The vivisection void

April 4, 1997

Media reports on live animal experiments are not explicit enough to promote a debate about the moral issues, argues Jacky Turner

Activists for animal welfare often take part in exchanges such as these. Activist: "Would you like to sign this petition? It's about battery cages for laying hens/product testing/medical research using animals/export of farm animals for slaughter."

Concerned citizen: "Yes, I certainly would. I think it's terrible the way we treat animals. I hate cruelty. It's all about money, isn't it? I say put the politicians in a truck and export them."

Activist: "Thank you. Would you like a leaflet about this?" Concerned citizen: "No, no, sorry I don't want to read about it, or to see the pictures. They just upset me too much."

But is this attitude also at work in the visibility (or invisibility) of animal experiments in the prestigious publications we read? I have looked at how research involving animals is reported in Nature, Science, New Scientist, The Economist and The THES over approximately an 18-month period. There are significant differences in their willingness to debate the moral issues. Animal experiments were mentioned typically in four to seven articles and news items per issue in Nature and Science and up to five in New Scientist. About half the issues of The Economist and The THES contained at least one such report. But over a quarter of the THES articles involved explicit discussion of the morality of the human use of non-human animals.

Research reports tell us little about what happened to the animals. Often the number and nature of the animals is hidden in the text ("n=30") and early paragraphs may yield few clues about whose body parts ("the inflamed paw") are under scrutiny. The living conditions of the animals are never mentioned ("monitored for mortality every 24") and pain is unseen except when it is the subject of the experiment ("we tested pain responses in several ways").

The use of figures and jokes seems designed to distance us from reality. The animals are willing participants in the experiments, and are described anthropomorphically. Thus the interests of the scientists and the animals coincide ("when to help farm animals grow faster"), animals are "tested" for conditions caused by the experimenter ("paraplegic rates") and they "help" the scientists ("geneticists are to receive a helping hand from 500,000 strains of mutant mice"). Human agency becomes invisible ("monkeys which had lost a hand") or God-like ("we generated trangenic mice"). Researchers show body parts, tissue or dead embryos but not the results of the experiments on the live animals.

Live animals, preferably photogenic, require some cute or human interest aspect to a story. Humour conceals: "Thumbs up" captions a photograph of monkeys in a space capsule and cats are deprived of sleep in laboratories with "built-in tin roofs".

Yet over the past 18 months all these journals printed at least one article discussing the possibilities of reducing animal use in research by the development of "alternatives" including human tissue banks, ethics committees and other measures. And there are doubts ("we really don't know whether these mice drink for the same reasons as human alcoholics"). Occasionally there was criticism of certain experiments, such as the production of mutants ("freak shows"). But the moral justification of animal experiments was not discussed explicitly in Nature, Science or New Scientist. On the other hand, The Economist (occasionally) and The THES (frequently) printed articles that raised the human use of animals in research as a moral issue.

The visibility of animal experiments could be increased by better "consumer labelling", and science journalists have a key role in this. A first step would be to ask that research papers or press releases state in the abstract or first paragraph how many animals were used at all stages to produce the results reported. Publications with non-scientist readership are increasingly willing to discuss the morality of animal use, and protection by silence is unlikely to advance the interests of science in the long term.

Jacky Turner is lecturer in crystallography, Birkbeck College, London.

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