An Open Letter to the Animal Liberation Front

(updated below)

My piece for The Huffington Post has just gone up concerning the latest incidents involving neuroscientist Dario Ringach and the targeting of his children by animal rights extremists. For more on this see Dr. Free-Ride, PZ, PalMD, Scicurious, MarkCC, Nick Anthis, Drugmonkey and Orac.

Dear ALF,

I address you not because your organization is directly behind these latest abuses, but because your organization is emblematic of the radical approach that some animal rights activists have been inspired to take. I want you to know that I support your goals at the same time that I oppose your tactics. Vivisection, or what in polite society is merely called animal experimentation, is a barbaric practice that has led to some necessary medical breakthroughs but has mostly served to profit multinational pharmaceutical and cosmetic corporations. I agree with the researchers who published in the British Medical Journal in 2004 that:

Clinicians and the public often consider it axiomatic that animal research has contributed to the treatment of human disease, yet little evidence is available to support this view.

I am also sympathetic to your frustration that, despite mounting evidence that little is gained from this research, its use continues and even grows. This is especially troubling where it comes to primate vivisection. When Jane Goodall wrote the forward to the 2006 report "Next of Kin" (pdf here), put out by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection and the European Council to End Animal Experiments, she had no more illusions about its use than I do:

Not only are many experiments on nonhuman primates unethical, many are unnecessary, and their results may be misleading. . . The evidence in the BUAV's report reveals the true level of suffering of many primates used in animal experimentation, and the scientific pitfalls of using primates to study human diseases and drugs.

Read on here.

UPDATE: For a continuation and an expansion on this letter please see my post Animal Rights and Human Rights.


More like this

Earlier this week on Adventures in Ethics and Science, Dr. Free-Ride reported that a UCLA researcher faces renewed harassment from animal rights activists for talking about his work. Dr. Dario Ringach and his family have been the subject of invasive physical and personal attacks, and Dr. Free-Ride…
Remember Dario Ringach? He's the scientist who has endured a prolonged campaign of harassment because of his animal research. I first heard of him in 2006, when, after a campaign of threatening phone calls, people frightening his children, and demonstrations in front of his home, gave up doing…
I have this friend. She used to be a scientist, but changed fields, earning a Ph.D. in philosophy. She now studies and teaches the ethics of the practice of science. I'm sure most of my readers understand how important this is. Without transparent, thoughtful, and informed discussions of ethics…
In light of the recent discussion on animal testing and animal rights I thought a few additional points would be valuable. It is a fact that animal testing leads to some necessary medical advances that save lives. Anyone who would say differently doesn't have the slightest clue what they're…

You need to be careful with the reports you cite, that BMJ review has some serious flaws in its methodology, it was biased from the start by the fact that their search looked for systematic reviews of translational animal research following disappointment in clinical trials. People are only going to go to the effort and expense of doing such reviews if they suspect that there was non-concordance between the animal and human studies, in other words to find out what went wrong. It is quite revealing that even in the pessimistic set of reviews what they actually found was that in most cases the animal data did agree with the clinical data, but due to poor data reporting and/or analysis the results of the animal experiments were not interpreted correctly. Having said that many of their recommendations about the design, reporting and analysis of animal studies in translational science are on the nail, as are recommendations on how those designing clinical trials should ensure that their design is properly informed by the animal studies...there's not much point in giving a stroke drug to a patient 5 hours after the stroke when the animal tests indicate that it will by almost useless after 2.

What they should have been arguing for is for better animal research, but their terrible framing of their paper as an anti-animal research piece probably lead it to be taken less seriously than it ought to have been by the very people they ostensibly wished to convince.

Other recent reviews of the contribution of animal research to medical advances have similar flaws, and thats even before you get to the obviously biased and very dubious reports writtten by known anti-vivisectionists. It's not just with animal research that these problems are seen, two most often cited recent studies of the impact of basic research (in general, not just animal research) on clinical advances, Contopoulus et al. 2003 and Grant et al 2003, have so many flaws and limitations in their search algorithm design and sample sets that it is difficult to say if they add anything to the understanding of how basic research contributes of medicine, they certainly greatly underestimate it (probably by at least 10-fold). They do however illustrate how difficult it is to design an algorithm that can be used to analyze the published record and determine how basic research contributes to clinical advances.

It's just as important to recognize the limitations of reviews of animal research as to recognize the limitations of the research itself.

Given that you seem like a nice guy, I'm going to hope that this post was based on an outlier dose of naivete rather than what it looks like: an intentionally deceptive and frankly idiotic apologia for animal rights extremists.

Dude, you just did an Amazing Randi. (As in Randi's credibility being compromised by his parroting global warming 'skeptic' rhetoric.) But don't take my word on it. You'll be hearing plenty from the science blogging community.

Eric, I think that's a great letter to animal rights activists. Pointing out the extremism, while recognizing their compassion serves as a reminder that the ends do not justify the means.

As for the merits of scientific analyses of whether the "animal studies" actually are of great scientific import, I tend to fall on the side of the Nuremberg codes on this one. I appreciate your recognition that apes and gorillas are so closely related to humans that we have an ethical obligation to afford them protections similar to those we extend to humans in research programs.

There is something about vivisection, especially in sentient beings very similar to ourselves, that strikes me as inherently sociopathic, regardless of the nominally altruistic motivations. If we can not feel empathy for these creatures, as many humans can't feel empathy for fellow humans, and if we can't recognize that they have families/tribes and feelings, then we are causing serious harm to our society by promoting a system that rewards sociopathy.

I oppose vivisection fully on the basis of how it dehumanizes us humans, even beyond consideration of the suffering of other sentient beings. We have enough sociopathic influences in our culture and we need to stop cultivating sociopathy in the name of science or "progress." See, the ends really do not justify the means!

If we agree that the ends do not justify the means for the outliers of anti-vivisection, then the question of whether the ends justify the means of vivisection must be addressed simultaneously.

Excuse me, Mr. Johnson. Vivisection is absolutely not synonymous with animal experimentation, as you explicitly equate in your first paragraph. "Vivisection" is experimental surgery on living animals, presumably because the goal of the surgery cannot be accomplished on a dead animal. "Animal experimentation" is a broad term encompassing any scientific experiment wherein the subject is an animal.

Furthermore, it is patently false to claim that animal experimentation rarely leads to medical breakthroughs. Actually, almost all modern medical technologies depend extensively on animal experimentation in some form or another, and it's trivial to demonstrate that. I invite you defend your position in greater detail, or clarify where I've grossly misunderstood you.

@Mac: That's a totally fair point. However, before asking me for greater clarification you might consider reading through the links I provided to see why I might have stated what I did. I'm always interested in learning from the informed opinion of others.

It's totally wrong to suggest that animal research has not led to better treatments and cures for human diseases.

The whole transplantation industry would be nowhere without animal research.

And using animals as models for human diseases is just one small aspect of animal research. Any time you read about monoclonal antibodies, immunostaining, one of the essential tools for researchers for decades, the tools for that work are made from mice, rabbits, goats, sheep.

I see a lot of talk about two things:

1) Do animals have "rights"?
2) If they do have rights, are these rights the same as those of human beings? (and therefore, can humans experiment on animals without infringing on their rights?)

This has puzzled me greatly because both questions are, I believe, useless. Ultimately, the problem seems to be that we don't want to perform medical experiments on human beings and so, we perform them on animals. But does this have to be so? Why are human beings held to so high standards by the medical community? Consider the following:

1) Some human beings are bank CEOs who are responsible for robbing the taxpayer.
2) Some human beings are insurance company CEOs who are responsible for denying millions access to healthcare because of pre-existing conditions.
3) Some human beings start wars for oil in small, defenseless Middle East countries.
4) Etc.

You see where I'm getting. I believe we should stop experimenting on animals and instead, experiment on those in the groups above. Remember, animals may or may not be "innocent" but those I just described are definitely not. The Hippocratic Oath would be in the way. However, it has been changed before and can be changed again.

There is no inherent right to conduct lethal experiments on animals. U.S. and state law have carved out very narrow exemptions for licensed animal researchers, ie. a privilege, as compared to run-of-the-mill animal abusers. And like a driver's license, this privilege must be earned. This is settled law. The law already sides with the rights of animals in this context. That ship has sailed.

What is left to discuss is the narrow window of exemption from animal cruelty laws which researchers have been allowed to operate within. Is the window too broad or too narrow? Too inclusive or too exclusive? This is the discussion which needs to occur.

50 years ago there were no limitations on lethal animal research. The legal limits which now exist had to have come from somewhere. Yet the arguments proffered for the status quo have not changed an iota from those used to justify what occurred 50 years ago. The only thing which has changed is that treatment today is, in some cases, not "as cruel" as it was 50 years ago. And that change has only happened because of public outcry -- not internal policing by the researchers themselves. The lesson is that researchers themselves have failed to prove they can police themselves. This is why public involvement is essential if we are to move to phase two, just as it was to get to phase one.

What's needed is for the scientific community to acknowledge that lethal animal research, especially in its most egregious forms, is profoundly distasteful to society at large for the same reason that dog fighting is distasteful. Researchers need to engage the community in a discussion and offer solutions. A starting point would be to offer a plan to phase out and eventually end lethal experimentation, starting first with the animals most closely related to humans and with the most harmful and most egregious types of research. Such a plan, itself a gesture, would be the first step in a path forward

Vivisection is referred to in polite society as "vivisection."

It is the practice of dissecting a living animal without anaesthetic to learn more about how the body works. It was practiced centuries ago when there were no anaesthetics, and in a society where cruelty to both animals and people was the accepted norm.

You don't hear the term much, not because it is being bowdlerized with a softer term, but because it is extremely rare these days, practiced only by a tiny subset of sociopathic criminals.

Animal experimentation is any experiment involving animals. Multiple elaborate safeguards ensure that the animals are kept as comfortable as possible.

I understand that reasonable people can believe that killing animals to advance human knowledge, rather than for the trivial pleasure of eating their flesh, is wrong. However, referring to animal research as "vivisection" is a flat out lie. The kindest possible interpretation is that you have trusted liars for your information, and republished their lies without bothering to check them.

You should be ashamed of this piece.

By Cat Faber (not verified) on 28 Feb 2010 #permalink

Douglas, ou're wrong. US opinion polls show that consistant majorities accept the need for animal research and support it, despite the fact that most will have got their idea of what animal research involves from highly misleading PeTA propaganda. This is because they also recognize that animal research makes a very valuable contribution to developing cures for the illnesses they, their family and their friends, often funded by charities they support.

To equate animal research with dog-fighting is to equate heart surgery with a knife fight.

As to a plan,and I assume that you mean one with deadlines, well that is a non-starter, there are simply too many unknowns to committ to any date. Even if you take the example of the recent national toxicology program report, which looked at overhauling the screening methods in one fairly limited area of toxicology. They don't have a deadline, though the report implies it will take at least a decade to implement, probably longer to implement fully, and the report was frank about the fact that some animal testing would probably still be required when the changes were implemented. That is in an area regarded as one of the low hanging fruit of 3Rs!

Do you really think that if deadline was set and no alternatives could be developed before it was reached animal research would stop...I kinda doubt that the many patient organizations would allow that to happen.

Animal research won't decrease or end because of deadlines, but, as has happened with the decrease in the 1980's due to the rise of molecular biology*, it will decrease because of technological changes, and ultimately because it will have allowed us to learn enough about living systems that we don't need it any more. Whether that heppens in 20, 50 or a hundred years time is anyone's guess.

You also ignore the role of scientists themselves in developing the regulation that now surrounds animal research, the AWA, IACUCs etc.

*which of course itself enabled the development of GM technology such as the transgenic that are such an important part of medical research today.

Alex "I believe we should stop experimenting on animals and instead, experiment on those in the groups above. Remember, animals may or may not be "innocent" but those I just described are definitely not. The Hippocratic Oath would be in the way. However, it has been changed before and can be changed again."

I believe a certain central European regime often associated with the name "Godwin" might have tried this, though their selection criteria differed from yours somewhat. If my memory is correct it didn't turn out well.

@Cat Faber: My Oxford American Dictionary has this definition:

vivisection |ËvivÉËsek sh Én|


the practice of performing operations on live animals for the purpose of experimentation or scientific research.

ORIGIN early 18th cent.: from Latin vivus âliving,â on the pattern of dissection.

At some point the term was dropped within the sciences (presumably because it had gained a negative connotation after many of the less than ethical practices in the 18th and 19th centuries) and is now used primarily by those opposed to live animal experimentation.

@Paul: People on both sides of this debate often throw around public opinion in order to justify their own. Do you have a source?

@Paul: "I believe a certain central European regime often associated with the name "Godwin" might have tried this, though their selection criteria differed from yours somewhat. If my memory is correct it didn't turn out well."

The Nazis practiced a eugenics policy based on social constructs like race. I advocated no such thing. Those sent to the gas chamber were sent there not because they committed atrocious crimes but because of their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc. In contrast, those in the groups I mentionned did commit atrocious crimes and are very clearly a danger to society.

People always talk about human rights as if all humans were altruistic beyond measure. Then, animals have to compete against this unrealistic and highly inflated standard. If we define "rights" as directly related to "responsibilities", do we agree that there are plenty of humans on this planet which have violated their responsibilities and are not eligible for rights?

To clarify: I don't see why we should put the lives of small furry animals in danger in order to maybe save the life of, say, Dick Cheney. Conversely -- and again, considering the things DC has done -- I would not be against vivisecting him if this could lead to a cure for a dog's cancer.

"Vivisection, or what in polite society is merely called animal experimentation, is a barbaric practice that has led to some necessary medical breakthroughs but has mostly served to profit multinational pharmaceutical and cosmetic corporations."


OK, Eric, this time you have left the track. Look, I think that Jenny McCarthy was hot, too, but that does not mean I am going to start thinking in conspiracy terms.

Mr. Johnson ventureth into territory of which he doth not know.

Animal experimentation, by broad definition, is not exactly - as far as I know - something done by anthropologists.

"Barbaric" my ass, Eric. Have you READ an IACUC protocol or read the stringent protocols by which NIH gives out its grants to people who use animals?

If you want to attack animal users, go after puppy mills or leather wearers or something.

By Katharine (not verified) on 01 Mar 2010 #permalink

@7: Certainly a fair request. I'll re-read the BMJ article when I get to a network with journal access. And forgive me for not reading the entire 100 pages of the "Next of Kin" article. I read the section on Parksinson Disease research, and found it so ridiculous that I don't think I could stomach the rest of the article. Take, for example, their absurd statement, "Because of the artificial causation of the condition in monkeys, little can be learned of the causes and progression of the human disease." (page 91)

Only the most naive and scientifically illiterate mentality can justify that statement. It should be self evident to anyone who conducts scientific experiments why imperfect models can offer good insight into the systems they are (imperfectly) modeled after. I must say, that if the "Next of Kin" article is something you are using to support your argument, you are only undermining your credibility further.

Here's a counter-point:

Since you are arguing for your point against the mainstream, I believe the onus is on you to counter the overwhelmingly large body of research that has used animals, by showing that no where in there, can you find a single medical breakthrough. Let me formulate my challenge more explicitly:
1) You might try to demonstrate that there has never been a medical scientific breakthrough that involved animal research, or,
2) You might try to show that for any medical scientific breakthrough that involved animal research, there existed at the time a reasonable alternative that did not involve the suffering of animals

The problem with #1 is that it is very difficult for you to prove a negative. The problem with #2 is that it's trivial to say, "there's always another way," (like an armchair quarterback). But it is another matter entirely to offer an alternative of substance that is economically as feasible, in terms of direct costs as well as in opportunity costs, such as the time, lives, and livelihoods that are lost while pursuing a slower and less-productive strategy than animal research. I've said enough for now, and I believe you've got some difficult arguments to make.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 01 Mar 2010 #permalink

Oops, forgot to sign my last post #17 - Mac