Animals in Science / Research

Harm and Suffering

Vivisection is one of the worst forms of institutionalized animal abuse in our society, and it is a sanctioned and legal abuse. Within laboratory walls, what can be done to animals has no limit except those imposed by a committee selected by the facility itself. Imagine spending your entire life as a hospital patient or prisoner, and this will only begin to approximate the life of an animal in a laboratory. What happens to you can range from uncomfortable to agonizing to deadly—and you are helpless to defend yourself.

Animals in labs live stressful, monotonous, and unnatural lives of daily confinement and deprivation. The only changes in their lives may come from being called into a research or testing protocol—which may include an invasive experiment, or a procedure whose endpoint is death.

Every year in the U.S., over 25 million animals are used in biomedical experimentation, product and cosmetic testing, and science education. This includes—dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, pigs, sheep, monkeys, chimpanzees, and more. However, the majority of animals in labs (over 90 percent) are rats, mice, and birds. Some estimates place them in the tens to hundreds of millions.

Painful protocols

In research and testing, animals are subjected to experiments that can include everything from testing new drugs to infecting with diseases, poisoning for toxicity testing, burning skin, causing brain damage, implanting electrodes into the brain, maiming, blinding, and other painful and invasive procedures. It can include protocols that cause severe suffering, such as long-term social isolation, electric shocks, withholding of food and water, or repeated breeding and separating of infants from mothers. In toxicity testing, animals used in chronic toxicity and carcinogenicity studies receive the test substance daily, seven days a week, for up to two years with no recovery periods. Many, if not most, animals die before the end of the study. With the exception of chimpanzees, animals who survive their use in research and testing can be killed after the study is completed.

Many animal experiments utilize restraining devices, designed to prevent an animal from moving. Some research projects call for immobilization of specific parts of an animal’s body—head and neck, legs and pelvis—while other protocols involve immobilization of an animal’s entire body. For example, researchers at several major U.S. universities have all conducted “stress experiments” on rats and mice. These experiments included immobilizing mice and rats in tubes, shocking their feet, suspending them by their tails, and forcing them to swim to avoid drowning. Researchers claimed these experiments had relevance to human anxiety and depression. Although restraint is particularly stressful and frustrating for an animal, some experiments are designed to hold animals in partial or total immobilization for months.

Anesthetization, intubation, and euthanasia are also common lab procedures which require extensive training and skill. When improperly performed, these procedures cause extreme pain and discomfort. For example, if a researcher uses a paralyzing agent on an animal but does not monitor vital signs to make sure she/he is adequately anesthetized, there is a great chance that the animal is actually experiencing pain but unable to move. Unfortunately, in some cases, the lab personnel often lack the experience and training—and sometimes the sensitivity—needed to avoid unnecessary animal suffering.

The areas of xenotransplantation (transplanting cells, tissues, or organs from one species into another species) and genetic engineering also create a great deal of suffering and death for animals. Genetic engineering consumes and destroys untold volumes of animals in attempts to create animals with specific traits. Nonhuman primates, cats, dogs, mice, rats, and others have all been subjected to genetic manipulation. Many of these animals die, while suffering from abnormalities and other diseased conditions.

Daily existence

Animals in labs suffer not only pain from protocols, but also severe stress from day-to-day laboratory life. They spend their lives in barren cages, unable to make choices or express natural behaviors. Most never experience fresh air or sunshine, only bars and concrete. Those few facilities that provide some outside caging typically rotate the animals, giving them limited and infrequent amounts of time outdoors. Standard lab conditions, such as small, crowded cages, lack of enrichment, loud noises, and bright lights out of sync with natural lighting are all known to create stress in animals who in turn show physical symptoms of the stress, including chronic inflammatory conditions. Studies show that mice are capable of empathy and become even more stressed when witnessing other mice in distress. Other research documents the long-lasting effects on chimpanzees from the stress and trauma of living in a lab and being used in research and testing. In 2009, an undercover lab investigation revealed monkeys frantically spinning around and around in their cages, biting open wounds, mutilating themselves, and ripping out their own hair, all because of the chronic psychological distress they must endure. The term used for this is “stress-induced psychosis”—laboratories are literally driving these animals crazy. After seeing footage of chimpanzees from this same investigation, famed primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall stated, “In no lab I have visited have I seen so many chimpanzees exhibit such intense fear. The screaming I heard when chimpanzees were being forced to move toward the dreaded needle in their squeeze cages was, for me, absolutely horrifying.”

For all of the animals trapped in labs, their day-to-day existence is traumatic in itself—even without their forced participation in one dreaded protocol after another. They experience ongoing mental and physical suffering from the endless boredom, confinement, fear, and emotional stress of daily laboratory life. Add to this the fear and agony of a procedure, and only then can we start to understand the desperation and pain in which they live, every day—and for most, for their entire lives.

Legal protection: reality or rhetoric?

The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is the only federal law that provides even minimal protection for animals in laboratories. (The federal Public Health Service's (PHS) Policy on the Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals covers animals in NIH-funded research, but the PHS does not conduct inspections itself. Instead, it relies on institutions to inspect their own labs.) However, it specifically excludes rats, mice, and birds bred for research, who constitute 90-95 percent of animals in labs. For the approximately 10 percent of warm-blooded animals in labs who are covered under the AWA, the law covers husbandry only—meaning specific standards for their housing, feeding, and handling, including veterinary care. It does not prohibit any kind of experiment regardless of the amount of pain or distress it might cause. Instead, it requires oversight committees (called Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees, or IACUCs) to review and approve research protocols. These are composed and overseen by the research facility itself and are widely regarded as “rubber stamp” committees. Their members are primarily animal researchers, and the facility’s CEO selects everyone on the committee. As a result, IACUCs allow the majority of proposed experiments, regardless of the amount of suffering they inflict. If deemed “necessary” to the study, researchers can even withhold pain medication.

According to USDA’s latest available figures (2009), 7.8 percent of all AWA covered animals in labs underwent painful procedures without the benefits of pain relief. However, it is assumed that the degree of pain endured is grossly underreported, as no objective criteria is in place to guarantee accurate perception and reporting of pain and suffering. Under current federal law, the administration of pain relief is discretionary, rather than mandatory. When a researcher or attending veterinarian feels that analgesics, anesthesia, or tranquilizers will confound the results of an experiment, pain relief can be legally withheld. This concept of “necessary pain” is basic to the spirit of the AWA, which specifically states that its intent is not to regulate or restrict the planning and performance of experimental designs and protocols. One career researcher, for example, reported chronic diarrhea in monkeys in labs as “normal.” Another claimed the “rocking back and forth” is something “they just do”—so inured are they to the suffering animals in labs endure. In short, while the AWA and the IACUC system purport to ensure “humane” treatment of animals in labs, this system is so limited and so plagued with loopholes that these animals have little or no protection.

Research shows that people accept animal research only when they think that animals don’t suffer, and that it’s scientifically necessary. In fact, they do suffer and it is not necessary. We can attest to this today in a way that we never could in the past. NEAVS’ science team has methodically looked at the use of animals in research and published papers in peer-reviewed journals that demonstrate that animal research is not necessary, is not predictive for humans, and is often irrelevant, inaccurate, or even dangerous for human health. The facts make it clear that we can save animals and humans when we replace animal research with alternative methods that deliver effective, predictive, human-relevant results. In short, we can end the harm and suffering of the animals and better benefit human health.

The question is not, can they reason, nor, can they talk. But, can they suffer? Jeremy Bentham