I’m Conflicted: Squirrels Used for Eye Research

I’ve been a journalist for close to 10 years, so it pains me to read this Badger Herald article on a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh professor who trapped ground squirrels and began breeding them for eye research. Apparently the eyes of ground squirrels are similar to humans, making them useful for opthamology (eye disease) research. But the article makes no mention of animal rights issues.

The National Eye Institute “will be investigating the mechanisms of neuroprotection and how the tissue of squirrel’s eye protects itself from damage.” Reading between the lines, this means that the squirrels’ eyes will have to be damaged in order to study the protective factors.

Sounds a bit like torture to me.

But the article fails to mention any sort of ethical issues here, leading me to only hope that the assumption is that of course they will treat the squirrels humanely and take steps to make sure the squirrels are given adequate pain control and do not suffer.

Note: While I am a huge animal lover (I have a squirrel blog, for gosh’s sake), I do recognize that human diseases would not be cured without the benefit of animal research. But it’s important that everyone — especially journalists, including college-aged journalists — make sure the tough questions are asked.

Just because it’s a person with a doctoral degree conducting the research, and just because it’s affiliated with a trustworthy organization like the National Eye Institute does not mean you can assume that the squirrels are safe from harm. Just as we would not want a smarter species landing on our planet and shipping us off for painful medical experiments, the ground squirrels do not want to be a part of this research. At the very least, we should make sure they don’t suffer.

3 thoughts on “I’m Conflicted: Squirrels Used for Eye Research

  1. “Reading between the lines, this means that the squirrels’ eyes will have to be damaged in order to study the protective factors.”

    You bring up a valid point about the ethics, and it’s debatable whether every animal research story needs to touch on that selfsame issue. Incidentally, I don’t think that the average person would infer that harm must come to the ground squirrel in order to learn about the protective tissue around the eyes. But, as you say, it would be nice if the reader could know one way or the other.

    Still, I’d advise against going into every story with a “witch hunt” mentality. What’s that expression…?

    “Even a blind squirrel finds the nut once in a while.”

  2. Thanks — I’ve written about medical research using squirrels before without worrying too much about the ethics, although it was about sleep, which sounded far less painful than eye damage research.

    I think discussing the ethics elevates the article beyond a simple re-write of a press release, which is what the article reads like now. Asking some of the more tough questions makes it journalism, and it makes readers think, too.

    I once read a great article that explored how these issues affect the results of the studies. For example, studies on caged monkeys and antidepressant therapy made the researchers realize that captive monkeys are depressed because they are caged. Once they built a far more natural monkey environment (where they could live in groups and swing on branches) they were able to get more accurate effects/results, which, in the longrun, means better antidepressants for humans.

    I would suspect this happens quite a bit, and while probably often unavoidable, it’s important to see how research can be improved, both ethically and scientifically.

  3. Hello Joy,

    I happened upon your website and thought our product might be of interest to you and your readers. Our product is the Evictor Strobe Light. It was developed to safely and harmlessly force squirrels to vacate attics and crawl spaces……having squirrels nesting in attics is not a good thing since they chew wires and burn down homes.

    We now sell worldwide, the product is virtually 100% effective, but after 4 years we are still searching for a reputable scientist to do a study. It is called an efficacy study and no squirrels will be harmed….I happen to be a squirrel lover myself.

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