Octopus has no backbone – or Rights

Lab rats have rights. Before researchers in the United States can test on animals, they need approval from committees that ensure compliance with federal housing regulations and humane handling of them. The same is true for scientists working with mice, monkeys, fish or sparrows.

These protected animals have one thing in common: a backbone.

But the invertebrates in the lab, including worms and bees or cephalopods like squids and octopuses, don’t receive the same protections from the federal government. As researchers more often working with cephalopods To answer questions in neuroscience and other fields, the question of whether they treat animals humanely is becoming more pressing.

Governments in Europe and Australia have included these intelligent, invertebrate animals in their legislation. But in the United States, “If you’re in a research environment and you want to buy some octopus and do whatever you want with them, there’s no legal oversight to stop you, ” Robyn Crook, a neuroscientist at San Francisco State University.

That’s not to say cephalopod research is the Wild West. American research institutions are increasingly choosing to include their cephalopod studies in the same approval process as experiments in mice or other vertebrates. But the lack of cephalopod care standards to guide their decisions, combined with the lack of federal oversight to support them, reflects how the rules and legislation are falling behind understanding. know the science of the complex inner lives of these animals.

Like a lab rat, an octopus can learn to navigate a maze. Octopuses can also perform clever feats that rats cannot, such as disguising themselves as rocks and snakes, escaping from their tanks, or hiding in coconut shells.

In 2021, Alexandra Schnell, a biologist at the University of Cambridge, and others discovered that cuttlefish can pass a version of the marshmallow test, a well-known measure of self-efficacy. control in the human psyche. Cephalopods against eating a piece of shrimp as long as two minutes to earn an even better snack (a raw shrimp).

Unlike humans – whose intelligence is inherently all in the head – octopuses carry most of their nervous system in their hands. Their bloodsuckers not only cling to things, but they also feel and taste them. “It’s like your hand is covered with a tongue,” says Christine Huffard, a biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Agency.

In a paper published in July, Dr Huffard and Peter Morse, of James Cook University in Australia, showed that male blue-ringed octopuses can use induction to recognize offspring they have mated with. After encountering their former mate, the males run away, presumably to avoid being eaten. Such research shows that octopuses and other cephalopods are highly intelligent and sensitive.

But do they feel the same pain as we do? It’s not just a hypothetical concern. Some studies with cephalopods have involved potentially painful surgeries, such as amputation of an octopus’ arm. However, we cannot simply ask them if it hurts.

Dr Crook said: “Whether the experience of pain exists in animals other than vertebrates is a controversial proposition. In a 2021 paper, she showed that octopuses injected with acetic acid caressing the wound with their beak and had avoided a room where they had been after the injection. But the octopuses prefer to stay in a room where they have been injected with anesthetic after the first time.

The researchers used a similar test in rodents to assess whether the drug would cause them pain. Dr Crook said: “We suggest that octopuses feel and are likely to feel the same thing.

In another 2021 paper, she and her co-authors studied the neural activity of anesthetized octopuses and cuttlefish — or so scientists think. They dipped the animals in magnesium chloride to anesthetize them, a common laboratory procedure. When an animal stops moving and turns white, scientists assume it can’t sense anything and won’t be stressed out in handling. But electrode recordings show that within minutes of being unresponsive, the cephalopod can still feel the experimenter touched its body.

Dr Crook said the discovery immediately changed the way researchers in her lab anesthetized octopuses. Now, they wait another 20 minutes to make sure the animals won’t feel anything. She hopes other labs have changed their ways as well.

Who is responsible for the happiness of animals in captivity? The answer, in the United States, is complex.

The Animal Welfare Act, passed in 1966, requires the humane treatment of animals such as primates and pet dogs and cats. It does not apply to farm animals, racehorses, invertebrates, fish, or laboratory rats or mice. Another law, Health Research Expansion Act of 1985governs the treatment of all vertebrates in US government-funded research.

Both laws require universities and other research institutions to have an Organized Animal Care and Use Committee, or IACUC. Committees must include at least one veterinarian and one person unrelated to the organization. Before starting a research project, a scientist must submit a proposal to their institution’s committee, so they must ensure that the scientist’s plan meets federal guidelines. .

“I think it works well,” said Dr. Steve Niemi, laboratory veterinarian and director of the Center for Animal Science at Boston University. “This is both a controversial area and a heavily scrutinized area – and, I would argue, highly regulated” for vertebrates, says Dr Niemi. living.

Dr Niemi said critics have pointed out that animal care committees rarely refuse researchers’ approval. But in his experience, this is down to committees going back and forth with a scientist to revise the plan until it is accepted. “For me, our mission is to enable responsible research,” he said.

As scientists learn more about cephalopods’ intelligence and perception of pain, Dr. Niemi said, “Ethically, we have to consider whether and how to add them to our surveillance. close to our locality or not.”

Currently, many universities are voluntarily letting their committees review cephalopod research. Dr Crook says the trend has gained momentum over the past two years.

However, she said, the job of these committees is to make sure researchers follow federal law, but for invertebrates, that law doesn’t exist. “They are almost operating without a license,” she said.

There are also no general manuals for octopus care because scientists are still learning about their biology. For example, in the event that a researcher violates their agreement with the committee, there is no way to prevent their experiment from happening.

“In some ways, it’s regulated theater,” Dr. Crook said.

While universities and other research institutions try to apply a non-existent law to their cephalopods, says Katherine Meyer, who directs the Animal Policy and Law Clinic at Harvard Law School, is trying to pressure the National Institutes of Health, the main federal funder of biomedical research in the United States, to make a change.

In 2020, Ms. Meyer’s clinic petitioned the Institutes’ Laboratory Animal Welfare Office to act to regulate cephalopod research. “I just had the idea that we should do something to protect the octopuses,” she said.

Mrs. Meyer realized that while in 1985 Health Research Expansion Act refers to the care of “animals in study”, it doesn’t really define animals. The definition of an animal as a “living, vertebrate” organism is in another NIH document called Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.

“That’s when I saw the opening,” Ms. Meyer said. She said the NIH’s laboratory animals office could protect octopuses and their relatives by simply changing the definition of “animal” in the policy to include cephalopods, rather than amending the law. basic.

She received a response in July 2020 stating that the agency was “aware of standards in other countries including cephalopods in animal welfare monitoring and regulation” and “is currently considering options for providing guidance on how to humanely care for and use invertebrates in NIH-funded research. “

Additionally, she said, “We didn’t get a significant response from the agency.”

In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the NIH Office of Appearance Research repeated the language in Ms. Meyer’s letter.

Dr. Huffard said that in the absence of new federal guidelines, many international scientific journals require U.S. researchers to demonstrate that they have approved cephalopod research through the IACUC or a another institutional review process before their research can be published. An animal welfare nonprofit called AAALAC International, which provides voluntary certification to research organisations, is also introduce that institutional committees approve cephalopod research.

“I don’t know of any cephalopod researchers who would scoff at these rules,” says Dr. Huffard. Even if the U.S. government has not determined that cephalopods deserve the same protection as other animals, scientists who study highly armed creatures have made that decision for themselves.

Dr Huffard said: ‘An unhealthy and overstressed octopus will not yield useful data. Even beyond the data, she adds, “I want the animals to be happy and healthy.”

As long as we are rethinking how our laws favor vertebrates, Dr Huffard said elevating cephalopods above other invertebrates may not make sense. . Octopuses “are very complex animals; No one will doubt it,” she said. “Are they the most complex invertebrates? Depends on how you define that. “

For example, bees have complex social structures and behaviors. Recently, crab and lobster sentient statement by the British government and in Switzerland, it illegal to boil a live lobster. Dr Huffard said: “If people study mantis shrimp the way they study octopuses, they will be really surprised at how intelligent they are.

“I feel like we should treat all animals with that level of respect,” she said.

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