Saturday, October 13, 2012

New Maternal Deprivation Research at U of Wisconsin

Last month I gave a talk at the University of Wisconsin at the invitation of the Forum on Animal Research Ethics. This forum has hosted a variety of speakers who discussed different aspects of animal research. I spoke about animal research and the limits of medicine.
I focused on the ways that ethical questions are inseparable from scientific questions.  Values are implicated in what we do, particularly when suffering is involved (and I talked about both human and non-human suffering). Importantly, just because something is scientifically justified doesn’t mean it is ethically justified.  If an NIH panel decides to fund an experiment that doesn’t necessarily mean it is an ethically justified experiment.  In general, NIH panels tend to defer to the judgments of IACUCs (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees) on ethical questions.
But if an IACUC approves an experimental protocol does that mean it is ethically justified?
Some at UW think so.  However, there is one experimental protocol that I learned on my visit was recently approved by not one, but two ACUCs, that I think is not ethically defensible.  The protocol is now part of the public record and I have had the chance to carefully review it. (go here and here are the minutes of one ACUC meeting.)
The research in question is a new type of maternal deprivation research designed to study anxiety by creating adverse early rearing conditions and then exposing the maternally deprived young monkeys to a snake and other frightening stimuli.  The monkeys will be killed after the experiment is over and their brains will be studied. I believe this experiment is unethical and I also think it violates the spirit, if not the promulgated regulations, of the Animal Welfare Act which explicitly requires that the psychological well-being of primates be promoted (not intentionally destroyed).
There is no doubt that people who suffer from anxiety disorders suffer considerably and finding a way to alleviate this suffering is a noble end.  However, it isn’t at all clear that the proposed monkey model will help alleviate human suffering, in part because it isn’t clear that the monkey model is adequate.
Consider the results of a recent study that found distinct differences in myelin development in humans compared to our closest genetic and evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee.  Myelin allows the developing brain to build connections that are necessary for cognitive function, including the regulation of emotions.  Myelin development happens early in chimpanzee brain development and later in humans, and it is at this time, according to researchers, that humans are vulnerable to neuropsychiatric disease.   If the brains of our closest primate relatives are so different than our own, macaque monkey brains will be more profoundly different.

In addition, this approved maternal deprivation experiment, by the researcher’s own admission, does not replicate the adverse conditions that children face.  As Dr. Sujatha Ramakrishna, M.D. a pediatric psychiatrist told me, she “sees many patients in our offices who have grown up under “adverse” conditions, and they are hardly a uniform set. There are a wide variety of stressors that traumatized human children have to deal with, including various types of abuse and neglect, and these can never be replicated with any kind of accuracy using animal models.”

Even if there were a promising benefit to be found, there is a second question that needs to be answered in order to determine whether these experiments are ethically  justified -- is there no other way to achieve the benefit?   In the case of this maternal deprivation experiment, there are many obvious ways to minimize the human suffering that results from anxiety disorders.  If children are suffering from early adverse rearing conditions, social programs that work to prevent this adversity for example, programs that teach young mothers parenting skills; programs that help fight drug addiction; programs that provide affordable access to prenatal and early childhood healthcare; affordable childcare programs that can also monitor adverse exposures; as well as adult services for parents to address alcoholism, anger management, and provide job training, could all directly help.  Having such services more readily available can prevent the psychological harms that arise from childhood trauma and would have other social benefits as well.  In tough economic times, the provision of such services generally fall on charities that are already overburdened. 
When federal tax-payer dollars go to fund animal experimentation, these funds cannot be used in other ways.  Imagine how much real good the funds that UW researchers have  used causing monkeys anxiety for 30 years could have done directly serving those children who suffer so greatly and have very limited access to care and assistance.  Researchers claim there is a moral imperative to conduct primate research to help prevent human suffering.  I agree there is a moral imperative here to help children who are suffering.  But research that involves creating monkeys and intentionally damaging their psychological well-being will not help these children and it will use valuable resources that actually could go a long way towards helping people who suffer from anxiety live better lives.

UPDATE:  More on the issue here.
Sign a petition to the provost. 
There is a facebook group for UW alum. 
Another blog post here. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Chimp attacks, a birthday, and a passing

There has been a lot of discussion of chimpanzee aggression this past week.  A baby chimpanzee was killed in front of zoo visitors by a male chimpanzee at the LA Zoo and a graduate student who had just begun working with chimpanzees was horrifically attacked by two male chimpanzees at Chimp Eden in South Africa.  Journalists and much of the general public are shocked.  Most people familiar with chimpanzees are responding to the shock by explaining that chimpanzees are stronger than humans, that aggression is a part of their natural behavioral repertoire, that chimpanzees are not domesticated and will never be “tamed.” 
I think there is more to it. 
The aggressors are captive male chimpanzees who have not yet mellowed with age (some older male chimpanzees can be remarkably caring and sweet – but no one should let their guard down around them nonetheless. This is one especially sweet old guy, Keo, who turned 54 this week.  He is the oldest male chimpanzee in captivity).  
Keo at the Lincoln Park Zoo (c) Steve Ross
Captivity is stressful.  Even the best captive conditions are stressful, and from what I gather, both the LA Zoo and Chimp Eden are among the places that really take chimpanzee well-being into account. 
One very serious stressor for chimpanzees is being exposed to new people, whether those people are unfamiliar humans or chimpanzees.  At zoos, having new people constantly in one’s environment  is a significant stressor. The stress level during introductions between chimpanzees is always high, and a new baby inevitably causes shifts in group dynamics, which also adds to the tension.   Add zoo visitors gawking and oohing and ahhing at the new baby and, well, the sad outcome at the LA Zoo could have been predicted.  But that it was predictable, doesn’t mean it is the same as infanticide in the wild.  No one really knows enough about infanticide in the wild.  Maybe one cause is stress.  To point to infanticide in the wild as an explanation for what happened at the zoo, seems simplistic and wrong-headed.   
Captive chimpanzees engage in very different behavior than wild chimpanzees.  To take just one obvious example, no one would walk among captive chimpanzees in the way that primatologists have been doing at field sites throughout Africa for decades.
Perhaps that slippage contributed to the tragedy at Chimp Eden, where the young graduate student was horribly mauled.  This incident also involved a lot of new people and territorial issues with captive chimpanzees. The student was new to the facility, he was lecturing to visitors to the sanctuary, and he was standing in an area (with his back to the chimpanzees?) where he should not have been. 
Yes, chimpanzees are aggressive.  But captive chimpanzee aggression is different than wild chimpanzee aggression.  It would be interesting to learn more about each.
Aggression is just one part of captive chimpanzee behavior.  Another big part of their behavior is their compassion, courage, wisdom, and humor. And in some rare circumstances it makes sense for those who know them very well to interact directly with them.  This is what Gloria Grow did when beloved Pepper was dying.  I’m glad she was able to be with Pepper in this way.  It was a tribute to the depth of their relationship and Pepper’s profoundly “good” nature that Gloria was able to intimately hold her as she left this world.  Please read her memorial tribute here. RIP Pepper.
Pepper (c) Frank Noelker

Monday, April 16, 2012

Chimpanzee the Movie

I saw the movie Chimpanzee during the Environmental Film Festival at Yale. Visually it is absolutely stunning and I hope people will see it for that reason alone. I ran into a colleague on the way into the theater and she said she thought she would see me at the "cheezy chimp" movie. I actually thought it wouldn't be "cheezy" and I was wrong. It is a Disney film after all and it is aimed at young people. But the story is based on the real altruism of adult male chimpanzees who have adopted orphans as observed by Christophe Boesch and his team in the Tai Forests in Cote d'Ivoire.

The audience was filled with youngsters and I have to confess I felt joy hearing the children in the audience laughing as the young chimpanzees on the screen laughed and played.

But I did experience a tad bit of discomfort at times watching the audience react to the film. As many of us are working hard to end the use of chimpanzees in entertainment, I think this film walks a fine line. It is designed to entertain and chimpanzees are the entertainment.

So I think it is crucial that at every opportunity people who are talking about the film remind film watchers that no part of this film used captive chimpanzees, that chimpanzees are endangered in the wild, and that they need our help. I wish there was more information available in the theater for movie goers who are interested in learning more about ways to help chimpanzees. I'm going to go to see the film again during the first week (portions of the proceeds from admission will go to JGI projects) and bring some flyers. Maybe the theater will keep the extras for other shows.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Chimps "read" books, chimps aren't books!

I love books. I don’t know any academic who wouldn’t say that they don’t at least respect and admire books. We even defend books. My University has to cut some titles from the library to make more room for other, newer books and there has been a passionate discussion about the value of the volumes we have and how important it is to protect them.

John VandeBerg, the chief medical officer at Texas Biomed, told NBC that chimpanzees are “like books in a library” a quote he echoes from a letter he co-signed with the other three chimpanzee lab directors. Lisa Myers was right on to challenge him in her report on Rock Center.

Though there may be semantic similarities between the discussions at my University about saving books in our library and the debate that is happening about using chimpanzees for research, let’s be clear. Chimpanzees are not in the same ontological or ethical category as books. Books are marvelous repositories of thoughts and ideas. Books are certainly worth preserving. Good books are the sorts of things that one can go back to and learn something new from. But my students are also repositories of thoughts and ideas, and I always learn from them, yet my obligations and responsibilities to my students are on a completely different level than any I might have towards books. Here is one obvious difference – I value books and want to preserve them so that others can enjoy or learn from them. My students are valuable in their own right, even if nobody likes them or their ideas aren’t very good (this is not true of any of my students). What is valuable about my students that makes them fundamentally different from books is that they have feelings and interests and their own lives to live. Books don’t. Chimpanzees do.

It seems silly to have to even write that, to point out that chimpanzees are more similar to my students than they are to books, and it raises serious questions about the thought processes of the directors of our nation’s chimpanzee research laboratories. It makes me wonder about the meaning of their claim that they respect the chimpanzees and have the highest reverence for them. How can they respect a living, feeling, experiencing being if they think of that being as an inanimate object from which knowledge can be extracted? As I said, I respect books, but the sort of respect I have for books is profoundly different than the respect one should have for sentient beings.

In order to treat a chimpanzee with respect, in order to promote his or her well-being, one has to understand that individual’s personality, specific needs, her interests, her fears, her emotions, and her thoughts. Understanding chimpanzees requires a sort of empathetic process, one that these lab directors clearly don’t engage and can't engage if they think of chimpanzees as being like books.

(Photo by Amy Fultz at Chimp Haven)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Chimp Research Coming to an End

While there have been a few negative responses to the Institute of Medicine’s report assessing the necessity of chimpanzee use in biomedical and behavioral research, released yesterday, I find the report surprisingly good. It is certainly more than I realistically expected coming from a scientific committee commissioned by the National Institutes of Health (the largest source of funding for animal experimentation in the world).

The IoM committee had a very narrow charge – to explore the scientific necessity of current and future research using chimpanzees. Many of us commented that the ethical issues associated with keeping highly sensitive, intelligent, social animals such as chimpanzees in captivity to be used in often painful, sometimes lethal research, could not be separated from the questions of scientific necessity. In large part, the committee agreed “the committee feels strongly that any assessment of the necessity for using chimpanzees as an animal model in research raises ethical issues, and any analysis of necessity must take these ethical issues into account.” But given their limited charge, they were not able to fully explore the ethical issues. (as they note on p. 15 “the committee was neither tasked nor appropriately composed to evaluate and reach consensus” on the ethical issues.) Nonetheless, their conclusions raised the bar for justifying research with chimpanzees and, importantly, the committee found that most of the research that is currently being done with chimpanzees is not scientifically necessary and would not pass their much more rigorous new criteria. This is a major finding for chimpanzees in laboratories. It marks the beginning of the end of research with chimpanzees. Using chimpanzees in research is expensive and has been lucrative for those doing it. If the funding dries up, the remaining laboratories that use chimpanzees will stop -- certainly not for ethical reasons, not necessarily for scientific reasons, but for purely financial reasons. The conclusions reached by the committee and the NIH announcement that they will not fund new research with chimpanzees means that the 70 year era of using our closest living relatives in laboratory experiments is coming to a close.

As happy as this prospect makes me, I realize that those of us interested in promoting and protecting the well-being of captive chimpanzees still have a lot of work to do.

Four immediate issues strike me as important to explore (this isn’t in order of importance):

“Ethologically appropriate” housing – if, after going through a serious oversight committee and being judged by the stringent new criteria, a particular biomedical research protocol using chimpanzees is approved, “the animals used in the proposed research must be maintained either in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats.” Most of the chimpanzees at research facilities today are not provided with ethologically appropriate housing. Chimpanzee experts Jill Pruetz and William McGrew suggested ten years ago (in “What does a chimpanzee need? Using natural behavior to guide the care of captive populations” in Linda Brent’s The Care and Management of Captive Chimpanzees (2001)) that, at a minimum, chimpanzees need:

1) Nesting: sites for elevated nesting and nesting material

2) Space for subgrouping & escape

3) Resources for foraging and processing rather than eating.

4) Three dimensional structures for travel and movement

5) Equitorial photo periods (12 hr)

6) Mixed age and sex groups

7) Rivals and allies for dominance

8) Community level affiliation

9) Extended mother offpring associations

10) Mental Stimulation (characteristic of wild chimps)

While there are obviously challenges to providing for all ten needs, this is what would minimally constitute ethologically appropriate housing. The committee suggests that AALAC accreditation satisfies this standard for housing. This misperception needs to be addressed and quickly.

"Minimally Invasive" Behavioral Research -- The report allows behavioral research with chimpanzees as long as “experiments are performed on acquiescent animals, using techniques that are minimally invasive, and in a manner that minimizes pain and distress.” However, the report provides an example of what the committee thinks is “minimally invasive” that seems dubious. The report seems to find it acceptable to separate individuals from their groups and to administer anesthesia for behavioral research purposes (as opposed to restricting separation or anesthetization to occasions in which it is necessary to promote the interests of a particular individual or her social group):

“In performing some comparative genomics or behavioral research, it also may be necessary to temporarily isolate an animal from its social group to perform behavioral tasks or for anesthesia. It is anticipated that anesthesia may be necessary for noninvasive imaging studies, the collection of biological samples (including blood, skin, adipose, or muscle) that do not involve surgical invasion of body cavities, the implantation of radio transmitters to measure autonomic nervous system function or physical activity, and the use of biosensors for recording central nervous system responses in freely moving animals” (page 34 of the report).

This needs to be challenged.

Oversight committee

In 1989, recognizing that chimpanzee research required greater oversight, the NIH created an Interagency Animal Model Committee (IAMC) to “review all federally-supported research protocols involving the use of chimpanzees.” The committee consisted solely of government employees. The IoM committee has recommended the establishment of a new oversight committee, that includes members of the public, to apply the new criteria proposed in their report.

This may sound like a small thing, but it is actually extremely important as it will create more accountability and transparency. The period of chimpanzee use from the time the IAMC was established is a dark one in which far too many chimpanzees suffered and died in unspeakably bad conditions (e.g. during that period the Coulston Foundation had over 600 chimpanzees). Trustworthy oversight must include public representatives and NIH needs to be pressured to establish such a committee.

The biggest, most complicated question, one brought up by April Truitt at the briefing when the report was released, one that goes beyond the scope of the IoM committee's charge and the report, is the question “Where are these chimpanzees going to live and who will pay for their retirement.” The North American Primate Sancutary Alliance members, including Chimp Haven, are working on these issues and need support.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Animal LIberation: A Graphic Guide

Almost 25 years ago now Peter Singer and I wrote a popular book. I remember thinking I wanted to write a book about animals that my (now late) mother would understand. We then learned that the little press that was publishing the book (a splinter group from the original Writers and Readers series) commissioned an extremely talented, yet not necessarily mother friendly artist, David Hine, to illustrate the book. The images in the book become somewhat iconic while the book itself was relatively obscure.

I'm excited to learn you can now access the book online at Conflict Gypsy. How nice to have it available again.