Opposition to Animal Research: Who Benefits, Really?

A recent edition of Nature News brought some terribly worrisome news: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the anti-science, anti-knowledge, anti-animal experimentation pressure campaign group based in Norfolk, Virginia, has apparently secured –

… written assurances from the world’s two largest air-cargo carriers, FedEx and UPS, that they will not transport mammals for laboratory use. UPS says that it is also planning to further “restrict” an exemption that allows the transport of amphibians, fish, insects and other non-mammals (Nature, 489: 344–5, 20 September 2012).

As this Nature News report, as well as the Editorial highlighting this issue (Nature, 489: 336, 20 September 2012), indicates, this particular move is not likely to have too serious an impact on the availability of animals for laboratory research, because FedEx and UPS are ordinarily not involved in the movement of too many animals in any case. However, the significance of this incident is in that it portends a rather disturbing trend.

A Nature News report from March this year (Nature, 483: 381–2, 22 March 2012) indicated how various major airlines across North America and Europe have been succumbing to the pressure tactics from PETA and refusing to transport non-human primates; how transportation of research animals — including sophisticated mouse models of various diseases — into the UK has been discontinued by ferry companies who capitulated to campaigns orchestrated by PETA. And this trend, which shows no evidence of bucking, has biomedical researchers deeply worried all over the world. As the Nature Editorial cautions, “the bid to halt air transport of lab animals poses an imminent threat to biomedical research.

It’s not just the mammalian models of biological systems that are at risk. If UPS does indeed restrict the transport of non-mammals and lower species (including amphibians, insects, crustaceans, molluscs and fish), pressure from groups like PETA may well wean FedEx and other carriers off this particular business segment. And the devastating impact would be keenly felt by the researchers who study these organisms. The Nature News report quotes neurobiologist and behavioral researcher Darcy Kelley, who expressed her grave concern that a restriction on the shipping of the frog, Xenopus, would be a tremendous setback for her research work – particularly since “… It takes Xenopus females two years to get to sexual maturity…”, making it challenging for a research laboratory to initiate a colony and maintain a study supply of the amphibians for research use. Kelly further states, “… maintaining an animal colony is a very expensive proposition” – something that most animal researchers know first-hand – not to mention, a proposition that is not entirely free of PETA’s ire and interference, as history has shown.)

Kelly examines sensory, neural and muscular systems involved in vocal communication in Xenopus to understand how one brain communicates with another; for her work, she utilizes three supply companies in three states, all of whom send the amphibians via UPS by Air for next-day delivery.

And not just Xenopus research. A significant part of Drosophila (fruitfly) research in the United States depends on FedEx which currently ships the fruitflies from suppliers such as the Drosophila Species Stock Center at the University of California, San Diego, and the Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center at Indiana University; Carolina Biological Supply in Burlington, North Carolina, ships via FedEx Drosophila, crayfish, mussels, and many other non-mammals, to science teachers.

What is the most troublesome aspect of this? It’s not PETA’s mindless, ignorant, unthinking, extreme activism. Rather, these events are a testament to the fact that advocates of animal research – including scientists, researchers, administrators, communicators, a wide community that includes me – are failing miserably to make the case to the general public for the legitimate and compassionate use of lab animals in scientific research, leaving the public vulnerable to the lies, misinformations and misrepresentations that groups like PETA use to further their agenda. It means we, as a community, are failing to educate our fellow members of the society about what we do and why. This bothers me a lot.

As a conscientious researcher who works with rodent models, I am aware of my responsibilities as a scientist. When devising my experiments, I firmly adhere to the principle of 3Rs – Replacement, Refinement and Reduction wherever possible – a widely accepted ethical and rational framework for humanely conducting scientific experiments using laboratory animals (See a nice essay expanding on this at the “Speaking Of Research” blog). All research involving animals are regulated strictly via federal mandates and guidelines (in the United States, as well as in most industrialized nations) to which my institution and I adhere inflexibly. But I am by no means unique in this respect. All scientists/researchers at reputable institutions, who work with animals on biomedical projects, subscribe conscientiously to the same framework, not only because of ethical considerations, but because of scientific imperatives as well. But while we, as researchers, understand this, it patently appears that we are doing a shoddy job of impressing this upon the general public.

Let me elaborate on the concept of Replacement, because it is central to the understanding of the objections against animal experimentation. Wherever possible, animal models must be replaced either absolutely (i.e. by using techniques which do not involve animals, such as computer modelling, in vitro techniques such as biomodeling and tissue engineering, or even human volunteers), or relatively (i.e by using in vitro or ex vivo technologies, such as animal cell lines (usually derived from cancers), organs and tissues harvested from relatively few animals, and so forth). For example, technology now exists to allow a few cells of the trachea (‘windpipe’) from one or two mice to grow onto an artificial support at the interface of air and liquid medium; in this way, these cells are able to mimic somewhat what happens in the trachea when airborne pathogens, bacteria, fungi or viruses, come in – allowing the researchers to study them in real time. Studying the same events earlier would require many mice. However, it is important to emphasize that not everything in the body, in health and in disease, can be studied in this piecemeal fashion.

Two significant examples jump to the mind straight away: infectious disease/immunology research, and research in metabolic diseases. It is not possible to study these two in an isolated manner without the use of a host. Both these phenomena involve cells that run inside the whole body, and chemical messages that carry internal signals from one part to the other and may act differently depending upon the situation or destination; both these involve responses that occur throughout the whole body of the host. Not all the intermediate components of these processes are even known (which is why ex vivo work or in silico modeling doesn’t provide the complete picture).

Last month, PETA had announced with great fanfare how a grant from the group helped Egypt ‘completely end’ the use of animals in its leading trauma training program, and use instead a state-of-the-art human-patient simulator. This is GREAT news, a great example of replacement and refinement. Use of a human patient simulator is a great training tool, already in use in many teaching hospitals in the US, such University of Texas and the Virginia Commonwealth University, but it cannot provide any information about the actual pathogenesis or dissemination of the disease, nor the intricate details of the body’s response to the disease conditions.

Another area where animal experimentation is absolutely necessary is basic biological sciences. Nature’s infinite beauty is manifest – to those that can see it – in the intricacies of the body’s biological processes. Why is it important to study them? The same processes are active in both health and disease, and without knowing more about them in health, it is impossible to decide what to do in disease. Any knowledge that is gained helps, as a matter of course, both humans and animals. Imagine Professor Kelly’s work on Xenopus that can yield important clues about the neurology of social communications; or, Drosophila work that identified the Toll Receptors, pattern recognition receptors that help fight pathogens, in a manner remarkably similar to the action of the Toll-like receptors in mammals; or, the animal experimentations that have given rise to vaccines, or medicines for bacterial infections, or furthered the understanding of what happens in Alzheimers or Parkinson’s. Knowledge derived out of animal experimentation progresses our understanding of the interaction of biological beings – humans and animals – with the environment, and saves lives, both human and animal.


Credit: University of Toledo, Department of Lab Animal Resources

PETA folks, whose objections to animal experimentations are absolute (and rather simplistic), are nothing more than right wing evangelicals who channel their energy into what they perceive as ‘animal rights’. Despite their general odiousness and intellectual myopia, I have always believed that they, too, serve a useful role – well, mostly – as an equivalent of the ‘checks-and-balances’ model; they remind us of our obligations as scientists towards conduct of responsible research. But, as these recent events indicate to me, PETA is gaining valuable ground, aided by their relentless campaigns, however lacking in truth and substance. For example, a concerted thrust undertaken by PETA-India recently got the Indian national airline, Air India, to agree to cease transporting research animals within the country from government suppliers such as the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad, to the detriment of research efforts. Such success of their campaigns can only embolden PETA and their ilk; to my mind, this should galvanize the scientists into becoming better educators, as well as vocal and passionate commentators, on the issue of animal research. Otherwise, the danger to biomedical research is imminent. The Nature Editorial agrees with me. I quote:

“If this is not enough to make scientists sit up and take notice, they might consider the use of lab rodents, now under threat in India from a PETA campaign… As PETA undertakes a systematic push to target all major cargo carriers, scientists in any country who rely on air freight to deliver rodents should be on notice that their turn may be next. Of course, in the increasingly global world of science it is already, in many senses, everyone’s turn…

… Biomedical researchers in many different countries, through reticence and passivity, are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the public when it comes to the need for, and legitimacy of, animal research. Why else would high-profile companies be willing to indicate, however implicitly, that they want no part in a transportation infrastructure that is crucial to global biomedical science?

… If individual scientists wait until they are personally affected… it will be long past too late to mount the vigorous, public campaign in defence of animal research that is so sorely called for at this moment…

… As researchers join this battle — and join it, they must — they should, as a first step, work through their institutions, academic societies and umbrella groups to make an urgent, articulate, unified case to UPS and FedEx that the shipping of animals, mammalian and other­wise, is essential for both biomedical research and scientific education.”

Truer words have never been said. It is high time scientists and science communicators asked loudly and in unison, all this opposition to animal research, who benefits, really?

6 Comments

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally

    September 26, 2012 at 8:37 am

    Animal research is important and we have all benefited from it. That’s the truth. Having said that, I don’t think we can keep justifying use of animal models for research for much longer. The perception of what is humane and what isn’t with respect to animals has changed dramatically with every new generation. And it’s still changing. Our societies are becoming more sympathetic to animals and are increasingly recognising their rights. Scientific research cannot and should not be shielded from this.

    Why can research not be shielded? Because education and sensitisation will only sway a few people now. In the long run, the general population WILL be against use of animals in research. I don’t think this can be prevented since it is a fundamental societal change.

    Why should research not be shielded? Scientific research is for the people (hence society) and funded by the people. If the people are not in favour of animal research, then who are we (i.e. scientists) to decide otherwise?

    What should we do? Make sure that people understand that progress in medical fields will slow down without animal research. They will have to accept this as should we. And then, we should put much more focus on identifying alternatives to animal models. Computer simulations have been a long coming. It’s time for us to step up our efforts once and for all.

  2. Kausik Datta

    September 26, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    Thank you for your impassioned response, Khalil. However, I am going to disagree with your opinion at a few points. Your leading statement, while acknowledging the benefits from animal research, seems rather cavalierly dismissive. Animal research is important, for both humans and animals, and we – the society, humans and animals together – continue to derive benefits from it, and will do so in foreseeable future. This is not a drive-by point; this needs to be driven home.

    I also found your statement “…I don’t think we can keep justifying use of animal models for research for much longer” a little strange. You make it sound like an untenable burden. As scientists, we don’t have to irrationally ‘keep justifying’ anything against the evidence. But, for the present and for reasons I outlined in the blog post, animal research remains our best path to knowledge in certain areas. One aspect that animal rights absolutists always misrepresent and lie about is the fact that animal research is not divorced from human subject research. Research in these two subjects is complementary and works for mutual benefit.

    I never said, nor indicated, that science or scientific research should not be more sympathetic to animals and more cognizant of their rights. But I think it is possible to continue animal research without engaging in moral absolutism. Let me focus on the two-way proposition of yours. For the first (cannot), I think you are giving the general population way too little credit for their collective intelligence. Yes, the events will continue that way if, as I mentioned in the post, scientists and science communicators do not speak up now and clarify their positions with evidence and empathy.

    For the second (should not), you are making the same category error that right wing politicians in the US do, when they create a false dichotomy between the people and the government. Once again, people/society are not separated from scientists, and vice versa.

    I agree with the rest of your response; yes, we absolutely have to focus on identifying alternatives to animal models. But you must understand, as must the general public, that at the present level of knowledge, reductionist approaches – which is what computer simulations essentially are, at the current state of the art – do not always work for studying the extreme complexity of biological systems, as I have outlined in my post.

  3. I’m not sure that the tone of this post is, in fact, very helpful. I think you’ve done a good job of making the following case:

    1) Scientists should (and do) make every effort to minimize the use of animals in research
    2) There are potentially beneficial studies which can only be carried out using animal models.

    These two points, however, fail to address the question of whether or not it is morally acceptable to use other animals to conduct research. The fact that we can benefit from the practice isn’t sufficient to make it morally acceptable. If getting the most accurate results as quickly as possible were the only metric for judgement, then human subjects might be ideal for research; despite this, research on humans is generally condemned on moral grounds.

    To my mind, this discussion should be focused on the ethics and morality of using other animals in research. What are the criteria we use (or should use) for determining which beings have “rights”? How do we justify choosing those criteria? How well do other animals (or even other organisms) meet those criteria? How confidently are we able to make that judgement? These are important and serious questions; I would love to see an informed and intelligent discussion of these sorts of issues. Presumably PETA (and their “ilk”) would have a different perspective on these questions than you do, which makes discussions about the potential benefits from research irrelevant. Simply dismissing them as “odious” and their views as “intellectually myopic” is unconvincing. From my point of view, you’ll have to effectively engage with (or somehow undermine) the moral argument being made. Ignore that and falling back on the utility of animal research seems a bit like missing the point, doesn’t it?

  4. Kausik Datta

    September 26, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments, sedeer. I didn’t touch upon the points of morality and ethics of animal experimentation because that would have distracted from the primary focus of the post, the impact of PETA’s latest action. But I understand that I cannot escape that discussion for too long. I shall possibly do another post on that soon enough. However, I’d like to leave you with a thought. Moral and ethical considerations should not be divorced from reality, since morality and ethics do not exist in a vacuum. I have cautioned (hopefully) in my post against making the false dichotomy of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ in respect of humans and animals. The knowledge of physiological system in health and disease benefits both humans and animals. Your statement about human research is grossly incorrect; human subject research is not ‘generally condemned’ but occurs within established parameters. When groups like PETA talk about assigning ‘rights’ to animals, the primary sentiment underneath is often the anthropification of animals – even animals other than non-human primates, or mammals, which is not always ethically tenable (if you can, look up Lori Gruen). We would talk about this later. Also, I didn’t set out to convince you about the odiousness of PETA and their intellectual myopia; those were my observations (and therefore, YMMV!) based on PETA’s behavior since its inception, which is rather well-documented and can be easily found on the internet upon search. More later.

  5. I have worked extensively in biomedical field, probably for more years than you could count for your existence. There is much “research” out there that’s completely meaningless, can not be reproduced most of the times, and has not yielded the kind of benefits you talk about. We have definitely benefited from non-human animal research, no doubt. However, ends do not justify the means otherwise we’d be dissecting healthy humans for all those benefits you talk about. This is simply a case of bias, us against them.. to benefit ourselves we’ll go to any lengths to (mis)”use” “them”! Someone wisely said, “there are more people living off cancer than dying of it.” Someone also said, if you need to know whether animals consent to participate in your research or not, just open the cages and you’ll have your answer. If you are a scientist, a person of rational and logical thought and some confidence in empirical evidence, I don’t see why you should have any trouble agreeing with peter singer when he says that speciesism is a prejudice against non-human animals based on morally irrelevant physical differences in a way that is analogous to racism and sexism!

    • Kausik Datta

      October 5, 2012 at 9:56 pm

      I have worked extensively in biomedical field, probably for more years than you could count for your existence.

      I have no evidence-based way of attesting to the veracity of this statement, especially since you provided only initials and a fake email address, nor do I know what your field of expertise is. Ordinarily, I’d take your statement – however condescending – at its face value, but I am disturbed by some of your claims that seem to run counter to your having “worked extensively in biomedical field”. Here is what I need to ask from you:
      (1) Please provide some examples of some meaningless research (that you’ve put in scare-quotes), and tell me why you think they are meaningless.
      (2) Please tell me what you understand by the reproducibility of research, and in the context of animal research, provide some examples of irreproducible research.
      (3) Please assure me that ‘benefit from research’ means what you think it means. What, to you, qualifies as benefit?

      …ends do not justify the means otherwise we’d be dissecting healthy humans for all those benefits you talk about.

      … Is a standard trope quite the favorite of anti-science, anti-animal research wingnuts. Human beings are experimented upon within reasonable limits; those are known as different phases of clinical trials. Human beings are “dissected” (to borrow your loaded term) or opened up often enough (as are animals that are pets/companions) whenever it is warranted, in order to treat one or more conditions; the knowledge that is required to complete these procedures successfully and beneficially would not have been available if people like you or your anti-animal research friends had their way.

      This is simply a case of bias, us against them.. to benefit ourselves we’ll go to any lengths to (mis)”use” “them”!

      This paranoid, delusional guilt-trip exists only in your mind, I am afraid. I suggest you visit a competent professional should you wish to ameliorate this condition. If you didn’t notice, there is a natural order that exists in Kingdom Animalia, as well as genetic relatedness to various degrees. The scientists try to utilize that same natural order to maximize benefit and minimize harm.

      Someone wisely said, “there are more people living off cancer than dying of it.”

      This is an incredibly stupid statement. This is akin to saying, “there are more people driving cars that dying from car-related accidents; therefore, there is no need to do any research on vehicular safety, vehicular emissions and efficiency.” I hope you realize (although I doubt it, to be honest) how ludicrous this pattern of statements is. I could give you a reply, oh, yes – but I’d rather refer you to anyone you may know who is a cancer survivor, or friends/family of one.

      Someone also said, if you need to know whether animals consent to participate in your research or not, just open the cages and you’ll have your answer.

      So animals following their natural instincts to run from any given location implies a lack of consent to you. What if an animal runs back to you? Would that mean a consent to be experimented upon? When your friends at PETA ransacked experimental labs and released hundreds of unsuspecting and precious lab-born and lab-bred animals into the wild, an environment those animals have never seen and are not prepared to deal with, did you stop to ask their consent? Do you suppose, for the 72% to a staggering 97% of pets given to PETA’s care they euthanized in Virginia and North Carolina year after year, PETA asked their consent? Let me ask: what exactly does ‘consent’ mean to you?

      I don’t see why you should have any trouble agreeing with peter singer when he says that speciesism is a prejudice against non-human animals based on morally irrelevant physical differences in a way that is analogous to racism and sexism!

      Ah, Peter Singer. Let me just make sure you’re talking about that Peter Singer who famously said, “Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.” I wonder how you square this view with your rabid animal activism. Anyway, let me leave you with a thought: contrary to Peter Singer’s ideas, providing greater moral consideration for human beings is not simply an arbitrary “speciesist” act; that ethics may be informed by morally relevant differences extant between human beings and various other forms of life, including animals; that attribution of morality to any species must be attendant with the discharge of moral obligations; and that Singer’s assertions of ‘prejudice’ against non-human animals and his assumption of moral equivalence with those animals are tainted with anthroposophism, the very human tendency to confer human perceptions, and human morality upon animals in order to guess at their behavioral traits. This is the kind of mindset that advocates feeding vegan diets to carnivorous pets; that shudders when a nature documentary shows a lion or a leopard or any other predator hunting down, killing and feasting upon its natural prey; that cringes at the coprophagy of a naturally coprophagus rodents and non-human primates, because such actions do not conform to what is generally considered worthy of humans or even ‘cute’.

      Having said all that, still yes, as human beings we have a duty to coexist with and protect other forms of life to a reasonable extent; hence the principle of 3Rs, hence the consideration of humane actions even in animal experiments. But I don’t really expect you to appreciate this.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: