Animal law, animal rights, and biomedical research: Can’t we all just get along?

30 05 2011

According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund 125 schools in the U.S. and Canada alone offer “Animal Law” classes as of Spring 2010. Possibly as a response to a growing zeal in the public for animal rights, the already saturated field of Law has left law school students searching for a new niche.

Certainly, we love our pets– some surveys suggest that 62% of U.S. households have a beloved pet.  According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association’s (APPMA) annual pet ownership survey pet spending has more than doubled from $17 billion in 1994 to over $50 billion in 2010. Last summer I saw a man, running in the park, dressed in all yellow with matching yellow-rimmed sunglasses.  Proudly running at his owner’s feet was a small dog donning the same outfit, complete with yellow-rimmed doggles. I knew they were called doggles because I was introduced to them several years ago through a T.V. show where a dog was featured riding around in a convertible with his tongue sticking out and the doggles strapped around his head. The goggles portion sat crooked atop his little snout,  successfully covering only one eye while the other eye was partially covered, but mostly smooshed.  The host interviewed the owner and excitedly asked her with a huge grin, “Does he like them?”  The owner said, “I’m not sure, but I think he likes that his eyes are protected when we’re riding in the convertible.”  I tried to put a “Happy New Year” hat on my dog once. He convinced me that animal fashion is its own special form of animal cruelty.

There are more obvious forms of animal cruelty. The story of Michael Vick and his Bad Newz Kennels brought national public attention to animal cruelty and animal rights.    There is also a movement to file lawsuits on behalf of the animals such as those affected by BP’s oil spill. In this article, Adam P. Karp, an attorney in Bellingham, Washington, says  “The law should recognize animals as legal persons with the same access to justice.” And more and more examples of animal cruelty that have come to the public eye on waves of the organic food movement. Documentaries like Food, Inc. have highlighted the darker side of mass-produced meats and numerous organizations now advocate on behalf of farm animals. When we think of animal cruelty in the case of Michael Vick, we understand that we must intervene in order to maintain the moral fabric of society by prevented debasing acts against our humanity.  It’s a win-win, right? But this might be a more difficult point to argue since people often have different moral threads that they weave into their moral codes.  In the case of animals used for food, vegetarian or meat-atarian, it arguably become a health concern.  Our physical bodies are at steak, er stake.  We protect the animals, we decrease e. coli problems, ergo we don’t have e.coli in our spinach and meat.

What about animals used for research and research on incurable diseases? I went to a talk entitled, “Public Opinion and the Use of Animals in Research” by Paul McKellips at the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR) where McKellips warned a room full of scientists about the waning public support for animal research and made the call for scientists to talk to their communities about animal research.

What was appalling about the audience was that very few scientists from the primate facility showed up to this talk and of those that were there, most left before the talk was over right after they had their fill of free pizza.  I recently led a discussion in my lab about speaking to the community and general audiences about their work, and while some expressed some interest or anger, most seemed to feel a degree of trepidation or plain disinterest.  The most vehement argument I heard in defense of animal research was that animal rights activists were “all crazy” and that no one would listen to them anyway. However, this argument is quite wrong and weak.  Most are more well-spoken than your average scientist, and for that matter much more (financially) supported in their campaigns against research than those who advocate for animal-based research. It’s critical when making any argument to know what and who you’re arguing against.

What are the common arguments against animal research and how do animal research advocates answer to them?  There is a pretty good list of arguments and responses here at Understanding Animal Research (UK). I prefer this to the Foundation for Biomedical Research (or Research Saves) site because the UK site relies less on manipulation and pulling heart strings (see “Jen’s video” on the FBR site not to mention the preview for billboards that I saw during Paul McKellips’ talk featuring a body in a morgue and a toe tag that said “I didn’t want to benefit from meds created with animal research” and an Advance Animal Directive which basically makes those for animal research kinda sound like jerks) and more on providing information.

When listening to arguments against animal research, I find the following to be the most compelling. I have also included responses from the Understanding Animal Research website.  I thought they did a pretty good job answering some of these concerns.

1. Animals aren’t people and haven’t generated any new cures for people.

“All mammals are descended from common ancestors, so humans are biologically very similar to other mammals. All mammals, including humans, have the same organs – heart, lungs, kidneys, liver etc – that work in the same way, controlled via the bloodstream and nervous system.

Of course there are minor differences, but these are far outweighed by the remarkable similarities. The differences can also give important clues about diseases and how they might be treated – for instance, if we knew why the mouse with muscular dystrophy suffers less muscle wasting than human patients, this might lead to a treatment for this debilitating and fatal disorder.

Vitamins work in the same way in animals as they do in people – research on guinea pigs led to the discovery of how vitamin C works. Hormones found in animals also work in a similar way in people. The following animal hormones have all been used successfully in human patients: insulin from pigs or cows; thyrotropin from cows; calcitonin from salmon; adrenocorticotrophic hormone from farm animals; oxytocin and vasopressin from pigs.”

2. I’m not against all animal research, just research that cannot benefit animals such as those directed to diseases that animals don’t get like Huntington’s Disease.

“In fact many veterinary medicines are the same as those used for human patients: examples include antibiotics, pain killers and tranquillisers. Many of the veterinary medicines that are used to treat animals are the same as, or very similar to, those used to treat human patients. Most human diseases exist in at least one other species. Many different animals naturally get illnesses such as cancer, heart failure, asthma, rabies and malaria and they can be treated in much the same way as human patients. There is evidence that dinosaurs suffered from arthritis. Chimpanzees can get polio and the human vaccine has been used to protect them in the wild.”

In addition, I’d like to add that although Huntington’s may not naturally occur in animals, Huntington’s is thought to involve a failure in the normal machinery of protein degradation, a process which is shared by animals used in research. The research findings from current studies may prove to have a benefit for both non-human animals and humans in the future.  Further, basic research also has great value and data from these studies is often an intimate part of leading to applied clinical research and providing foundational building blocks for clinical research.

Here is a nice list (it’s not exhaustive) of diseases and the role animal research has played in advancing treatment.

3. Laboratory animals suffer

“Most animal research involves mild procedures such as taking a blood sample, giving a single injection, or having a change of diet. If more invasive procedures are necessary, then anaesthetics and pain relief will be given whenever appropriate.

It is in researchers’ interests to make sure animals suffer as little as possible; stressed animals are less likely to produce reliable results. All animal research must pass an ethical evaluation which weighs up its pros and cons and decides whether it is justified. The research then has to be approved by Home Office Inspectors, who are all doctors or vets and who ensure that high welfare standards are applied.

Any animal suffering undue pain or distress that cannot be alleviated must be put down immediately and painlessly: this is the law.”

As a researcher, I know that there are many strict regulations both within the university and by government organizations to monitor animal welfare in research and prior to 1966, this was not always the case. The Animal Welfare Act and regulations monitoring the welfare of animals generally guard against the physical and psychological distress of non-human animals. 

When we’re talking about rodents, the general public doesn’t really feel much sympathy. In fact, anyone can easily purchase services or a host of rat-killing devices from poison and slow death to electric shock (and I wonder if maybe animal law would be useful in regulating these devices). On the other hand, people almost universally have trouble with monkey research due to their more similar nature to humans.

I have two problems with the above positions–

1. How do we really understand the degree of suffering non-human animals have?

2. Why would rats be any less entitled to rights than monkeys?

1. As a neuroscientist, I can tell you this.  We have not even come close to understanding the biological processes that make up individual thoughts.  In other words, no one knows how a thought is made.  That includes thoughts on suffering, sadness, loneliness, etc. Sure we may understand how to manipulate and alleviate pathological depression to some extent, but we can’t with any certainty say that our research animals are happy or satisfied, or even if our pets are happy or satisfied or suffering. However, rather than discouraging me from animal research, I believe that  there is an intense need for more research in this area (not less). For example, a recent article has developed a way to identify pain in mice, by examining and scoring their “grimaces.” While this may seem odd upon first glance, these studies “… will not only be an important tool in helping scientists ensure that laboratory animals don’t suffer unnecessarily, but could lead to new and better pain-relief drugs for humans.” –particularly in situations where verbal communication is not possible such as with infants or with patients in circumstances where speaking is impaired.

2. While it may be easy for some people to say that humans have dominion over all other living creatures–we should question this assumption and the roots of our moral assertions (After all, it wasn’t too long ago that women and black people weren’t considered people). Even the most educated people fail to recognize a host of almost intuitive (Western) principles that were adopted from Judeo-Christian practices regardless of a proclaimed Christian faith or orientation.  Similarly, the notion of martyrdom is also celebrated in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Whether researchers want to question it or not, we as researchers are entering a time where we are left with little choice and are increasingly finding ourselves on the “wrong” side of the animal research equation. FBR’s Paul McKellips personally told me that researchers are “on a sinking ship” despite his efforts and his polling results showing that 50%+ of the U.S. public supported animal research. And it’s not hard to see, the Animal Rights Movement is almost en vogue with “all natural”, “organic” and vegetarian/vegan products becoming popularized. After all, organic products are advertised as, “worth the cost”. It would almost seem foolish to not jump on this moralistic money train, and take up a career in defending animals. And frankly, it may not seem obvious what the immediate price of taking up this moral high ground might be.  What does the average person feel they give up by being moralistic about animal research when most of them rarely consider where their favorite medications originated, or even more rarely come in contact with a biomedical researcher?

In this case, biomedical researchers and the general public alike must take up the responsibility of being engaged in this conversation.  In this blog, I have repeatedly advocated for scientists to cultivate skills in public communication, but I also advocate for public audiences to be critical thinkers.  Everyone must take part in the conversation of where and how our tax dollars are being spent for biomedical research. Biomedical research is different in that the monetary return on research or even the medical advances that may come from this research are not immediately apparent. Basic research perhaps suffers that most scrutiny in this light.  Biomedical researchers should be able to explain to anyone how each piece of new information that is gathered about basic biology can be applied to numerous health and disease-related states. Scientific research utilizes  a systematic process, but more importantly scientific discovery is a creative process.  It is through this creativity that we have been able to discover numerous new medications and new applications of old drugs, often based on revisiting data collected decades ago. This is the beauty of peer-reviewed scientific data–it’s not simply a consumable. Scientific research is an investment that has a legacy of providing valuable information for generations to come. And as it stands,  the only way to achieve critical biomedical discoveries that benefit the public health of our society is through research in living preparations such as non-human animals or humans where biomedical researchers can examine toxicity profiles and efficacy profiles of new treatments at the systems level.

When considering how we may best co-exist with animals, we must consider the context, and be careful to question our assumptions and root of our assumptions (religious bias, childhood upbringing, engrained social prejudices). An important distinction must be made between animals rights, either legal or moral, vs. animal welfare.  Laws may help establish guidelines to maintain animal welfare and even moral rights appropriate for the context (e.g.  animals as pets, research subjects, or in the wild). Biomedical research in animals must continue to be monitored, and conducted with compassion and exquisite care for the research subjects. This is important not only for the well-being of non-human animals, but for both the non-human animals and humans in our society who benefit from these treatments every day. An informed public and well-spoken biomedical research community must lead animal law in directions that align with goals for flourishing society.


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