House of Horrors: Animal Research and Institutionalized Torture at York University

Zipporah Weisberg

Institutionalized Torture

Like most major universities and research institutions across North America, York University is home to numerous research projects involving nonhuman animals. Most departments in the Faculty of Health and the Faculty of Science and Engineering use animals — including rats, mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, nonhuman primates, and probably cats and dogs — for research and educational purposes. Psychology, Biology, and Kinesiology, for example, use a variety of animals for psychological, behavioural, and physiological experiments, while the Centre for Vision Research conducts experiments on macaque monkeys.

Through a Freedom of Information Request, York Students for Animals, a campus animal advocacy group, has been able to ascertain that from Jan. 2010 to Nov. 2011, approximately 105 research protocols using animals were approved. Of these, roughly 30 were listed as “category D” or the most highly invasive procedures, which “cause moderate to severe stress or pain,” and include: “prolonged (several hours or more) period[s] of physical restraint,” “induction of behavioural stresses such as maternal deprivation, aggression, predator-prey interaction,” “induction of anatomical or physiological abnormalities that will result in pain or distress,” “exposure of an animal to noxious stimuli from which escape is impossible,” “production of radiation sickness,” and “exposure to drugs or chemicals that may impair the physiological system.” Category B and C experiments are also very likely to cause pain and distress in animals. They include “acute non-survival studies,” “decapitation preceded by sedation or light anesthesia,” “behavioural experiments on conscious animals that involve short-term stressful restraint,” and “short periods of food and/or water deprivation which excee[d] periods of abstinence in nature.”

Although these experiments are couched in detached scientific terms, and although some are said to cause “minor” stress or pain, it is plainly obvious that they will result in profound psychological and physical anguish. Maternal deprivation experiments are particularly cruel as evinced by those conducted by Harry Harlow, an American psychologist at the University of Madison-Wisconsin in the 1950s and 60s. Harlow replaced infant monkeys’ biological mothers with “surrogates” or mannequins which would emit extreme cold, heat, and even spikes, when touched. He also invented a cylindrical isolation chamber, the so-called “Well of Despair,” into which he would place the terrified creatures for days at a time. While maternal deprivation experiments at York may not involve the same procedures, the fact that they take place at all should be cause for alarm. The agony caused by experiments involving direct exposure to radiation and chemicals is self-evident. Burns, lesions, poisoning, damage to vital organs, and other horrors likely ensue. It is without question that food and water deprivation beyond natural shortages in nature will cause extreme suffering as will “stressful restraint,” whether for a few minutes or a few hours.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that these and all the other procedures listed above constitute torture. Stressful restraint and food and water deprivation, for example, recall common forms of torture inflicted on human beings in prisons and detention centres around the world today. The UN “Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” defines torture in part as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.” Of course, the UN convention applies only to human beings. However, when we consider that many experiments call for deliberately inflicting suffering on animals for the purposes of obtaining “information,” there is no reason it should not apply to animals as well.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), a key figure in the development of modern experimental science and the inspiration behind the modern research institution, borrowed the language of the Inquisition to characterize his scientific pursuits. Just as suspected heretics could be led to ‘confess’ their crimes, or reveal their secrets under torture — the latter of which Bacon referred to as “vexation” — so can ‘nature.’ As Bacon put it, “the secrets of nature reveal themselves more readily under the vexations of art than when they go their own way.” The paradigm of mechanistic science — which views living beings literally as machines made up of a series of parts which can be assembled, disassembled, and reassembled at will — is also to blame for institutionalizing animal torture. French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) compared animals to clocks and characterized them as automata. This view gave him license to engage in the most heinous of experiments including nailing unanesthetized dogs to boards and cutting them open while fully conscious to analyze their circulation. Judging from the list of allowable procedures outlined above, it appears that in the 500-odd years since Descartes committed these atrocities, our attitudes and practices have not changed a whole lot.

Lab animals’ misery extends beyond the experiments themselves. Many so-called “purpose-bred” animals such as rats, mice, dogs (especially beagle puppies), cats, and nonhuman primates are shipped by air in sealed crates to university campuses from breeding facilities all over the world. Lost cats and dogs are given a measly three days to be reclaimed by their owners before an animal shelter is legally entitled to sell them to a research facility at a cost of approximately $2-6. Once animals arrive at the lab, they are typically confined in small, barren cages and crates where they are denied the opportunity to express or engage in any of their natural behaviours. Lab animals never get a chance to run or play, bask in the sun, roll in the dirt, splash in the water, cuddle with their young or companions, or interact with others in a meaningful way. Instead, they are condemned to lives of boredom, loneliness, and misery in the steel cages of sterile labs.

Animals are also used for educational purposes at York University. In human anatomy classes, for example, York students are expected to perform dissections of dead cats to obtain basic and long-established anatomical and physiological knowledge. Students are often traumatized by this experience but are too afraid of academic penalty or stigmatization to voice their concern. Most students do not know that it is their human right to opt-out of animal dissections and research due to conscientious objection, and that the university can be fined up to $25,000 for not accommodating them. They are also unaware that sophisticated virtual dissection software has made dissections obsolete.

‘Necessary’ Suffering? Paradoxes, Prejudices, and the Tragedy of Modern Science

Those who support animal research typically suggest it is ‘necessary’ on scientific grounds. Without animal research, we have no hope of finding the cure for cancer or HIV, the argument goes. However, the recent ongoing failure of HIV vaccines to perform at the clinical trial stage suggests otherwise. There is also increasing evidence to suggest that using animals as models for human disease and drug and vaccine development is potentially dangerous. Dr. Ray Greek, a former anesthesiologist and animal researcher, and founder of Americans for Medical Advancement, argues animals cannot be used as predictive models for the study of the pathophysiology of human disease because there is simply too much individual, genetic, and biological variation between and among species to accurately extrapolate data from one to the other. As he explains, “even two nearly identical complex systems (e.g., a chimpanzee and a human or even monozygotic twins) may respond differently to drugs and experience different diseases.”

The most recent example of the dangers of non-homology is the TGN412 clinical trial disaster in 2006. The drug had been successfully tested on nonhuman primates, but left the six human participants in intensive care with multiple organ failure and massive head swelling. In response to this fiasco, Kent Woods, chief executive of the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, admitted that, “We believe there was a powerful pharmacological action of this drug in man that was not detected or detectable in animals.” In an article in the prestigious science journal Nature, Michael Hopkin similarly concluded that “preliminary animal tests may not spot potential dangers.” Even if animal research does lead us closer to cures and vaccines, should we even be asking ourselves whether subjecting sentient beings to extreme violence is ever ‘necessary’?

Framing the debate in terms of whether animal research is ‘necessary’ or ‘unnecessary’ is spurious at best for it presupposes that it is acceptable to torture other sentient beings as long as one can find a passable reason. When examined more closely it appears that the reasoning used to justify animal experiments is riddled with paradoxes and prejudices. As philosopher Charles R. Magel observes, “Ask the experimenters why they experiment on animals, and the answer is: ‘Because the animals are like us.’ Ask the experimenters why it is morally okay to experiment on animals, and the answer is: ‘Because the animals are not like us.’ Animal experimentation rests on a logical contradiction.”

The view that nonhuman animals’ ostensibly inferior intelligence justifies subjecting them to systemic violence is built on equally shaky ground. As Peter Singer points out, dogs can be considered more intelligent than babies. Does this give us license to harm babies? Surely not! For Singer, what matters ethically is not a being’s level of intelligence but whether or not it is capable of suffering and enjoyment and whether it has an interest in not being harmed. The rats, pigs, mice, cats, dogs, nonhuman primates, and other animals we torture in laboratories certainly meet these criteria. It appears that our failure to accord them ethical consideration comes down to nothing more than plain old-fashioned prejudice. Just as sexists and racists privilege one group over another on the basis of sex or race membership, so, according to Singer, “speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species.”

These paradoxes and prejudices are what we might call the tragedy of modern science. Most researchers see themselves as genuinely dedicated to improving the lives of both humans and animals. But in a scientific paradigm inspired by the Baconian-Cartesian mechanist model and steeped in centuries of speciesism, researchers are conditioned to desensitize themselves to animal suffering. Some animal researchers defy this model and attempt to cultivate a bond with some of their animal subjects. However, such connections are rare, and in any case are constrained and distorted by the framework of domination in which they are forged. Of course, not all research involving animals is cruel. Cognitive ethologists, for example, study animal minds, emotionality, and sociality by observing and sometimes interacting with animals in their natural habitats. Unfortunately, this approach is the exception.

The animal research community’s underlying ambivalence (and guilt) towards its own practices is reflected in the various techniques it employs to keep the species divide wide, and to keep inconvenient emotions such as care and compassion out of the way. To make sure they are viewed as specimens not subjects, lab animals are typically assigned numbers or codes instead of names, and are referred to as ‘animal models.’ Religious language is even appropriated to ‘sanctify’ the horrific practices which take place in labs: animals are not killed, we are told, they are ‘sacrificed,’ supposedly for the betterment of humanity, but more often than not for the betterment of the profit margin of Big Pharma. In a deliberate attempt to conceal the violence it facilitates, the industry-backed body responsible for ‘overseeing’ and approving animal research protocols (there are almost no laws or regulations governing animal research, only ‘guidelines’), is called the “Canadian Council on Animal Care.” If the same body is responsible for providing care to the animals it condemns to category D experiments, the concept of ‘care’ takes on a whole new and twisted meaning — in fact it is emptied of meaning altogether.

The Way Forward: Alternatives and a New Scientific Paradigm

Though the abolition of animal experimentation at York U and beyond is clearly an uphill battle, some progress has been made recently. For example, Hainan Airlines was scheduled to ship nonhuman primates destined for labs from China to Toronto. Due to pressure by animal advocacy groups, including York Students for Animals and U of T Animal Rights Club, they decided to join numerous other major airlines including American Airlines, British Airways, United Airlines, and many more, in banning primate shipments. The Globe and Mail recently ran an article about the University of Toronto’s decision not to purchase any more nonhuman primates for research after the death of its last macaque monkey. This is a mixed blessing, for it only reinforces the species hierarchy by suggesting that only animals that are most similar to humans should be spared, while the well-being of other animals such as rats and mice does not matter.

Animals’ greatest hope lies in the research and development of alternatives to the use of animals in research and education. Numerous sophisticated alternatives including models and simulators, film and video, multimedia computer simulation, student self-experimentation, clinical practice, and in vitro labs have already been developed. Test tube nerve cells are now being used instead of animals in the search for treatments for disfiguring genetic diseases, and some vaccines are now being developed in vitro. Unfortunately, because science is still stuck in the old paradigm, funding is still weighed heavily towards animal research. Plenty of money is being poured into biotechnology, but biotechnology is part of the problem, not the solution. In developing and patenting transgenic and hybrid animals — or animals whose genome has been deliberately modified, often with the genes of another species — and cloned animals, the biotechnology industry reinforces animals’ status as instruments and commodities. For real change to take place, a shift in consciousness is needed in which our current attitude of violent domination towards other creatures is replaced with humility, respect, and (genuine) care.

To help precipitate this shift, YSFA has launched a humane research and education campaign at York U. To find out more contact:

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