Between 1997 and 2007 the number of law schools offering courses focussed on animals went from ostensibly zero to over one hundred, law journals offering essays and reports on animal cases have steadily increased, and suits on behalf of animal owners - and sometimes even the animals themselves - have become more common.
In “Conferring Legal Rights to Animals: Research in the Crosshairs”, a distinguished panel of lawyers, law professors and neuroscientists presented an often overlooked facet of the animal rights movement: some extremists have traded bullhorns and violence for gavels and lawsuits.
Joyce Tischler, founder of the Animal Legal Defence Fund, likens the legal struggle for animal rights to that undertaken by the NAACP throughout the Civil Rights Era: the rights of the oppressed minority (in this case animals instead of African Americans) can be expanded and enshrined in law by exposing the injustices they suffer to sympathetic judges. The important thing to note about this philosophy is that Tischler, and others like her, recognise that the Civil Rights Era was not started and finished by Brown vs Board of Education; but rather by a long campaign of smaller court cases - some won and many lost - to achieve the larger goal by small, incremental change.
If a vet killed your pet through negligence should you be able to sue for emotional damages? This is one of the major issues currently facing animal law: for many of us pets are real members of the family, and losing them - particularly through veterinary malpractice - would be horrifying. Phrasing the issue like this is makes it difficult to disagree with, however the hidden consequence to granting pet owners the right to sue vets for emotional damages is that it further establishes the legal standing of animals as being similar to people (at least in US law, animals are literally property). This is an increment of change towards the end goal of granting true “personhood” to all animals: pet ownership would be akin to slavery, eating meat akin to cannibalism, and scientific research akin to torture and murder.
In Europe, this legal battle is already taking some casualties. Recently a revised EU directive governing animal research was ratified (2010/63 EU), and it contains several clauses which are dangerously open to interpretation. Take Article 8 section 1a, for example, which limits the use of non-human primates:
[N]on-human primates shall not be used in procedures, with the exception of those procedures meeting the following conditions: [the procedure is] undertaken with a view to the avoidance, prevention, diagnosis or treatment of debilitating or potentially life-threatening clinical conditions in human beings…
Now consider these posters from yesterday’s sessions:
Ikeda et al (506.23) examined marmosets’ performance on an object retrieval with detours task to test the effects of several antipsychotics. This task requires executive control to plan an appropriate course of action to retrieve a food reward by reaching into a box with only one opening. Lurasidone, a second-generation antipsychotic with antagonistic properties at the dopamine D4 receptor, improved marmosets’ ability to plan while other common antipsychotics like olanzapine and haloperidol did not. I’d say it’s fairly clear that was undertaken with a mind towards finding treatments for the “debilitating and potentially life-threatening” condition of schizophrenia.
But how about Porter et al (506.92)? This poster reported data from rhesus macaques who had previously been given self-administration access to cocaine for 11 months. Even after several months of abstinence from the drug, cognitive deficits were seen in these animals: for example cocaine-experienced animals committed more premature responses on a six-choice serial reaction time task - which the authors argue may indicate an orbitofrontal-linked impairment in inhibiting behavioural responses. This experiment certainly has implications for addiction, but it could definitely be argued that this experiment was not conducted with curing addiction in mind. Would it have been allowed under the new EU directive?
Finally, consider Hecht et al’s (513.6) diffusion tensor imaging study of rhesus macaques, chimpanzees, and humans. The authors were able to trace the neuroanatomical connections of the mirror neuron systems in these three species. Their results demonstrate that the macaque system lies more ventrally than the chimp and human systems, with humans being the most dorsal. The conclusion offered from these data is that the macaque mirror neuron system mostly occupies those areas previously associated with goal representation, whereas the chimp and (especially) human systems occupy areas associated with the representation and generation of bodily movements. This has absolutely nothing to do with human disease, but it provides an invaluable neuroanatomical hypothesis for why only humans and chimpanzees can learn by imitating the actions of others: the best other non-human primates can do is “emulate”, or learn by focussing on other’s results.
I’ll close with a thought offered yesterday by Dr Michael Conn, associate director of the Oregon National Primate Research Centre: neuroscientists get targeted by animal rights extremists because pictures of our research can look horrifying when taken out of context or given a false explanation. We owe it ourselves, our colleagues and the public to explain what we do, how we do it and why it is right. That means explaining these “horrifying” images for what they really are, but it also means standing up for basic research. It’s easy to win the public’s hearts and minds by highlighting the work that directly leads to curing human disease, but through this we run the risk of tacitly implying that research which does not directly focus on human disease is worthless, or at least “less right”. This is patently untrue.
The vagueness surrounding the definition of “not directly focussed” will be the next legal battle facing animal research, and if neuroscientists don’t write that law, the animal rights movement will. If we don’t protect basic research, we may lose our ability to do everything else.