Now and again it's the comedian who, like the joker and jester of old, opens the eyes of the audience to unpleasant truth. Ironic that Ricky Gervais has opened the eyes of the wider public to an experiment involving sewing the eyes of 31 kittens closed, and once the experiment was complete, the kittens were destroyed. Cardiff University defends the experiments because they are aimed at understanding the signals between the eye and the brain cortex, an important area of ophthalmic research into lazy eye conditions in humans. You can read more here
The University Ethics committee approved the experiment, which of course begs the question about which criteria are invoked to justify such purposeful cruelty. Interesting that in search of a cure for a human condition, inhumane treatment of non humans is spoken of not only as acceptable but as an imperative claiming moral high ground. Further, the very procedures required suggest a best an emotional confusion for the scientists and vets involved, who we believe are acting out of altruistic compassion. You have to be cruel to be kind isn't to my knowledge a scientifically established procedure.
On any ethically responsible investment portfolio it would be difficult to justify making money, or putting money into, what by any definition is such an extreme form of animal cruelty. What makes this situation more unacceptable is that tax payers' money funds this particular research project. I not only object to that; I protest against whatever guidelines make it possible to sanction such behaviour.
Then there is the question of animal rights which are the flip side of human obligations. What is it, what exactly and precisely is the basis for human beings treating other life-forms as if pain, suffering and abbreviated life is at the behest of human self interest? We rightly prosecute those who are cruel to animals. Why wasn't the Cardiff University experiment articulated truthfully and transparently, and only when outed is there the usual ethical smokescreen of the greater good?
Is it really necessary cruelty? Even if it is necessary to find a cure for lazy eye, does that necessity and the perceived possible benefit override the cost to the animals, and the desnesitizing impact such behaviour has on human attitudes to other sentient beings? Sewing a kitten's eyes shut is rather different from recalibrating a tool, rebooting a computer, or trying out a new golf club! Different too from putting a car through a road impact test that wrecks it. I mean different in kind - inanimate as opposed to animate. Sentient life is not a mere commodity for human consumption, and animal suffering is not to be discounted merely because scientific research is furthered by it. The balance is finer than that, and the moral implications of sanctioned cruelty far more dangerous, and requiring higher ethical norms than utilitarianism.
University Research Ethics Committees are highly responsible, ethically informed and composed of people who combine commonsense, humanity and expertise. As such they are expected to acknowledge the profound responsibility of acting under public trust, and in decision-making be transparent and outward looking beyond the immediate interests of its researchers. This is true especially in areas of such heightened sensitivity as balancing animal welfare and perceived human benefit, or animal suffering and assumed advances in knowledge.
This however, was not an experiment in the search for a cure of a life threatening condition. Even if it were, misgivings and safeguards ought still to be an essential part of a process that demonstrates there is no other way. Even then such a conclusion is not itself a sufficient reason for proceeding with an experiment of inflicted suffering. It is a legitimate question -where are the boundaries of human behaviour and inumane behaviour in pursuit of human welfare?
All readers of this blog know I'm a cat lover. But if the experiment were carried out on mice, rats or rabbits the arguments would be the same, and the outrage as real. So I'm not special pleading for my own pet preferences. Therefore no cute pictures of cuddly kittens in this post - and no distressing images of mutilated animals either. Instead I post a protest at the hubris and callousness of human behaviour towards creatures over whom we have absolute control and the power of death or worse. That power brings with it responsibility and the institutional imperative of a University that life never be discounted, and suffering of animals never be dismissed as the mere emotional inconvenience of an oversensitive public.
And as a taxpayer I express outrage that I am implicated through public funding in practices that would - rightly - have me jailed if done outside a laboratory. Public opinion may be deemed fickle by the scientific community who are well into data and statistics and social trends - but public instincts and disapproval are important guidelines for decision-makers. And there are times when what is done in our name is plain wrong - this is such a case.