Of Mice, Rats, Birds and Men

Facts are often stranger than fiction.

A case in point: The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) that provides basic protections for animals used in laboratory research doesn’t cover 95% of those animals, including mice, rats, and birds. While dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, and nonhuman primates must receive appropriate food, shelter, and medical care, the majority lack any such consideration. Instead, researchers can subject them to excruciating procedures without anesthesia, house them in overcrowded conditions or in isolation, and dispose of them as they see fit.

It verges on a horror story.

picture3What is the Animal Welfare Act?

The AWA is the federal law that regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers by setting minimum acceptable standards. In regards to research, the AWA requires suitable housing, veterinary care, and research being conducted in compliance with the “three R’s”: replacement, reduction, and refinement.

Replacement: Where possible, researchers should perform experiments on a replacement, such as computer simulations, mathematical models, and in vitro.

Reduction: Researchers should reduce the number of animals used to the smallest amount possible.

Refinement: Researchers should design experiments to minimize the animals’ pain and suffering.

A 1970 amendment to the AWA covered all warm-blooded animals. The federal anti-cruelty law did not specify protections but directed the USDA to adopt regulations to protect the animals.

Follow the Money

Despite direction from Congress, the Secretary of Agriculture promptly excluded the majority used in research. In 2002, the late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-NC, amended the Farm Bill (H.R. 2646) to legally seal the deal to exclude these animals. Why? His top contributors included tobacco companies that experiment on these animals.

So, USDA veterinary inspectors do not oversee their care. Their numbers are not even reported (though estimated to be up to 100 million).

The economics also make the circumstances worse for these animals. Cheaply bred and sold by laboratory supply companies, they’re used en masse. With higher priced animals – say rhesus monkeys – the ledgers require more carefully designed research methodology to minimize variables. The higher costs of these animals also ensure they’re better treated because, by golly, they’re more expensive to replace.

Cheap animals are disposable. You can have a study involving a thousand mice with fewer controls for variables, because the large numbers themselves will ultimately bear out statistically significant results. (Apparently, some studies are so unconstrained that they cannot be replicated in different labs.)

“Ethically Indefensible”

Many researchers themselves, including the American Association for Laboratory Animal Sciences and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, say the treatment of these animals is “ethically indefensible.”

The lack of regulation even goes against the intent of Congress. Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-KS, has stated, “When Congress stated that the AWA applied to all warm-blooded animals, we certainly did not intend to exclude 95% of the animals used in biomedical research laboratories.”

The current law is even out of whack with the National Institute of Health’s voluntary industry standards to consider alternatives and minimize and avoid pain for all vertebrates (including cold-blooded animals, such as fish and frogs), as well as the National Academy of Sciences’ Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.

U.S. Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-VA, introduced a bill (H.R. 6693*) last year to include rats, mice and birds under the AWA, basically restoring it to its 1970 scope as the bipartisan framers intended. Unsurprisingly, the bill now lingers in the Committee on Agriculture.

While Utah does not have a representative on that committee, petitions are available on the internet to weigh in on the issue and help bring it to a vote. Don’t let Congress Mickey Mouse around on this.

*UPDATE: This bill died in Congress. Of course.

*****

picm_oct2013First published in Pets in the City Magazine, October 2013.

In Our Sights: Police Dog Shootings Every 98 Minutes

In mid-July*, a Salt Lake City police officer encountered a family dog in a fenced backyard. When the dog, Geist, approached—presumably to defend his property from a stranger—the officer shot and killed him.

While dog shootings often receive little attention, the dog’s owner, Sean Kendall, recorded his initial encounter with the police. The posted video went viral, and the pet community rallied.

picture4The SLC police department defensively reacted with arguments that the dog was “extremely close,” “the officer felt threatened,” the officer was “a hero” on another case, they were searching for a child, and—my favorite irrelevant red herring—that they’ve seen less public outcry “when certain human beings have lost their lives” (which simultaneously implies that the dog’s life was not valuable).

No apologies. No condolences.

Turns out that police shootings of pets are common. No government agency keeps statistics on such, but the U.S. Department of Justice acknowledges that the majority of intentional firearm discharges involve animals, with dogs being the primary victims. According to the ASPCA, most reports involve family animals in their own yards.

Animal abuse activists have tallied a conservative count by tracking news stories: a pet is killed by law enforcement every 98 minutes in the United States. Often those animals are lying down, wagging a tail, or running away. Their owners are also prevented from intervening. The officer only has to “feel” threatened, a low bar for justifying lethal force.

The prevalence of the problem across the U.S. is quickly illustrated with a Google search (see inset).

The standard, consistent reasoning behind these shootings: the dog was “aggressive.” This is where we, the public, are supposed to roll over and blithely accept the “necessity” of killing the animal.

Sorry, not buying it.

While some of these cases may have been justified, the majority of these killings reflect ignorance about dogs, at best, and cruelty at worst. Basic training and revised policies and procedures concerning dog encounters would have avoided most of these incidents. Even if a dog barks, snarls, and even postures to intimidate, danger is not necessarily imminent and can be mitigated. Postal deliverers deal with this issue all the time, and they aren’t killing off dogs on their routes. Alternatives are available if an officer is nervous: yelling, backing up slowly, tasers, batons, pepper spray, and, as a last resort, a shooting a leg.

Some police departments and officers, like “Cops for Canine Compassion,” are recognizing the issues and stepping up. However, the momentum seems to be building too slowly. Just the sheer number of potential animals in officers’ sights, let alone the changing attitudes toward animals, should incite all police departments to revise their tactics. In the United States, 37-47 percent of households have canine companions, numbering 70-80 million dogs. That’s a lot of dogs, and that’s a lot of people who care.

Back to Geist. It’s doubtful that the officer will be held accountable. However, at a minimum, the SLC police department needs to implement the training tools already provided by the Community-Oriented Policing Services within the Department of Justice. Their printed materials and free video training services, entitled “Police and Dog Encounters: Tactical Strategies and Effective Tools to Keep Our Communities Safe and Humane,” address, among other topics:

  • Assessing the Situation
  • Communicating with Dogs: Police and Dog Body Language
  • Using Force Considerations

An apology would be nice too.

Our dogs are more than “personal property,” despite the legal definitions. We emotionally connect with them as we would a friend or family member. And, unlike an inanimate couch, when destroyed, a life is gone. A dog’s death hurts us to the core.

The SLC Police Department, as well as departments across the country, need to recognize this. Otherwise, they will continue to face increased scrutiny, litigation, and loss of community trust.

*****

picm_aug2014First published in Pets in the City Magazine, August 2014

Disposable Love

Ah, disposable pets…or should I just say “pets” as the terms seem interchangeable for so many? After all, they’re cheap and easy to dispose of when no longer cuddly or too much a “chore.”

First, pity the goldfish bought to “teach children a valuable lesson,” only to be flushed within the month, and perhaps replaced with a lookalike, so no one is the wiser. Then, the hamster, a fluffy interactive handful, soon relegated to a corner and ignored, until found stiff as a board. Next, maybe a floppy-eared rabbit, a colorful bird, or an exotic reptile. But, more likely, a cat or dog is next on the shopping list.

Unfortunately, that purchase is often impetuous. Many are bought on whim – oh, it’s so cute! – with little thought to the commitment involved, until Fluffy soils the carpet, chews on a shoe, or shreds an armchair. Or, Max needs more exercise and attention than is convenient.  Or, gosh, time to move and taking Buddy is such a hassle.

depositphotos_48363515_originalThen the unsuspecting animal ends up cycling through homes and shelters, abandoned roadside, or dead.

Flushed like the goldfish. Dumped like the trash. At best, recycled like an aluminum can.

I’m not talking about cruelty but about the casualness in which many view animals as consumer goods. No animal is disposable. As in having a child, you make a commitment to its well-being. Fluffy and Max are relying on you for food, water, basic care, and training. And cats and dogs are as innocent as any child, adoring you from the first moment, loyal, trusting, and ever so dependent on your good will.

Doesn’t a child require attention? Would you toss aside a child for misbehavior? Would you leave a child behind because you were moving and the potential new landlord didn’t like children?

So, what about that list of complaints?

One, be aware upfront that animals take time and patience to train. With the right approach, an animal can be trained within hours, if not days, to behave as desired. Need a little direction? Do a Google search on correcting a behavioral problem, or sign up for a training class to train you. It’s all about positive reinforcement.

Two, set aside a half-hour a day for your pet. Skip a TV show and go for a quick walk or toss a ball around the yard. We all have time; it’s just a matter of how we use our time, which reflects our priorities. If not for your pet, do it for yourself per the American Heart Association’s 30-minute recommendation for daily exercise.

Three, find a home that accommodates all family members. Take the extra time, if needed. Also, consider that a cross-country road trip is less traumatic to your pet than a kennel at the shelter.

Make it work. Your pet would never abandon you, even if you didn’t flush the toilet or became sick. You’d be hard pressed to match such adoration. Be worthy of their love and give it back.

*****

picm_jan2013

First published in Pets in the City Magazine, January 2013

Time to Abdicate the Throne

Ah, to be kings, reigning from on high, overlords of other creatures, great and small. We’re smart, and they’re not at all. So, we treat them accordingly: as commodities, for food, for entertainment, and whatever use we deem.

After all, we wear the crown.

Who crowned us? Aristotle, for one. He said nature made animals for our sake, by virtue of our superior rationality. The Romans codified these ideas into law, whereby domestic animals became “legal things,” objects owned, mere property with the rights of, say, a chair. Those beliefs and legal definitions have changed little since. All because of “limited intelligence.”

Not So Dumb After All

However, scientific understanding evolved. Investigations into the cognitive, emotional, and social capacities of animals and advances in genetics, neuroscience, physiology, and other fields now demonstrate that humans and animals share a broad range of behaviors, capacities, and genetic material. We’re more alike than not.Turns out that human traits, such as ability to talk and think in the abstract, aren’t traits unique to humans after all.

Wanted: Rosetta Stones

Climb that Tree cartoonAnimals communicate verbally and with body language. Unfortunately for us, we lack Rosetta Stones to comprehend what they say. However, animals can be taught how to communicate with us on a level we understand.

Take, for example, Chaser, a Border Collie, who learned over 1,000 identifiable terms associated with objects. Upon being told to “find Inky,” she retrieved a stuffed octopus toy from a pile. When told to “find Darwin,” a term she’d never heard, she deducted it must be the new toy in the collection.

Alex, an African Grey parrot, spoke English. He identified objects, counted, and discerned colors, shapes, spatial relationships, and differences, all in a human language. He combined concepts to communicate a new idea. When he tasted cake for the first time, he said “yummy bread.”

Animals also understand symbolic representation for ideas, such as we do with writing and road signs. For example, dolphins read signs and act accordingly. Baboons learn word patterning and distinguish between fake and real 4-letter words.

“I Think, Therefore I Am”

“Cognitive thinking” is a broad term for paying attention, working memory, processing information (including abstract thought), reasoning, and problem solving. Animals are capable of cognitive thinking, sometimes putting us to shame.

Sameness and difference define key abstract ideas. Pigeons and baboons demonstrate a grasp of these concepts. Animals understand the concept of numbers, of quantity, as well as addition and subtraction. Macaque monkeys do math. Elephants count better than human children. Black bears also count. Dolphins use complex non-linear mathematics to navigate the seas.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson quoteWhen it comes to memory, humans take a backseat. Baboons can memorize over 10,000 pictures. Ayumu, a chimp, sees strings of numbers flash on a screen for a split-second and accurately duplicates the lineup, and is yet to be beaten at this task by man.

Rats are aware of choices, reasoning and thinking before acting. They’re better than humans at learning optimal strategies and sticking to them, whereas we second-guess ourselves and embrace misguided confidence. Dolphins routinely solve difficult problems. Pigs problem solve, learning as quickly as primates. Cows understand cause and effect and enjoy intellectual challenges. Elephants argue over directions.

The list of examples goes on, and these are the animals that have been extensively studied. They topple the old beliefs. Animals think. They don’t just react by instinct alone.

So….?

We could set a higher bar, such as understanding higher mathematics and physics. That would rule me out, let alone most humans over the millennia.

However, this is also a moral question, not just one of science. Even if we’re special, say by having opposable thumbs and the ability to create technology, does that mean only we deserve moral and legal consideration and we’re justified in our treatment of animals?

Maybe it’s time to reevaluate our elevated status and remove our royal garb.

Published in Pets in the City Magazine, May 2013 (http://issuu.com/petsinthecitymagazine/docs/picmmayissue3/1?e=6737603/2251387)