Urban jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 February, 2007, 12:00am

This week: gay sheep, animal rights and the media

A controversy has raged over media reports about a couple of scientists in the United States experimenting on gay sheep and studying what makes them hormonally gay. Media, animal rights groups and gay activists have been in a frenzy over what the research implies.

The experiment involved injecting a drug into pregnant ewes to inhibit the production of a particular hormone during fetal growth, then observing the animal's sexual behaviour and sexual partner preference. Some of the animals were killed to study their brains for structural differences.

Apparently, about 18 sheep are killed each year for the five-year experiment.

Sheep were selected for this experiment because they are the only species in which 8 per cent of males seek to mate other males. This is apparently a natural occurrence, so scientists are able to observe the biological factors that contribute to sexual preference.

Enter the animal and gay activists, and the story gets interesting. They claim the experiment is a prelude to stamping out homosexuality in humans by hormonally altering fetuses.

They also claim that painful brain implants were used to monitor the sheep, which were tied up and allowed to be raped by other sheep. Eventually, the sheep were killed and their brains dissected without dignity and experimented on.

Some of these statements use highly emotive words and are sensationalised.

This is a prime example of hysteria caused by a few creative and concerned people. It is understandable that gay activists would be concerned about any experiment that may be able to prevent the biology that may contribute to making a person gay, but reading about the experiment, there was no such direct implication. It is also very unlikely that scientists in this day and age would set out to do such a thing.

It would be naive to think such an experiment would progress to experiments on pregnant humans to prevent homosexuality. It would seem that some fabrication has been made about the experiments.

My old English teacher taught me to always read the news objectively, and my scientist's instinct also directs me to look at any piece of information with an objective eye. To reduce sensationalism and hype, I beseech readers, and especially writers, to do some research before commenting on any issue.

The gay sheep fiasco is a prime example of what happens when poorly informed people write articles and launch campaigns on something they haven't investigated. I find this problem all the time when dealing with people who cherry-pick their information, ignoring anything that goes against their arguments.

It is true that these scientists opened a Pandora's box when they were quoted as saying the research had 'broader implications for understanding the development and control of sexual motivation and mate selection across mammalian species, including humans'. This sentence could definitely be misconstrued as an attempt at controlling human sexual motivation.

It would seem the scientists involved got tangled up in their poor choice of words. Apparently, their real meaning of 'control' was internal biological controls, not the control of sexual orientation.

It is always good to debate the necessity of animal experiments, especially when the animals are killed. It is good to know there are experts who assess the animal welfare aspects of experiments before giving funding, so I will leave that controversy in their expert hands.

I was involved in animal experimentation in my first-year veterinary anatomy class, where we received the carcass of a former racing greyhound for study. Looking back on the class, it was definitely beneficial for us to dissect the poor fellow. We were taught to respect the dead, and that helped to teach us to save the living.

At the same time, I wish technology would advance to a stage where we can emulate the animal body so a real dog isn't necessary. Until that is feasible, I see no better alternative. All veterinarians today were trained this way and it has benefited animals, agriculture and society.