Us humans have found a seemingly endless list of ways to harm animals in the name of “science.” A range of species including mice, rats, monkeys, chimps, and dogs are subjected to experiments on a daily basis in laboratories. When the invasive experiments include animals like cockroaches, considered by most to be “pests” and not viewed as cute and cuddly too often, it can be hard to inspire sympathy. But, it’s also hard, I hope, to miss the cruelty in surgically turning any living being into a controllable “robot.”
That’s exactly what was unveiled at a recent TEDx talk by Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, co-founders of Backyard Brains. The neuroscientists and engineers plan to ship live cockroaches to students (10 years old and up) across the country starting next month, along with hardware that will allow them to control the roaches via an iPhone, according to ScienceMag.org. The process include a surgery that Backyard Brains says “takes about 45 minutes” and promises that “within 2-4 attempts you will become an expert.”
The instructions for the procedure including “anesthetizing” the roaches by placing them in ice water for 2-5 minutes or “until they stop moving,” then using sandpaper to remove waxy coating on the pronotoum or the shell of their head. An electrode connector and electrodes are then superglued on. It gets worse…their instructions continue with placing the roach back into ice water, then sanding the shell on their head with sandpaper to allow electrodes to be superglued on, and then using a needle to poke a hole in their thorax and inserting a wire. Their antennae are then cut, and electrodes are inserted. A circuit is attached to their backs, and signals are received via an app, allowing users to control the roaches’ left and right movements.
As you might expect, this is getting some reaction from animal advocates. Animal behavior scientist for Humane Society University, Jonathan Balcombe, called the company’s claims that the animals aren’t harmed “disingenuous,” and asked “If it was discovered that a teacher was having students use magnifying glasses to burn ants and then look at their tissue, how would people react?”
Other members of the science and education community are opposed too, including Michael Allen Fox, professor of philosophy at Queen’s University, who said that this idea will “encourage amateurs to operate invasively on living organisms” and “encourage thinking of complex living organisms as mere machines or tools.”
Gage argues that these experiments can teach students that cockroaches “are actually similar to us and have the same neurons that we have.” He also claims that they feel very little pain and adapt quickly to the changes. Gage adds, “I try not to downplay the fact that in science we use animal models and a lot of times they are killed. As scientists, we do this all the time, but it happens behind closed doors.”
Still, he says, “We get a lot of e-mails telling us we’re teaching kids to be psychopaths.” I have to agree that it’s probably not a good idea to teach kids that it’s okay to cut living animals apart and turn them into a half-machine so that you can control them.
I’m not sure what’s more frightening – the fact that Backyard Brains is shipping live cockroaches to students who will cut them up and insert machinery, or that so many people funded this on Kickstarter, surpassing the fundraising goal of $10,000.
While Backyard Brains argues that these experiments will help teach students about the concepts of neuroscience, is this really the only way?