Animal Research – Monkeys, Rats and Me

In the spring of 2004, work started on the new Oxford University Biomedical research laboratory, which would be partially used for animal experimentation. From the very first day of construction, the site was bombarded with verbal abuse and relentless physical damage to machinery, offices and supplies by animal rights protestors. This subsequently forced the building work to be halted for 18 months. Monkeys, Rats and Me, a documentary commissioned by the BBC, joins the story when construction is restarted in November 2005, and follows the activities of those who campaign for and against the use of animals in medical experimentations. The site of the new facility had become the epicentre for a grand battle between the two polar views of experiments on animals. On the one side you have those who wish for total abolishment of vivisection and on the other there are those who see animal experimentation as an essential tool for advancing science and developing new cures. The narrator suggests that this dispute revolves around the central ethical question of whether “the benefits to patients justify the harms to the animals”. To address this, the documentary attempts to see if animal experimentation works and even, if it does, “is it ethical?”

The opening section of the programme presents the contrasting views expressed (00:02:30 – 00:09:44). Mel Broughton, leader of ‘SPEAK’, a group campaigning for the eradication of animal experimentation, believes that it is “important that people see the reality of animal research… reality for these animals is to live in hell”. This absolutist approach aims to bring a complete end to animal experimentation, and has no concessions in its argument. Professor Tipu Aziz of Oxford University, on the other hand, disputes whether there is even a debate to be had, “because every medical therapy that exists today has come out of animal research”. The documentary presents Prof Aziz as balancing an acknowledgement of the cost to animals, against the benefit he sees in his patients, which he feels outweighs that cost.

The programme includes some interesting material on the origins and evolution of the animal rights movement. Peter Singer, a philosopher, became the godfather of this movement when in 1972 he published his book ‘Animal Liberation’. For the first time the umbrella of equality would now encapsulate not just humans but animals as well. This suggested that humans and non-human animals were of all of equal moral status. Based on arguments of equivalent rational capacity, Singer made the comparison that experimentation on animals was not much different to experimenting on children. This section of the documentary would offer an excellent discussion starter about whether it is possible to view human and non-human animals as equals (00:21:30 – 00:25:14).

In the 35 years since the publication of Singer’s original book, the animal rights movement has grown massively and developed into a very powerful lobbying group of organisations. In recent times, however, the methods used by some of the groups, including letter bombs and criminal damage, have challenged the public’s support for their argument (00:09:44 – 00:13:21). As shown in the documentary, the activist’s justify such tactics as the only way in which they will force the changes they want. But as a consequence of such actions, the science community has been afraid to speak up and has offered little reply to the activist’s arguments.

Without vivisection, Professor Aziz believes, it would be impossible to discover treatments such as those helping his 13 year old patient who suffers with dystonia. Dystonia is a movement disorder which is thought to be caused by the misfiring of neurotransmitters in the basal ganglia, a region of the brain that controls muscle movement. The patient and his mother provide a personal account of how they cope with the illness (00:13:21 – 00:16:40, 00:32:20 – 00:34:35 and 00:46:40 – 00:50:15), and how they hope that a surgical procedure pioneered on animals will relieve the debilitating symptoms of the disease.

Monkeys, Rats and Me includes relatively rare footage from within animal experimentation laboratories (00:24:54 – 00:34:35 and 00:39:45 – 00:43:45). These graphically demonstrate investigations into rats and monkeys, while attempting to give an insight into the feelings and motivations of scientists who work on animals, and how they take every precaution not to harm the creatures. The images of the monkeys in particular do, however, raise ethical issues. The sentient nature of monkeys will cause some people to take a deontological view; despite the species barrier they feel morally connected to the animal and therefore believe carrying out experiments on them is wrong. Added to this, the knowledge that primates live their lives within a structured complex community and not in isolation compounds their unease. This potential mental harm to animals caused by living within a cage may also offend a consequentialist, whose arguments are based more on outcomes.

In response to the relentless animal rights campaign against the construction of the laboratory, a local resident Laurie Pycroft decides to begin a campaign ‘for animal research’ (00:19:25 – 00:21:30). ‘Pro-Test’, the organisation he founded, say they “do respect the lives of animals and their right not to suffer, but we believe the right of humans come above that”. The creation of ‘Pro-Test’ provides opposition to the ‘SPEAK’ campaign, and throughout the remainder of the documentary the two groups battle it out. Unfortunately there becomes increasing focus on the extreme methods used by ‘SPEAK’ and other organisations, which distracts the attention away from their argument to stop animal research.

The documentary concludes with the happy story of the Professor Aziz’s patient being able to perform many tasks he was previously unable to do (01:03:58 – 01:05:20). Only six weeks after the operation he is able to eat, to move independently and to stand from his wheelchair. These images underline many of the arguments presented by those who support animal research as a route to restore people’s dignity and make them better.

In total, the programme is 120 minutes long and, as such, it is tricky to see any way to use the complete documentary in teaching.  It is, however, filled with many clips which would be of use for teaching the ethics of animal research, and to explain some of the main arguments surrounding this topic. When discussing such issues it would be helpful to remember the “3 Rs”, that is Refinement (to minimise animal suffering), Reduction (to limit the number of animals used in the experiment) and Replacement (to ensure there is no other procedure which would not demand the use of animals) which are increasingly the guiding principles within the biomedical community (01:15:00 – 01:18:30). Furthermore, it is important for students to consider the quality and purpose of the research, the certainty of benefits to the patient and the extent of animal suffering, all of which affect the cost-benefit analysis and animal welfare. For further information also refer to a report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, ‘The ethics of research involving animals‘.

Please note it is important that all clips are viewed before use, as the documentary contains both graphical images and explicit language.

Monkeys, Rats and Me was first broadcast on 27th November 2006, 21:00pm, BBC2 (TRILT identifier: 005DD0DD) and repeated on 28th November 2006, 23:20pm, BBC2.

Update (5th April 2015): This programme is also available to members of subscribing institutions via Box of Broadcasts, and to all interested parties on Vimeo.

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