Category: Good Writing

Wisconsin’s Place in the History of Animal Research

I decided to apply to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the recommendation of my undergraduate advisor. I honestly wasn’t thrilled with the idea of coming to the midwest. I had never really considered what the cheese state was like before I applied – as a strictly east coast girl it was so far removed from everything in my life I couldn’t even imagine living here. But, when the college admission chips fell where they did, it was obvious to me that UW Madison was the clear first choice for grad school.

That being said, when I arrived in Wisconsin nearly nine months ago, I knew very little about the history of the University I was attending. I knew that UW-Madison was home to an amazing amount of scientific research, but I had no idea how rich the tradition of scientific inquiry really was. I quickly became aware of the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WNPRC) and notorious, and immensely important, psychology researcher Harry Harlow.

Those who follow this blog regularly know that I have written a lot of posts this semester inspired by my zoology class on human and animal behavior. It is this class that really got me motivated to learn more about animal research, and in particular UW-Madison’s role in animal research. That brought me to two books, both written by Deborah Blum a professor in the journalism school here at UW.

272686-LIn 1992 Blum won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles on the ethical dilemmas posed by primate research. She turned this into the 1994 book The Monkey Wars. I was enthralled by the history of primate research in the United States, and am ashamed to admit how little I knew prior to reading the book. The story of Edward Taub, the Silver Spring Monkeys (named after the site of the lab in Maryland,) and the rise of PETA in 1981 had me riveted. The condensed version of that story is that PETA founder Alex Pacheco volunteered undercover in the lab of Taub, who was conducting neurological experiments on monkeys (severing the nerves to control a limb and then coaxing nerve regeneration.) The monkeys were held in filthy conditions – but there was no legal standard for research animal care at the time. Pacheco took photographs (some admittedly staged) and went to the police to have Taub arrested (which he was – for animal cruelty.)

The majority of events described in the book take place long before I was even born, and I suppose thats why I felt so removed from them. I didn’t realize I was taking the idea that animals have rights for granted until I learned about the history of animal research in this country. I knew that people are cruel to animals, but I was blissfully oblivious to the cruelty that was standard in research labs in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s. After finishing Monkey Wars, my blissful respect for science felt somewhat dingy – and I needed more information.

The book I picked up next, to explore the history of animal research and in particular its role in Wisconsin, was Blum’s 2002 biography of Harry Harlow, Love at Goon Park. I don’t think I had ever heard the name Harry Harlow before moving to Wisconsin – yet his work is something that I reap the benefits of in my daily life. Harlow is both famous and infamous for his “mother love” and “pit of despair” (a catchy term for depression) studies. His research used rhesus macaque babies to show that children need love and social interaction – particularly touch – to function and develop normally, and that being isolated can be the cause of a complete psychological breakdown.

The reason Harlow is so controversial is that the way he studied depression and isolation from one’s mother was to psychologically “break” baby monkeys. These were horrible studies. The monkeys were taken away from their mothers and given a variety of fake substitutes to see which the babies would cling to most (warm, cloth, animated mother was the winning surrogate but cold metal mother caused psychological damage to her babies.) For the depression studies the babies were put in isolation cages for 3-6 months at a time, with no interaction at all. The monkeys suffered tremendously. The concept of love as a necessity needed to be proven, to move parental nurturing into the mainstream. But the question remains if it needed to be proven in that way.

Considering that I was surprised by just how awful the United States history of animal research is, you can imagine how shocking I found it that studies were needed to prove that mothers should hug their children. But then again, as Blum so poignantly points out, the scientific standard at the time was to isolate children for health reasons (limit the spread of bacteria & disease.) What seems so obvious to me – that animals should be well taken care of, that children should be hugged – were really revolutions within the scientific community. Looking back we can say how ridiculous it is that such assertions needed to be scientifically proven, but then again think about where we might be if these ideas had never been generally accepted.

This semester has really driven home for me just how much I owe to animals. The idea that my mom would have been condemned as a bad mother for hugging me when I cried were it not for Harry Harlow and his baby rhesus macaques makes me very appreciative of the role of animals in research. I remember so vividly crying on my Mom’s shoulder at maybe 4 or 5 years old. I remember the silky salmon colored blouse she was wearing. I remember staining it mercilessly with my tears, but I don’t know why I was crying. I do know that all I wanted was to be held, and have my hair stroked and be comforted. I can’t imagine my parents keeping me at arm’s length.

We owe a lot to the animals who started the social movement that changed the way people parented, and the researcher who brought it all to light for making society take notice; and I had no idea about either before coming to Wisconsin. While I do my fair share of whining about being in the cheese state, my experiences here have opened my mind to a lot of new concepts – particularly with regard to the role animals play in society and how we as humans should regard them.

War Journalists: Casualties of Their Trade

Its hard to understand why something has the ability to punch you in the figurative gut. Something so far removed from you that it should barely register a reaction. Yet, it steals your breath anyway. That happened to me this week – with a tweet. The offending tweet (from a breaking news thread) said, “Reports: renowned war photojournalists Chris Hondros, Tim Hetherington killed in Libya. Details sketchy; awaiting more.”

I don’t know why this news struck me so very hard. These are not the first journalists to be killed in a war zone – but Tim Hetherington is the first journalist whose work I have studied to be killed so shockingly, and yet so predictably. It registered. It hurt. Not for me personally, it hurt for everyone who knew him. It hurt for the people whose lives he brought to light. It hurt for the stories he won’t get to tell. It hurt because people you admire shouldn’t die. Not like that. At least not in a perfect world. But then again, in a perfect world there wouldn’t be a profession called “War Photojournalist.”

Hetherington is best know for the documentary film Restrepo, which he directed with Sebastian Junger. It was nominated for an Oscar this past winter. I’ve read Junger’s book on the same events as the film – called War, and seen parts, though admittedly not all of Restrepo. It is about the time Junger and Hetherington spent embedded with a group of American soldiers in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. My post, Sebastian Junger’s War Zone ruminates on the book and on the topic of war. But looking back on it, I can’t help but feel deeply how little I know about war.

There has been a lot of coverage of Hetherington and Hondros’ deaths, but the People Magazine of it all isn’t the story I hope most people will read to find out about these men, and the circumstances under which they died. Sebastian Junger has a tribute in Vanity Fair written as a personal letter to Hetherington that drips with grief and beauty. Susan Orlean has a post in The New Yorker about Hetherington and what it is to be brave. New York Times war correspondent C.J. Chivers has a post on his personal website, Almost Dawn in Libya: Chris and Tim heading home, that pauses amidst the chaos of tragedy to thank the people and groups that tried so hard to save, and then do right by the fallen photojournalists. These are the stories that I hope people will read. It is a tall order to memorialize the fallen, but these writers give it a damn good try.

Hal Herzog, Animal Ethics & the Alien Problem

Last semester I read many more books (thus I did a lot more book reviews) than this semester which has mostly been devoted to academic research papers. But I do have two books that need reading for my zoology class on human and animal behavior with Patricia McConnell.

Some-We-Love-Some-We-Hate-Some-We-Eat-Herzog-Hal-9780061730863I finally finished the first of the two assigned books, Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat – Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. I’ve been reading Herzog’s book all semester, so my evaluation of it draws on a slightly disjointed memory but I think I can summarize his main point with two statements:

1. Most people choose not to (or don’t know enough to) think about their personal moral philosophy. Not thinking about how we feel about animals is what allows us to love puppies so much while we happily chow down on a Big Mac.
2. Those people who have spent a tremendous amount of time trying to discern their personal moral philosophy about animals either A. remain horribly conflicted or B. Choose a philosophy with regards to the treatment of animals that societal pressures make very difficult to implement (for example, all creatures are equal – if you save an iguana from a burning building instead of a human baby, society is not going to look kindly upon you regardless of your belief that the iguana and the baby are equals)

Herzog’s answer to his main question “why is it so hard to think straight about animals?” largely comes down to because you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

The book tries hard to cover a variety of topics that impact the way we feel about animals, some obvious (factory farming, animals in research, hunting) and some less so (cockfights, dog shows, gender roles.) I don’t intend to go into his arguments for and against certain behaviors, but to give an example of the kind of analysis he provides I will share the anecdote from his chapter “The moral status of mice,” on the use of animals for biological research.

Herzog frames animal research this way: Think of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic film ET. Remember how close Elliott and ET became, and how heart wrenching it was to see ET go back to his home planet? Well, what if there was a disease destroying the alien’s on ET’s home planet, and the reason he really came to earth was to scout out organisms of lesser intelligence to test possible remedies on. Elliott’s intelligence was far less than ET’s. So how would you feel if at the end of the movie, ET kidnapped Elliott and took him back to his home planet to live the rest of his life as the subject of research. It would save millions of aliens. But ET still essentially destroys Elliott’s life. Not really a satisfactory ending, I’d say.

So if we don’t want ET to kidnap Elliot just because he is of lesser intelligence, then what do we do when humans are like ET and mice are like Elliot? Should we experiment on mice just because they are of lesser intelligence? Previous logic would lead us to say no, we should not experiment on the mice. But yet, I’m still in favor of animal research. Philosophically, I shouldn’t be. But there is something about experimenting on a member of my own species that I find morally reprehensible. It is the reason we don’t conduct experiments on people in coma’s or with mental retardation. But if you are always putting humans first, how can you still treat animals with respect and moral standing?

I’m not here to answer the questions thinking critically about animals pose. Herzog has 280 pages of highly intelligent, moving, and entertaining explanation, and he still doesn’t answer most of them. But he will get you thinking about your own behavior, why some animals matter to us more than others, and why humans think the way we do.

It is important for everyone: meat eaters, vegetarians, pet lovers, people who avoid animals, etc. to think about why they feel the way they do about animals. I was surprised by the conflicts in my own way of thinking, and sadly I now fall into column A – thinking critically, but still horribly confused. At least I’m thinking right?

Advice from Sheri Fink

While this semester of grad school has been somewhat challenging, today I got the opportunity to enjoy one of grad school’s biggest perks: access to amazing writers and resources. Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink spoke at UW today, and while I wasn’t able to attend her talk because I was in class, I was still able to meet her this morning and discuss my work and career thus far. 

Sheri Fink’s article The Deadly Choices at Memorial is a great piece of investigative journalism that takes an in-depth look at how a lack of emergency preparedness led to unnecessary death at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. The article won the Pulitzer Prize and had an impact on the establishment of new guidelines for how emergencies should be handled. 
At 13,000 words the article is very long, but very compelling. It raises important questions about what should be done in an emergency, but also makes you question what you would do if you were in the situation the Doctor’s and Nurses at Memorial Medical Center found themselves in. The answers aren’t as clear cut as you might think, even when you are sure of what is right and what is wrong.
The opportunity to meet and talk to a writer of her caliber is something I’m sure I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t back in school. She was wonderful to talk to because she really seemed interested in where I am in my career and what I hope to accomplish. As I was explaining myself she stopped me and told me that I was being too humble. She told me that I was an expert in science communication and I should own it.
I tend not to think of myself as an expert in anything, but with a Bachelor’s in science writing, one year of professional experience, and now half of my Master’s program under my belt I can say that I’m an expert in science communication. I hesitate to make a statement like that because it makes it seem as though I have nothing else to learn. I always feel like there is more that I can learn and ways that I can improve. Working with the sciences, I’ve found a willingness to learn to be a critical component to writing good articles.
Right now I’m more comfortable with “expert in training,” but maybe once I finish grad school I’ll be more comfortable owning the title of expert outright. Regardless I appreciated her encouragement, it was a good pick me up. 

Not Who You Say You Are: Is "Ambush Journalism" A Good Tactic?

From NPR CEO Ron Schiller to Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker these days no public figure is safe from so called Ambush Journalism. The LA Times recently ran an article on what seems to be an emerging trend – the gathering of information by pretending to be someone else. Essentially, misleading the target of your investigation by not disclosing who you are, or what information you are after and then publishing the video or audio recording.

In the case of Ron Schiller and Scott Walker the public devoured these recordings, causing if nothing else embarrassment and a lot of hoopla. But is this method of trapping people when they think they are off the record effective? The LA Times’ James Rainey argues that it isn’t, because even though the recordings aren’t exactly flattering they are A. easily manipulated and B. don’t always produce the intended result.

Rainey calls ambush journalism, “secret recordings and ham acting designed to draw out the worst in others.” In the case of Ron Schiller, Rainey (and NPR itself) argues that the tape show the NPR fundraiser towing the line between the organization’s journalistic activities and their fundraising activities by insisting that that NPR doesn’t bend its coverage to suit financial donors. According to Rainey, the tape succeeded in taking down Schiller because he also made statements about liberals being more intelligent and the Republican party being full of gun-loving extremists.

But not all ambush journalism is successful in taking down a target. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been a media target due to his attack on union bargaining rights and the subsequent protests at the capitol for the last month. Blogger Ian Murphy called Walker in February and claimed to be Republican campaign donor David Koch. Murphy was able to get Walker to admit that he considered planting trouble makers into the crowd of protestors, but they never actually did.

Really all Murphy accomplished was making Walker look arrogant, the phone call hoax just served to get the already over exposed governor into the media even more. All this makes me wonder if trying to trap targets by pretending to be a friend or ally when really you are trying to get them on record saying something incriminating is a good direction for investigative journalism to be heading.

Journalism is supposed to be about transparency. I believe journalists need to admit who they are and their affiliation. Even citizen journalists who intend to gather information and disseminate what they find out need to be honest about who they are. I don’t think there is a clear sense of right and wrong when a lie is exposed by a lie. But is there still room for morality and right vs. wrong in journalism these days?

Is the only way to get the “real” story to lie about who you are? I don’t think so. I think good investigative journalism, reporting, and writing can turn up the facts and paint a clear picture of a person or issue without having to trick them into saying something incriminating.

Maybe I’m idealistic but I don’t think you have to tell lies to get to the truth. I think if there is something incriminating to be found, hitting the books, checking the paper trail and following through with as many sources of possible will turn up the same information you might get out of trapping a target with an audio or video recording. I think ambush journalism is only necessary when we stop putting in the time it takes to be real reporters. If you have to trick people into talking to you – you just aren’t creating good journalism.