Newsletter - Animal Writes sm
16 July 2000 Issue

Researchers Accountability, and Social Responsibility
Marc Bekoff - [email protected]

Colorado Daily, June 23, 2000

In a recent issue of the Colorado Daily (June 20, 2000, pages 1,4) Terje Langeland wrote a well-balanced essay on the meetings of the American Society of Primatologists that were held in Boulder last week. One issue that was raised and only briefly discussed concerned the research of one of the co- organizers of the meeting, Mark Laudenslager, who conducts research at CU's Health Sciences Center. Laudenslager's research deals with what he calls "brief early maternal separation in nonhuman primates, dominance hierarchies in nonhuman primates, territorial defeat in rodents, and learned helplessness in rodents" (

Some of this research raises numerous ethical questions that need to be debated publicly. For example, the study of experimentally-induced brief maternal separation requires that individuals be kept in cages and that young animals be taken away from, and deprived of, much-needed nurturing by their primary care-giver, their mother. Learned helplessness requires that animals be trained to avoid an aversive stimulus, usually an intense shock, and then NOT be allowed to avoid it. Here's a quotation from an early paper on a study of learned helplessness in dogs: "At the onset of electric shock the [naive] dog runs frantically about, defecating, urinating, and howling until it scrambles over the barrier and so escapes from the shock...However, in contrast to the naive dog, it [the trained dog] soon stops running and remains silent until shock seems to 'give up' and passively 'accept the shock'."

The reason that Prof. Laudenslager's research wasn't discussed was because he refused to discuss it. Laudenslager claimed "You have to understand that the animal-rights movement has a really inappropriate conception of what I do. And I [have] nothing to say to the press about it, because it always gets distorted..." Well, isn't this interesting. A federally-funded researcher whose research is supported by the American public doesn't want to take the time to set the record straight and correct distortions. Is it better that we all wallow in ignorance? Perhaps if the record was set straight the hard questions would stop? This attitude is a bit too self-serving and arrogant for my tastes. As a publicly supported scientist Laudenslager has an obligation to engage the people who underwrite his research. A recent article in the prestigious journal, Nature, stressed the importance of a social contract between science and society that is characterized by two-way dialogue. Scientists have deep and numerous social responsibilities that can't be ignored. In fact, nowadays, more people including some scientists, question science. Increasingly science isn't seen as a self-justifying activity, but as another institution whose claims on the public treasury must be defended.

Laudenslager also claims that "I've never done anything to an animal that they don't experience in natural, you know, development." Of course, just because something happens in the wild doesn't justify humans doing the same thing to animals in captivity. Indeed, in some primates and carnivores, youngsters are brutally killed by invading males (infanticide). Could this fact ever justify humans brutally killing youngsters in captivity because it happens in the wild? Many animals also experience rich and deep emotional lives and this makes it even more morally repugnant to manipulate their lives so that their experimentally altered - deprived - early experience with care-givers produces individuals who are doomed to be socially and physically incompetent for their tenure in horrible captive prisons in the dark and dreary basements of research institutions. And the care-givers also suffer the absence and loss of their young. Indeed, the suffering extends far beyond the animals directly manipulated. If something occurs in the wild then it's time to go out and study it there, and stop ruining numerous lives.

A suggestion - take the time to write to your senators and congress people and ask them to enforce accountability for federally funded researchers. Researchers shouldn't be allowed to bite the hands that feed them - to deprive us of information that is rightfully ours. They only continue to do because we allow them to do. Indifference can mean death - indifference is responsible for the ruination of the lives of numerous animals who can't speak for themselves, whose tormented screams fall on deaf ears - sentient beings who experience incalculable pain and deep suffering.

Marc Bekoff
EPO Biology, CU Boulder
Co-Founder (with Jane Goodall) of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals/Citizens for Responsible Animal Behavior Studies

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