Growing up taking in stray dogs off the streets, bioethicist John Gluck has always been an animal lover. However, things changed for this former University of New Mexico professor when he started researching experimental psychology on mostly non-human primates and his own actions within this field caused him to reflect on the ethicality of the work he was undergoing at UNM.
Gluck started at UNM in 1971 after being hired under the late Frank Logan, a former chair of the psychology department; part of Logan’s hope was that Gluck would start a primate laboratory at UNM, which he did. However, after creating this lab and doing his own research there, ethical questions started popping up for Gluck.
“Really, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I began to have questions about whether the work I was doing with the primarily primates was ethically justified … I was starting to get a little uncertain about the ethical foundations,” Gluck said.
Gluck, who just received a trailblazer award this month from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the recognition that the experimentation may be immoral didn’t come all at once but rather gradually over time. A variety of different people started his path of realization, including his own students and colleagues. Indeed, one of his former colleagues Jane Smith, a professor in the psychology department, said Gluck had a knack for listening to others before speaking and called him the “wise man in the room.”
One former student brought up the book “Animal Liberation” by Peter Singer to Gluck, which PETA describes as a “philosophical bombshell” that “forever changed the conversation about our treatment of animals.” Gluck said the book’s focus on Harry Harlow’s social isolation experiments on monkeys at the University of Wisconsin particularly impacted him because Gluck had studied there when in college and knew the work personally.
“It struck home about the criticisms that Peter Singer was making of that work that I felt myself to be, at least at that time, pretty much associated with,” Gluck said.
After taking a trip to the Alamogordo Primate Facility, Gluck saw chimpanzees living in inhumane conditions, some of which are still being held in captivity today. Gluck compared their tiny, dirty cages to “prison cells.”
“Am I subject to the same kind of criticism that I was finding myself in the context of looking at these chimpanzees?” Gluck said.
Growing up in New York City, Gluck’s family placed high moral value on protecting the vulnerable and making sure that animals were treated humanely. Like many people, his pets were considered a part of the family.
“Getting into that world of experimental psychology, experimental neurobehavioral work, really required a shift in attitude … It required that I make a shift away from being an animal lover, as such, and protector on the streets and in the home to learning to exploit them in the context of the lab,” Gluck said.
Gluck goes into his mental transformation concerning animals in-depth in his memoir "Voracious Science and Vulnerable Animals: A Primate Scientist's Ethical Journey.”
His book was received with a lot of controversy and a review by Donovan Schaefer, an assistant professor at the University of Oxford, encapsulated the question Gluck aimed to address: should animals in research be referred to as a “what” or a “who”?
“For Gluck, science must be embedded within a broader field of learning from philosophy, literature and art — the humanistic arts of self-understanding that enrich and enhance introspection,” Schaefer wrote. “Science must never become a mechanism by which moral intuitions are stilled.”
When Gluck originally applied through the department’s respective dean’s office to go study bioethics through a fellowship at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, he was denied. He was shocked that the ethics of what they were doing right on UNM’s campus was being sidelined and felt that he had to convince people “that ethics was a foundational part of education.”
“They saw ethics as a problem, (like) it’s going to slow things down,” Gluck said.
When he was approved the second time around for the study, Gluck’s work with the late cardiac physiologist F. Barbara Orlans at the Kennedy Institute had an enormous impact on his ideas surrounding bioethics. The two both went from working directly in the labs as researchers to questioning if what they were doing was right; he said she was a “thorn in the side” of people at the National Institute of Health when she worked there, calling on them to act ethically. He also said she listened attentively to people that weren’t scientists and encouraged Gluck to do the same.
This piece of advice rubbed off on Gluck, and Smith said that he always made sure others were a priority, “regardless of what was going on in his own life.”
“I loved everything about my working relationship with John,” Smith wrote to the Daily Lobo. “I looked to him for knowledge, guidance, support and humor.”
Having been retired from UNM for over a decade now, Gluck has been pursuing the same work around bioethics.
“Since (his retirement), I’ve regularly invited him to be a guest speaker in my Clinical Psychology Lab course, because nobody can discuss research ethics with the level of expertise and passion that John shows,” Smith said.
Megan Gleason is the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @fabflutist2716