Guest Post on Animal Research
By Theodora Capaldo, EdD
When the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS) launched Project R&R: Release & Restitution for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboratories in 2006, 1,300 chimpanzees languished in U.S. laboratories. The campaign was a focused effort to end invasive and harmful research on the first non-human species in the U.S. Today, more and more chimpanzees are being transferred to sanctuary as momentum for the ethical and scientific cases against using them in biomedical research continues to grow. Though the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act was one of many bills to not pass in the 112th Congress, policy is taking shape that reflects an end to holding and using chimpanzees in US labs. This month an NIH-convened council is expected to release its report on current and future chimpanzee use in NIH-supported research. The report will address how the NIH will realize its commitment to follow the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Sciences’ recommendations from an expert paneled and lengthy assessment of the need for chimpanzees. The IOM report could not find any area of current biomedical research where the use of chimpanzees is critical and concluded that any possible future use must meet strict criteria. As to future need, the IOM noted that it could not conclude whether there would or would not be such future need.
Given the weight of scientific evidence, legislative and government support, and public opinion, chimpanzees who have been subjected to years of trauma, confinement, and research will one day soon have the chance to live the remainder of their lives in sanctuaries. They will be “released” and provided the “restitution” that only a sanctuary of high standards is capable of providing. The plight of chimpanzees in US labs highlights the suffering of all animals in laboratories. The scientific arguments highlight that even a species as closely related to humans as chimpanzees is a poor, limited, and even dangerous model by which to study human health and the inferiority of all animal research compared to modern methods. Chimpanzees are a keystone species by which myriad issues regarding the use of animals in research can be measured. Survivors in sanctuary bear witness to the degree of harm and suffering caused to them and are another indictment of the lack of effective laws and enforcement of those laws for animals in labs.
In short, there are no effective laws protecting animals in laboratories. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA), the only U.S. federal law governing animals’ “welfare,” provides minimal protections for less than 10% of animals used in laboratories. It excludes rats, mice, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and farmed animals in research.
For the few animals it covers, the regulations only address housing, feeding, handling, and veterinary care – and even these inadequately. Confinement in small, barren cages is common and animals live under constant stress and boredom as testified to in the animals’ behaviors: dogs curled up in the back of a cage; alarm calls from chimpanzees as workers prepare for a “knockdown” (anesthesia by dart gun); and monkeys driven literally insane by routine lab stressors. Though highly social species like primates are supposed to be given contact with their own species, such contact can be satisfied via the ability to just see or hear another individual. For some experiments it is legal to isolate them entirely. Consequently, stereotypic behaviors, self-mutilation, withdrawal, anorexia, and other signs of severe psychological stress are prevalent and go uncorrected. Only an estimated 125 US Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors enforce regulations at over 12,000 research, exhibition, breeding, or animal dealer facilities, hardly allowing for adequate inspection or enforcement of the AWA. When the USDA finds facilities in non-compliance with law, they often do not issue penalties. When they do, they are small and inconsequential, especially in comparison to the profits gleaned from animal use both in federal grant dollars and private contracts with pharmaceutical companies, etc.
The AWA cannot prohibit any protocol approved by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), whose members are appointed by the facility itself and largely composed of animal researchers and others associated with the research institution, regardless of the pain or distress it causes. Pain medicine, food, and water can be withheld; an animal can be kept in isolation or restraining devices; or infected with diseases, poisoned, burned, shocked, paralyzed, and subjected to other invasive procedures. The public sees disturbing undercover photos and videos and wonders why the USDA does not take action. Quite simply: because it is legal to cause severe suffering and death to animals in laboratories.
Animals in labs suffer tremendously in the name of science. However, systematic analysis of biomedical literature shows that animals have given us inadequate or erroneous information in human disease and toxicology and that in many cases medical breakthroughs were delayed by dependence on animal models. If you flipped a coin to guess how a human will respond to a certain drug or chemical, for example, your prediction would be as accurate as if you tested it on a nonhuman animal. While humans and other animals are similar on the gross anatomical level, we differ at the cellular and molecular levels where disease occurs and medications act.
According to Neil Wilcox, former senior science policy officer with the FDA, “The technology that is emerging today looks at the cellular, subcellular, molecular, and genetic level, examining the effect of a particular chemical on a part of a molecule, a gene, or an enzyme. We’re asking questions about the specific mechanism that causes the effect."1 Animals cannot answer these questions – they only give us guesses. Science is not – or at least should not be – about guessing; it is about prediction (validity) and consistency of results (reliability).
Even in a species’ whose DNA is nearly identical to humans, the chimpanzee, gene variations and expression result in vast important differences that render even the chimpanzee an “unnecessary” model to study human health and disease. Species differences exist in the process by which a drug is absorbed, distributed, metabolized, and eliminated, and in the causes, progression, and outcome of diseases. As a result, for example, a mouse may develop cancer in the same location as a human, but they are not the same cancers. According to Dr. Richard Klausner, former Director of the National Cancer Institute, “We have cured cancer in mice for decades – and it simply didn’t work in humans.” Breakthroughs in cancer treatment can be attributed, in large part, to early detection from sophisticated imaging technology.
Non-animal methods are superior on all fronts: they are more efficient, accurate, and cost-effective than animal experiments. Using human cell cultures to test toxicity yields 76-84% accurate prediction, illuminates specific organ damage, and other more meaningful results than animal tests which hover around 46-50% accuracy, literally no better than a coin flip. The inadequacy of the AWA and its enforcement as well as unnecessary, inferior, and cruel animal use must be addressed in a civilized and scientifically-advanced country such as ours. We are hopefully moving toward more honest science where the economic gains that fuel the use and abuse of animals will be replaced by the better and more humane science of “alternatives.”
1 Rudacille, D. 2000. The Scalpel and the Butterfly: The Conflict Between Animal Research and Animal Protection. USA: University of California Press.
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