Putting Theory Into Practice: An Interview with Bernie Rollin

PRIM&R is delighted to welcome Bernard E. Rollin, PhD, as recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Research Ethics and keynote speaker at the upcoming 2016 Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee Conference (IACUC16), to be hosted in Bellevue, WA, March 30-April 2. On the first day of the conference, Dr. Rollin will give an address titled, “Beyond Pain: Alleviating Suffering in Laboratory Animals.”

In preparation for the conference, we connected with Dr. Rollin to discuss his work and the changes he has seen in the field of animal ethics.

PRIM&R: How did you develop an interest in the veterinary ethics?
Bernard Rollin (BR): How I got started was a convergence of four factors: teaching at the veterinary school at Colorado State University (CSU); discovering the conditions of the animals kept there; a paper I wrote about the moral status of animals; and the two people I was able to work with who had 50 years of research experience between them.

I came to CSU in 1969 to teach the history of philosophy. I’d always had an interest in animals, and in the mid-70s I wrote a paper about the moral status of animals and sent it off to a philosophy journal. At the same time, I had a gym locker next to a professor of veterinary pathology, and he asked if I could teach veterinary medical ethics. When I asked if there was a book to reference, he told me there were no books, nor was there a field, and I would be starting it.

It seemed the basic question of veterinary ethics came down to, “who do you have an obligation to: the owner or the animal?” Veterinarians could see themselves as pediatricians (with a primary obligation to the child/animal) or mechanics (with a primary obligation to the owner), and I believe veterinarians needed to see themselves as pediatricians. I spent the year shadowing people in the veterinary clinics, and they told me that most veterinarians [at the time] saw themselves more like mechanics.

I was also paying attention to what was happening in society, and it seemed as though, for the first time, concern for animals was developing. I was extremely concerned about animals in research because there were virtually no regulations for how you had to treat them. What there was only had to do with transporting or housing the animals, not the limitations of what one could do to them, or any requirements for pain control.

At the time I was working with the veterinary school, I heard that students in the veterinary schools were doing multiple surgeries on dogs, without providing any aftercare. A student prompted me to observe the conditions the dogs were kept in, and they were horrific. I raised the concern with the administration, which formed a committee, and I made the point that the general public would not be pleased to find out how these dogs were treated. After six months they had changed the policy from “multiple survival surgery” to terminating the dogs while they were still under anesthesia.

I began working with Harry Gorman, a veterinarian who managed the animals for use in the United States Military’s aerospace program, and was a prominent researcher who invented the artificial hip joint used in people. He shared the concerns about lack of pain control in animal research. We joined with the new laboratory animal director and ended up spending the next 10 years writing what became the federal laboratory animal laws of 1985. We fought uphill battles with the animal rights activists (who wanted to end animal research altogether) and with the research community (who wanted no constraints on what they could do).

It was so important to me to fix what I was seeing. As a philosopher, I wasn’t used to things that had practical implications, but all of a sudden I saw all this unnecessary suffering and knew we could instill change.

When I did a literature search on animal analgesia in 1982, I found two papers, one asserting that there ought to be papers, the other saying very little was known. After the 1985 law passed requiring pain control, the number of papers increased. When I redid the search a few years ago, I found about 12,000 papers.

PRIM&R: What will you be speaking about at IACUC16?
BR: The talk is called “Beyond Pain: Alleviating Suffering in Laboratory Animals.” We’ve been fighting for pain control but there are many other issues besides pain. There’s taking a dairy calf away from its mother at a few hours of age; there’s raising social animals in isolation. It’s in the nature of some animals to be social. To deprive them of sociality is a violation of their rights and a cause of suffering.

PRIM&R: Can you provide an overview of your new book, A New Approach to Animal Ethics: Telos and Common Sense? (University of Missouri Press, forthcoming)
BR: It’s complicated. People wanted to know how to do what I do, and I don’t know what to tell them. But I learned from Plato and Plato said once, “You can’t teach ethics to adults; you have to remind them.” And I figure I do exactly that – when I took on the veterinary surgeons who were performing multiple surgeries, I reminded them:

“Did you go into veterinary medicine to do surgery on dogs multiple times because it doesn’t have an owner?”
“Then why do you do it?”
“To save money.”
“Is that your primary job?”
“No. Good point.”

You have to remind people, as Martin Luther King did.

But in the end, how do you convince people who don’t want to be convinced, where it’s in the interest to continue with the status quo? Philosophers want to reduce everything to single principles. In the real world, we use multiple principles – general welfare and rights. If you can show that animals fit under that same ethic by showing they are not morally relevantly different from people, you could go a long way. It’s not a matter of getting people to listen to me and totally change their ways, but you plant a seed and it develops. That’s what my new book is about.

\We make most of our decisions by reference to the general welfare. That’s why we have speed limits. But the general welfare is constrained by rights that refer to human nature. All of those rights protect fundamental aspects of human nature: worshiping, believing, speaking, reading, etc. It dawned on me – if animals were relevantly similar to people, they too should have their basic natures protected by the system. For example, freedom of speech isn’t important to a pig, but freedom of movement is.

This book presents my case in a way that people should be able to relate to. We can demonstrate that this works and we can get people thinking. That’s the most dangerous thing to the status quo – people thinking critically.

When I think philosophically about what I’ve done, I’m very happy to say I wouldn’t do anything different. In 2008, for example, I convinced the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield, to move away from confining mother pigs in small crates. That’s what I have done all along—I fought for things that can’t fight for themselves, and I’ve made a difference.

Bernard E. Rollin is University Distinguished Professor, professor of philosophy, professor of biomedical sciences, professor of animal sciences, and University bioethicist at Colorado State University. He spoke at the 2012 IACUC Conference, and PRIM&R members can watch that talk in the PRIM&R Knowledge Center.