By: Staff  Date: 01/12/2012 Category: | Research Reports |

As we approach the millenium I have sad news for my fellow scientists: Medical science is still under siege by the animal-rights movement, and most are unaware of what is occurring. True, they know of famous, past cases where laboratories have been destroyed, animals stolen and/or individual scientists targeted for harassment. Such events occurred with distressing frequency in the decade of the 1980s. But more than a few scientists have said to me that these events are things of the past and that the situation has changed for the better. This false confidence may explain, in part, why the authors of a recent summation of the achievements of neuroscience during the Decade of the Brain saw no reason even to mention the word 'animal.'1 Perhaps two of the most recent incidents, major destruction at the University of Minnesota and the terrible harassment a colleague in San Francisco is now experiencing, will change scientists' thinking. But unless overt attacks continue with some frequency, scientists will once again view the animal-rights problem as a thing of the past. Regrettably, they are wrong, but not because of the potential for terrorism.

Why my pessimism? Because 'animal rights' is moving into mainstream thinking. Across the seas, such thinking has a full head of steam. There is a strong move in New Zealand to give the great apes constitutional rights, expressing the ideals of The Great Ape Project.2 Also, the ruling Social Democrats and Green parties in Germany have introduced legislation stating that animals have the right to be "respected as fellow creatures" and have an individual right to be protected from "avoidable pain."3 Despite the very stringent regulations in both Germany and the United Kingdom, some scientists in those countries are in real physical danger due to animal-rights extremism,3 ample proof the issue is not simply animal welfare. Partly, ignorance of science can be blamed. More disturbing is a distinct diminution of concern for the suffering of one's fellow man. Obviously, then, at the heart of the movement there (and here) lies evil.4 I strongly support the humane care and use of laboratory animals, of course, but I am greatly concerned that the same mindset that has led to the extreme legislative moves in New Zealand and Germany operates in the United States today. This is leading to bureaucratic activity that threatens biomedical science almost as much as extremism does. In the immortal words of that wise, delightful little possum, Pogo, the Doonesbury of his day: "We have met the enemy, and they is us."


There is still the occasional foray against a laboratory in the US by the original enemy, of course. A couple of years ago at Boys Town, JoAnn McGee and Edward Walsh, who were using kittens to study development of the cochlear duct of the inner ear, were victimized by undercover agents who produced the usual selective, out-of-context videos to raise the public's ire. Horrendous publicity generated by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals led to an avalanche of hateful messages and damage to a Boys Town facility, which brought the Boys Town administration to its knees. The administration did not think it could withstand the negative publicity and potential additional damage to facilities where research with cats continued. With a couple of notable exceptions, barely a peep came from other scientists or their organizations.5

Although the more recent events this April at the University of Minnesota and the University of California at San Francisco were terrible, they were not as bad as the Boys Town incident in my estimation - at least not yet. Why? Those universities show no signs of giving in to violence, so presumably the research will go on. McGee and Walsh, on the other hand, must live with their administration's decision that work with cats had to cease in the 'best' interests of the institution, and they now struggle to develop a completely new program.

I do not take terrorism lightly, having had my own experience in 1990 at the hands of unknown assailants from the Animal Liberation Front followed by harassment from the American Anti-Vivisection Society and PETA. But these incidents, horrific as they might be for the affected scientists and institutions, are minor occurrences for biomedical science in general compared with the subtler, bureaucratic assault now in progress both in the US and abroad.6,7

Consider two recent events in the US. First, a US court of appeals has recognized an individual's right to sue (legal standing) the federal government in order to force changes in animal welfare regulations because that individual was "harmed" by seeing animals he felt were being mistreated at a roadside zoo and holds the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) responsible. The appeals court is still deciding the merits of the case and whether or not to order USDA to revise its rules. At the same time, also under pressure from animal rights groups, USDA has begun to consider the very expensive move to include rats, mice and birds under the Animal Welfare Act. Both have potentially serious consequences for progress in medical research.


In the first case, the precedent of allowing individuals to sue on behalf of animals will lead to mischief by those who would impede research by any means. A 'plant' in a laboratory need only claim distress at the way animals are being treated in order to bring a nuisance lawsuit against that laboratory. Even now, of course, an accusation of wrongdoing, no matter how trumped up will lead to weeks or months of work stoppage while government agencies investigate. Work stopped at the Boys Town laboratory for two years even though government agencies exonerated the scientists. But, then, their administration forced them to abandon a very productive research program.

The proposal to include rats and mice (as well as birds) under the Animal Welfare Act is more complicated. Viewed superficially, this is quite reasonable. They are, after all, animals; and rats and mice comprise the greatest percentage of species used in research: about 90 percent. Exclusion from oversight by the USDA stems from a decision by the Secretary of Agriculture to direct available funds toward monitoring the well-being of species of more concern to the public: primates, dogs and cats. Additional funds will probably still not be available, which is why the USDA is reluctant to reverse its earlier decision. One need not be overly cynical, of course, to suggest that the real motive behind the push for inclusion is not one of welfare so much as a wish to impede research by all means possible. Bureaucracy costs money. There is, after all, just so much money available in the federal budget. Bureaucracy is also enervating. Leading this effort is John McArdle, who once offered brain-dead humans as a substitute for animals as research subjects.8

Is there a proven problem concerning the welfare of these animals? The Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International has estimated that 90 percent of the rats and mice used in research are already overseen by either AAALAC site visits or those required by Public Health Service policy for their grantees.9 AAALAC facility inspections and assessment of programs already cover many non-academic institutions, such as pharmaceutical companies and commercial breeders. Thus, the USDA would needlessly duplicate oversight programs already in place.

But what of the estimated 10 percent not covered by these various agencies? Do they suffer unmentionable horrors? I rather doubt it. Must we assume in this age, when so much emphasis has been placed on proper animal care, that small liberal arts colleges, which probably form the bulk of the institutions using only rats and mice, are not doing a reasonable job? Would college administrations short of funds cancel programs for students rather than put up with USDA bureaucracy? Abandoning programs at these institutions would be tragic because a disproportionate number of future scientists come from small colleges.10 Personnel sufficiently informed of regulatory requirements generally staff large institutions to avoid the possible problem of a USDA inspector extending demands beyond what the regulations actually require, but smaller institutions may not be so staffed. I would argue, instead, that scientific organizations should continue to educate these faculties because knowledge of good care practices is important both for ethical and pedagogic reasons. Some organizations that support animal experimentation, including AAALAC, have supported the change, albeit conditionally and predicting low animal-welfare benefit from the change. They recognize that this would require more personnel (increased USDA funding) so that current programs not suffer. But would society be well served by introducing redundancy even were money available? Would it be ethical to take money from life-saving research - there is only one pie, and it is not in the sky - to satisfy an absolutist ethical view?

Educational missteps

Turning to education, using animals in teaching is looked at askance - no new knowledge results, the argument goes. That budding scientists are being educated or enticed into science seems to be overlooked. My concern here is based on concrete evidence. In 1992 the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee Guidebook11 appeared, a publication of the Applied Research Ethics National Association. This non-governmental body worked in conjunction with the Office of Protection from Research Risks so the book bore OPRR's seal on its cover, which used the same color combination as the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. The guidebook's existence came to my attention while I met with the animal-care committee of a small academic institution. To my dismay, I learned that a laboratory course in physiological psychology had been cancelled because it was thought illegal based on the language in this 'official' guidebook. Indeed, the section on education made unusually strong statements about animal use for teaching purposes in psychology in particular. It seemed to mirror the animal-rightists attack on behavioral research we have seen over the past 20 years. Psychology was addressed in three paragraphs, while physiology, neurophysiology, biology and pharmacology were lumped in one rather small paragraph. There was, as well, this draconian language regarding instruction of graduate students: "When graduate students work within an investigator's laboratory rather than take a course covering the use of animals in research, proposals may not be designed exclusively for learning purposes."

Clearly, someone had led the editorial board astray, for the chair of the editorial board and officers of ARENA responded with alacrity to my concern, even permitting a group of us at NIH to rewrite the section on education. They accepted our revision almost in toto. But that this happened at all suggests that I am not off the mark in believing that many have a sense of guilt about animal use that is not warranted and that leads to too ready acquiescence to unjustified animal protectionism. 'Knowledge for knowledge's sake' has little currency these days.

PeTA as enforcer

Another disturbing event involving 'we' in the Pogo sense followed upon PeTA's undercover operation against the Carolina Biological Supply Company a few years ago. PeTA presented the USDA with video footage purporting to demonstrate that the company embalmed cats alive. Apparently without bothering to ask professional anatomists to check the validity of the claim (or ask how it would even be possible) or to reflect on PeTA's veracity in general, the USDA introduced the video into evidence in a departmental hearing on the company's alleged transgression.

Two USDA veterinarians called to testify were certain the writhing cats were alive. Carolina Biological's lawyer, on the other hand, was smart enough to call as a witness a professional anatomist, who knew more than a little about embalming. My colleague, Dr. Peter Hand, lectured the court on the effects of formalin on freshly dead muscle tissue: The muscle fibers contract, and the muscles then move the body violently. He demonstrated this with a video demonstrating the same writhing in a cat proven to be dead, thus destroying the USDA's case. Afterwards he reported to me that he felt as if he were facing a lawyer for PeTA rather than one who was acting on behalf of the people.12

Insidious infiltration

How did we reach this state? I believe it is a cumulative reaction to the barrage of charges against biomedical research that began in the 1980s as a number of aggressive animal-rights organizations burst on the scene. I believe they seeded doubts in the minds of too many overseeing or regulating our activities. Consider that biomedical science was literally assaulted by accusations that included much more than the exaggerated claims of rampant cruelty in laboratories. The most outrageous, of course, was that use of animals is actually unnecessary because more modern technologies, such as computers and tissue cultures, are available. A variant on this theme was the claim that animal research has generally misled scientists and stood in the way of progress because animals are so different in structure and function from human beings. Such claims are totally ridiculous. Thus, why not simply dismiss them as such and ignore them? Quite simply, the general public, including some policy makers and regulators, is not well versed in science. Such misinformation, particularly when advanced by individuals with MDs, DVMs and PhDs, can also stimulate financial contributions 'to save the animals' - and harm research. The danger is very real. The previously dependable Scientific American recently aided the animal-rights effort by confusing the issues: the ethics of using animals and their usefulness in advancing medical knowledge.13 Despite the pleadings of my colleague, Jack Botting (formerly of the Research Defence Society), and me, the editor insisted on publishing a debate (without allowing for rebuttal) between two physicians,14 and us.15 We had even demonstrated to the editor prior to publication that our opponents were famous for misrepresenting medical history in clever, deceptive ways. The average reader, of course, had no way of knowing the accuracy of their statements. Surely adding to the public's confusion was the astounding, unsupportable claim introducing the 'debate' that there is "much room to challenge the benefits of animal research."16 Botting and I had two serious concerns: The extremists would have a legitimate reference for all time; and they would use it for future fund-raising. Within one month prediction became a reality: A nice reprint of their article with many misused references was included in a fund-raising appeal by the animal-rightist Medical Research Modernization Committee.

The middle

At the heart of all this lies confused guilt over animal use - and not just for science of course. A number of those in the scientific community at large have come to believe that using animals is fundamentally wrong but a 'necessary evil.' This thinking has even spawned a group calling itself the 'troubled middle,' a presumptuous phrase suggesting that only they care.17 Indeed, an industry has grown up around this sense of guilt in the form of somewhat repetitive conferences focusing much of their attention on how to oversee research involving animals: how to be the perfect Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee member for example or how to avoid using animals by finding alternatives through imposed literature searches.

Not that these topics are unworthy of discussion. I simply note that the process is overdone in my estimation - and it is generally done without consulting actual working scientists. Rarely is one of my colleagues, a working scientist without administrative responsibilities, a major speaker on the program. (Perhaps if they were more alert, researchers would clamor to participate.) Like it or not, we scientists, alone in our laboratories, are the ultimate arbiters of laboratory animal well-being in actual experimentation.4

And so, as we move into a new century, I find I am not my usual optimistic self. In addition to an impudent 'troubled middle,' I see evidence of a 'muddled middle' desperately trying to do 'the right thing.' They decry the extremist actions of PETA while being manipulated by the cleverer Humane Society of the US, which varies its message to suit the audience. The American Medical Association condemned the president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine nearly 10 years ago for his grotesque twisting of medical history; but the American Veterinary Medical Association welcomes a comparable organization, the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, into its midst, even though its president is guilty of the same distortions. And that muddled middle naively assumes their particular (possibly elitist?) ethical views on animal use - "We weaken our case by joining with furriers!" - will ultimately protect the 'purity' of research from the animal-rights movement.

Finally and most importantly, I worry that many who are not actually engaged in research do not realize that it depends as much on creativity as does art and that creativity does not flourish either in a climate of fear or one of pedantry. Both can impact medical progress in an unhealthy way. I believe a number of 'us' need to think more carefully about our understanding of and execution of society's mandate - for the health of science, not to mention our own. Remember Pogo.

Dr. Morrison is on the faculty at the Laboratory for the Study of the Brain in Sleep, Department of Animal Biology, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6045, and is president of NAIA.

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All Authors Of This Article: | Adrian Morrison DVM, PhD |
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