Animal Research Makes Me Feel Bad

This week Imperial College London came under heat for inadequate treatment of research animals. Facilities were understaffed and poorly supervised, while caretakers received “patchy training.” The university has held a press conference and promised to correct the wrongs.

While I know animal research provides a massive amount of scientific insight that can be gained no other way (that we know of), I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of subjecting animals to research: growing tumors on their backs, injecting them with diseases, keeping them isolated in a sterilized cage for their entire life.

The topic fits well with another piece of recent news: the Nonhuman Rights Project has filed a lawsuit claiming chimpanzees should have the same basic rights as humans. They’re focusing specifically on a chimp in New York named Tommy who “is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used-trailer lot.” Right now chimps are classified as property and the owners have a right to keep him confined in a cage. They’re asking the court to assign personhood to Tommy so that he can be removed from that environment and placed in a sanctuary.

This court case is not so cut and dry (the owners claim they rescued Tommy from even worse conditions and have been trying to place him, without luck, in a sanctuary), but that’s not what I want to focus on. I’ve been reading books on animal cognizance and thinking a lot about the topic lately and it’s my opinion (though it’s shared by many others) that animals have emotional lives. Elephants mourn their dead, dogs get anxious when their masters leave, and I once had a cat that was perpetually pissed until it found a best friend.

Now, I’m not saying their emotions mimic human emotion, or that they’re as strong (but I’m not saying they’re aren’t as strong either), or that they have a way to classify those emotions and rationally act on them (I don’t believe that at all). I’m saying animals can feel sad and worried and scared.

I feel animal research can bring negative emotions to the test animals and that makes me uncomfortable. Even in laboratories where the animals are well cared for, they still undergo human handling, confinement in an unnatural habitat, and testing (sometimes not-so-nice testing). But as I said before, I’m conflicted because I know the human benefits of animal testing. Maybe better computer models would take some of the burden off live animals. Hopefully, all those biologists quitting wet labs for so called “dry labs” (i.e. computers) will fix this problem and animal testing will phase out. Until then, I’ll feel bad about it.

In Season This Year: Sweaters from Slaughterhouse Run-off

Rejoice high-end fabric lovers and animal-rights activists, narrow group you may be. A group of researchers from ETH Zurich have found a way to make synthetic Angora wool. Angora wool—not to be confused with mohair which comes from Angora goats—is made from Angora rabbits, a breed of fluffy rabbits (pictured below). It’s exceedingly expensive, about $10 – 16 per ounce, so most commercial yarns are blends of Angora and other, cheaper fibers such as wool.


An Angora rabbit. So cute.

To produce high quality wool, the rabbits must be groomed weekly (or more) as the hairs easily mat. Producers of Angora wool have come under some heat lately for plucking the fur from live animals, which causes pain and distress to the animals.

The faux-fur of the Switzerland researchers is made from gelatin, specifically from slaughterhouses. The gelatin comes from degraded collagen of hides, bones, hoofs, tendons, and horns, most of which is discarded as waste. The gelatin, after it’s cleaned, is mixed in a solution of water and isopropyl alcohol (simple rubbing alcohol) and heated. This creates a 2-phase system with suspended gelatin fibers. The fibers are spun in a dry-spinning process, as depicted below, to form kilometer-length fibers.


The dry spinning process. A solution of the fibers is forced through an extruder/spinneret to form strings of fabric, then dried in the evaporation chamber to remove any solvent.

Angora wool fibers are different from typical fibers in that they have pores. With the two-phase process, the gelatin fibers form with similar sized pores as a result of the water/alcohol mixture getting trapped inside the fibers as they’re formed. In the heating chamber during spinning, the solvent is removed and an empty space is left in the middle. Pores make up about 30% of the fiber.

The only problem is that gelatin is soluble in water, so if these fibers get wet they’ll dissolve. The researchers solved this problem by crosslinking the fibers with formaldehyde and a dehydrothermal treatment, which changes the structure of the gelatin by forming bonds between adjacent molecules. The crosslinked fibers don’t dissolve in water, though they do swell slightly. But the swelling is no more than a human hair swells in water.


a) The gelatin/water/alcohol mixture. Fiber was spun 30 min after preparation from the the opaque phase. After 30 days the mixture degraded and could no longer be spun. b) Gelatin fiber coiled and ready to go. c) Fibers can easily hold a weight of 140 g without snapping.

The crosslinked fibers are as strong as the Angora fibers, as soft, and much easier to make. Instead of raising a hoard of rabbits and meticulously grooming and harvesting their fur, all you have to do is take slaughterhouse runoff, mix it in a heated water/alcohol solution, and spin it into fibers. This is a fantastic eco-friendly solution to high-end animal fabrics. I only hope this method makes it to market so I can get me some waste-wear.

Fraudulent Dancing

A paper was published by Nature in 2005 that quantified bodily symmetry of the human mating dance—that is, club music. Researchers from Rutgers went down to Jamaica and took motion-capture videos of people dancing, all to the same popular Jamaican song. The dancers were dotted with reflective markers so their moves could be put into a computer and quantified.

Here’s what those markers looked like.

They even had a nice little movie of a male polygon figure dancing to the song. This was the symmetrical dance while this was the asymmetrical dance. The symmetrical male was really getting into it, but the asymmetrical male just kind of bounced and shook his arms. To me it looked like the asymmetric dancer was cautious, not really getting into the dance, which could be a turn-off in the mating ritual. But researchers thought of this and gave the dancers a self-esteem test. Apparently, how you feel about your dancing doesn’t translate to how your dancing looks. They also found neither age nor BMI correlated to dancing ability. They did report that facial and bodily symmetry could predict how well a young man danced (the dance ability rated by Jamaican women and Rutgers students).

Now, almost 10 years later, they’ve retracted the paper with little explanation by Nature. It turns out that since 2007 one of the authors, Robert Trivers, has been unhappy with the study. He’s been trying to get the paper retracted for years.

In 2007, when a graduate student found that the study couldn’t be repeated, Trivers dived into the data. It turns out “not only were the values changed, they were not even internally consistent,” Trivers said. A case of fraud? It turns out yes. As Trivers has posted, “the fraudster William Brown and his chief supporter Lee Cronk” had been in charge of the data set and modified data points to make it look like their dance study had found something.

Note that Nature says none of this. They simply say:

We retract this Letter, which reported strong positive associations between symmetry and dancing ability in a group of young Jamaican men. K.G. could not be contacted.

This is not the first time Nature has hidden fraudulent behavior of their authors. David Vaux has a nice post on Retraction Watch talking this very subject. It’s all about brand management for these prestigious publications. They don’t want to lose credibility, so they sweep fraud under the rug either with vague retractions or blatantly ignoring misconduct. For some reason Nature News will report misconduct, while the actual journal ignores it.

One commenter on Retraction Watch had an interesting point—they said publications such as Nature and Science aren’t really academic journals, they’re more like magazines, “gatekeepers of the Hot New Things.” Maybe it would be better to consider such “journals” as magazines, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. As long as they have prestige, scientists will still be eager to publish in them… even if it means faking it.