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Neuroscientist raises questions in first animal research forum

February 23, 2011 By Chris Barncard

In the hunt for some middle ground between animal researchers and animal rights advocates, Larry Hansen thinks what’s missing is … the middle ground.

Instead of the scientists that people institutional animal care and use committees (IACUCs) or the members of animal rights groups, the question of ethics in animal research is best posed to neither side.

“Just (get some) guys from the sandwich shop, and they have to decide what’s right,” said Hansen, neuroscientist at the University of California-San Diego and speaker Thursday, Feb. 17 at a forum on the ethics of animal research.

“The closer you get to the people, the better the animals do,” Hansen said.

About 50 people attended Hansen’s talk at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, the first of three forums organized in response to interest in the ethics of animal research among some members of the Dane County Board.

“We share a strong desire to bring this issue out into the public and have this discussion,” said Eric Sandgren, associate professor of pathobiological sciences, director of UW–Madison’s Research Animal Resource Center and a forum organizer.

“We’d like to try to reach an understanding, so we’re inviting speakers that come to the topic of animals in research from different angles,” he said.

Hansen is an unabashed advocate for a handful of species subject to vivisection — experimental surgery on living animals — in research laboratories. The Alzheimer’s researcher took up the cause when UC-San Diego medical students pressed him on their dissection coursework.

“They asked me, ‘They tell us you need to kill these dogs in order to be a doctor, and we want to know if that’s true,’” Hansen said. “The truth is no, you don’t.”

The vast majority of medical schools didn’t work with dogs, but Hansen couldn’t convince UC-San Diego their students could do without. The experience set Hansen to work settling his feelings about animal research. Those feelings are easy to sum up.

“Leave the dogs alone because they love us. Leave the cats alone because they love us,” he said. “Leave the primates alone because they’re so much like us.”

The research protocols undertaken by scientists include treatment — small spaces, involuntary tasks backed by dehydration, experimental surgery — that strikes Hansen as torture and cruelty.

“If they were doing it to me, would I consider I was being tortured,” Hansen said. “If the answer is yes, it’s torture to me, then it’s torture to the animals.”

And since dogs and cats have been bred for centuries to love their human owners, the ethics calculus shifts.

“To treat them badly is worse than treating other animals badly,” he said. “If you’re a cow or a pig, you’re kind of screwed. You’ve got no reason to expect more from us.”

It’s logic the average citizen can grasp — especially, Hansen believes, if they come to agree with him that fewer animal studies than they expect have real impact on human health — and logic that will lead them to out law or severely restrict vivisection for what amounts to les than one-tenth of one percent of the animals used in research.
Paula Rinelli, a member of the Alliance for Animals and one of the forum planners, thinks that the public is largely left out of the loop. We she attends even public meetings of IACUCs, she said, she hears only scientists weighing in, and believes it keeps needed debate from happening.

“I haven’t heard one (research) protocol rejected out of hand,” Rinelli said. “They’re always sent back for adjustments.”
Patricia McConnell, UW–Madison zoology adjunct professor and instructor for a class called “Human/Animal Relationships: Biological and Philosophical Issues,” hopes there is a win-win answer out there somewhere that can keep research going while satisfying ethics concerns.

“Maybe there’s a way to find a solution that uses far less animals, but makes researchers feel like they’re getting what they need, too,” she said.

Hansen thinks it lies in exponential leaps in technology, though he said plenty of his colleagues think he’s a dreamer. Instead of training monkeys to follow moving objects with their eyes and inserting probes in their brains, any handy research assistant can themselves become the test subjects.

“It will turn out you can slide a grad student into a scanner and get the same visual tracking information,” he said. “I think it’s going to happen.”

The second forum will happen at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 29, in 1100 Grainger Hall, 975 University Ave. Charles Snowdon, UW–Madison professor of psychology, will discuss his studies with cotton-top tamarins.