Thursday 26 September 2019

What Research Science Is and Isn't

It seems to be common today for some people to make some claims about science, particularly about medicine and food for animals. These claims are usually not correct and show a fundamental distrust and failure to understand the scientific process.

There are many problems in science today, but what the lay public thinks are not among them. The worst experience I had in research was caused by an incompetent lab manager. This person was highly intelligent and a good scientist. He was also a terrible person and should never have been put in a management position. He would get in people's personal space and threaten them and shout in their faces. He would regularly tell people their work was bad privately and in group meetings in front of others. I later realised that he watched a television programme called The Apprentice where people pretend to be employed by a nasty boss who insults and humiliates them as entertainment, and used that as a model for his management style (I AM NOT JOKING). He also blamed a serious incident for which he was responsible on a junior person.

This boss brought out the absolute worst of everyone under him. Not only was I bullied by the boss, I was also bullied by another employee who took to behaving like a clown and doing dangerous things whenever the boss was not around, despite actually being a very intelligent young man. One of my coworkers became slovenly and apathetic, arriving in a dishevelled state with his flies undone, and when the boss was away, would not turn up until the afternoon, if at all. I remember struggling to help the student he was supposed to be supervising, who was trying very hard to do a project I didn't really know enough about to help her effectively with, and later how the boss sneered at the student for not caring about her work and not trying hard enough, ignorant of the behaviour of her supervisor. Disgusted with this colleague's apparent laziness and treatment of the student, I started ridiculing him and I'm sorry to say I behaved in a way that was unprofessional and probably constituted bullying in turn, when I should have considered that his behaviour might have been a symptom of stress or even depression.

Most of the ex-scientists I know who jacked in their training for a scientific career to do something else can cite a bad manager as the cause or a strongly influencing factor. Unfortunately I suspect it's also a factor in many science sector employees who commit suicide. Unsuitable people getting into management positions from my experience is the biggest problem in science. Someone doing good research or being able to bring in grants and funding does not mean they are suitable for a HR position, and until something is done about this, careers being ruined and problems like this are going to continue.

The issues in science I have experience of have nothing to do with any claims I've seen made on the Internet about scientific research being 'biased'. In an effort to try to help people understand what research science is about, I'm going to explain why these are not correct.

Firstly, the whole scientific process is designed to make things as objective as possible. Research papers are 'peer reviewed' before being published. What does peer review mean? It means the paper is sent to several other scientists who work in the same or closely related areas, what you'd consider 'rivals' really, who have to pick out any inaccuracies or unclear areas. Papers to be published have to include detailed results and a description of how the results were obtained, so if any question arises, any other qualified person would be able to repeat the experiment and see if the same results were obtained or not. While this isn't infallible, it's the best system we have for assessing evidence. Scientists who submit fraudulent papers and get caught are sacked and become unemployable in the field, as was the case of Andrew Wakefield.

Funding for research comes from various sources. Most funding comes from professional bodies and companies, and it stands to reason that larger companies can afford to fund more research in areas that are relevant to them. But it does not follow that research is biased because of the source of its funding. Research is often carried out by independent laboratories, and the laboratory and the employees have no personal involvement in the research. When companies have their own R&D departments, the researchers are still not personally invested in any products the company might produce, but strive to get the most accurate result as clearly it is beneficial for the company as a whole to change their products if research finds that an alternative would be more effective. When larger businesses carry out research, it invariably benefits smaller companies who don't have the resources to bankroll experimenting on their products when it's published. A friend of mine used to work for a large company that manufactured crisps and was involved in research to study harmful substances caused by cooking the crisps at high temperature, and investigated ideas such as cooking the crisps at low pressure to reduce the substances. No doubt smaller crisp manufacturers were able to implement new techniques based on the results of this sort of work without having to repeat it themselves.

It is not correct that research from universities and smaller businesses is 'better' than research from larger or more profit-motivated businesses. If anything, there may be a little incentive for quite the opposite. Universities are very dependent on receiving funding from outside sources and their reputation and that of their employees depends on having published research. Some results are more publishable than others -- for example, if a study sets out to find if x performs better than y, and finds that neither is really better than the other, this result isn't particularly publishable and studies that are likely to result in this sort of outcome is less attractive for universities. However, for a big business that has its own R&D department for its own products, this kind of result is just as valuable in helping with its development. Therefore, researchers in universities and small institutes may feel more pressure to get publishable results and only take on projects that are likely to work out well. Some important and interesting areas of science are not being studied enough for this sort of reason. However, it's still unlikely that researchers would fudge their results as the consequences of being caught doing this are severe, and the likelihood of being caught during the peer-review process is high.

Remember that in science, there's no such thing as 'the truth'. There is just evidence and science is about assessing the evidence on balance and deciding if the evidence in favour or against something is sufficient to demonstrate it is so beyond reasonable doubt. That balance can and frequently does change as more evidence becomes available over time, and we have to constantly re-evaluate evidence. Often, the more we know about a subject, the more nuanced it becomes, and the more it is apparent that we do not know.

Friday 20 September 2019

Responsible Rehoming

There is increasing publicity warning about bad animal breeders and how to identify good animal breeders. Frequently sources recommend rehoming unwanted animals instead of buying from a breeder, but many providers of these animals can also be unethical, and little seems to be known of this and even less warning given. Rehoming an animal can be a wonderful experience and there are many deserving animals needing new owners, but, just as when buying from a breeder, it's important to only support good rehoming organisations.

How to Identify Responsible Sanctuaries and Rehomes:

The facilities. Are they reasonably clean and well-kept? Just as importantly, are they suitable for the animals’ species, breed, or type? Using dogs as an example, hound breeds are fine in a kennel environment with other hounds as long as they get adequate exercise, but when companion breeds such as poodles end up in rehoming situations, responsible organisations will have volunteers who will temporarily take the dogs into their home. For dogs, most breed-specific rescues are good sources as they understand the specific needs of the breed.

Where the animals came from. Were these animals voluntarily surrendered by their previous owner? Did the previous owner give them away because they didn’t want them? Or were they sold, or did the owner not consent to them being taken? If you bought a ‘rescue’ pet and it turned out that the pet had been confiscated from someone who was struggling to care for it because they had terminal cancer, and the pet had been a huge source of comfort in their last days, how would that make you feel? There are charities around such as The Cinnamon Trust that help people who are struggling to care for their animals (and I’ve never heard anything bad about them) and these charities deserve to be supported more than charities that confiscate animals to sell. How about if you bought the same animal, and then found out the person you got it from had in fact bought it from a breeder and sold it on to you for more than they paid for it? You might feel one way about giving your money to a ‘sanctuary’ that ‘rescues’ animals from horrible situations, but you might feel differently if the ‘sanctuary’ was just a private menagerie and your money enabled the owner to fund their own lifestyle and buy and keep animals on the cheap. Beware of horror stories which may be exaggerated or fabricated. There is nothing wrong with an honest petting zoo and such places can be run with a high welfare standard, but what is dishonest is someone using their private menagerie as a front for begging.

Are the animals suitable for you, or indeed any other potential owner? Animals that are unpredictable or potentially dangerous should not be rehomed. There are worse things that can happen than euthanasia or humane slaughter in cases where it’s not reasonable or fair on the animal to rehome it. I’m aware of situations where elderly or semi-feral animals were chased around and transported in stressful situations for the sake of publicity stunts, where onsite euthanasia might well have been the kinder option. Responsible rehomers just like responsible breeders will accept back an animal if its new home doesn’t work out. They will assess animals and try to match them to suitable new owners, and won’t blame or guilt trip the owner if things don’t work out.

Do they specialise, or do they just collect anything? For example, a sanctuary specialising in unwanted horses and donkeys is much more likely to be a serious organisation able to meet the animals' needs than a 'sanctuary' that wants as many different animals as possible, probably to make it more attractive to tourists.

If you don’t take heed of what to look out for when rehoming an animal, be aware you could be contributing to the following (real) examples:

Irresponsible ‘charity’ and ‘rescue’ examples in order of increasing severity:

  • Posts on social media of the general gist: “We have 1,000 chickens in horrible condition rescued from a battery farm that will be sent for slaughter if people don’t take them and rehabilitate them and keep them as pets.” There is nothing wrong with buying knackered battery chickens because they’re cheap or you enjoy them. However, doing so does nothing to address the problem that people want to buy cheap eggs, nor does it improve the welfare of laying chickens. Chickens will continue to be produced and used in battery farms and the vast majority of them will be slaughtered. Slaughtered battery chickens are used to make chicken soup, which feeds people, and pet food, which feeds pets. They are not wasted. If you care about chicken welfare, you would bring more benefit by buying either eggs or laying hens from a farmer who uses a higher-welfare system.

  • We once bought two cats from a feral cat rescue. On the phone, the person said they were a male and a female, both spayed and neutered. The person who later delivered them, said they were two females, both spayed. One of the cats was orange and a friend who is a cat lover told me that the majority of orange cats are male. The next summer, I and several other people observed the other cat loitering about the place accompanied by a kitten that looked very similar to the orange cat.

  • A person who has a webpage describing themselves as a ‘rescued animal shelter’ buys some healthy and well-cared-for animals from a breeder or other reputable source. The person then posts a picture of the animals on their website with a fictitious horror story about how they ‘rescued’ the animals and begging for ‘donations’ to pay for veterinary care the animals supposedly need and people to volunteer to do unpaid work helping them care for their animals.

  • Some rehoming centres with dogs for sale advertise ‘puppies rescued from a puppy farm’ for a similar price as puppies from a decent breeder. Frequently the puppies have been bought from a puppy farm and puppies bought in this way are just dogs bred irresponsibly and sold via a dealer, exactly the sort of source people should be discouraged from using.

  • Some operations calling themselves dog rescues specialise in taking feral dogs from the streets in foreign countries and importing them and selling them as pets. Not only are these feral dogs likely to make unsuitable pets and struggle to adjust to this sort of life, this practice has a large carbon footprint, risks bringing disease into the country, and does nothing to solve the problem of feral dogs in the country of origin. Shockingly, some of these street dogs might also be breeds or landraces genetically unique to the region, and this amounts to Westerners pillaging cultural currency. Working with local people to help them value and care for their street dogs and utilising trap, neuter, release programmes to ensure the dog populations are managed would be a far more ethical (but less profitable and less marketable) approach.

  • Some high-profile animal charities no longer accept voluntary surrenders of animals whose owners can no longer care for them, and instead are focused on generating money and publicity by confiscating animals from people who are often vulnerable or may have mental or physical issues, and selling the animals and suing the owners for mistreating them and extortionate expenses in keeping them during the meantime. There is a serious conflict of interest in these cases. While some people unfortunately do wilfully neglect or deliberately harm animals, these people should be dealt with by the police, not charities. Vulnerable people who are struggling to meet the needs of themselves and their animals need to be treated with compassion, not dragged through the legal system. People who find they can no longer care adequately for an animal they own need places that will take and rehome their animals, whether it’s the animal’s breeder, a breed rescue, or another provider.

  • Some zoos claim to be involved in conservation breeding of wild species – when in fact they keep animals in poor conditions that do not meet their welfare needs and squander genetic resources by breeding animals in a way that does not support conservation. For example, the Sea World aquaria keep orcas in unsuitable habitats to use in circus performances, as animals with difficult to achieve welfare requirements, and previously bred them by mating together first-degree relatives and animals of different species. A man in the USA who claimed to be rescuing big cats and breeding them for conservation was in fact using them to breed novelties such as ligers that are no use to conservation and could not be released into the wild.

Monday 2 September 2019

How Do You Choose?

L-R White collar pup, Blondi, Quintus, Purple collar pup

"How do you choose?" is a question people often ask me as a dog breeder. While most people have some general idea that breeders are there to preserve a breed and breed so that they can keep a puppy to further their breeding programme, how the choice of puppy is arrived at seems to be considered arcane knowledge. Several people who otherwise know me quite well have been known to ask if I know which puppy I am keeping when they are 2 weeks old and I can't possibly tell, and recently my own mother asked me if I let the people who were having pups from the litter come and pick any pup and I just keep whatever was left. So I've decided to write something about the process that goes into choosing a puppy and deciding which puppies are best suited for the other people waiting for them.

I do not let people on the waiting list pick pups on a whim. The people come and visit and handle the pups and I explain to them what I know about the pups' personalities as they develop. The people visiting do not have the experience of observing the pups for long periods, and playing with the pup for half an hour does not give them the insight into it that I have. When the puppies are old enough, I do some exercises with them to assess them and use that in addition to the picture I've developed of them to recommend which pups would be suitable for them. Depending on their position on the waiting list, they may have a choice out of a few pups best suited for them. This is a temperament assessment and not a test, as there is not 'one ideal' for every person and a puppy ideal for a companion to a quiet older person is very different to one ideal for a noisy family, or a person wanting to do a competitive sport. The person who always occupies first place on the waiting list is myself.

Puppies are assessed for temperament and conformation, and this cannot be accurately done before the puppies are 7 weeks old. However, some narrowing down does often take place as some traits are obvious earlier, so in some cases I can give people an indication of which pups might be available to them earlier than this. No puppy is perfect and the breeder chooses the puppy who is closest to their goals and can contribute the most to their breeding programme, and just because the other puppies are not chosen, does not mean they are somehow defective or unsuitable for their new owners. Conformation does not mean choosing which puppy is 'prettiest'; it means assessing how closely each one conforms to the breed standard; that is, which one is most recognisable as a poodle.

Pandora on the right with a sibling. Pandora's head was the best in the litter and one of the reasons she was hands-down the best puppy for me to keep. The other puppy still has a nice face and there is nothing wrong with his head, but Pandora has the more poodle-like face.

The Brown Bros: Trilby on the right with his brother Porthos, showing different head strengths. Trilby's eye shape and colour are strong and his head planes are not bad, whereas Porthos had strong head planes and muzzle shape but his eyes were not as lovely. In this case the decision of which to keep was not clear-cut and much harder.

There are a great many traits to consider when assessing pups that all have to be weighed up, which is why it can sometimes be difficult to decide. The previous litter, the Brown Bros, the final choice was hard because the two puppies I narrowed it down to were very different, but strong in different ways. The current litter are actually quite similar to each other with slight strengths over each other.

Quintus is not in the running for the simple reason that he's a boy and I don't have room for any more boys. He will be going to a great family who already have an older poodle I bred. Quintus is friendly and likes people, and often seems to be a bit 'independent' from the rest of the litter. He did not test as being very toy motivated, although he is more interested in noisy toys than soft ones. Quintus is built like a bricklayer but carries himself like a prince.

White collar pup is a lovely cuddly pup who tested as not as toy motivated nor as confident in herself as the other two girls. She's also not quite as balanced in her structure and movement and I can recognise some of the same traits I see in Indi and Saffi's conformation that I want to work away from, so she will be a nice pet.

This leaves Purple collar pup and Blondi to choose between. The first thing people notice about them is the difference in colour, but really they are quite similar to each other. Purple pup at the moment seems to be slightly better in how she's put together, whereas Blondi is slightly bolder and more enthusiastic, however, there's not a big gap on either count. Blondi is obviously not the ideal colour for my breeding programme... but colour is superficial and the structure and temperament of the puppy are far more important. I will spend some more time with these two pups individually and probably wash them also to help decide, as seeing them wet can sometimes make things a bit clearer.

Sunday 1 September 2019


This is Poppy's cria Trillian. Trillian's neck you may observe has turned orange. Poppy and Trillian were doing well until Poppy was remated a little over two weeks after giving birth, which is the normal time to mate alpacas as pregnancies take about a year. Poppy has always been ridiculously friendly to people when not pregnant, but quite difficult to handle when she is, and this has got worse over time and I suspect may have resulted from overhandling when she was young as I didn't breed her. She became very unpleasant soon after being mated, which suggested she had ovulated, but unfortunately she also started to reject poor Trillian and began to attack her whenever she tried to nurse. This became extremely difficult to manage, as at the worst point I suspect Trillian was getting nothing and was going around trying to nurse off other alpacas and my crotch, and Poppy's udder looked like she had an inflated medical exam glove stuck between her legs. Whenever I tried to feed the alpacas, Poppy would charge into the pen and unprovokedly and deliberately spit in my face, and Trillian of course would run after her and try to feed while Poppy was eating, and Poppy would go berserk and kick Trillian and the feed buckets about the pen and spit all over everything.

This was a dreadful thing to have to watch, as Trillian was only three weeks old and clearly suffering psychologically from her mother's rejection. One of the other alpacas, Olivia, although she has improved a little over time, never has enough milk for her cria, and they never grow as quickly as the others and I always need to try to supplement feed them for at least the first few weeks, which is a nuisance as they never really want to drink the supplemental milk. But at least these cria still receive the love and emotional care they need from their mother despite her shortcomings. Poppy had to be haltered and tied up, and her leg held to stop her from kicking Trillian so Trillian could feed. I considered separating them and trying to feed Trillian myself, but this was not straightforward as it could lead to Trillian becoming dependent on me and imprinting on people and potentially developing the same behavioural problems that Poppy seems to have.

About two weeks after mating, Poppy's horrible behaviour subsided and she started taking care of Trillian properly again, and it turned out she hadn't become pregnant. Trillian's fleece on her neck seems to have been permanently discoloured from Poppy biting and spitting on her. Unfortunately I have decided it is not worth the risk for Poppy to be mated again now as Trillian's interests have to come first. She will have to remain open for the winter and be mated in spring when Trillian no longer needs a mother, which will mean no cria from her next year.

The other alpacas and cria are doing well, and hopefully we will finish up mating soon for the chance of cria from the other four in 2020.