1. What is wrong with experimenting on animals?
Regardless of how one feels about the use of animals in experiments, everyone acknowledges that this is an area fraught with scientific, ethical and other concerns.
To begin, there is the problem of applying results from animal experiments to human outcomes. No one denies that the track record here has been poor. (For additional information on this, see questions 4 and 5).
And though the animal research industry constantly reassures us that animals used in research do not suffer, there is much evidence to the contrary.
Undercover investigations have exposed grossly unacceptable conditions for animals at multiple university and other independent research centers. Similarly, whistleblowers at Columbia University and The Coulston Foundation were instrumental in revealing the cruel treatment of animals at those institutions.
Even the U.S. government’s own inspections reveal a disturbing picture. For 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (the agency responsible for overseeing laboratories), reported a shocking 17,242 violations of the Animal Welfare Act affecting an estimated half million animals. This number does not include mice, rats and birds who aren’t even covered by the law.
USDA reported for 2010 that 97,123 animals endured painful procedures without the benefit of any pain relieving drugs, a number that rose by nearly 20,000 since data was obtained in 2007. Here again, the numbers of rats, mice and birds, who account for an estimated 95% or greater of all animals used, are not included in that figure.
Apart from what they endure in experimental procedures, the suffering of animals in laboratories is present even under the best of circumstances, due to the lifelong confinement, isolation from other members of their species, and sensory deprivation.
Many scholars have compellingly argued that humans and animals share key qualities – the ability to experience fear, pain, loneliness, boredom, depression, and frustration, among others – which renders their use in intrusive, painful and/or lethal experimentation morally indefensible.
2. How many animals are used each year?
The exact number of animals who die in research and experiments in the U.S. is not known. This is because rats, mice and birds, who are estimated to comprise between 95-99% of all animals in laboratories, have been unjustifiably excluded from protection by the federal Animal Welfare Act. With the continued rise in genetically modified mice, several prominent scientists have estimated there may be as many as 100 million mice used annually in experiments. The numbers of birds, fish and reptiles used in testing and experiments are also not reported. For 2010, USDA reported 1.13 million animals covered by the Animal Welfare Act were used in the U.S. (exact figure is 1,134,693) Thus, if uncounted species account for 99% of animals, the 100 million figure is a reasonable estimate.
This number is considerably higher than that of other nations. Recent data indicates that the number of animals used in research is 2.51 million in England, 1.66 million in Canada, and 0.73 million in the Netherlands. Veterinarian and researcher Andrew Knight, who has studied the topic of animals in laboratories extensively, reports that based on his investigation, the grand total for animal use worldwide is in excess of 126 million.
3. Doesn’t the law protect animals used in research?
The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is the primary law covering laboratory animals in the United States. The AWA was passed in 1966 and amended in 1970, 1976 and 1985. The scope of the AWA is limited, in that it does not restrict what can be done to an animal during a study – it only applies to the type of care an animal receives before and after experimentation. The following provision in the AWA grants animal researchers impunity to do as they wish in the course of an experiment: “Nothing in these rules, regulations, or standards shall affect or interfere with the design, outline, or performance of actual research or experimentation by a research facility as determined by such research facility.”
The AWA only applies to species covered by the Act, such as dogs, cats, primates, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, (some) farm animals. Rats, mice, birds and all invertebrate species are not protected by the AWA and represent 95 percent or more of the total number of animals used in experimentation.
The animal research establishment constantly touts the regulatory and oversight process as assurance that animals do not suffer in laboratories. In actuality, the record reveals quite a different picture. Frequent and continuous violations of the Animal Welfare Act (see question 1) coupled with copious testimony from whistleblowers and undercover investigators, document a system in which labs are self-monitoring and violators are regularly exonerated.
Animals laboratories operated by the federal government (such as those by the EPA, CDC and FDA, etc) are not subject to outside investigation but are allowed to self-monitor themselves. In this system, institutions are asked to provide a statement of Animal Welfare Assurance, describing how they will comply with appropriate policy.
Finally there is what animal researchers like to refer to as “the gold standard” for denoting the highest caliber of animal oversight, accreditation from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC). Accreditation is maintained through a pre-arranged site visit by AAALAC that takes place once every three years. Enrollment in AAALAC is entirely voluntary.
4. What about all the breakthroughs we’ve gained through animal research?
For centuries, scientists have engaged in researching on animals, among other means, to answer questions about human biology and medicine. As they have learned more, and as they have increasingly been able to rely on new technologies, scientists have readily acknowledged that the use of animals to answer questions about human biology is at best limited, and at worst, seriously flawed.
Due to differences in the underlying biology between humans and animals, animal experiments give unreliable research results. They fail to identify dangerous or lethal effects that occur in humans, they predict treatment success and then fail when tested in patients, and they incorrectly label some drugs and treatments as unsafe that are actually safe and beneficial.
Animal experiments are profoundly unreliable in predicting the effects of drugs and other treatments in humans. Despite scores of animal tests, every one of more than 80 HIV/AIDS vaccines, more than 150 stroke treatments, more than two dozen attempts to develop a cure for diabetes and more than two dozen treatments for spinal cord injury that were tested in animals have failed when tested in people.
The historical value of animal research with regard to human health is highly debatable. A close examination of the development of several diseases with cures attributed to animal research reveals a different story.
Diabetes: Human studies by Cawley, Bright and Bouchardat in the 18th and 19th centuries first revealed the importance of pancreatic damage in diabetes. This predates the dog studies by Banting and Best by over a century. Human studies by Paul Langerhans in 1869 led to the discovery of insulin-producing islet cells. Although cows and pigs were once the primary sources for insulin to treat people with diabetes, human insulin can now be manufactured in vitro and is the product of choice for insulin dependant people with diabetes. It is important to note that insulin is not a cure for diabetes, but the only known treatment.
Polio: Studies on monkeys led to gross misconceptions that delayed the fight against poliomyelitis, according to a statement made to Congress by Dr. Albert Sabin, the inventor of the oral polio vaccine. The erroneous conclusion that the polio virus infects through the monkey nervous system contradicted previous human studies which demonstrated that the gastrointestinal system was the primary route of infection. This resulted in misdirected preventive measures and delayed the development of a vaccine.
Dr. Edward Kass of Harvard Medical School, asserts that the “primary credit for the virtual eradication of these [infectious] diseases must go to improvements in public health, sanitation and the general improvement in the standard of living.” These benefits have nothing to do with animal studies.
Animal research consumes billions of dollars and other resources that would save more lives if directed towards human clinical studies, prevention or wider access to health care. Over 44 million Americans have either no or inadequate health care coverage.
5. What about drug testing?
In response to the thalidomide disaster in the early 1960s, Congress and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided that all new drugs should be tested for safety in animals before being approved for human testing. It was assumed that animals would predict harmful side effects of drugs, but the ensuing decades have shown that the opposite is true – animals respond differently and unpredictably.
The statistics show irrefutably that methods used in preclinical testing (mostly animal methods) to select drugs for human testing are unreliable and even dangerous. This is acknowledged by the FDA, by the Health and Human Services Department, and by the pharmaceutical industry.
The FDA reports that 92% of drugs approved for testing in humans fail to receive approval for human use. This failure rate has increased from 86% in 1985, despite all the advances and refinements intended to make animal tests more accurate. The failure rate is at least 95% for cancer drugs.
The Journal of the American Medical Association reported in April 1998 that adverse reactions to prescription drugs (all of which must first pass a battery of animal tests) kill more than 100,000 humans each year. Animal tests failed to predict these dangers. This is not surprising since, in addition to wide differences between human and animal physiology, animals are unable to relate the most common side effects that occur with medicines such as headaches, dizziness, malaise, depression or nausea. These symptoms may often be the initial warning signs of more severe problems.
It is impossible to take drugs that haven’t been tested on animals because the FDA currently requires animal tests for pharmaceuticals. Hence, virtually all drugs have been, at some time, tested on animals. But just because drugs have been tested on animals doesn’t make animal tests any more relevant, useful or valid to humans, and it certainly hasn’t made drugs safer.
6. What kinds of alternatives to the use of animals in research are there?
For more information please see our Humane Research page. (hyperlink)
According to Melvin E. Andersen, the director of the division of computational systems biology at the Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences, “Animal tests are no longer the gold standard. It is a marvelously new world.” Dr. Anderson’s statement, reported in the Washington Post in April 2008, reflects the quiet revolution that has unfolded in the world of biomedical science, and of which most people are, as yet, unaware.
Cutting-edge technology has forged new frontiers with the use of lasers, fiberoptics, microchips, genomics, proteomics, computer-based drug design, digital imaging, and other advanced non-animal methods. These technologies offer ways to conduct efficient, high-speed and highly effective means of science and health research without the use of animals.
For example, DNA microarrays are a powerful technology that allows scientists to examine the activities of thousands of genes in a short span of time, aiding drug development and helping medical researchers learn more about heart disease and cancer.
Magnetoencephalography (MEG) enables the non-invasive study of the human brain for research into vision, hearing, brain injury and neurological illness. Coupled with other scans such as MRI and CAT scans, these methods can eliminate experiments on animals with recording electrodes implanted into their skulls.
Exciting new biotech companies like The Hurel Corporation (www.hurelcorp.com), and Asterand (www.asterand.com) offer breakthrough technologies that are one hundred percent relevant to human medicine and unhampered by the problems that beset animal experiments. These companies are a small sampling of dozens of others that delve into twenty-first century technology, sparing animals’ lives and yielding promising results for human medicine.
Increasingly, attention is being focused on the power of human-centered medicine. For example, Newsweek magazine reported in September 2008 on amazing strides made in childhood cancer research, which have been based largely on clinical observation of children undergoing treatment in the health care setting. The article contrasts this stunning achievement with the extremely limited progress that has been seen in other areas of cancer research, which have remained in large part dependent on the use of animals.
As explained to Newsweek, Dr. Paul Bunn, Director of the International Society for the Study of Lung Cancer said “Animal models have not been very predictive of how well [cancer] drugs would do in people. We put a human tumor under the mouse’s skin, and that microenvironment doesn’t reflect a person’s—the blood vessels, inflammatory cells or cells of the immune system.” Fran Visco, Founder of the National Breast Cancer Coalition and cancer survivor, told Newsweek, “Animals don’t reflect the reality of cancer in humans. We cure cancer in animals all the time, but not in people.”
Human tissue banks are greatly expanding every year to provide ethically obtained tissues from volunteers that can be used effectively in drug development and other treatments. For example, cell culture work with HIV has revealed how the virus replicates in humans and led to the development of effective drugs to combat AIDS in humans. Chemically engineered versions of skin and eye tissue allow screening tests to be carried out without immense suffering for countless animals.
These methods are just a few that have prompted a revolution in biomedical research and rendered reliance on animals outdated and even counterproductive. So powerful and effective are these emerging methods that in February 2008, three key U.S. government agencies arrived at a revolutionary agreement to begin phasing out animal testing and instead pursue innovative and animal-free methods to evaluate the safety of new drugs and chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Toxicology Program (NTP), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) mapped out a five-year plan that utilizes cutting-edge technology to replace the use of animals in toxicity testing. The agreement is based on a report issued by the National Research Council (NRC) in June, 2007, which concluded that ending reliance on animal tests will allow scientists to more accurately and reliably predict health risks.
Scientists have only just begun to tap the potential of these new technologies. Their full capabilities cannot be realized while dependence on animal experiments persists. As Dr. Anderson further stated in his interview with the Washington Post, “The reason we use animal tests is because we have a comfort level with the process . . . not because it is the correct process, not because it gives us any real new information we need to make decisions.”
6. If animal experimentation is of such questionable value, why does it persist?
This is a difficult question but there are several factors that contribute to the prevalence of animal research:
Animal experiments are easily designed and published. In the “publish or perish” world of academic science, it requires little originality or insight to take an already well-defined animal model, change a variable (or the species being used), and obtain new data within a short period of time. In contrast, clinical research (while much more useful) is often more difficult and time-consuming.
Vivisection’s morality is rarely questioned by researchers, who generally choose to dogmatically defend the practice rather than confront the obvious moral issues it raises. Animal researchers’ language betrays their efforts to avoid morality. For example, they “sacrifice” animals rather than kill them, and they may note animal “distress,” but they rarely acknowledge pain or other suffering. Young scientists quickly learn to adopt this mindset from their superiors,
Animal researchers’ ethical defense of the practice has been superficial and self-serving. Usually, they simply point to supposed human benefits and argue that the ends justify the means.