Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dario L. Ringach and J. David Jentsch

A letter from Dario L. Ringach and J. David Jentsch titled “We Must Face the Threats” was recently published in The Journal of Neuroscience (September 16, 2009) and (as of October 1, 2009) is available online.

Their letter illustrates and acknowledges an unfortunate phenomenon: generally, it is the vivisectors who have been subjected to harassment in one from or another who engage in public discussion about vivisection. Ringach and Jentsch write:
Traditionally, academic institutions and individual researchers have opted to remain silent about the activities of animal-rights extremists and organizations. Such reasoning was based on the fact that, unless the attacks were directed at you or your institution, it would be unwise to draw attention by offering a response.
I went to my first animal rights protest in 1997. Craig Rosebraugh was leading a campaign to stop Jane Macpherson’s neurological research using cats at Legacy Health System's Good Samaritan Hospital.

According to Legacy, Macpherson currently uses four cats raised for research. Her work is supported by two National Institute of Health grants totaling $311,000.

It takes Macpherson four or five years to complete the experiments on each cat. She takes a year or two to train a cat to stand on four metal balance sensors. Then, a veterinarian injects an antibiotic drug into its head to destroy part of its inner ear, simulating a brain injury. The most invasive part of the research occurs when electrodes are implanted on the cat's body, underneath the skin. The wires meet in a monitoring box surgically attached to the animal's head.

Over the next three or four years, Macpherson observes the cat and how it uses its vision, the vestibular system inside its ears and the pads of its paws to maintain balance. At the end of that cycle, the cat is killed. In 20 years of balance studies at Legacy, hospital officials say, roughly 20 cats have been killed.

Despite repeated requests from Rosebraugh, Legacy refuses to discuss Macpherson's research with the Liberation Collective. "The Liberation Collective doesn't want to discuss anything," says Kiesow. "These are young people with a quasi-religious zeal. They are a cult. This is what they've found to believe in."

Claudia Brown, spokeswoman for Legacy, says other researchers have advised the hospital to ignore the activists. "Saving the world, one cat at a time." (Elizabeth Manning, Willamette Week - Cover Story - Dec. 3, 1997.)
Rosebraugh, like the majority of activists I’ve known, seemed to genuinely believe that given the opportunity to listen to debate and to ask questions, that resulting public pressure would lead to a drastic reduction in the number of animals used, and perhaps even an outright ban on most experimental uses of many animal species.

I have tried for over a decade to organize public forums with vivisectors. I have been more succesful at this than have most other activists; still, I can count the times that vivisectors have have discussed animal experimentation with their critics, in front of a public audience, over the past decade, anywhere in the U.S., in single digits. Altogether, in modern times, such discussion has been exceedingly rare.

The silence is a nasty and double-edged sword. The exceptions come almost exclusively from among those who have been harassed, with Ringach and Jentsch being two recent cases.

I am in complete agreement with Ringach and Jentsch on two key points: that the public should be given the opportunity to learn firsthand what is occurring in the labs, and vivisectors should start talking in public and with the public about the details of their work and their justifications for the things they do.

From their letter, it seems that Ringach and Jentsch are confused about a few things. They say: “animal-rights activists are against all forms of research involving animals.” Maybe this is hyperbole; in any case, it isn’t correct and is needlessly misleading. Many, perhaps every activist I know, would allow one of their companion animals to be used in clinically-based research in a manner and in a situation similar to that of a human patient being asked to volunteer as a research subject or being asked to allow their sick child to be a research subject. I’ve heard few complaints about field-based observational studies of animals. Animal rights activists aren’t against all forms of research involving animals, they are against research that is knowingly harmful or likely harmful, just as they are against similar research using human animals.

Throughout their letter, Ringach and Jentsch employ a rhetorical device frequently used by their industry to generate sympathy for their claims. They characterize the debate as being between the “anti-research lobby” and “scientists;” as if people opposed to drilling holes in monkeys’ skulls are anti-science.

Ringach and Jentsch continue:
Obviously, the use of nonhuman primates in research presents a unique set of ethical issues because of their complex cognitive and emotional abilities, and accordingly, they represent fewer than 1% of all the animals used in research.
Their claim is fallacious in two ways. First, it remains to be seen whether the use of nonhuman primates presents (or is perceived by the vivisection community to present) a unique set of ethical issues. It also isn’t clear which of these complex cognitive and emotional abilities are unique to monkeys and humans, or why the set of cognitive and emotional abilities unique to monkeys and humans (if such a set exists) presents a special case. What characteristics do humans and monkeys have that dogs and rats do not have, that present this so-called “unique set of ethical issues”? What elements comprise this “unique set of ethical issues”? These are the sort of questions that should be discussed in a public venue.

Ringach and Jentsch are likely mistaken when they say that it is this undefined “unique set of ethical issues” that accounts for the relatively smaller number of monkeys used. This may be true to a small degree when it comes to the use of chimpanzees; it isn’t true with monkeys. If a low number of any specific species signaled a special ethical hurdle to their use, it would mean that vivisectors have even greater reservations about using hyenas and naked mole rats.

Ringach and Jentsch defend the use of monkeys with two arguments. First, they say:
For those researchers studying complex brain functions, including vision, hearing, memory, attention, thinking, and planning, as well as how those processes fail in diseases of the CNS, rodent species simply are not adequate alternatives.
Either Ringach and Jentsch are dolts or else they think poorly of their rat-using colleagues. As much as I distrust such binary characterizations, I can’t make out an alternative possibility.

You can test the veracity of their claim yourself. Go to the National Library of Medicine’s index of life scientific publications, PubMed. Do a couple simple searches. Enter (without the quotation marks): “rat vision brain”. Doing so results in 609 papers. Try: “rat auditory brain” (3,557 papers). Try: ‘rat memory brain” (12,329 papers); “rat attention brain” (2,724 papers); “rat cognition brain” (5,639 papers); “rat planning brain” (183 papers.)

Secondly, they claim that nonhuman primates have "an irreplaceable role in neuroscience research" and that society will lose something of apparently overwhelming importance if we were to close the animal labs. One response to Ringach and Jentsch's letter, published by The Journal of Neuroscience is from Ray Greek, MD. If Ringach and Jentsch believe the benefits to the public from their work are easily demonstrated, they should accept Greek's challenge to them to debate the matter in public.
Ringach and Jentsch make the claim that messages from the “anti-research lobby” have been presented with “little opposing force from the scientific community.” Maybe, but President Obama just dumped an additional $5 billion into the NIH, of which 40% or more will probably go to the vivisectors, and as far as I know, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act is the only law of its kind. Someone has been listening and acting on the vivisectors’ pleas for more money and protection from the public. Cry me a river.

Finally, I had to laugh at the authors’ recitation of The Myth of Oversight. They intone:
Everyone agrees that the welfare of animals and the ethical issues raised by their use in research cannot be taken lightly, but the general public seems to be under the impression that investigators are free to experiment on animals in any way they please. Much needs to be done to explain what exactly goes into conducting animal research: the various settings in which students and trainees are exposed to complex issues of ethics in research, the multiple levels of scrutiny, including review of our grants by the National Institutes of Health, the approval of the research by a university committee (composed of veterinarians and community members), the inspections from federal and state regulators, and accreditation from independent organizations that evaluate the compliance of animal programs. Above all, we should convey to the public our commitment (from students, staff, and faculty) to animal welfare, to refining our procedures, and to reducing the number of animals used in our studies.
The proof’s in the putting, as they say. No one familiar with the details of the lives being endured by the monkeys in the labs will fail to see this for the sad silliness that it is.

See too: Pro-Test

No comments: