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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 67.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Man over monkey: UW researcher Dr. Paul Kaufman
Scientist believes humans have an ethical obligation to use animals to help their own species
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Credit:Christopher Guess

If you talk with Paul Kaufman about animals for any length of time, sooner or later he's going to tell you about his turtle. He mentioned it in a meeting with animal rights activists early this year, and again at a campus debate in March on the ethics of using primates in research.

"We've had it a long time," Kaufman tells me, broaching the topic before I ask. The turtle, a Hermann's tortoise named Troilus, is probably at least 50 years old; Kaufman and his wife have had it for 28. "They live to be 100," he explains. "He'll outlive us."

On summer days, Troilus roams a garden in the backyard of the couple's lovely near-west-side home. Other times, he has the run of the first floor, outfitted with a diapering system designed by their daughter.

Kaufman, 66, a leading UW-Madison researcher who uses monkeys to study eye diseases including glaucoma, marvels at Troilus' intelligence, how he won't step off a table or venture down steps. He notes that when a companion turtle died a few years back, Troilus underwent "an incredible behavioral change," affecting his sleep patterns, alertness and appetite. As he put it at the debate, "I bet you didn't know that reptiles can grieve."

When I stop by to visit, Kaufman picks up Troilus from the garden and holds him. The tortoise stares languidly and accepts pets on the head. Kaufman and his wife, the best-selling historical novelist Margaret George (who's also written a children's book about a pet tortoise), both use the same words to describe how they feel toward this three-kilo bundle of shell and wrinkled skin: "We love him."

But Kaufman is careful to keep his feelings in perspective. That's why he mentions Troilus when discussing his work - which sometimes involves causing monkeys to get eye diseases or be put to death, and always involves appropriating the whole of their lives.

"The turtle is not our second child, not our daughter," he tells me. "Monkeys are not us."

Not us. It's the same term Kaufman used repeatedly in the March 15 debate: "My position is they are not us and therefore it is ethical for us to use them." He argued that humans have "the ethical right and even the ethical obligation" to use other species to benefit their own.

Local animal rights activists call Kaufman a "speciesist." They mean it as a putdown, but it's a label he cheerfully accepts: "That's correct. I am a speciesist."

As the issue of primate research gets renewed attention, Paul Kaufman has emerged as perhaps his university's most thoughtful and compelling proponent.

He's a likeable and reputable scientist whose work has brought him wide acclaim. He fully grasps that the UW-Madison, as a public institution, must explain and defend its conduct to the larger community, against criticism that primate research is neither necessary nor moral.

Moreover, he's a guy who loves his turtle. He's the perfect face for the university to put forward in a debate it never wanted to have and now can't seem to avoid.

Conflicting views?

For years, the UW resisted calls to discuss its use of animals in research, invariably blaming the violent tendencies of its critics. One campus spokesperson even baselessly tied Rick Bogle, Madison's most prominent research critic, to involvement in "illegal acts."

In March 2006, after chiding the UW's refusenik stance ("Let's Talk About the Animals," 2/10/06), I organized and co-moderated the first campus debate on animal research in many years. Several more such exchanges have taken place since - all with a conspicuous police presence, to quell any riots that might erupt.

This January, after much prodding, the UW agreed to ponder the ethics of primate research. This was done by a committee that oversees animal research. Local activist Rick Marolt angrily dismissed the predictable result: "It was as if the Mississippi Slave Owners Association was asked in 1850 to determine whether or not slavery was ethical."

When some members of the Dane County Board also began asking questions, UW Chancellor Biddy Martin entered the fray, defending research that annually brings tens of millions of dollars into her institution.

But, Martin added, "It is appropriate and important that we reflect deeply on the ethical implications of what we do, that we acknowledge that there are conflicting views, and that we participate in ongoing societal discussions about the relationship between ourselves as human beings and other animals."

Within a month Martin was writing another letter, to the entire campus community, about a UW researcher whose animal use privileges had been temporarily suspended (see "Monkeys Suffered and Died," 4/29/10). It concluded that the UW's "system of accountability for research compliance and safety on campus, which has improved over time, and is certainly not broken, is still not where it needs to be."

More than a dozen County Board members, cheered on by Neil Heinen of WISC-TV and Dave Zweifel of The Capital Times, are calling for the creation (PDF) of an advisory panel to examine animal treatment and the ethics of primate research. A county committee last week decided to take no action on the measure, so its status is in doubt. But supporters still hope to bring it before the full County Board. Chancellor Martin is opposed, saying the issue has already been "exhaustively debated."

County Supv. Al Matano, the resolution's lead sponsor, emphatically disagrees. He says the UW "has failed in its efforts to self-regulate," as shown by recent news stories: federal fines violating animal-care rules, the suspended researcher, revelations of potentially deadly breaches involving germ research, and a judge's decision to appoint a special prosecutor to consider criminal charges against UW officials who conducted deadly experiments on sheep.

And while Matano isn't sure this panel will find primate research unethical - if the UW participates, as he hopes, this would be "almost a totally impossible outcome" - he thinks it's an area "that needs more illumination." Curiously, he frames the underlying ethical issue almost the same way as Kaufman: "May I harm you to benefit me?"

Kaufman's answer is yes, so long as you are not us.

A bright line

For people like Rick Marolt, that answer is indefensible. He rejects the notion that one species has the right to harm another to improve its own lot.

"That argument rests on a belief that people are so important and superior that it is okay for us to exploit others who are similar to us but of another species," says Marolt, a consultant by profession. "It's all about selfishness and self-interest - as long as we are benefiting, it's okay."

Monkeys and humans are genetically almost identical and share many common traits. Monkeys can count, understand language, appreciate music, make rational decisions, show empathy and develop complex social relationships.

Between the UW-Madison and Covance Laboratories, nearly 9,000 monkeys are being used for research in Madison, more than anywhere else in the nation and perhaps the world. The UW's 1,900-plus monkeys are locked down in tiny cages, denied any semblance of a normal monkey life; often, they become neurotic from their circumstance.

Marolt thinks that's too great a price to extract from other living beings. As he puts it, "I care a lot more about my family than I do about your family. What if I could have my sight restored by experimenting on your family? We wouldn't allow that. Why is the discussion suddenly different when it's about non-human animals?

"The only answer is speciesism: We have the power."

Kaufman, at the March 15 debate, bravely acknowledged the danger of drawing moral distinctions on the basis of "not us": "As recently as 150 years ago, we had slaves in this country because they were 'not us.' As recently as 70 years ago, Joseph Mengele in Germany used certain groups for real biological experiments that we would never allow [today], because the people being used were 'not us.'"

But Kaufman proceeded to highlight ways in which monkeys lack human capabilities: "They don't build fires, they don't write books. They don't read books. They don't make good movies - or bad movies, for that matter."

Rick Bogle, Kaufman's counterpoint at the debate, responded that many human beings - infants, for instance - also don't meet these standards, to which Kaufman replied: "But they meet the standards of being human beings."

This argument, the essence of speciesism, certainly creates a bright line, one that's difficult for critics to counter. For while Bogle and Marolt are the sort of folks who might pluck a spider from a urinal rather than shower it with yellow death, the vast majority of the American public eats meat - which often entails animal cruelty far beyond anything that happens to monkeys at the UW-Madison.

How do you sell the idea that speciesism is wrong to a populace that practices it with every other bite? Add in emphatic claims that animal research is responsible for saving human lives, and it's clear why Marolt laments, "Sometimes I think it's crazy to think we can make any progress at all."

Steward of the resource

A native of New York City, Paul L. Kaufman studied in New York, Boston, St. Louis and Uppsala, Sweden, before coming to the UW-Madison in 1975 as an assistant professor of ophthalmology.

Today he chairs the UW's department of ophthalmology and visual sciences and leads a team of "roughly 10 full-time people," plus some students, looking into various aspects of glaucoma and presbyopia, the age-related loss of ability to focus on near objects. He also still sees patients and performs surgery as an expert in glaucoma.

Kaufman is past president of prestigious eye-research groups and has served on the U.S. National Advisory Eye Council. He's authored more than 300 articles and 50 book chapters, and is currently editor-in-chief of Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, a vision research journal.

He's gotten an honorary doctorate from the University of Uppsala in Sweden and major awards from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, the International Society for Eye Research, the American Glaucoma Society and the Glaucoma Foundation. During a recent visit, some of these were hanging crookedly from his office walls, as though he doesn't have time in his life to keep them straight. A secretary helps manage his busy schedule, even coordinating appointments with his wife.

Kaufman has been doing experiments on primates for more than 35 years. Of more than 800 research papers that list him as an author or contributor, nearly half mention monkeys or primates in their titles.

Kaufman's research generates about $1 million a year in outside funding, most from the National Institutes of Health and the rest from private industry and foundations. More than half this money involves the use of primates. His lab uses a small number of live rabbits and dead pig eyes; it also works with human cadaver eyes when possible, though these are seldom "fresh enough for our purposes."

At present, there are 63 monkeys assigned to projects under Kaufman's purview, divided equally between rhesus macaques and cynomolgus macaques. In years past, the number was twice as large, making Kaufman the campus' leading primate user, a distinction he no longer holds. These days, he says, his team must use its monkeys more judiciously: "It's a valuable and finite resource, and we have to be good stewards of it."

all of the experiments being done in Kaufman's lab fall under two protocols, provided to Isthmus in response to an open records request. The larger of the two authorizes using up to 322 cynomolgus and 189 rhesus monkeys over a three-year period for glaucoma studies. Of these, the protocol says, about 45 cynomolgus and 45 rhesus "may be made glaucomatous" in one eye, and about 72 cynomolgus and 24 rhesus might at some point be euthanized.

The second protocol, for experiments into presbyopia, authorizes using up to 65 rhesus and 15 cynomolgus monkeys over three years. Euthanasia is not an expected consequence, but the animals may have surgeries including lens removal, which does not typically cause blindness.

These days, says Kaufman, primate research is subject to ever-increasing limitations and oversight: "The rules and regulations have gotten much tighter. There are things you could do in the '70s that aren't allowed now."

But still, mistakes happen. "There are experiments where you plan a sacrifice," says Kaufman, "then others where that wasn't the plan."

In 2007, a campus animal-use oversight committee wrote Kaufman to say it was "disturbed" by protocol violations, including lapses in training, monitoring and security. In 2008, a UW employee emailed higher-ups to express concern about monkeys who were anesthetized and then left unattended, a situation that had in the past led to one animal "getting its tail bitten off by its neighbor." "How is it that the same people/lab are allowed to keep repeating the same error?" the employee asked.

Kaufman, shown documents of these incidents over lemonade in his backyard, a few yards from Troilus' outdoor stomping grounds, attributes such lapses to junior staff and gives assurances that all appropriate lessons were learned.

"We do things to our animals where the outcome is less than desirable - let's put it that way - and we say, 'uh-uh, we screwed up,'" he says. "You see things where you say, 'We ought to do this better.'

A too-low hit rate

Like other researchers, Kaufman grasps the power of appealing to people's sense of self-interest. At the March 15 debate, he opened with an astringent pronouncement:

"There are approximately 250 people in this room, and I would ask how many of you are prepared to die earlier, sustain a physical disability or a disease earlier than they would otherwise, or watch your child or their spouse or their sibling sustain one of those things? Because if you stop animal research in general and primate research in particular, that's what will happen."

But later in the debate, Kaufman acknowledged that animal experiments have an unfortunately low "hit rate" of tangible results: "We still don't do a terrific job in terms of percentage of 'asks,' if you will, that give us a therapeutically useful answer."

Kaufman also admits the link between his research and real-world treatments, though discernible, is indirect. "We've had a number of papers that are considered classics," he says. "That doesn't mean they're going to lead to treatments that change the world."

Bogle is harsher, saying of Kaufman's research, "I think there's a good chance it doesn't lead to anything." Or at least not much of anything. Bogle says Kaufman's research into presbyopia - age-related nearsightedness - amounts to "hurting lots and lots of monkeys in order to get me out of buying a cheap pair of glasses."

But Kaufman argues that basic research is vital for real-world advancements. His group did "a lot of the science" underlying the most commonly prescribed class of glaucoma medicines, although it was not involved in their development. And he says his studies have opened up an entire new field of glaucoma drug research.

Moreover, the use of monkeys elsewhere was key to research that led to a revolutionary treatment for macular degeneration, an eye disease that erodes central vision. "If you had cut off primate research in the 1990s," says Kaufman, "you wouldn't have those treatments today."

Critics have their doubts. Dawn Kubly, a member of the local Alliance for Animals, notes that Kaufman's own studies identify significant differences in eye function between monkeys and humans and even the two types of monkeys used in his lab.

Kaufman confirms that, aside from one deliberately bred colony, monkeys rarely develop glaucoma on their own. Thus, Kaufman's team makes animals glaucomatous in one eye by using a laser to "scarify the tissue" that normally lets eye fluid drain. The result is a monkey whose utility as a research subject, Kaufman concedes, is limited: "You can't get insight into how a person comes to have it, but you can get insight into how the optic nerve dies," an area of inquiry he calls "critical."

Not all of Kaufman's experiments are this invasive. Some merely involve injections into the eye, or putting in artificial lenses that have the unintended consequence of causing corneal haziness.

"No experiments are designed to blind the animal," says Kaufman. "If we ever have an animal whose behavior changes because of visual impairment [that] we cannot fix, that animal is euthanized.

"We don't keep blind animals around."

Feeling for the animals

Kaufman has done research in Puerto Rico, which has a colony of about 1,000 essentially free-roaming monkeys used as needed. But he thinks the weather and logistical considerations make that infeasible at the UW-Madison.

Similarly, Kaufman is skeptical about sanctuary - creating a place for monkeys to live out their lives after devoting part of them to science. He says it runs counter to the ideal of making "maximum use of a scarce and valuable resource" and means using more monkeys overall.

He's all for enrichment programs, like giving monkeys rubber balls to play with, "trying to make it as interactive and stimulating as you possibly can." But he doesn't recall personally pushing for more enrichments "because others do that."

At the March 15 debate, when the floor was opened for questions, a student related his own experience with the "horrific" conditions at a campus primate lab: "They have monkeys that are devoid of contact all of their life because they want to learn if it's genetics or the environment which contributes to their personalities."

The student faulted Kaufman, in particular, for the discussion's lack of "emotion," and wondered if he would let an animal he loved be used for research. That prompted Kaufman to tell the audience about his "non-mammalian" pet and the grief it experienced.

During our interviews, I press Kaufman on this point. Doesn't it bother him to conduct experiments that cause harm and death to monkeys?

"Does it affect me emotionally?" he asks. "Sure it does. But it doesn't affect me emotionally to where I say, 'I'm not going to do this anymore.'"

His goal, he stresses, is not to hurt animals but to help people. Still, hurting animals is not something he does lightly.

"Do I feel for these animals?" asks Kaufman. "Yes. They are sentient beings, like dogs and cats and my turtle with its three brain cells. You're experimenting on a living animal. You have to make a fundamental decision. All of my staff have those feelings."

It's an interesting choice of words. While Kaufman marvels at his turtle's ability to make sound decisions, he also affirms its relative lack of intelligence - a "not us" possessor of three brain calls.

And, as Bogle notes, when Kaufman talks about how this animal grieved to lose its companion, it's not to "extend our circle of compassion" to this other species, but to posit the absurdity of citing a creature's capacity for emotion as an argument against using it for our benefit.

So monkeys display a range of human-like emotions? Big deal! Even my turtle gets sad sometimes.

But at least Kaufman is willing to engage the issue, to recognize that it is a legitimate subject of discussion and debate. And in just the last few years, largely due to such exchanges, one thing has changed dramatically: The two sides no longer routinely demonize each other. They disagree, but with some measure of respect for each other's position.

In fact, Kaufman says that at one point in the debate he found himself strongly agreeing with a point Bogle made: "I thought, 'God, That's me talking.'" The significance of this does not elude him: "I think we have actually advanced as a species, and within the research community as well."

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