Ending the monkey business
A series of five pictures of an imposing black dog hangs on the living room wall of Prof. Roni Aviram, who lectures in the Education Department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. It soon transpires that this dog, Mali, died a few months ago of cancer at the age of 13. Mali's explicit wishes when she took a walk along Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard - that was the only direction in which she was prepared to walk, and she adamantly refused to take another route - were, for Aviram, more than a mere source of amusement.
Mali, says Aviram, who heads BGU's Center for Futurism, is responsible for the "switch" that came over him. Reading an article seven months ago in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth about experiments on monkeys at the Weizmann Institute - experiments which he says were superfluous - prompted him to establish an organization of faculty members from Israel's universities, calling for an upgrade of supervision over academic experiments on animals.
Together with his colleagues in the core group, Aviram initiated a petition that almost 300 faculty members have signed.
That's what they are used to
The new organization was received with admiration because traditionally, faculty members maintain solidarity toward the outside world. But perhaps this is mainly because it takes courage, as those interviewed said off-record, to go against the centers of power inside the universities, which usually hold monolithic opinions about the need for utilizing animals as a resource for academic research. The exposure, therefore, was accompanied by fears on the part of some of those interviewed.
"If I did not have tenure, I would have been afraid to join," says one faculty member who joined the organization. "When a vote is taken about promotion or tenure, representatives from all the faculties - and certainly from Life Sciences - participate, and you could have created enemies for yourself. You could be labeled a trouble-maker who protests against research."
What brings the 300 signatories together, says Aviram, is "the ethical departure point according to which we are part of the universities, but a few meters from our offices something is taking place that could be problematic, and it is our duty to examine to what extent."
In addition to this ethical position, Aviram and his colleagues support amendments to the law on animal experiments proposed by Knesset member Dov Khenin, the main thrust of which is to change the composition of the National Council for Animal Experiments, the body that overseas animal research in Israel. "There is a law in Israel designed to limit the suffering of animals as much as possible, by trying to find the optimal path between human quality of life and the animals' right not to suffer. The existing mechanisms in the law are insufficient, and therefore mechanisms have to be found that will achieve this balance. As academic personnel, we have a commitment to finding these mechanisms," Aviram says.
"I believe we should be led by our intuition," he continues. "For example, in one of the college's laboratories, mice are dipped into boiling water. That is something I would ban, even if such practice does bring benefit. The benefit to humans does not justify all means. It is like an order that is patently illegal - a black flag of lack of morality."
This black flag is currently being raised mainly by faculty members from the Humanities and Social Sciences; no members of the new organization come from the natural sciences, and for good reason. "We did not approach people from the natural sciences," notes Professor Benjamin Arbel from Tel Aviv University's History department, one of the organization's core group members. "Perhaps some people there think like we do, but we didn't want to put them in a difficult position because their surroundings make it difficult for them to publicly express irregular opinions. The people who conduct those experiments do not do so out of wickedness, but because that's what they are used to."
Lobbying the Knesset
Natural and Life Sciences faculty are accustomed to external attacks by organizations working on behalf of animal rights - so much so that some seven years ago, seven academic institutions established an organization with the neutral name "The Inter-university Forum for Medical Sciences in Israel," whose patently non-neutral aim is "to foil any attempt to harm the practice of experimenting on animals."
The forum was headed by biology Professor Ehud Ziv from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who was later appointed head of the National Council for Animal Experiments and continues to hold this position. In order to foil attempts to monitor the experiments through a legal mechanism, the forum hired the services of a public relations company that dispatched lobbyists to the Knesset on their behalf (the firm of Yair Kachal, and today also Ophir Spiegel). Funding for the lobbying came from the universities - that is to say, the campaign was publicly funded.
"Why is there a need for lobbyists?" Ziv asks rhetorically. "Because academics not involved in the natural sciences have no idea what we are talking about. At a certain stage, draft laws started arriving that aimed to change the work in an unreasonable way. [Former Meretz leader] Yossi Sarid said they would pass a law under which experiments would be performed for life-saving purposes only; [Labor MK] Eitan Cabel proposed that every product tested on animals be marked. If you want to get to a politician, you must have a lobbyist."
Judging by the two bills drafted by Khenin, which would change the composition of the National Council for Animal Experiments, the forum's lobbyists are doing excellent work. The bills have been stuck in the Knesset for more than a year already. "I don't have a majority for passing the law," Khenin admits. "The other side is stronger, the academic world is more mobilized in opposition to these bills."
Khenin's proposal, which is supported by the new organization of academics, is to appoint six animal welfare organization representatives on the council instead of the current three (out of 26 members), and that the supervisory council be chaired by a judge.
Khenin says he feels sympathy with the scientists, who are fearful of increased supervision over experiments. "Their fear is that I am putting a Trojan horse in their midst. I tell them that the academic world must not fight wars that are not justified, or wars they will lose in advance. From the tactical point of view, they can stop me, but in the end there will be greater supervision of experiments on animals since public awareness is constantly growing," he says. "What I am proposing is that there should be more transparency and supervision, and yes, also fewer experiments or experiments carried out in a more moderate fashion."
The ultimate other
The understanding that Khenin and other interviewees show for the scientists' position is not mutual. Prof. Alex Tsafriri of the Weizmann Institute, who has headed the forum since Ziv moved to the council, sent signatories to the petition a detailed letter in which he describes those who do not believe in the necessity for animal experiments to further science as "eccentrics," and attacks their lack of knowledge about science. Ziv, too, is furious about the criticism - to him, the borders of the discourse about experiments are practical and there is no room for ethical questions.
"The problem is that behind the claims of well-being are people who belong to organizations that call for animal rights," says Tsafriri. In his letter to the petition's signatories, he summarizes the issue by saying: "The idea of granting 'rights' or 'freedom' to creatures that lack moral principles or self-awareness, and the ability to adopt these attributes and act on their basis, means turning a means of protecting humanity into a tool for destroying it."
An example of the danger of "destruction" of this kind can be found in Switzerland, which has external committees for examining animal experiments, headed by philosophers and composed of public representatives, experimenters and representatives of animal rights organizations. These committees debate the necessity of experiments and ethics. This month Switzerland set a world precedent when one external committee stated that experiments planned at Zurich University and the Federal Institute of Technology (equivalent to Israel's Technion) on Rhesus monkeys would harm the animals' dignity. When the academic institutions appealed this definition, the court ruled that during the three years when the research was expected to take place, it was unlikely that there would be results that would help society, and therefore the burden on the animals was not justified. The experiment was banned. The universities have announced that they will appeal to their country's supreme court.
Meanwhile in Israel, Aviram says that the immediate aim is to arouse discussion while "cautiously examining what is happening in the laboratories."
He says that the inspiration for his actions hails from the field of education. "If in education one has to develop an understanding for the other side, despite a substantive gap between you and him, animals are the ultimate 'other.' Just like we didn't want to think of blacks, women or children as subjects, so it is with animals."
A majority for those who support experiments
The National Council for Animal Experiments is affiliated to the Health Ministry and includes 23 voluntary members. Only three of them belong to animal rights organizations. The National Academy of Sciences is responsible for appointing several academics to the council who are not from the natural sciences, while the important position of council chair is held by a scientist who conducts experiments on animals in the course of his research. Today the slot is filled by Prof. Ehud Ziv of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who previously headed the Inter-university Forum for Medical Sciences in Israel (which promoted the necessity for animal experimentation).
Representatives of scientists who support experiments on animals are traditionally a majority on the council, and those who do not automatically support such experiments say their vote is overridden. The forum's discussions are scientific and professional, in the practical sense, and determine how the experiments have to be conducted. But they do not include ethical discussions about a specific experiment's necessity and the systematic determination of alternatives. The council approves whether the research institutes can carry out experiments on animals, and checks whether the animals' living conditions are reasonable.
Within academic institutions, internal committees are responsible for approving the experiments (sometimes an external representative participates in them), but there is no external overview of the committees' decisions. Once every six months, someone from the council looks over the committees' decisions and sends them back remarks if he finds fit to do so. The research institutes are not obliged to supply data to the council regarding how many research proposals were rejected or returned. )