experiment has been deemed unacceptable and cruel, if it managed to meet the Home Office’s standards.”

    You mistake the standards of the home office for being right and reasonable in the first place.

    There is a socio-psychological culture that has convinced us that animals are property and that it is our right to use them when “absolutely necessary”. Humans have the upper hand here and they rarely hesitate to give themselves enough slack to name something an absolute necessity. So what if it’s killing kittens.

    If there are no alternative technologies available for experiments in question, the grant money for animal experiments should go toward innovation of that technology instead.

    You wince enough times throughout your post to show that you do “know”, deep down, that experiments like this or any other that use animals are not acceptable. Please pinch yourself and wake up all the way. That you had a great experience at your university is sentimental and fair, but even if you love your parents you shouldn’t defend their bad behavior.

    I hope you will continue to examine this door you have opened in your mind and quickly become comfortable protesting about animal experiments and all animal use. It’s easy. Don’t merely give up meat, go vegan and discover a non-violent path that needs biomedical scientists willing to stop the insanity.

    Here are a couple of links you might find interesting.

    http://unpopularveganessays.blogspot.com/

    http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/

    Sincerely

    • “Don’t merely give up meat, go vegan and discover a non-violent path…”

      It’s obvious that many animals (including humans) eat meat. It is a part of nature and we have evolved and survived as a result of eating that meat (as well as eating plants). You more than likely would not be here if it wasn’t for your meat-eating ancestors. Even some plants eat animals for that matter. Take the Venus Flytrap for example. I don’t expect this to make the slightest difference with regard to your opinions on the matter, but I’m curious what your opinions are on these details.

      Both plants and animals are forms of life composed of cells that grow, require nutrition, and physically move towards favorable environmental conditions (although plants do this very slowly, they still move nevertheless). Is it because you believe that animals feel pain and plants do not? How can you be so sure? Even if we confirmed that plants feel no pain (for example by saying that pain is a product of brains, which only animals possess), how can we be sure that plants have no experience at all? With diet aside, how do you treat insects? Have you ever killed an ant by stepping on it? Ever smashed a mosquito against your body in the hopes of preventing a harmless (albeit itchy) bite? People eat spiders that they can’t even see (on their food and in other places) and thus even vegans are eating meat. We can say that they aren’t intentionally doing it, but if they know that statistically it is happening, where is the technology investments by vegans to prevent this from happening? If you think it’s ok to eat plants because we have to eat SOMETHING and killing and eating plants is the lesser of two evils, then why aren’t vegans investing in technology that creates vitamins, macro-nutrients, etc., with no need for the cellular organism (plants nor animals)?

      What makes killing and eating plants any less violent than killing animals and eating them? Clearly you categorize plants and animals in a way such that it’s OK to kill one but not the other. Is it because you think that violence is a behavior that only exists between animals? If so, why do you define it this way? Is it because the animal has a brain? If so, then what if we bio-engineered animals that felt no pain, had no brains, etc. (if they just ingested nutrition, excreted waste, and grew to provide meat)? Would it be ok to eat them then?

      Plants were here on Earth long before animals were, and after animals finally evolved, we had both plants which ate animals (e.g. Venus Flytrap) and we had animals that ate plants. I see them as one in the same.

      I’m very interested in the reasons behind your convictions. Surely you have several reasons for why you prefer to kill plants and eat them over animals. Please don’t take this comment the wrong way with a defensive approach that avoids answering my questions. If you’re honestly interested in spreading your beliefs to those around you, then please let us (including me) know the reasons behind your beliefs. Peace and love Donna!

  10. Animal testing is a necessary evil. By the way, I hear my broccoli scream every time I bite into a luscious crown.

  11. Animal testing is a necessary evil. By the way, I hear my broccoli scream every time I bite into a luscious crown. I also suffer from lazy eye and appreciate the efforts to learn how to cure it.

  12. Outrage at animal testing is always tricky. Animal medical testing can lead to fantastic human benefits, and it’s hard to stomach the hypocrisy of those who object to animal testing but don’t at least buy free-range chicken – or donate to their local animal shelter. How many kittens die awful deaths, with no benefit to anyone, because someone didn’t bother to neuter/spay their pet?
    But it’s true, too, that “This is less cruel than this other cruel thing” is not the same as “this is not cruel.” We should strive to use research animals as little as possible, and to treat them well.
    You’re right to focus on the regulatory agency—as a scientist I’ve found that their power is enormous, and their oversights have correspondingly large effects. In the US, at least, there is a real problem with the treatment of social animals like mice and rats: psychological well-being is deprioritized or ignored in favor of physical well-being, so often these animals are kept alone, lonely and depressed. The scientists who work with them try to avoid this, but they need protocol approval, and in the end it’s the regulatory agency that decides.

  13. Thanks so much for posting this and bringing things into light that I hadn’t realized. Great job.

  14. Timothy

    I’m still against the experiment as designed. Basically you start by saying that it’s a non-life threatening condition, which can be treated with a simple, effective, cheap and non-invasive technique.

    I’m a vegetarian too, and I’m not sure you can make the “Because X is hideously bad, terribly bad is acceptable.” arguemnt. Is the death of one child in a road accident no longer a bad thing when a dozen are hit by a stray bomb in Iraq? I’d argue that, no, both are tragedies, and that if you had the chance to stop either, you should still do so. Ergo, being against animal testing. It may not be as bad as food-meat slaughtering practices, but its bad enough that we can say “I’m really not in favour of that.”

  15. Thank you for so eloquently describing a moral dilemma that I constantly ponder. As a self-proclaimed “hippie scientist”, I have struggled with this same issue. From the hippie standpoint, I have been a vegetarian over half my life, try to buy cosmetic products labeled as “not tested on animals” and do not purchase leather products. But as a scientist, I know there are no substitutes for a well-designed experiment. No amount of computer simulations can replace the need for actually testing a hypothesis with real models. I have naturally been drawn to environmental microbiology based on personal interests and to avoid any moral issues; however, those scientists that are working to solve such important medical problems should not be so abrasively scrutinized for their work. As you stated, reducing the number of animals used for non-essential purposes (i.e. cosmetic testing) would be a better and more realistic target for animal rights activists.

  16. Why can’t the animals be rehomed you ask? Really? Maybe because they had their eyelids sewn shut or have lived in the dark their whole lives – it would take a lot of care, time and dedication to turn them into well adjusted pets. Considering how many homeless cats there already are, i would imagine it would be quite hard to foster animals that have been experimented on. It could also be argued that their behaviour would be too unstable due to their abuse/state-of-being-experimented on. Don’t get me wrong, i don’t think that this makes it OK for them to be put down afterwards – but there is really nothing about this situation that is OK to me.
    I also hate the fact that while it is illegal to experiment on primates, it is OK to experiment on kittens. I am concerned about the basis this distinction would be made on – surely not on the animals ability to feel pain and emotional distress.

  17. I appreciate you posting this. You have an intimate knowledge of what takes place, and you, as a result, know far more than most about it all.

    Animal testing makes me really, really uncomfortable, and I do 100% believe that, in a lot of cases, it just isn’t necessary. People who are pro-animal testing focus on how animals help us find cures for AIDS, cancer and, yes, vision problems. Though it makes me uncomfortable, I can agree that there’s a case to be made for those kinds of tests.

    But cosmetic tests? Tests where animals are purposely made unhealthy just to be plied with a certain brand of Pomegranate juice, just so some Pomegranate juice company can later tout the health benefits of their product to the masses? THAT is something I will never, ever support.

    Best, and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  18. You made a point. The world is full of hypocrites. They hate watching dogs fight while they love watching humans punch, kick and almost kill each other in a boxing bout, UFC, wrestling and other physical sports.
    How about a capital punishment or death penalty for those who maltreat animals just to satisfy their exaggerated love for animals? Isn’t it ironic?
    By the way, plants are living creatures too. If I were a lawmaker, I would lobby an act prohibiting too much vegetable consumption, indiscriminate cutting of trees, intentional and unintentional uprooting of plants simply because I love those species belonging to the Kingdom Plantae. For this, I would be an advocate of plant rights.
    My point is… God created man superior than any other living things. Prohibition is not the answer. Vegetarianism should not be the option for those who do not want to eat meat and other animal products. Regulation and moderation is the answer.
    For those who object to the idea of making animals object of experiments that will eventually result in the betterment of human lives, then save your beloved pets, take their place, volunteer and offer yourselves as specimens.

  19. That was another excellent post today. You make it look so easy. Thanks so much for sharing. I really enjoyed reading it very much. Have a wonderful day!

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  20. Sarah

    Very thought-provoking and courageous of you to “come out” with your defense here. I’m another animal lover who hates to see cruelty, but have to admit that I have benefited from the results of experiments on animals. I will leave it to the people doing the experiments to make the best decision they can. I doubt that many of them simply get off on cruelty.

    Congrats on being FP and thank you for an intelligent, well-written article.

  21. Alyssa

    A very interesting entry and thought provoking at the same time.

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  22. People here on earth and all living things including animals (cats) have the right to live. I pity animals who are used for this kind of experimentation. If someone does experimentation in animals, i hope it is for the better and not just for nonsense.

  23. Good issue you have here, pretty difficult one.
    Eventhough cruelty is not the objective of the experiments, they did perfom cruel actions.
    Consider we have the right of doing experiments in non-human creatures (legally at least, because they are ‘undercover’ ones) is considering we are superior and our concerns are over non-human creatures ‘ights.
    No fair, because suffering is not exclusive of human race, neither the right to live in peace in a proper environment. But humans make and enforce the rules. No fair. Me thinks.

  24. Very well said. This is one topic that I don’t know where I stand on and good to hear your perspective.

  25. That is so bizarre… So you can cure it by putting a patch on but it also might ruin the eye and the good eye completely?
    Interesting article!

    Katie

    http://katieraspberry.wordpress.com/

    MontrealDSL

  26. You can’t really compare eating meat to animal experimentation in medical research – yes some animals (like battery chickens) aren’t treated right and yet people still buy their meat/eggs because they’re cheaper. However, society is slowly beginning to recognise the morality of buying the slightly more expensive free-range meat/dairy products. These animals are brought up in nice surroundings and don’t want for food or comfort.
    The kittens you mentions, growing up in the dark, do not enjoy comfortable or happy lives.
    Also, researching cures may be incredibly important, but if lazy-eye only affects 2-4% of children is it worth the immoral treatment of animals? Perhaps if it would help 95%. This may sound harsh but I agree with some of the previous comments that if it’s not a life-threatning illness it’s just not worth it.
    As for blaming the Home Office, the government aren’t the best role models as they don’t hesitate when sending thousands of soldiers to Iraq, Afghanistan etc so what’s a few kittens to them?
    Still, I respect that you were courageous enough to post about this issue and express your own thoughts on the matter. A well-written, thought provoking post.

  27. This is interesting. Although I am not sure if I agree with you, this is a very well-thought-out post. I am going to look more into it. Thanks for sharing!

    http://stepstochangetheworld.wordpress.com/

  28. I don’t think the outrage is against animal testing in general. It’s about sewing an animal’s eyes shut so it can’t see the light of day. Enough terrible things have been done in the name of science to make people realize that science cannot be a be-all-end-all in a discussion about ethics. There is a line, and this crosses it.

  29. Denise

    This is a hot topic and I appreciate your concise and logic-based writing about this. You mentioned that you believe that primate testing is no longer legal but I assure you it is. I live not far from a primate testing facility that is legally operated and touted as “humane.” Legality is not the issue. The problem lies in humanity believing we have the right to be on top of the hierarchy of all living things. Whether rats, or kittens, or primates, or livestock, humanity believes we get to dictate the lives of all living things. I don’t believe that a human, whether healthy or sick, trumps a kitten’s life. Likewise, if vegetarianism is undertaken as a means to not feel responsible for killing living creatures, the fact remains that vegetable crops are grown by methods that kill millions of insects, snakes, birds, rodents and other living creatures. Vegetarians and omnivores alike are still culpable in taking life for the food we consume. The issues are not parallel, in my opinion. If it is okay to take an animal’s life for medical science, why is not acceptable to allow blindness in a small population of humanity?

  30. A very well presented argument and some interesting comments in response. I am a self professed animal lover and feel uncomfortable about animal testing but recognize that many medical advances may not have happened without it. I agree with a previous comment that it should possibly be reserved for life-threatening illnesses. I also agree that for those of us who eat meat, we should consider the unnecessary harm done to animals to produce veal, foix gras, eggs etc. It’s a raging debate which I’m sure will continue for many more years.

  31. BillieArsenal

    I used to own rats as pets. I absolutely adored the red beady eyed creatures and they were quite friendly and playful to boot. I do not feel any differently about experiments on kittens than I do about rats, I think its wrong either way. But you brought up a fantastic point about eating animals. I do not object to eating them, I find them quite tasty actually, but I do find the treatment of them before they go to slaughter is usually inhumane unless they are from an organic type farm that feeds their animals by grazing and such as opposed to the disgusting habits of large corporate producers of meat and dairy.

  32. interesting perspective. i don’t know how i feel about it, but thank you for sharing. food for thought that will mull around in my brain…

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