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The Emotional Lives of Chimeras: Challenges to Anthrozoology

By Marc Bekoff

Laboratory mice
Photo credit: Maggie Bartlett, NHGRI.

This essay appeared originally in Psychology Today.

A number of people have asked me to weigh in on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recent announcement that they would like to lift the ban on animal-human chimera research. Basically, a chimera “is a single organism composed of cells from different zygotes. This can result in male and female organs, two blood types, or subtle variations in form.”

I’m against this sort of research for any number of reasons, most of which Jessica Pierce and I discuss in our forthcoming book The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age. In addition to arguing that the time has come to stop invasive research—and this surely is highly invasive, some might say reprehensible research—and to develop and to use non-animal preparations and models, many of which are already available, we argue that existing animal welfare regulations are extremely weak, taxonomically far too narrow, and patronize other animals because human interests invariably trump those of the nonhuman animals (please see, for example, “Rats Like Tickling: Why Is the Animal Welfare Act So Lame?” and “Invasive ‘Rat Research’ Should be Abolished Once and for All”).

Animal welfare also does not focus on individual animals, whereas the “science of animal well-being,” proposed in The Animals’ Agenda does (please also see “Animal welfare cannot adequately protect nonhuman animals: The need for a science of animal well-being”). 

What will the chimeras be called, just who are they, and how will they be protected? Existing regulations do not consider rodents to be animals

The Animals' AgendaI’m also very worried about the lives of the hybrid animals themselves. For example, what will they be called—there is a lot in a name—and just who are they? As sentient beings, they will experience rich and deep emotions as did the animals who provided the genes for these unprecedented and unknown “monsters.” However, because existing animal welfare regulations are weak and narrow and clearly favor researchers with agendas that are not that animal-friendly, I worry about how these individuals will be treated. For example, the United States’ federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) does not consider some rodents to be animals, and they and birds, fishes, other vertebrates, and invertebrates are not protected by the AWA. Here is a quote from the federal register: “We are amending the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations to reflect an amendment to the Act’s definition of the term animal. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 amended the definition of animal to specifically exclude birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research.”

Many people do not believe that the AWA actually does not consider rodents to be animals, however, this really is the case, as absurd as it may seem. Another concern is how this research is to be controlled and what sorts of oversight there will be. Unfortunately, many researchers cannot be relied on to work on behalf of the animals, and I fear that it’s going to be almost an “anything goes” atmosphere because researchers will be so excited by their creations, and as such, there will be a good deal of harm, suffering, and death, not only as the chimeras are created, but also when they are being used in different sorts of research. It’s essential to remember that these chimeras will be sentient, feeling beings, who care about what happens to them.

Because of the blatant and self-serving shortcomings of the current AWA, my concerns are well grounded in precedent and there are no compelling reasons to think the AWA will change anytime soon. Because of these reasons I am totally against this sort of research and hope NIH and other researchers will change course and continue to ban this sort of work.

Monsters are a challenge to anthrozoology

​Lastly, I want to emphasize that creating chimeras is a challenge to anthrozoologists who are interested in human-animal relationships. As I mentioned above, the AWA does not consider rodents to be “animals,” so just who are the chimeras? Will new regulations have to be developed to protect them, or are they to be dispensed with along with rodents and other beings who really are animals?

There are many serious questions that need to be considered before the ban on chimera research is lifted, and it's not at all clear if the necessary homework has been done. 


About the Author 

Marc Bekoff, author of The Emotional Lives of Animals, is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a former Guggenheim fellow. He has published more than a thousand scientific and popular essays and thirty books. His forthcoming book co-authored with Jessica Pierce, The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, will be released in April 2017. He lives in Boulder. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcBekoff and visit his website.