When it comes to the welfare of sentient beings, you can’t muddle: An interview with John Gluck

by Avery Avrakotos, education and policy manager

John Gluck, PhD, is among the esteemed keynote speakers for the 2014 Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) Conference, which is being held April 2-3, in Denver, CO. Conference attendees can look forward to his keynote address, titled Facing the Morally Perilous World of Animal Research, on Wednesday, April 2.

Dr. Gluck is professor emeritus of psychology and the senior advisor to the president on animal research ethics and welfare at the University of New Mexico. Dr. Gluck also serves as a research professor at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. In preparation for the conference, I sat down with Dr. Gluck to discuss how his perspective on animal research has evolved over the years.

Avery Avrakotos (AA): When and how did you first become involved with animal research?
John Gluck (JG): My first interest was in clinical psychology and psychiatric interventions. As an undergrad taking psychology courses at Texas Tech, I found that traditional psychotherapy methods were very much disparaged by experimentalists for their lack of scientific validity. At the time, in the mid-1960s, there was tremendous emphasis on studying simpler, basic models of psychiatric disorders, and those simpler models used animals as subjects. That attitude—about where clinical progress was going to come from—the clinic or the lab, influenced me, and I started to involve myself in animal research.

That was my first interaction with animals as research subjects. I had grown up with animals in my house where they were the focus of love and care, but the laboratory required objectivity and emotional distance. This required a shift in my natural mind set. It is important to recognize that this was at a time that was pre-IACUCs—there was very little in terms of oversight. There was a lot of freewheeling, impulsive experimentation.

AA: Early in your career, you were a researcher working with rhesus monkeys. During that period, your lab was targeted by animal extremists and the monkeys in your lab were released. How did that experience affect your perceptions of animal research? 
JG: That was in the mid-to-late 1970s when I was at the University of New Mexico. I had been hired to create a primate laboratory as there was a push for biomedical and behavioral researchers to move outside of the rodent world and use more complex beings that were more similar to humans. There was a need to have more labs that were competent to deal with primates and I was trying to accomplish that.

I remember the day very well; in fact, I just recently had a conversation with a former graduate student and that was one of the topics we discussed—that incident. It is still very much in our minds. It was both a personal trauma and a trauma for the monkeys. As researchers, we were made to realize our vulnerability and recognize that some people had such contempt for our work that they world risk themselves to get into a building, climb into a lab, get into rooms, and open cages that were filled with very aggressive and dangerous animals. Any fears that these people had of the animals were overshadowed by their need to release them.

I was very defensive and rejected any implications that the animals were released because the science we were doing was bad or that they were living in such horrible conditions. I also rejected any symbolic message asking us to question where our authority to turn those animals into research property came from. The experience had a very negative impact in that it prevented me from carefully entertaining those and other important ethical questions. The experience set back my ethical development.

AA: One of the major turning points in your career was your fellowship at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). What was it about this experience that caused you to reexamine your point of view on animal research? 
JG: Prior to my fellowship at the Kennedy Institute, I had a lot of ambivalent feelings about what I was doing. Some of that resulted from letters that I received from members of the public that were critical of my research. Every once in a while, the campus or local newspaper would describe what I was doing and that would result in letters addressed to me. They weren’t all horribly critical, but most of them were. I also had graduate students who were very reluctant to do some of the invasive experiments we were planning. I couldn’t easily ignore their concerns—I had selected them to work with me and I respected them.

There also wasn’t a good place to go and have open discussions with colleagues about the justification and value of animal research. At IACUC meetings, I felt that expressing strong skepticism about some proposals, or asking broader ethical questions about where the authority to take over the lives of animals came from, were not necessarily welcomed. Expressing solid skepticism about the value of certain kinds of research was not likely to be appreciated and would result in being incorrectly characterized as an abolitionist.

As I was trying to learn more about ethics more generally, I came across the existence of the bioethics fellowship program at Georgetown University. Barbara Orlans, PhD, and Tom Beauchamp, PhD, were there, and I wrote to them and they agreed to take me on. At the time, Tom was better known for his work around human subjects research, but he had also written about animal research. There were several articles of his that I thought were inspiring documents. He was a very generous person and engaged me with more theoretical issues than I had previously considered. He introduced me to the varieties of ethical theory, concepts of personhood, and the implications of moral standing. He exposed me to the ethics world more generally, but also applied ethics with regard to animal research. He was a master teacher and thought facilitator.

Barbara was more practical in her approach and taught me how important it was to be knowledgeable about, and familiar with, animal protection groups. She made the point that if you are really going to be involved in debating animal research groups and educating others, you need to know more about what is going on. For example, she took me to the Animal Welfare Institute several times. While there, I met a lot of very thoughtful people like Christine Stevens and Cathy Liss—not raging fanatics, or people who were looking to destroy labs. These were smart and serious individuals who were looking at how to advance welfare and the circumstances of animals in the lab. They were not necessarily anti-research; they were anti-poor research and poor management and housing of animals. They were promoting the idea that researchers needed to know more about the animals and their evolved needs for both the animals and the science. The experience helped me to dispel many of the caricatures that were out there and that I had been exposed to.

Another person who was very important to me during that time was Edmund (Ed) Pellegrino, MD. We didn’t talk directly about animals. We talked about the place of ethics in the life of a professional researcher and clinician. He held ethics rounds in the hospital every week. I would go and there would be a clinical ethical issue that would be the topic of the consultation. You couldn’t go to those meetings and sit in the back and listen. Ed required you to be ready to respond—what were the ethical issues, what you thought should happen, why you thought it should happen. He would go around the room and point and you had to be ready. He made the point that while you can muddle through a lot of your life without a great deal of ethical thought, when it comes to the welfare of sentient beings—humans or others—you can’t muddle. You must be a sophisticated ethical thinker and be ready to deal with the reality of conflict.

The fellowship also put me at the NIH Clinical Center, where I saw the circumstances of very ill patients and very ambitious researchers and how that interaction was at times virtuous and other times ugly. It was a place to see research driven by the reality of great suffering, but placed in the context of ethical consideration. When I left the fellowship, I said to myself, I have to create an ethics program of my own back at my home institution, and that was 20 years ago.

AA: What is one thing you wish the general public knew about animal research?
JG: I would want the public to recognize that the vast animal and human research establishment and the huge medical centers in our cities and university campuses should be seen as monuments to what we fear. They are monuments to our fear of disease, suffering, and our finiteness—death. Sometimes those fears can be so intense that they can distort our valuing of other beings—either human or animal. There is reason to be fearful and anxious; disease does distort lives in significant ways, but we need to recognize how our fears can lead us to think of other beings as having purely instrumental value, tools to reduce our fears. As a consequence, we are sometimes overly indifferent to what our studies require from animals in terms of harms. We can also become indifferent to the kinds of risks that humans are placed in for the sake of progress in biomedical research.

AA: What advice do you have for members of the public who are interested in learning more about the debate surrounding animal research? Are there any resources that you would recommend?
JG: One book I remember reading in the mid-to-late 1980s was Great and Desperate Cures: The Rise and Decline of Psychosurgery and Other Radical Treatments for Mental Illness by Elliot S. Valenstein. The book talks about the dynamics that researchers are subject to and the fact that they are encouraged not to take up a lot of everyday things that cause problems, but the big issues—the great and desperate cures—and how this can lead to misunderstandings and poor science.

As a case in point, Valenstein talks about the history of psychosurgery and lobotomies. He provides a historical accounting of the creation of the procedure, which was initially based on crude animal studies in which chimps had their frontal lobes removed and changes in temperament were observed. On that basis, people like the neurosurgeon Egas Moniz decided to try frontal lobe lesions in individuals with mental disorders. He reflects on the horrors that resulted from that impulsive move. Valenstein is describing how our fears and desires can set us up. He didn’t believe the researchers were crazy people; rather they were deeply concerned about mental disorders and jumped too quickly to apply a hunch about what they hoped would be a beneficial treatment. Then their certainty interfered with their ability to see that the approach was destroying lives and not improving them.

Bernard Rollin’s books on animal ethics and science are also quite accessible. He is like Tom Beauchamp; he can write very clearly about difficult ethical concepts. The Unheeded Cry: Animal Consciousness, Animal Pain and Science is a challenging and well written book. He offers a defensible position even if you might end up disagreeing with him.

For fiction, I would recommend John M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals. I was always struck by his ability to take important questions about oppression, apartheid, and the domination of animal life, and then write about them in very clear yet poetic prose.

For more information about the 2014 IACUC Conference or to register, please visit our website. We hope to see you in Denver!