Friday, October 18, 2013

When pigs fly

I was both shocked and delighted to read an opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times [10-5-2013] by a neuroscientist talking about his experiments on dogs. See: "Dogs Are People Too."

Neuroscientists who use animals in their research are callous assholes. This is a truism, "a statement that is obviously true and says nothing new or interesting," explains one dictionary.

But Gregory S. Berns, a scientist at Emory University of all places*, is the exception that proves the rule.

Even more exceptional is the strong pro-dog side-taking in one of his recent scientific publications: Functional MRI in awake unrestrained dogs. Berns GS, Brooks AM, Spivak M. PLoS One. 2012. The authors write:
The possibility of future canine fMRI must be tempered with the acknowledgement that dogs will do almost anything humans ask of them, and this makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation. In the design and implementation of this study, we adopted a set of principles that places the dogs' welfare above all else, and which we hope will provide ethical guidelines for future work in this area. First, no harm must occur to the dogs. With MRI, the main concern is for the dogs' hearing, which is more sensitive than humans'. Considerable effort was spent fitting and training the dogs to wear ear muffs and head wraps that mitigated the effects of the scanner noise. Second, the dogs should not be restrained. Although it is technically possible to implement a wide range of restraints, from harnesses to implanted fixation devices, we believe this violates a basic principle of self-determination that is normally reserved for humans, but in this case should be extended to dogs: they should be free to exit the scanner at all times. Similarly, this means that purpose-bred laboratory dogs should not be used as they have no choice. Third, positive reinforcement should be used whenever possible. Although we can imagine experiments in which one would like to know the differential effects of positive reinforcement versus punishment, we favor positive reinforcement for ethical reasons. The use of punishment should be carefully weighed against the alternatives, especially since the animal training literature does not indicate that punishment leads to more effective learning than positive methods.
You should read the entire Discussion section.

*Emory University is home to the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and a consumer of large numbers of animals in cruel experiments.

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