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Animal surgery & experiments

by Jane Johnson
17 December 2014
Ethicist Jane Johnson argues that most animal experimentation is not justified. She argues the way forward is to treat animals in research with the same care as we would human patients. She spoke to Jackie Dent.

How were you drawn into this area of animals, ethics and surgery?

It draws together two research interests I’ve had for a long time – the one in animals and the one in surgical innovation, which is more recent. I’ve always had an interest in ethics around animals, and ethics around animal experimentation seemed particularly not well explored philosophically – I don’t think so anyway – so that kind of intrigued me. I’m not entirely against animal experimentation in the way that people who work in this area often are. I do think there can be some justified experimentation but I think the vast bulk of it at the moment isn’t justifiable.

What sort of surgery is going on?

Noel Fitzpatrick is the “bionic vet” and quite famous in the UK for pioneering a lot of surgery on animals, which is translated into human medicine and that’s one of my main areas of interest — how we can do things that might benefit animals that can also translate to human medicine. There are also interesting ways in which orthopaedic surgeons have changed their practice based on what vets have done in surgery. There are lots of interesting overlaps.

So it’s not like all of the experimentation that goes on is like ‘Oh, let’s cut open the heart of this baboon and do this radical surgery and then we’ll try it on humans’. A lot of the time vets are engaged in a practice, they are trying to save an animal, and then this knowledge is transferred to humans.

Yes. That’s the kind of ideal - that’s the kind of thing I would like to encourage more thorough discussion of, but unfortunately what happens is vets do their stuff and it doesn’t get communicated to medical professionals. There are various hierarchies operating as well where surgeons and medical practitioners see themselves quite differently to people who work with animals and don’t necessarily listen to what a vet may have to say on a subject.

Just turning now to animal experimentation, is it mainly mice we are talking about or is it quite diverse, the animals that are tested on these days?

Generally, genetically modified mice are the dominant research animal although there is a little creature called the zebra fish which seems to be increasingly taken up. Primates are also used. The thing with mice – it is really interesting – they are already effectively regarded as a pest so people often have quite different attitudes towards them.

I was talking to a scientist the other day who works in cancer and she said even in her own lab, everybody has a different attitude towards killing the mice.

You get people who just see them as tools, they are just part of the lab equipment effectively and you get other people who see them much more as fellow creatures and treat them much more respectfully than other people.

I was at a conference in Prague and Dr Huw Golledge, a researcher from the UK, had looked into euthanasia in rodents and he claimed that there was no euthanasia for them in the sense that they could have a good death – that breaking their necks often resulted in pain and wasn’t successful in all cases, and that the various chemical agents that were used to suffocate them all generate adverse responses in the animals. Even for people who do want to give their animal a good death, it’s quite problematic.

There is lots of evidence that suggests that how animals are treated as part of research actually impacts on the outcomes. So if animals are more stressed, they’ll give different results than if they are less stressed. There was some research recently about male researchers and how, on the whole, rodents get more stressed when they are being handled by men so there are questions around all this research that is used.

Within the ethics of the animal experimentation scene, could you generalise where philosophers sit on the issue?

It’s interesting in that most philosophers who work in the area of animal research ethics end up thinking that most of it can’t be justified. Even people who come in quite hard-core, thinking that they can give a good account for ethically justifying what goes on with animal research, they generally sort of have a conversion experience where they can’t justify it. Where I sit is slightly different, as lots of people who are interested in animal research and the ethical questions are often advocates or activists and they generally adopt an abolitionist response.

Animal activists in the UK are much more hardcore than Australia. Maybe Australian researchers operate in a less complex environment? Do you think that impacts the level of public opposition?

It is an extremely different context and often it doesn’t get acknowledged that we have no real history of that kind of level of animal activism and extremism as seen in the UK.

For example, you have animal ethics committees that govern animal research and you can’t actually find out much detail of what goes on, and part of that is they say: ‘Well, we don’t want to talk about these things because it will open up researchers to animal extremists’, and while that may have some weight in the UK —in Australia there is just no relevant history of that kind of animal extremist violence.

What testing is justifiable?

It is similar to what works in terms of human research being ethically permissible. If it’s possible that it can deliver some kind of benefit to the animal or the animal species, then that opens up a greater possibility that it’s justified. One of my research ideas is thinking of animals in research as patients, so treating them much more similarly to how human patients are treated in clinical research, so there’s no natural assumption that they’ll be killed as part of the research. Often they go in with a pre-existing disease or condition so it kind of makes sense in terms of the scientific side of things as well as in terms of the ethical side of things.

What are some of the questions you think the public should be thinking about in terms of animal experimentation?

I think we should be asking the really hard questions about whether it is justified and I think there’s a bit of a misconception around at the moment that there are animal ethics committees which act to protect the interests of animals. In fact, they work on the assumption that research is justified. When people are asked about what their concerns are around animal research in the UK and Australia, they generally talk about three main things: that the research minimises animal pain and suffering, that there is no viable non-animal alternative and that the research can generate some kind of therapeutic advance. I think the public could well ask if those three conditions are being satisfied by the kind of research that is practised in Australia.
Jane Johnson is a widely published ethicist at the Department of Philosophy at Macquarie University specialising in animal experimentation and surgery. She spoke to Jackie Dent, Editorial Producer at St James Ethics Centre.