Poster critters of animal research?


Poster critters of animal research?

Representations of fish in public engagement with animal research

In our work on the cultures of care and communication in animal research, we often asked ourselves the question: why are fish not the ‘poster critters’ of animal research? 

The question suggests that fish are not the taxonomic group most often chosen to represent animal research in communications with the public, either by industry boosters or animal advocacy groups. Despite being perennially amongst the top three species used, zebrafish, for instance, barely feature in the imagery of animal science, at least when compared to the regularity with which mice and rats are depicted. 

Reasons for this are not hard to find. Fish have only entered the top echelons of species used in the last two decades and, most agree, they don’t possess quite the same ability to charm humans as do their mammalian equivalents. 

But this is not the whole story.

The very existence of the advertisement clearly implies that living animals are used in research – still a consistently taboo topic.

Fish, and zebrafish specifically, are – contra the above –  sometimes put forward as primary symbols and vehicles for animal based science. Presumably because they lack ‘charisma’, the use of zebrafish in public engagement with animal research initiatives is actually fairly common. In some cases, the use of fish in such affairs is even promoted by institutions afraid of arousing controversy. Fish, it seems, can ‘go public’ in ways furry mammals often can’t (a topic we recently discussed in stakeholder workshop). 

Albeit indirectly, initiatives that represent fish (sometimes as living adult fish and other times as live embryos) and explain their useful in science necessarily draw attention to the fact that these animals are sacrificed in the cause of science. Paradoxically, being ‘unengaging’, fish may become the ‘poster critters’ of engaged animal research.

A British Heart Foundation advertisement from 2011 remains perhaps the best exemplar through which we can explore the peculiar place of fish in the public representation of animal research. The ad was a part of a fundraising campaign entitled Mending Broken Hearts, and is still available on YouTube. It sought to capitalise on the remarkable ability of zebrafish heart muscles to auto-regenerate after injury, something that has made them a promising model in cardiovascular research. In it, the living bodies of zebrafish are depicted, and the fish are directly named as the bearers of the hopes of scientists and patients suffering from heart disease.

Looked at closely, the ad is remarkable document, seeming to capture and distil a world of relations and ideologies. Indeed, the advertisement unwittingly performs a subtle rendering of a complex and ambivalent interspecies relationship.

 Firstly, it reflects a widespread tendency (and indeed habit of speech and grammar) to erase critical differences between species of fish that are vastly different from one another. In this case, the subject of the advertisement – the zebrafish itself – is seen swimming around in a large public-aquaria style tank full of marine species.

Evidently, on their own, zebrafish were clearly not deemed sufficiently captivating for a television audience, hence the addition of eye-catching sharks. Moreover, and obviously enough, zebrafish are a freshwater species of temperate climates; they are usually housed in groups in serried ranks in small tanks and never with other species.

Equally obviously, the point of the ad is not to teach natural history nor illustrate the real housing systems used inside research laboratories (as one YouTube commentator responded to another who’d raised this criticism of the ad: “it doesn’t matter if ‘the wrong type of fish are in the wrong type of water’, its [sic] aimed at saving people’s lives with research, ok Jack Cousteau? Grow up kid.”) Nevertheless, the erasure of the zebrafish’s natural and domesticated habitats reveals that these basic facts are unknown to many and, I strongly suspect, inconsequential to most anyway.

Secondly and relatedly, the zebrafish in the advertisement is allotted an individual identity. The lead individual is referred to as a “he”, and he speaks in English with a human voice directly to the viewer. He’s jaunty, and jokes that (unlike the human viewers of the ad) he cannot, by dint of biology, reach into his pockets to support the cause of heart research (implying, at the same time, that he is willing to be martyred for science).

What’s more, through animation techniques, he sports a new, improved face: he gazes out of his tank at an admiring human with CGI enlarged eyes and animated, expressive eyelids. The humanising neoteny is predictably charming.

Giving the fish a human-like face transforms his visage into the signboard for the emotions that we popularly believe faces to be. Indeed, the lack of ‘face’ – along with ‘voice’ –  is often thought of as an essential reason for the difficulty humans experience in appreciating that fish may have an inner or emotional life. These ‘enhancements’ successfully make up for such deficits in relatability, and add an obvious ‘cuteness factor’ to the fishy protagonist.

Thirdly, while the advertisement draws attention to the necessary similarity between humans and zebrafish, it simultaneously underscores a deep divide between our species. Similarities, principally genetic, are what makes research based on zebrafish models relevant to human disease at all. The potential of translation transforms the animal into a source of wonder and, especially, hope. As the ad’s human (a woman who, like her children, we are told, suffers from heart disease) explains direct to camera: “He’s not just a fish, he’s hope”. Presently, however, she reaches out her hand in an attempt to touch her hope – but, of course, all she touches is clear Perspex. We are connected, the ad suggests, but also irretrievably separate.

This semiology, connoting myriad differences of physiology, habitat and experience, I guess, makes it possible to openly depict in public an animal that by definition is condemned to death and, possibly, suffering in the name of medical progress.  

Indeed, the very existence of the advertisement clearly implies that living animals are used in research – still a consistently taboo topic. At present anyway, it is nearly impossible to imagine an analogous advertisement, destined for national television, visually depicting a mouse tumour model, for example, let alone a rat, pig or monkey in a lab.

Of course, no surgical operation or experimental procedure of any kind is depicted. But the reality of what using an animal model for heart research can entail cannot have escaped all viewers. In fact, whereas the majority of zebrafish-based research is non-invasive or only minimally so, heart regeneration work often involves purposeful tissue damage using chemical or mechanical techniques. As another YouTube commentator summarised matters: “We fish can heal our hearts, so scientists are visciously [sic] slicing us open and performing grotesque experiments on us, go on, give them money!"

So, whereas the producers apparently felt they needed to make the subject more relatable for the advert to achieve its goal of prompting viewers to reach into their pockets, it’s the animals’ lack of relatability that made the ad possible in the first place. Thus it, like all public engagement with animal research perhaps, walks a thin line of engagement. In doing so, it highlights the ambivalence of an increasingly key interspecies relationship in the public imagination of animal research.

The ad is remarkable document, seeming to capture and distil a world of relations and ideologies
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