Thursday, December 27, 2007

“Animal Extremists Get Personal”

I’ve been under the weather for a while and feeling too poopy to write, but I’m feeling a little better so thought I’d comment on a recent article in Science magazine titled “Animal Extremists Get Personal” (Greg Miller.12/21/2007. Pp. 1856 – 1858.)

The article focuses on the recent harassment of primate researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles: Arthur Rosenbaum, Lynn Fairbanks, Dario Ringach, and Edythe London, but never mentions – in any detail whatsoever – what these people do or have done in the name of science that others find so grotesque and cruel.

Rosenbaum’s research using animals is described thusly: “He has ties to only one animal-research project, a pilot study to test an electrical stimulator that could bring paralyzed eye muscles back to life.” Compare that with my own description of his research.

Lynn Fairbanks’ work is described as the study of “primate genetics and behavior.” Here’s a quote from a 2007 paper (Melega WP, Jorgensen MJ, Laćan G, Way BM, Pham J, Morton G, Cho AK, Fairbanks LA. Long-Term Methamphetamine Administration in the Vervet Monkey Models Aspects of a Human Exposure: Brain Neurotoxicity and Behavioral Profiles. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2007):
Based on parameters from human and our monkey pharmacokinetic studies, we modeled a prevalent human METH exposure of daily multiple doses in socially housed vervet monkeys. METH doses were escalated over 33 weeks, with final dosages resulting in estimated peak plasma METH concentrations of 1-3 muM, a range measured in human abusers. With larger METH doses, progressive increases in abnormal behavior and decreases in social behavior were observed on 'injection' days. Anxiety increased on 'no injection' days while aggression decreased throughout the study. Thereafter, during 3 weeks abstinence, differences in baseline vs post-METH behaviors were not observed.
Dario Ringatch’s horrific primate vivisection wasn’t characterized at all, and Edythe London’s was soft-pedaled like this:
In a 1 November editorial in the Los Angeles Times, she wrote that her research on the biological basis of addiction--which focuses on human brain imaging but also involves some work with primates--was motivated in part by the death of her father, a chronic smoker. “We are also testing potential treatments, and all of our studies comply with federal laws designed to ensure humane care” of animals, she wrote.
Compare this with my own previous description of her work.

In all fairness (as if Science cares about fairness or accurate reporting on this issue) the article seems to have been intended to frighten vivisectors into urging their universities to get tough and to find ways to protect them. It clearly wasn’t intended to inform readers about why some people feel that they have so few options when it comes to voicing their opinions about the use of primates or other animals in science.

There is much irony in the article, but a reader would have to be reasonably well informed to see it, so most Science readers probably missed it. It’s almost a given that vivisectors claim publicly that statements made concerning their work are uninformed, no matter how absurd they appear by doing so. For instance, at a public lecture Richard Davidson recently asserted that a critic of his primate experiments didn’t have her facts straight regarding the invasive nature of his experiments, even as she held in her hand a copy of an abstract in which he described burning away various parts of monkeys’ brains with acid. The Science article noted that some vivisectors are calling for greater obscurity in the CRISP (Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects, a searchable database of federally funded biomedical research projects.) In other words, they don’t want critics to speak with specificity or accuracy.

Another bit of irony in the article is that UCLA is willfully flouting federal and state statutes concerning public access to information. Most advocates of democracy acknowledge the prime importance of transparency in government and the public’s right of access to public records. Yet, UCLA has flatly denied access to public records to members of the public, and Science says this is a model being used increasingly by other universities to shield their researchers’ activities from public scrutiny (and possible criticism.) The University of Wisconsin simply destroys records it deems too controversial for public inspection. When activists break the law, UCLA et al call it terrorism.

More ironic, is the topsy-turvy world view of the editors of the magazine or their inability to perceive obvious implications. On one hand, they defend essentially any experimental use of animals, while on the other, they publish articles that bolster the challenge to such immoral dogma. And yet, they hold that informed people who are offended by the likes of the UCLA vivisectors are “extremists.” (i.e. “A new generation of experiments reveals that group-living animals have a surprising degree of intelligence. What was once considered a sharp line separating humans from all other animals is becoming a blurry gray area, with various animals possessing certain parts of the skill set considered to be advanced cognition.” Elizabeth Pennisi. “Social Animals Prove Their Smarts.” Science 23 June 2006; and from the article at hand: “‘They honestly and truly believe that animals are equal to Jews in the Holocaust, and they are fighting to liberate them,’ says one targeted researcher.”

Science could (but probably won’t) embrace the best things about science: it could (but probably won’t) foster a genuine public discussion and a reevaluation of the human/animal relationship based on a modern informed scientific evaluation of other species’ minds. Even hardboiled scientists can express fact-based opinions for why we should acknowledge the most fundamental rights of other humans; bigots (like vivisectors and apparently, the editors of Science)base their beliefs and behavior on unexamined non-factual claims and unexamined tradition.

One final note: if you think I’m too hard on the editors of Science, consider the journal’s willingness to cover Jane Goodall and her work and their marketing decision to use a chimpanzee dressed in a costume to sell subscriptions. The woeful lack of sensitivity this implies fits neatly into a pattern of disregard for other animals no matter how complex their mental lives might be.

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