Of Mice and Monsters

A recent study published in Nature Methods found that laboratory-confined mice and rats experience significantly elevated stress levels in the presence of male animal experimenters.  The study was authored by Jeffrey S. Mogil the head of the Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University and experiments were led by colleague Robert E. Sorge .  Mogil described the amount of stress experienced as “massive” and compared it to what the animals might feel when they are stuffed “in a very small tube so the mouse can’t move for 15 minutes”. In an article in Nature, he described it as “shockingly stressful”.

mouse tube restraint

It is yet one more unexpected variable that experimenters have failed to capture and that likely contributes to the overall lack of reliability of animal experiments.  The study itself concludes by saying:

“stress caused by male experimenters may represent a confound of much existing animal research, extending even to nonbehavioral studies in which tissues were obtained from live rodents euthanized by either male or female personnel.”

Mogil has said that it’s:

“More than just a curiosity, this stress response can throw a curveball into study results.”

The McGill University press release announcing the study’s findings stated that:

“Scientists inability to replicate research findings using mice and rats has contributed to mounting concern over the reliability of such studies”

and specifically with respect to this particular experiment stated that the

“reaction may skew research findings.”

Douglas Wahlsten of the University of Alberta was quoted as saying:

“It’s the kind of result a lot of people wish wouldn’t happen,”

Co-author of the study Robert Sorge summarized by saying:

“Our findings suggest that one major reason for lack of replication of animal studies is the gender of the experimenter”

These quotes are not from animal advocates or committed critics of animal experimentation but are from the experimenters themselves.  At the conclusion of the New York Times article on the study, Mogil suggests that male experimenters could potentially mitigate this factor by “sit[ting] in the room with the rodents for 30 to 60 minutes before conducting experiments.” But he says “no one is going to do that” and settles for suggesting that the gender of the experimenter be included in the Methods section of future publications.

What’s (not really) amazing is that the experimenters in this case don’t even seem to be pretending to take their efforts as seriously as their rhetoric would suggest.  If the fate of humanity hinges on animal experimentation, if countless human lives hang in the balance, then spending 30 to 60 minutes allowing an animal’s stress level to subside before performing an experiment would seem worthwhile if it increased the likelihood of reliable results.  But “no one is going to do that”.

As the name of Pain Genetics Laboratory suggests, Mogil and his colleagues are no strangers to inflicting pain on animals.  Indeed, it is their speciality.

In fact, Mogil’s laboratory has developed a so-called Mouse Grimace Scale so as to better quantify the degree of pain being inflicted on the animals in their laboratory (the Mouse Grimace Scale was of use for this recent study).  In developing the Mouse Grimace Scale, experimenters injected animals with acetic acid and filmed their reactions so that video footage of painful expressions could be studied frame and frame and then categorized.

Mogil explained that:Mouse_grimace_scale__95402a

“Grimaces were most pronounced for pain that lasted for a matter of minutes or hours, and for discomfort in joints and internal organs.”

Mogil has both been an active participant in painful experiments on animals and has argued for the continued use of animals in such experiments. In 2010, Mogil co-authored a review article in the journal Pain titled “The Necessity of Animal Models in Pain Research.This dual role of being an active experimenter as well as an advocate for continued experimentation makes Mogil a highly appropriate target for criticism by those who recognize the moral value of animal lives.

Finally, Mogil’s own experiments have provided more than adequate grounds for him to realize that inflicting pain on mice is wrong. In 2013 he gave a talk at the American Pain Society’s Annual Scientific Meeting with the title “Mice are People Too” in which he stressed that mice have social lives.  One can only conclude that Mogil’s sees them as the kind of people that one can breed, manipulate, experiment on, and kill.

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The website for Jeffrey Mogil’s Pain Genetics Laboratory is most helpful in providing the following contact information for both the laboratory itself and for Jeffrey Mogil specifically:

MogilDepartment of Psychology
McGill University
1205 Dr. Penfield Avenue, Rm. N7/42
Montreal, QC  H3A 1B1
Canada

jeffrey.mogil@mcgill.ca
Tel.  514.398.6085
Fax.  514.398.4896
Lab.  514.398.2742

Animals Made to Order

Jackson Laboratory entranceThere is a scale of violence that can only be achieved by a civilized society.

Free people with simple tools are just not adequate for the realization of some tasks.  Warriors can only do so much without the support of bureaucrats and the tip of a spear cannot reach as far as a predator drone.

Most helpful to achieve certain levels of violence is rigid hierarchy, wage or slave labor, complex technology, standardization, mass society, and a cool distance (physical or psychological) between assailant and victim.  In short: people need to show up for work and the trains need to run on time.  To the extent that these things are missing, the scale of violence will almost necessarily be diminished.

Enter Jackson Laboratory.  They have achieved a scale of ongoing violence that is difficult to conceive.  They provide a key part of the infrastructure of the animal experimentation industry.

A staggering number of the mice who fill the cages in animal laboratories around the world originate from JAX Mice & Services, a division of Jackson Laboratory based in Bar Harbor, Maine (with additional locations in Sacramento, California and Farmington, Connecticut).  Approximately two-thirds of Jackson Laboratory’s $214 million 2011 operating budget was dedicated to JAX Mice & Services.  From June 2010 through May 2011, JAX Mice distributed over 3 million mice to more than 900 institutions in 56 different countries. And more than 1 million live mice are held at the Bar Harbor headquarters.

But as The Connecticut Mirror has explained:

“[t]hese aren’t just any mice. These are the product of a sophisticated, highly controlled and protected mouse-breeding operation.  They live in rooms designed to be impenetrable to the smallest unwelcome microbes, in cages stacked floor-to-ceiling and supplied with filtered air that changes once a minute. They’re cared for by handlers wearing protective suits, who know their inbred charges so well they can spot a potential genetic mutation that even a biologist might not notice.”

JAX Mice has over 7000 different genetic strains of mouse available for purchase by animal experimenters around the world.  Many of the varieties have been bred specifically to exhibit particular pathologies or to develop various diseases.  The “features”—or more accurately, ailments—of each genetic strain can be found by using the extensive JAX Mice online database.  Using their advanced search, one can search for mice by “phenotype of interest” or “human disease of interest.”  Their database can also be searched by “disease term

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Stock Number: 000646
“It is highly susceptible to cortisone-induced congenital cleft palate. It has a high incidence of spontaneous lung adenomas, and lung tumors readily develop in response to carcinogens.”

To begin to understand the full scope of what JAX Mice offers it is worth taking some time to explore their database.  Here are a few examples of what can be found with even minimal effort:

  • If you were looking for mice who would develop tumors with unusual frequency you would have over 200 strains from which to choose.  You could then decide that your preference is for muscular tumors, skeletal tumors, tumors that develop on the eye, tumors that develop in the urinary system, the respiratory system, or the reproductive system.
  • You can find mice with heads that are of an abnormal shape or size.
  • You can find mice who have been bred to be obese.
  • You can find mice who suffer from paralysis and can select a strain with either front or hindlimb paralysis.
  • There are mice who age and/or die prematurely.
  • There are mice who suffer from a very wide range of eye abnormalities.
  • There are mice with abnormally high or abnormally low pain thresholds

Every one of these conditions—and countless others—is a deliberately inflicted injury.  The people at Jackson Laboratory are literally selecting for illness; breeding for disease and pathology.   They may often speak of finding cures but their routine activity is the deliberate imposition of suffering on millions of individual animals.  Furthermore, this suffering is generally amplified once the mice arrive at their final destination and are used in experiments at other institutions which can be highly invasive and most often deadly.

So those are some of the mice…but what about the services referenced in JAX Mice & Services name?  If mice are the raw material, services may be said to provide the “value added” portion of their operation.

The JAX Mice site has a page titled “JAX Surgical & Preconditioning Services”.  Experimenters can order mice with diet induced obesity, mice of various ages, and/or pregnant mice timed to deliver pups after being sent through the mail.

There are also various surgical procedures that mice may be subjected to prior to being shipped out.  There is a lengthy list of “standard surgeries” they will perform for a set fee.  They are willing to remove various organs, insert microchips, or do a brain cannulation.  The brain cannulation procedure is described on their site as follows:

The cannula implanted in mice consists of a guide cannula and a dummy cannula. The guide cannula is placed into the brain at predetermined coordinates through a hole drilled in the skull. The dummy cannula consists of a cap that screws onto the guide cannula and has a stylet that inserts into the guide cannula to prevent materials from entering it when it’s not being used.

brain cannulation

Brain cannulation

JAX Mice & Services boasts that: “We can age JAX Mice to display one or more of a variety of disease phenotypes, such as Alzheimer’s, alopecia, cancer, diet-induced obesity (DIO), and diabetes.”

The possibility of inflicting debilitating injury on an individual prior even to birth—effectively imposing cradle-to-grave suffering—may initially seem odd when in fact it is has become commonplace.  Human children are increasingly poisoned in the womb, being born with a heavy body burden of industrial chemicals.  They are then nursed on breast milk that may contain “DDT (the banned but stubbornly persistent pesticide famous for nearly wiping out the bald eagle), PCB’s, dioxin, trichloroethylene, perchlorate, mercury, lead, benzene, arsenic…paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, toilet deodorizers, cosmetic additives, gasoline byproducts, rocket fuel, termite poisons, fungicides and flame retardants.”  (This is not to question the prudence of breast feeding for both mother and child; in a toxic world, this rocket fuel laden diet seemingly remains the best option available.)

Stock Number: 000697"Mice homozygous for the diabetes spontaneous mutation (Leprdb) become identifiably obese around 3 to 4 weeks of age."

Stock Number: 000697
“Mice homozygous for the diabetes spontaneous mutation (Leprdb) become identifiably obese around 3 to 4 weeks of age.”

In sum, the mice at Jackson Laboratory are simply further along the same trajectory of domestication that we ourselves are on.  If they are a paradigm example of what it means to be domesticated; we are nonetheless following the same path even if we have not received our Stock Numbers yet.  Not surprisingly, there is a wide gulf dividing so-called laboratory mice and their wild counterparts; for example, research results on laboratory mice cannot be reliably extrapolated to apply to field mice.  The former have been too thoroughly manipulated to shed light on the later.  But there is reason to be hopeful and to believe that the project of domestication is never complete, that fissures remain like cracks in concrete.

In 2003, Manuel Berdoy, an animal behaviorist from Oxford University, released 75 thoroughly domesticated and docile rats into an open field.  The rats who had never previously been outside very quickly began to engage in the wild behavior of their peers, behavior that was suppressed when they were confined to a laboratory.  They developed natural social hierarchies, mapped paths through their new terrain, and found food that was radically different from the pellets that were provided in the cages they left behind.  Berdoy has said that:

“This shows that while we can take the animal from the wild, we have not have taken the wild out of the animal,”

The wild remains in every one of us regardless of how long we have lived in a cage.

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Stock Number: 002726
“exhibit a phenotype similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in humans; becoming paralyzed in one or more limbs with paralysis due to loss of motor neurons from the spinal cord.”

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