Earlier this month, an account from Paul Gazda, a former experimenter who conducted punishment research on animals, appeared on the front page of the New York Times website. Punishment research is just what it sounds like -- it entails giving painful electric shocks to pigeons or rats, for example, and then recording what happens to them in an attempt to draw conclusions about human punishments. Today, Gazda has had a change of heart, or a realisation of the cruelty and futility of what he was doing, and is also now a vegetarian.
It's World Week for Animals in Laboratories (with April 24 marked as the day dedicated to these animals) -- the perfect time for us to question, as Gazda ultimately did, what animal experiments mean for the animals themselves, and for science.
"A major moral issue"
The Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics recently released a report on animal experimentation. Endorsed by Nobel laureate J M Coetzee and more than 150 other academics, intellectuals and well respected writers, the report concludes that experimenting on animals is "unthinkable" and that, "In terms of harm, pain, suffering, and death, this constitutes one of the major moral issues of our time."
In 2003, many inspectors with the Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals (CPCSEA), the Indian government body that monitors the use of animals in experiments here, were not animal experimenters themselves, thereby not under undue influence to keep quiet. Back then, a report was released about the findings of CPCSEA inspections of 467 laboratories in India by two animal protection groups. It is the only comprehensive report ever released of conditions in Indian laboratories.
"[A]nimal experiments still continue essentially without experimenters having to prove their merit, while non-animal methods undergo a rigorous validation process. "
The damning report revealed many abuses in laboratories: sick and dying animals left with no care (including those that had been blinded, mutilated or suffered open wounds); rats and mice infested with worms and mites; horses with maggot-infested hooves; and the decayed bodies of newborn animals left lying on the ground. It also revealed experiments where sheep had holes drilled into their skulls and were injected with rabies, rats who were blinded after having glass tubes pushed behind their eyes to extract blood, and the plight of one 27-year-old monkey who had been kept alone in a filthy, cramped cage for 19 long years, all for unnecessary reproduction tests.
The cruelty witnessed in Indian laboratories back then and that have come to light in other investigations have caused such an uproar in the experimentation business that, today, many of the former CPCSEA inspectors have been replaced with animal experimenters. Laboratories around the world, in fact, are often guarded like high-security prisons. Nevertheless, with great difficulty, undercover investigations of laboratories still take place, revealing, among other horrors, the stress animals endure when confined in a laboratory cage and experimented on. This stress leads many animals to self-harm and display stereotypical behaviours, including spinning endlessly in their cages or constantly pacing -- behaviours not seen in animals in nature.
"Where is the evidence that animal research benefits humans?" This is the question that was posed in 2004 in an article in the British Medical Journal. It reads:
"Clinicians and the public often consider it axiomatic that animal research has contributed to the treatment of human disease, yet little evidence is available to support this view." It further states, "Anecdotal evidence or unsupported claims are often used as justification--for example, statements that the need for animal research is 'self evident' or that 'Animal experimentation is a valuable research method which has proved itself over time.' Such statements are an inadequate form of evidence for such a controversial area of research." It concluded, "The contribution of animal studies to clinical medicine requires urgent formal evaluation."
Yet, more than a decade later, animal experiments still continue essentially without experimenters having to prove their merit, while non-animal methods undergo a rigorous validation process.
" It's time to stop viewing animals as nothing more than living test tubes, for the animals' sake, of course, but also for the sake of scientific progress and advancement. "
Alternative to animal experiments
But because of growing concern for animals, and the need for better science, times are steadily changing. For example, Harvard's Wyss Institute has created "organs-on-chips" that mimic human organs and organ systems. The chips can be used -- more accurately than animals -- in disease research, to understand how drugs can affect our bodies, how our bodies react to chemicals, and more.
Research laboratory CeeTox's skin model accurately replicates key traits of normal human skin and can correctly identify chemicals that cause allergic responses in people.
Other modern replacements for animal experiments include human clinical and epidemiological studies, cadavers, sophisticated high-fidelity human patient simulators and computational models.
It's time to stop viewing animals as nothing more than living test tubes, for the animals' sake, of course, but also for the sake of scientific progress and advancement.