At the Sundance Film Festival last week, Susan and I attended a new documentary entitled "Unlocking the Cage." In it, a group of lawyers calling themselves the Nonhuman Rights Project introduce the concept that certain species (namely apes, cetaceans and elephants) be considered as more than animals and, accordingly, be afforded some basic rights. The main agenda of these activists seems to be preventing/intervening in situations of involuntary confinement for the proposed animal classes.
In the documentary, the group successively petitions multiple courts on behalf of several apes who were selected based on their less-than-ideal housing conditions. When a number of these early efforts fail (either by legal refusals to consider the case or - as happened twice - by their "client" dying while the lawsuit was pending) the group targets two nonhuman primates living at SUNY Stonybrook who have been the subjects of ongoing medical/behavioral research.
It was... unconvincing. I went in with what I think is a normal amount of support for animals housed in shitty conditions. I came out thinking that attempting to obtain legal rights for animals was bizarre when legislative and public awareness approaches appeared far more viable. The audience, however, disagreed with me. I know this because the screening was followed by a Q&A with the film's producers and its star, lawyer Steven Wise. By and large, the other 500 people in attendance were moved by the plight of the animals and blindly threw their support behind the filmmakers and the Nonhuman Rights Project without carefully considering the ramifications.
The main fault with the approach, as I saw it, wasn't going after shitbag monkey owners doing low-end roadside attractions, but rather in eschewing them in favor of highly regulated research labs. I wasn't able to ask a question, but had I been able to do so, I would have asked Mr. Wise what his strategy was in targeting animals in a research facility. The documenterers (is that really a word?) used footage of Koko the signing ape, as well as footage of nonhuman primates flexing their mighty hippocampal spatial recognition as a means of establishing that their species are cognitively more "aware" than common animals. The filmmakers strongly suggest these examples were used in court, as evidence.
You could drive a beer truck through the hole in their thinking: What Mr. Wise and colleagues do not seem to realize (or choose to ignore) is that the experiments they cite were all done in controlled research environments. They have to be - good research often involves tightly controlling all variables, including things like social interaction and environmental fluctuations, none of which are possible in the setting proposed by the lawyers as ideal. What we're left with, then, is a situation where a group of lawyers is using scientific evidence and testimony by researchers to attack the same researchers... for using primates to generate some of the data... that the lawyers use to attack researchers...
Considering this, how long does Mr. Wise expect to have support from those scientists studying Koko in a lab setting? Obviously, the choice to target lab research animals is a poor choice, especially given the tenuous legal grounds on which the group's claims stand.
As far as animal use in research goes, I've been working with animals in research for almost twenty years now. I've seen medical research from the point of view of PETA-style activists (who would annually picket our building at the University of Florida) as well as from the inside of an animal colony. I'd like to share my thoughts on the subject I've built up over that time.
Obviously, I feel bad when I see an intelligent animal suffering in a cage. There had better be a damned good reason for it to be there (amusement is not really enough). I'm not a big fan of zoos that house animals that would otherwise be viable in the wild. Don't even get me started on Sea World.
That said, I'm not about to firebomb our animal colony. Nor am I disposed to purely emotional arguments. The reality is we need animal research to produce new medicines and therapies. Unless you're prepared to live like a caveman, you have to be OK with the idea that human utility comes over the individual rights of research animals. If you've taken any drug made in the last thirty years you've implicitly approved by voting with your pocketbook.
Generally this includes mice, rats, bugs and fish, but occasionally it does involve companion animals like cats (spinal cord research model), dogs, pigs (burn models) and nonhuman primates (drug safety testing, among other things). Yes, it's necessary. Don't believe me? I'll give you a mild example of a time when using a nonhuman primate was absolutely necessary: Our company was developing a prototype drug that was very promising in preclinical testing on mice and rats. It was doing exactly what we wanted it to do, performing perfectly and very promising so far. One of the last things we did before moving to clinical trials was testing the compound on a small number of monkeys. The FDA requires we do this to verify that our intended doses are reasonable and to see if there are side effects not apparent in rodents (among other reasons). So we administer the compound to the monkeys. I wasn't there, but later learned what happened next: A few minutes after receiving the drug, one of the monkeys projectile vomited and grabbed his head like he had the worst case of seasickness ever. Then another did the same thing. And then another. Long story short, the drug we were about to give to people caused severe nausea. Why didn't we pick this up earlier? Easy: Rodents are incapable of puking.
Lastly, if you don't believe the logical reasons, try this personal one: Working with animals sucks. I've been bitten, shat and pissed upon. The smell of animals is terrible; it gets into your clothes and never seems to come out. It's often technically difficult; imagine how painstaking and headache-inducing doing brain surgery on a mouse can be. From a data collection perspective, the work is slow and the results are much more variable than in vitro experiments. It's also expensive to house and maintain animals. Our colony has a dedicated veterinarian, a prescribed diet, dedicated husbandry staff. The paperwork is overwhelming - approval must be granted for each little experiment you wish to perform, even if it's a widely-used procedure.
With all these negatives, here's only one reason to use animals in research: Because we absolutely have to. PETA people are fond of saying "we have other options." If you really have a viable option on curing the complex psychiatric disorders I'm working on that doesn't involve animals, let me know and I promise we'll switch. Everyone will. Because working with animals sucks.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.