Walking the line between emotion and fact: Advocating for animal research

by Avery Avrakotos, Education and Policy Coordinator

What do you picture when you think of animal research? What has shaped that image? More likely than not, the public discourse surrounding animal research has had an impact.

Ever since the story of Pepper the Dalmatian was featured in Sports Illustrated in 1965, powerful imagery has accompanied the discussion of animal research in the news media. Photographs depicting animals that appear to be suffering have been pervasively employed by animal rights groups to gain public support. Graphic ad campaigns and protests have effectively fostered public unease with animal research.

Recently, at the 2013 Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) Conference, keynote speaker, Allyson Bennett, PhD, discussed the efforts of animal rights groups to engage in what she described as a “hearts and minds campaign.” Bennett, a developmental psychobiologist at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, whose own work with primates has drawn the attention and ire of animal rights groups, has seen firsthand how evocative imagery, harassment campaigns, and threating language can create a climate that silences researchers and animal care and use professionals.

Bennett argued that the use of powerful, emotional rhetoric also “starts to shift our culture into believing, maybe subconsciously, that all [researchers] are actually maybe kind of guilty until proven innocent and that has an effect.” For proof of this cultural shift, one does not have to look farther than Google. Displaying the top ten image search results for the term ‘animal researcher,’ Bennett convincingly demonstrated her point; the work of animal rights activists to portray animal researchers negatively has been successful.

It is in this climate, then, that Bennett called upon the audience to act and speak out. She argued that in order to change public opinion the onus is on researchers—the majority of whom care just as deeply about the welfare of animals as the public does—to engage in fact-based dialogue about the full range of harms and benefits of animal research. “When they have questions, answer them. Don’t leave the microphone empty,” Bennett implored the audience. She continued, “Reasonable people are listening and they want to hear from us to make an informed decision.”

The reticence of animal researchers and animal care and use professionals to speak publicly about their work has cleared a path for animal rights activists to paint the picture they want of animal research in the media. But the media, in turn, has also undoubtedly played a role in the public’s understanding of animal research. Plenary speaker, Greg Miller, PhD, staff science writer at Wired, spoke to the role of journalists in reporting on animal research, but also offered insight into the role of researchers and animal care and use professionals in shaping public opinion.

Miller explained, “In the discourse such as it is about animal research, activists, I think, have erred on the side of arguing from emotion using graphic images of animals and that sort of thing to tug on the heartstrings of the public to make their case. But, I think the research community ignores emotion at their peril.” Not engaging with the public in a dynamic, passionate way does little to combat the perception already ingrained in the public’s mind, Miller contended.

Both Bennett and Miller encouraged the audience to link the work being done in laboratories—from the basic science to the cutting edge protocols—to tangible innovations that the public can see and appreciate. But, is that enough? In an emotion-laden debate, are animal researchers at an inherent disadvantage? Can stories of hope, survival, and medical innovation affect the public’s impression of animal research? What strategies can animal care and use professionals use to engage in and change the tone of this conversation? Share your perspectives in the comments.