A rat runs through a maze to reach the other side. Whether there’s a reward strategically placed, the presence of water, or an alteration in the rat’s brain chemistry, it’s a test most people can picture or remember. The goal is to uncover some scientific marvel regarding memory, learning, or anything else that hopefully helps us understand the human and animal mind.
UNM Professor Emeritus John Gluck however, has dedicated his life to ensuring the focus is not just on the end of the maze, but the rodent participant on the inside. He has made sure to ask: in the course of doing research, what do we owe to the animals for their sacrifice? It’s a question which has persisted for many he’s impacted, for decades.
“I just read an email from a man who took a course from me in 1972. The former student was recalling a lab meeting where another student said the rat in the experimental maze that he worked with kept biting him,” Gluck recalled. “However, he found that the rats never bit him because he stroked them and calmed them before he put them to work. He told me he remembered he was worried I was gonna be mad at him for doing that, but I wasn’t. In fact, I told the other students to do the same thing.”
Gluck is a proud purveyor of psychology and research ethics, a focus which began for him in the 1960’s. What began even earlier was his desire to help understand degenerative brain diseases, as multiple members of his family suffered from them. That was crucial, as was his love for animals.
“I grew up in a family that cherished the animals that shared our home in a small basement apartment in New York City,” he said. “To this day I like having a house where animals are a member of the family. My children grew up learning about other beings and what they need, the surprises they give us and what they seem to know about the world.”
Still, he quickly realized when starting his student tenure at the University of Wisconsin’s Primate Lab in the 60’s, that when it came to neuroscience and psychology research, the needs of the humans for knowledge took priority over the comfort of the animals.
“Animal research was a very dominant force in both fields, so I followed that path. It was a difficult transition for me, since I had a lot of concern and respect for non-human lives,” Gluck said. “What struck me right away in these labs was that they were doing very harsh and rigorous studies. The methods I saw in my early science exposure ran against my value system.”
It was a sign of the times that research labs across the country engaged in intense, often painful studies with animals. The Nuremberg Code had been established in 1947. This document stated, in light of the horrible atrocities and torture of Jews and others experienced at the hands of Nazi scientists in World War II, experiments should always be initially based on the results of animal testing. Not only that, but human consent for research participation was absolutely essential.
“The Nuremberg Trials revealed that a number of well-known scientists performed ghastly human experiments without consent and they were punished for their crimes,” Gluck said. “Since then there's been a lot of very important work to develop a formal ethical structure for doing human research.”
So, Gluck, as a graduate student, participated in multiple studies involving nonhuman primates that looked at the effects of early life experiences on the ability to learn, trying to disentangle elements of the age-old nature versus nurture debate. These experiments required separating young monkeys from their mothers and exposing them to environments that differed in terms of their social complexity.
Upon graduation, Gluck received a call from the University of New Mexico, which at the time, wanted its own Primate Behavior Lab. This was before the building of the Psychology department was even complete.
“I was reasonably successful in creating a primate lab here–from a perspective of the science itself and being productive in discovering the vulnerabilities of the learning process,” he said.
In addition to continuing his research, Gluck regularly taught a primate behavior course in Mitchell Hall. The day a student approached him with a book and a question, was when he was reminded of his long standing ethical dilemma when it came to animals. That was the famous Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer.
“I think it was the third chapter of that book the student asked me to read where Singer criticizes how some research is so demanding and distressing on animals, and the benefits that come out are very minor and maybe even obvious. It was an enormous welfare cost to the animals with not much benefit for the science of humans or animals,” Gluck said. “He was actually describing the lab I worked at in Wisconsin. As you could imagine this got my attention.”
After much reflection and ethics study, Gluck became one of the group of primate researchers who begged the question, ‘if the experimental circumstances are past a certain point of harm where it would be clearly unethical to involve human volunteers, why would it be seen as ethically appropriate to use animals that would also experience similar harm?’
“The question that haunted me then and still does, is what characteristics must a being possess in order to gain access to the ethical norms and protection of a society?’” Gluck said. “Is it that they must just be human-like, or something else?’”
As he grew into his role as a mentor, these qualms began to influence his teaching for the better.
“I began to be more open to the ethical questions that were starting to come up more frequently,” Gluck said. “I'd be doing experiments, and would listen to the student that would say with sincerity that they had an ethical objection to it.”
However, while he had his own ethical epiphany, many of his colleagues were not on board with that mindset.
“It was a very important time in my life and I would say sadly I was not aware of many of my colleagues who I could talk openly about it with,” Gluck said.
He attributes that in part to the basic overwhelming desire for knowledge, to understand nature, and improve the status of human welfare no matter the cost.
“Ethics used to not be part of the conversation. That's how important this information was. I saw in my own graduate education it was the same kind of argument– this knowledge is worth it, so let's keep our emotions and questions to the side and proceed with the studies." – Professor Emeritus John Gluck
He compares it to the mindset of the physicists Werner Heisenberg and Enrico Fermi who argued about detonating the first hydrogen bomb, even though there were distinct possibilities that the atmosphere might be lit with fire. Fermi insisted it was still a wonderful experiment no matter the outcome.
“Science is the dominant principle. The research imperative was such a powerful motivating force it just frequently trumped all other concerns,” Gluck said.
Today, although animal testing still goes on, there are efforts to protect and limit the number of animals experimented on. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a plan in 2019 to cut down on studies using mammal testing by 30% by 2025 and to eliminate it altogether by 2035. In December 2022, as well, President Biden updated the U.S. Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to no longer include the requirement that pharmaceutical companies must test safety and effectiveness on animals. As it turns out, they are frequently not good models of the human response.
“There is an ethical structure in human research built into it. A lot of people feel comfortable with human labs because ethical considerations take place before. Before volunteers sit down, they can assume that,” Gluck said. “I can also better predict how another human being is likely going to react because I'm a human too. I can’t get into the mind of an animal in the same way.”
In New Mexico, there’s still a battle within labs for proper primate treatment. In 2019, Lovelace Biomedical was fined for the death of two of its monkeys. To this day, advocates are working to release dozens of chimpanzees from the Alamogordo testing facility and send them to sanctuary as promised by Federal law.
Gluck’s passion and work over the last few decades has been emboldened with numerous publications, books, and accolades–including PETA’s Animal Advocacy Award. Now at almost 80, he still teaches at Georgetown University, while working on advocacy with the Phoenix Zones Initiative here in New Mexico.
“There's a lot of improvement in animal research–how it is conducted and the oversight,” he said. “There is much more uncertainty about the consequent harms.”
Among all his achievements, Gluck says that he holds the utmost pride in his role as a teacher and mentor. Someone who listens, collaborates, and is open to critique, is the ideal person in a world of research. This was something he felt was missing in his experience that he wanted to give back.
“What I realized is that as a student many of us failed to express our ethical questions and concerns. We thought, ‘who am I, a student, to criticize or question my professor?’ As I developed my lab over the years at UNM, I tried to keep the door of criticism open for students, animal caregivers, and the public that supports and funds the work,” Gluck said. “They all have taught me a great deal about how to be an ethical scientist and teacher. The possession of a thinking heart is a crucial foundation for honest success in scientific research.”
It’s clear from something as small as receiving an email 50 years later, Gluck continues to inspire ethical discussions and fond research memories.
“I tried to ensure that important ethical questions were asked, like ‘what harms another being?’ Students may think they don’t know enough to make judgments about how good a scientist their professor is. They have to assume it, and that may not always be the case,” Gluck said. “These students need to learn more than scientific knowledge and research techniques. They have to be encouraged to develop a moral identity as a scientist, so I think my contribution as a teacher and research mentor is the most important to me.”