Thursday 12 May 2016

Vivisection, a Letter to E.M.

Below is an anonymous letter received from a biologist, quoted and discussed on my youtube channel.

Hi Eisel 

I’ve thought about mailing you for a while and have never got around to it, but your recent video ‘Vivisection: the next 10 years…’ made me think of a couple of points I’d like to share with you.

I’m a recent graduate, working in a comparative immunology lab, and about to start a PhD in global health at a major UK university. I’ve been vegan for just over a year and was vegetarian before that. A few years ago, I went on a 4 day training programme on murine/mouse experimentation, and it was about this time I went vegetarian. The guy doing the training was vastly experienced in animal research, having worked on everything from rats to pigs to dogs, and spent the 4 days delivering material on anaesthesia, minor surgery, euthanasia, animal behaviour etc. Although he had not trained formally as a biologist (i.e. started out as a young animal technician and worked his way up), I was amazed at how much he knew about animals. On the first day, he gave an introductory talk that touched on perspectives regarding animal research, and to my surprise, he actually touched on the hypocrisy of meat eaters who are against animal research (I’ve attached the graphic he used in his presentation, which shows the magnitude of animals killed for food vs. animals killed by cats vs. animals killed for research). This really made me think deeply about my carnivorous diet, and shortly after I came home, I went vegetarian. Although it was a while before I went vegan, I’m still grateful to this guy for making me realise, whether he meant to or not, that I could no longer justify by decision to eat meat. 

In your video, you made some interesting, but generalised points about how animal research is regulated. I can only speak for the UK, but I’m guessing this is okay as you have both experience of living here and some knowledge of the university system in this country. It’s surprisingly difficult to obtain a licence to work with vertebrates in the UK. It’s an expensive, bureaucratic, time-consuming process, which is administered by an arm of the government (Home Office). To gain a licence to perform an animal experiment, the PI must justify completely that the experiment cannot be achieved with any existing in vitro method. Furthermore, we have a framework known as the 3Rs - replacement, reduction and refinement. If you have cannot demonstrate evidence of these 3Rs in your proposal, your experiment won’t happen*. And trust me, many if not all biologists would LOVE to have in vitro replacements for animal experiments - working with animals is unethical, demands fiddly surgical procedures and can yield unpredictable results. I work in an invertebrate lab - no licensing is necessary to work with our animals (shellfish), and for this reason, researching highly conserved immunological processes in animals like bivalves, which lack a central nervous system is becoming more popular. 

But for the time being, for many experiments, vertebrate or invertebrate animals are all we’ve got. And I’m not just talking about human disease. As you point out in your video, we can’t just snap our fingers and end all animal research. Neither can we snap our fingers and turn the world vegan. As long as most of the world eats meat we have a responsibility to look after the millions of animals who live their lives out on farms. Unfortunately, for somewhat obvious reasons, infectious disease (e.g. bovine mastitis, helminth infections, viruses in poultry etc) is a huge problem on farms. If there is any argument for conducting animal experimentation to benefit human health, it is 100-fold greater if we consider the duty we have to reducing suffering amongst the animals who we depend on for food. 

I think in the UK, whether they realise it or not, most of the public accept that the use of animals in experiments is more valuable that their role in agriculture. That’s probably why the majority of the public here support animal research. However, there are still large areas of ignorance. A recent survey done in England showed that only around half of the 4000 participants knew that animal testing for cosmetics is illegal here in Britain (and the EU) and that importing animal tested cosmetics into the UK is against the law. Clearly, testing cosmetics on rabbits is very different from testing vaccines on rodents, so there is much work to be done on helping the public make the distinction between animal ‘testing’ and animal research. 

This brings me to another point you made in your video. You argue that there should be considerable legislation in place that would make it as difficult as possible to conduct animal research. Here, I agree with you. Although we have something like this in the UK, I’d be naive to think that it is completely serving its purpose and that there are not loopholes. But what I disagree with you on is that the public should be involved in this decision-making process. When it comes to animal research, the public plays a vital role in putting pressure on universities and industry to minimise animal experimentation. Although the general public are not always capable of making their views on vivisection in a carefully considered, intellectual way, the emotional voice is absolutely necessary in this debate - using animals in experiments is evil, morally wrong and needs to be replaced (I’m quoting Charles Blakemore here, the same scientist that was vilified in one of Bitesize Vegan’s videos). But should they be involved in regulating animal experiments? Absolutely not. How could you expect the general public to understand the biological arguments for or against using a particular model? I think a more realistic alternative would be to have an independent panel of scientists, who would not benefit monetarily or otherwise from the research, whose job was to review each application on a case-by-case basis. 

Here’s an idea that you may not have considered - a UK scientist at the NC3Rs has recently developed an online tool  to reduce the number of animals used in an experiment, whilst maintaining statistical power. If used correctly, this should reduce both the amount of animals used, and potential flaws in experimental design that would negate the findings, therefore ‘wasting’ animal lives. I am positive that if widely used, this will save animal lives. As I’m sure you can appreciate, while most biologists have a working knowledge of statistics, some still get it wrong. Too many, or too few animals used in an experiment can lead to meaningless results and an unethical outcome. A lecturer once told us a story regarding one of his colleagues, who had used 6 mice for an experiment, instead of 20, thinking this would make the work more ethical. As it turned out, the statistical analysis he needed to carry out was meaningless with less than 9 animals, therefore those lives were wasted. 

I know this is a long email, but animal research is something I, and many other biologists, think about heavily. The reason the majority of us study life on this planet is because we want to conserve and protect it. Again, I appreciate your view, as you seem to have an understanding that real change comes from a series of small accomplishments. Although I sympathise with people like Emily from Bitesize Vegan, I can’t help but think that her videos on animal research lack deep insight, and as such I’m not sure what they will accomplish. There are real, exciting in vitro replacement methods being developed, but we have nothing close to replacing a real animal, and I’m doubtful that we will in my lifetime, as much as I hate to say it. This may seem difficult to grasp for many non-biologists, especially with the plethora of TED talks outlining ’the-next-best-thing', which often more resemble a slick sales pitch (probably because that’s what they are) than an honest indication of where we really are in terms of replacing the animal model. If and when it does finally happen, it will be the through biologists’ hard work. The input of the general public and/or industry (including companies like LUSH who contribute to replacement research) will be less, but is still vital to drive the work forward. 

Anyway - that’s more or less all I wanted to say. Again, I enjoy your videos, including those on Freelee, Durianrider and the vegan movement in general! It’s been great to see your collaborations with other you tubers like Violent Vegan, Vegan Cheetah and Zarhia recently - I hope you can continue these somehow when you move over to Patreon. Also, good luck with your move to China - I hope it gives you the experience you’re looking for.