Research gone wrong

Today a group of Austrian scientists drew international outrage for conducting an experiment that buries pigs alive. “We want to save lives,” one of the researchers said. “That’s the only goal of this study.”

Well, how about not needlessly killing pigs? That would save some lives.

The ongoing study involves burying several pigs alive under snow and monitoring their slow death by suffocation, with the stated goal of determining how a person who is buried by an avalanche might survive.

When confronted today by animal-rights protesters, the authors of the study countered that the pigs are given sedatives and tranquilizers to ease their distress.

Although I think it’s commendable that the researchers are at least considering the pigs’ final hours, the facts of this study raise several questions for me.

First: If the pigs are sedated, their autonomic functions—including respiration—will be depressed. I think it stands to reason that a sedated pig would thus consume far less oxygen than a panicked person who is struggling to escape. Wouldn’t this fundamental disparity automatically invalidate any findings from the study?

Second, the study raises a more practical question: Even if the scientists succeed in determining the avalanche conditions that are most conducive to survival, how will that save human lives? I doubt that anyone caught in a real avalanche will benefit from knowing how big an air pocket is “ideal,” or how long a sedated pig lasted under similar circumstances.

If Austria is truly interested in reducing fatalities, I respectfully suggest that they put their research euros into studying why avalanches happen in the first place. And if they have money left over, perhaps they can spend it on better education for alpine skiers and climbers, and on new rescue equipment.

It’s 2010. Isn’t it time we stopped torturing animals to death in pointless “experiments”?

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