Guest Post on Animal Research: Inadequate laws don’t – but research alternatives will – protect animals in labs

[Ed. Note: A few weeks ago, we had a post comparing the protections offered to humans and animals used in research, and it prompted quite a stir.  We thought the issues merited more discussion from both sides, and therefore solicited blog posts from two divergent perspectives: Theodora Capaldo, President of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society and Tom Holder, founder of Speaking of Research.  Dr. Capaldo's post is below and Mr. Holder's post can be found here.  As always, we welcome discussion via the comment thread, but request that your comments be respectful and focused on the topic rather than the speaker.]

By Theodora Capaldo

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.”[i] 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.”


[i] 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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3 thoughts on “Guest Post on Animal Research: Inadequate laws don’t – but research alternatives will – protect animals in labs

  1. This post fails to mention that although the AWA is the only Federal law regarding research animals, it is NOT the only regulation pertaining to the care and welfare of laboratory animals.

    The Public Health Policy on the Humane Care And Use of Laboratory Animals covers ALL live vertebrate animals used in research that is funded by the NIH. The NIH is the single largest grant funding entity in the US, funding some $20 billion in research

  2. Sorry, posted before I was finished.

    The NIH funds $20 billion in research a year. In places like universities where there are multiple investigators conduction research, even if one researcher is not funded by the NIH, the facility still follows the Policy for the care since all the other animals are covered.

    The author also leaves out the Guide to the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals which is essentially the Bible of animal research. This outlines the care for all animals used in research including veterinary care, housing, environmental controls and enrichment. The author would have you believe that research animals are not given environmental enrichment which is not the case at all. Dogs used in research are required to have a prescribed amount of human interaction and exercise each day. They are not left in cages. Even mice and rats, which the author would have you believe are all but ignored, are given appropriate enrichment such as chewing blocks or nesting material.

    The author does a disservice to her position by intentionally omitting all the facts. The caretakers working in research facilities take their responsibilities towards the animals very seriously and work hard to provide excellent care and enrichment to the animals while they are in our care. Anybody who tells you otherwise has not been in a research facility to see for themselves.

  3. Yes, other regulations were not listed but not to do “a disservice to [our] position by intentionally omitting all the facts.” Space was limited and, as pointed out in the post, we focused only on federal law governing the welfare of animals in labs. Focusing on the AWA was to make the point that even with regulations referred to in the comments, animals are still not protected and their care is always, at the end of the day, at the discretion of the lab workers — making for a vast range of possibilities from horrible to as much kindness as is possible within that world. The salient point is not only what kind of care animals in labs get while not in protocols, while in breeding colonies, etc., but rather that there is no law that protects them from any kind of research protocol once that protocol is approved. This is a point that all rhetoric to assure the public that animals are well cared for evades again and again. Omitting that fact makes arguments to assuage the public of its sincere and founded concerns disingenuous. Anything can be done to any animal in any lab once the protocol is approved by the IACUC.

    Further, when it comes to husbandry, when one considers what is ethologically appropriate for the many species used in research, it is virtually impossible to provide for their cognitive, behavioral and, dare I use the word, emotional needs. Species other than human are rich, complex, feeling, intelligent, empathic, humorous, and a gamut of what we would like to think is exclusive to humans. Imagine a species as active and complex as a monkey being confined to a small space, especially in comparison to their natural world. Imagine their “stimulation” consists of a puzzle board, mirror or other challenge once, twice a day and that this is considered acceptable enrichment. If enrichment were working, we would not see the high incidence of self-mutilation, stereotypic behaviors, withdrawal, anorexia, persistent projectile diarrhea, and other symptoms. The minimal human interaction and minimal and often repetitive physical stimulation provided is not doing the job.

    Indeed I have not visited every lab in the US…but I have visited enough and more importantly I have been contacted by significant numbers of caregivers (often anonymously with no expressed or hidden agenda other than seeking emotional support) who are deeply concerned about the conditions in their labs.

    I want to close with one other point regarding what I believe to be the false assurances behind even citing every regulation in existence. Dr. Holder’s arguments, as does the opinion of so many who try to reassure the public that animals in labs are safe, hide behind a curtain of words and empty protections for the millions of animals right now being horribly harmed, housed, or killed. It is possible to inflict any injury, trauma, disease or assault on any animal used in a lab. Anti-cruelty laws are not applied to researchers – unless they are doing the same thing to their dog or cat at home but not if they are doing it to the ones in their lab cages. Remember, it is even possible to withhold analgesics. Egregious protocols are not from the nightmares of turn of the century science. They continue today, right now.

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