It seems that Cardiff University have been going to extreme lengths to rebuff the old stereotype that the Welsh love animals more than the Scottish love violence and the Irish love getting shit-faced. Their tactic? Conducting a series of experiments in which they sew kitten's eyes shut from birth.
As you can imagine, many people on the cat-lover's Mecca that is the internet got pretty angry about it. In fact, if I was to design the perfect event to incur the wrath of people who regularly visit the World Wide Web, it would be an experiment in which kittens' eyes are forcibly sewn shut against the very little will they possess. So good job, Cardiff—you beat me to it.
It's considered good journalistic practice to get views on any story from both sides, but in this case, the opposing view is pretty easily summarized. You don’t need a PhD in ethics to know that sewing a kitten's eyes shut is bad; they’re kittens, for fuck's sake. All they want is to be tickled behind the ears and turned into memes, not to have needles stabbed into their ikkle, wikkle eye-wids.
I decided to contact Cardiff University to get their side of the story and it turns out that they weren't just doing it for a bit of horribly sadistic fun (who knew?). Instead, the research is being used to develop a cure for amblyopia—or lazy eye—which impairs the vision of the world’s population and is really fucking distracting when you're trying to have a conversation with someone who has it.
Here’s what the university had to say for themselves.
A kitten, seconds before its eyes were sewn shut forever
VICE: Hello, you monster. What exactly is the goal of this gruesome experiment?
Cardiff University Spokesman: Lazy eye affects two to four percent of all children and leads to extremely poor vision, or even clinical blindness in one eye. To date, no treatment is available to restore normal vision in an amblyopic eye after the age of around eight years old, which is the end of the critical period of visual brain development.
Our aim is to use this improved understanding of the brain to treat older children or adults whose amblyopia has been missed or not treated in time by creating similar conditions in the visual cortex of kittens to those which exist during early childhood.
Is this really the only way to figure that out?
It's impossible to use any other kind of technique for this study. Claims that this research can be replaced with CT scans or computer models simply aren't true. The university will always use alternative technology where it exists and only uses animals when absolutely necessary. The purpose of the work and its conduct was approved by both the university’s own ethical review process and the Home Office's Animals in Science Regulation Unit as part of the licensing process.
But couldn't you at least use an animal less cute than a kitten, like a toad?
Cats had to be used for this study because, like primates and a few other mammals, they have frontally-positioned eyes and are therefore prone to develop severe amblyopia similar to humans under similar circumstances. Since amblyopia occurs as part of the development process of the visual system at an early age, the work could only be carried out in young cats or young humans.
Is there not a way to deprive their sight without sewing their eyes shut?
No. The research was done under anesthetic without causing undue distress or discomfort, to the same standard as it would be done by vets, who frequently carry out the same procedure as therapy for eye conditions in cats and dogs.
What happens to the kittens afterwards?
As required by the terms of the Home Office licence, the cats were humanely killed at the end of the experiment.
Jesus fucking Christ.
While the thought of “humanely” killing kittens makes me sick, I don’t have a lazy eye or any of the problems that come with one. And considering the research has to be and inevitably will be conducted on either feline or human offspring, I suppose it's going to cause less of a stink if it's the kittens who end up under the needle and thread. Obviously neither is ideal—and surely if scientists can successfully transplant a uterus, they can work out a way to solve lazy eye without butchering kittens—but I guess this is going to have to be the answer until someone works out how to simulate an eye and spare the lives of all these cute, innocent kitties.
Follow Matt on Twitter: @Matt_A_Shea
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