Friday, March 1, 2013

UW-Madison, Feeling the Heat

I've been a reasonably close observer of the University of Wisconsin, Madison's use of animals and the things they say about it for quite a while. Over the years, I've watched them lie, pay-off critics, cover-up scandals, strike back at whistle-blowers, censor the information that the law forces them to provide to the public, spend large sums to keep themselves out of a critical spotlight, and just generally cringe whenever the light of day exposes a few tiny details of their very dark world.

One metric of the effect of public criticism on the university is its response to those criticisms. The more they try to defend themselves, the more likely it is that public comment from critics is making them uncomfortable. In my experience, they have never chosen to say too much in public, and rarer still, in the local papers, about what they are doing to animals unless pressed by a news reporter who they believe is going to write something that they fear could be embarrassing to them. This makes Research Animal Resource Center Director Eric Sandgren's two online essays about the university's decision to resurrect its use of maternal deprivation all the more noteworthy. They must be feeling some concern over the growing number of critical voices.

I appreciate Sandgren and his writing team taking the time to defend the university, the people who approved the study, and Ned Kalin. Their assertions provide an opportunity to look at their claims and omissions with some specificity.

Sandgren's two essays can be read here: "Mundane but important facts about the peer-rearing animal protocol review," and here: "The rest of the story."

Sandgren's apology begins with a well-worn bit of misdirection. He says, "Regardless of whether one supports or opposes the research, we can agree that it raises important ethical issues that deserve an open and informed discussion."

That sounds so very reasonable, except that in a case like this, open and informed discussion is meaningful only when it occurs prior to a decision, and particularly so when it's very obvious that the decision will be controversial. After the fact, giving lip service to the notion of open and informed discussion is just plain old spin.

A recurring theme in their post-hoc defense of their decision to approve Kalin's use of maternal deprivation is the claim that taking baby monkeys away from their mothers, keeping them alone, and then pairing them with other babies who were taken away from their mothers just isn't such a big deal:

Sandgren, in "Mundane": "the proposed studies produce at most a moderate early life stress... peer-rearing actually is used to save a monkey’s life when a mother rhesus rejects its infant and a foster mother cannot be found." (A mother monkey isn't an it.)

And then again in "The rest": "this same approach is taken to rearing baby rhesus monkeys whose mothers reject them at birth and who are not adopted by a foster mother. In other words, sometimes peer-rearing is used to save a baby monkey’s life."

This claim is both wrong and very odd; Sandgren seems to be saying that loneliness itself is life threatening, but decades of horribly cruel social deprivation experiments at UW-Madison proved repeatedly and redundantly that it isn't. A baby monkey taken from his or her mother could starve to death, of course, but putting him or her with another orphaned baby doesn't alleviate that risk and placing him or her with another orphan wouldn't save the baby's life.

Moreover and very distasteful, is the implicit claim that there is a concern for an orphaned baby monkey's life. This is one of those cases when someone uses words to mislead, or else is completely unaware that they are using words that has one commonly understood meaning and a much different one elsewhere.

The only reason they take steps to save a baby monkey's life is so that they can decide for themselves later on how to kill him after using him in some income-generating experiment.

Another recurring claim in their public statements is the assertion that the babies aren't really being socially deprived.

Sandgren: "The monkeys are not kept in total isolation. They are reared in a human-style baby incubator by people who feed and otherwise care for these infants...".

This is a very fine point. It is a reference to previous decades of egregious cruelty at the university that most readers will miss. In many past experiments, babies were taken from their mothers and kept in complete isolation for extended periods of time, being unable even to see the person who replenished their food and water. But the claim that the current methods aren't actually cruel because even more horrible things were done to monkeys in the past is a fallacy; it is probably being repeated so often because university spin-Meisters believe it will mollify critics or at least mislead the average reader or listener.

They should have done their homework. The effects of maternal deprivation are well-known; a few brief daily visits from a technician aren't sufficient to rectify them. The human-based evidence of this fact is extensive and has been well known since at least the early 1950s. Even today, studies continue to document the long-term consequences to humans when they are reared in far less-deprived circumstances and to determine the most effective routes to improved emotional well being:
The individuals’ development is continuous, genetically determined and environmentally structured and responsive. Institutionalization of infants and young children in ‘adverse conditions’ provides an environment with low emotional tones and poor stimulation with lack of sufficient responsive caretaking. John Bowlby’s seminal work “Child Care and Growth of Love” written in 1951 and later updated in 1965 with two additional chapters by Mary Ainsworth states deprivation results from lack of substitute mother, inadequate, inconsistent care and lack of sensitive nurturing. In early institutionalization, we can speak about “parental deprivation” instead of “maternal deprivation” as the paternal figure can successfully substitute that of the mother. Studies on the effects of maternal deprivation in the first year of life demonstrate that children show delayed psychomotor and speech development, lack of novelty seeking, poor emotional expression, lack basic trust and they do not seek adults when in distress. These effects are also evident in observations of children institutionalized between 1 and 4 years of age who show the three phases of Protests, Despair and Detachment. Romanian adolescents: literature review and psychiatric presentation of Romanian adolescents adopted in Romania and in Canada. Iftene F, Roberts N. Can Child Adolesc Psychiatr Rev.
In the case of rhesus monkeys, the research is also clear:
Different species of nonhuman primates vary in their response to different nursery rearing conditions. However, studies conducted for over 30 y have shown that in general, raising infants in pairs continuously with the same partner causes behavioral deficiencies. Compared with those raised by using other rearing methods, these infants showed more fear, social withdrawal, aggression, and less nonsocial exploration in this and other studies examining this rearing condition. These differences were thought to be due to the infants' excessive and persistent partner clinging, which precluded independent exploration. Although clinging was initiated by both partners equally often, infants were physically unable to break the clasp of their partners. In addition, infants who received partner clinging often responded to their partner's behavior with aggression.... The effects of four nursery rearing strategies on infant behavioral development in rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta). Rommeck I, Gottlieb DH, Strand SC, McCowan B.J Am Assoc Lab Anim Sci. 2009.
Sandgren's use of the term "a human-style baby incubator" is also misleading. Human babies in incubators are cared for much differently than the monkeys isolated in the so-called human-style incubators at the university monkey labs. There is a growing trend to provide human infants confined to an incubator with frequent massage and physical stimulation.

Additionally, rhesus monkeys mature more rapidly than humans. This could mean that the subjective experience of being kept alone for the first six weeks of life is much more stressful for a rhesus monkey than it would be for a human.

Sandgren goes on to claim that "clinical records show that, in the UW-Madison colony, peer-rearing typically only is associated with thumb sucking behavior (just one young monkey in 10 years injured herself, and she recovered). Peer-rearing will measurably increase anxiety, as required by the experimental design ...".

As I have pointed out many times, the university and its spokespersons, including Sandgren, have a history of telling lies when the lies serve the interests of the university. There is no reason to believe his anecdotal claim about what the clinical records show. If the records substantiate his claim, the university should make them public; to know whether they genuinely demonstrate what he claims, Sandgren would have to make the daily care records, animal care staff comments, and the veterinary records available for public inspection and consideration. Short of such a full disclosure, their history of lying to the public suggests quite strongly that this claim is just more of the same.

In "The rest," Sandgren takes the writer of an Animal Legal Defense Fund blog to task for using the word "relentless." He writes:
The monkeys are not subjected to 'relentless fear'. Instead, approximately once a month for up to 18 months their reaction to a novel situation is observed. What are these novel situations? An unfamiliar human stands in front of their cage. An unfamiliar monkey is housed in an adjoining cage, or the two are housed together in a play cage. And one time, the monkey can see a snake, closed within a solid glass aquarium that sits outside the monkey’s cage. That does not constitute relentless fear.
Once again, Sandgren spins what he knows, or ought to know, to be otherwise. These so-called novel situations were not chosen because of their novelty.

Kalin has been using these "novel" methods for decades. Here's how he explains why he uses an "unfamiliar human":
When threatened, primates commonly engage in behavioral inhibition or freezing behavior. Freezing is an automatic response characterized by the cessation of motor and vocal activity. In monkeys, individual differences in freezing duration are stable over time and reflect individual levels of anxiety. Adaptive freezing helps an individual remain inconspicuous and decreases the likelihood of predatorial attack; however, excessive freezing, or behavioral inhibition, is a risk factor for the development of anxiety disorders. The human intruder paradigm was developed to study primates’ defensive behaviors, such as freezing, and their regulation in response to changing environmental demands... Brain regions associated with the expression and contextual regulation of anxiety in primates. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Fox AS, Oakes TR, Davidson RJ. Biol Psychiatry. 2005
And compare Sandgren's description of how and why the snake will be used with Kalin's:
During the snake exposure test, animals will be placed in the small primate cage. The testing apparatus will be placed in front of the cage and the animals will be presented with their most preferred food items placed on top of a clear plastic box at contains a stimulus such as a live snake, rubber snake, roll of tape or nothing. Our previous work has shown that each of these items elicits a response in primates, with the live snake eliciting the most reliable and robust fear response. [Kalin cites published scientific papers at this point in his description, but the citations have been censored by the university.] The items that are not fearful or those that elicit lesser responses are included as comparison and control measures to quantitate the magnitude of the animals' response to the live snake. From Kalin's approved protocol, "Effects of early experience on the development of anxiety and its neural substrates." Pg 18.
Everything Kalin is doing to the babies is intended to cause them anxiety and fear. He expects this ordeal to cause their brains to develop differently than the brains of monkeys not similarly deprived and frightened. Are the fearful experiences relentless? Not in the sense that they continue around-the-clock, but certainly so in the sense that they are frequent and recurring events in these young victims' short and intentionally difficult lives.

After trying to mislead people about the nature of the deprived conditions and stress-filled experiences of the babies, Sandgren then launches into an attempt to justify the cruelty. And again, he either misunderstands what Kalin is claiming or else is just again being a propagandist for his employer and industry.

He begins in "The rest" with an appeal to Kalin et al's past work. he says, "In previous studies, these UW-Madison researchers mapped out pathways in the brain that are overactive in anxious monkeys (it turns out the same pathways are overactive in anxious humans too)." But again, he misleads.

Kalin's experiments on monkeys did not inform scientists about humans' brains; the exact opposite is true. Here's Kalin's quote from "The Neurobiology of Fear," a 2002 Scientific American article that was update from a 1993 article:
To follow up on the finding that humans with a preponderance of right frontal brain electrical activity are more likely to be anxious, we, along with [Richard] Davidson, examined the individual differences in this measure of brain activity in young monkeys. Similar to the observations in humans, we found that each animal's pattern of frontal brain activity was stable over time, such that animals with extreme asymmetric right frontal activity remained that way as they matured.
Continuing his defense of Kalin's project in "Mundane," Sandgren claims that the project has a clear scientific rationale. But he is not unfamiliar with the rationale Kalin used in his letter to a reporter with The Capital Times newspaper:
It is now widely accepted that early stressful environments that include parental stress, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect and inadequate parenting are the most relevant risk factors for the later development of psychiatric illness. Unfortunately, this type of adversity during childhood is endemic in our society. These early adverse circumstances can change the trajectory of a developing brain such that it becomes wired in a way that leads less fortunate individuals down a path of anxiety, depression and other forms of psychopathology. Discovering new interventions aimed at preventing the long term consequences of early adversity in children is critical and requires a basic understanding of the influences of suboptimal rearing on the primate brain. Recent advances in neuroscience and molecular neurobiology allow us, for the first time, to identify promising new molecular pathways that have the potential to counter the effects of early adversity on childhood development.
Kalin rationalizes his cruelty with the wild claim that the identification of irregularities in the brains of orphaned male rhesus monkeys isolated during the first weeks of their lives, and then repeatedly frightened, will lead to a drug (that's what is implied by his "new molecular pathways") that will cure or prevent the highly variable results that stem from the even more variable circumstances surrounding "early stressful environments that include parental stress, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect and inadequate parenting." That sounds more like pie-in-the-sky than a clear scientific rationale.

Even sillier is Sandgren's faith-based assertion: "this study also will be highly relevant to the causes of anxiety in humans." But he doesn't know this. His assertion is anything but scientific or rational. He plays the role of the soothsayer. The majority of the results from attempts to measure the efficacy of animal models of human biology point strongly to the opposite likelihood.

Moreover, the apparent absence of clear beneficial results for human sufferers of emotional distress that stem from Kalin's decades of previous work using monkeys as models of anxiety and fear in humans stands in stark contrast to both his and Sandgren's assertions that anything of benefit to human patients will result. If there were much to ballyhoo from his previous projects with monkeys, I suspect it would have been mentioned by now, by someone, in neon lights.

Sandgren argues at some length in "Mundane" that oversight of research using animals by the university's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) is not just a rubber stamp. He both admits and denies that essentially all proposed experiments are approved.

First he quotes Wesleyan University Professor of Philosophy Lori Gruen: “the oversight committee chairs [at UW-Madison] told me they have never rejected a proposal. Not one.”

Then he says: "When our IACUC chairs say “failure to reject”, they mean that almost all protocols eventually reach a state that the IACUC can accept.

Then he says: "Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that our IACUCs reject 92 percent of the proposals they receive."

But his argument that the oversight system is working boils down to this: The committees eventually approve essentially every experiment that comes before them, even one that is as controversial as Kalin's. A duck, he seems to be saying, is not a duck.

Vivisectors have a very unscientific habit of ignoring evidence that does not support their self-image. Research shows that the use of animals isn't a very productive methodology. Research shows that IACUC committees do seem to act as rubber stamps. Research shows that the workers within the system are uncomfortable with and often embarrassed by what they are forced to do. Research shows that a system like the one surrounding the use of animals at a university will breed secrecy, cruelty, and public denial.

The university must be feeling the heat. As a result, Sandgren has tried to spin the plain facts and has presented false and misleading claims without presenting anything other than anecdotal claims and expressions of his faith and obedience in support. It is worth noticing that he did not point readers to Kalin's approved protocol; that information was made public by the Alliance for Animals.

The University of Wisconsin, Madison has a long, well-documented, and entirely despicable history when it comes to honesty and openness about its use of animals. Sandgren's two essays are simply the newest chapter in this (so far) never ending story of their cruelty.

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