And congratulations to Sam

16 01 2019

… who endured cold, mud and more to collect tonnes of data from 272 mink exposed to different enrichment regimes. He wrapped up data collection in November, collated and checked the data in December, and now has to analyse them, all the while keeping his fingers crossed there’s something there.

screenshot 2019-01-15 21.21.55

Learning and memory in plants

6 01 2019

screenshot 2019-01-05 21.11.39

Monica Gagliano, the researcher behind the 2016 “learning by peas” paper (see here for some critical commentary) was in the news today, promoting her new book.

I am intrigued but withholding judgment ’til I’ve all the relevant papers. Expect my assessment by about 2025.

Guest post from Andrea

27 12 2018

I paid Andrea‘s gas so she could drive to a book launch last month (as part of my still-hazy policy that I should fund a bit of career development, like Sam’s attendance at the zoo conference last year, if I want my students to do well after fledging). My fee? One blog post! As an interesting side-note, at the meeting Andrea met someone from PETA who’d FOIAed us a while ago (and built a bridge too, so well done her). Over to Andrea now:

I recently started networking with vegan academics to get another perspective on what it’s like to be a scientist in the field of animal welfare. One is Kathrin Herrmann, who’s in charge of the Refinement Program at the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing. While finishing her dissertation on evaluating refinement practices in Germany, Kathrin also worked on a peer-reviewed book that discusses the complete replacement of non-human animals in research. The book, “Animal Experimentation: Working Towards a Paradigm Change”, was contributed to by 51 international scientists, and 8 presented their chapters at the North American book launch (with vegan food and drinks by the way!) at Johns Hopkins on Nov. 30th.

The first speaker was Dr. Jim Keen, who concluded that “animal models are a waste of money” after reviewing the major issues of reproducibility (low) and translatability (also low) among biomedical research. Kathrin herself was next, giving an overview of her dissertation’s findings. Her most striking result was that 30% of research surgeries in Germany did not propose postoperative pain management, implying high levels of suffering that could have easily been avoided. The talk after focused on the use of live animals for trauma training by military physicians (i.e. shooting aesthetized dogs, cats, pigs, and goats). The speaker, Shalin Gala, reviewed why the use of stimulation dummies is just as effective or even better (e.g. high success rates and even better anatomy representation). Gears then switched with a talk by PhD philosophy student Adam See (City University of New York) who questioned the ethical use of non-invasive, behavioural research on captive animals (i.e., is it ethical to breed and maintain animals in captivity for behavioural research?). He argued that it was unethical, since an animal’s interests (e.g. choice of social/sexual relations, mobility, food, etc) outweigh the researcher’s intellectual curiosity (note, I think he was criticizing fundamental behavioural research, not applied research like welfare science…). Laura Alvarez (a science advisor for Cruelty Free International) then reviewed non-animal alternatives for animal testing and the reasons why they are not being used (despite validated), including lack of awareness and regulations. Next was Lisa Kramer, an economics professor from UofT, who discussed the issues of poor predictability of animal models (e.g. 100+ vaccines are effective against HIV-like diseases in non-human models, but none are effective in humans).

Dr. John Gluck (Harry Harlow’s former graduate student, who has spoken elsewhere about his journey to animal advocacy) gave the closing remarks, sharing the thought experiment by William Clifford (1877): a shipowner initially thinks his ship is in need of repair, but needing money, he concludes it is seaworthy. He sells tickets and the ship then sinks. Is the shipowner responsible for those deaths? Clifford argues that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Echoing the evidence presented earlier on low translatability and reproducibility of animal research, John closed the event by saying, “Clifford’s assertion should continue to inform and haunt us, for those who build alternatives and for those who doubt them.”

The day ended with networking with animal advocacy lobbyists, science advisors from different organizations listed above, and scientists working in the field of Replacement! The 9-10 hour drive was certainly worth it as I finally see a clear career path for me. I’ll leave this post with a quote from the book, “[…] wherever one stands on the animal-use ethical spectrum, hopefully all can agree that the conduct of frightening, painful, and lethal experiments on sentient beings – whether mice, dogs, or monkeys – is unacceptable when the research translates in no significant way to human benefits, despite decades of effort” – Pippin, Cavanaugh and Pistollato, Chapter 20.

Andrea with John Gluck (L), and with the book cover (R) that features a laboratory pig-tailed macaque, “Boo” (now retired at a sanctuary):


Eager mink

9 11 2018

Congratulations to Sam, who just finished the most ambitious boredom-testing trial my lab’s ever run, testing an incredible 135 mink (exposing each to three smelly stimuli: mountain lion urine on Day 1, vanilla on Day 2 and pheasant odour on Day 3, so 405 tests in all). Gauging how long they oriented towards or even contacted the stimulus will allow Sam to test the hypothesis that mink with single unchanging enrichments are more eager for stimulation (thus more ‘bored’) than mink with diverse, relatively novel enrichments. He was helped by the tireless Basma who, even when working 14 hour days, never flags, gets grumpy or makes mistakes (she’s “a cucumber” said Aimee, assuming we’d all just mentally add “as cool as”). Below, a Pastel male avidly sniffs the enticing smell of pheasant…

Eager mink

Andrea explains pivot tables

4 11 2018

There are many important techniques I don’t actually quite (ahem) know how to do myself, but do know I should always make sure my senior students teach my junior ones (a form of horizontal transmission that cuts out the weakest link: me!). Using FDR to correct for multiple testing is one, and (slightly embarrassingly) using pivot tables is another.

So here is Andrea (some months ago now, long before her recent QE triumph) showing my group how to do this. Thanks to this neat technique, everyone can collect scanning data from great long strings of animals on Excel on their phones (100s of mink in rows in Sam’s case; complicated mixed strain mouse cages for other students [carefully dimming their phone screens with custom red filters]), and then sort the data into time budgets per subject. Magic!



Tea infusers for mink

28 10 2018

Slide1Sam’s been running some pilots for his planned boredom trials.  Carabinas proved better than paperclips for hooking the tea infusers on (because mink can’t bend and destroy carabinas by tugging on them).  And using 5 drops of odourant (mountain lion urine, pheasant smell or vanilla) on the cotton wool seemed to elicit stronger, more diverse reactions from the animals than only using 2-3.  Looks like Sam’s pretty much ready to start for real!


One more addition to the crazy month of October

25 10 2018

If you’re a slave to NSERC, everything gets submitted in October: scholarships, DG grants, and equipment grants too. (And then everything gets revealed in April. It’s clear they have nice loooooong summer holidays in Ottawa). So, I pulled together planned mouse work by my lab, Elena, Craig and new collaborator Boyer into an RTI submission that’s such a weird mix of welfare and neuroscience I can’t tell if it’s brilliant or doomed. It’s to buy three new startle boxes to replace our deeply flawed ones from Kinder (but this time from SDI). The price tag? $42,000.

Due in on Monday, there was very little sleep for me Sunday (not least as we went to an amazing Indian wedding that night … with the grant still not finished). And we then had absurd problems attaching Elena’s CV too (I had to coach her over the phone to swear like a Brit; that gave her the strength to find and fix the damn problem). But … success at last!

RTI... in!