Research showing a chemical found in the bile of bears can slow the development of type 1 diabetes in mice recently drew headlines in numerous outlets. Putting aside well-documented evidence showing how non-predictive research data from mice is when applied to humans (e.g., a collaborative study by academics, government, and private companies showing less than 50% – essentially the same odds as flipping a coin – of testing in rodents predicts human toxicity, a groundbreaking paper calling mouse models “close to random” in predicting human outcomes, and others), the media’s coverage of the new study is predictively – and falsely – overenthusiastic and sensationalizing. Such careless journalism contributes to the difficulty we face moving science forward toward research that can and will predict human response.
While Harvard University School of Public Health’s Dr. Gökhan Hotamısligil has clarified that his recently published research in Science Translational Medicine did not use bear bile and should be considered evidence against the use of bear bile, there remains many troubling components in the content of National Geographic’s “Synthetic Chemical From Bears Could Stall Onset of Diabetes" (11/13/13), and The Scientist’s “Bear Bile Prevents Diabetes in Mice" (11/14/13).
The pieces are yet another installment of the kind of sensationalism these and other publications are caught in. Whether online, on TV, or elsewhere, outlets reach more for the adrenaline rush than for substantive content. As any good defense attorney knows, get it said and then even if stricken or later proven wrong, it will affect perceptions. Allowing reporters to do just that – present a piece clearly framed in the controversial issue of bear bile farming – is unconscionable. No words other than condemnation of bear bile extraction or accolades for efforts to end such practice should be uttered in scientifically and ethically responsible journalism.
That said, the researcher’s apparent sensitivity to the barbaric practice of using bears for their bile is not enough for those of us whose compassion cannot be compartmentalized according to the cuteness, popularity, or endangered status of a species. Species substitution is not a humane alternative. It is a ploy to allay the fears of people concerned, say, about dogs but not laboratory-bred pigs, or an endangered species like moon bears but not the readily available oxen. All mammals share a common brain and with it a shared capacity to suffer both physically and psychologically.
Alternatives must be alternatives to all animal use. Otherwise, we are playing a shell game with sentient beings: If they are in favor, they are protected. If not, then they are sacrificed in immeasurable ways.
I await coverage from National Geographic and The Scientist of what sound scientific alternatives mean, and how plants or chemical compounds are the only true alternatives to the medicinal properties of all products formerly harvested in one cruel way or another from living animals. We can do it. We just need the will and reminders that this and only this should be our goal.
Theodora Capaldo, EdD