A mob of wild monkeys has gone on a rampage in a village in eastern Indonesia, entering houses and attacking residents. (File photo)
Photographer: SHNS photo courtesy University of Wisconsin
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WASHINGTON - Every year, at more than 1,500 labs across the nation, tens of millions of animals are used for biomedical research, chemical testing and training.
No one knows exactly how many animals are utilized by research because federal animal welfare law doesn't cover the species that are used most often -- rats and mice. Nor is work with birds, fish, reptiles or lower life forms monitored.
Federal reports show that nearly 1 million "regulated" animals -- dogs, cats, monkeys and apes, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, sheep, pigs and other farm animals -- were used or awaiting use in experiments during the fiscal year that ended in September 2009. Published estimates are that 80 million to 100 million unregulated animals are also used in research each year.
"I don't think most people have any idea of the vastness of the animal research field in this country,'' said Sue Leary, president of the American Anti-Vivisection Society. "Many don't realize what's going on right down the street from them."
Lab animals rarely retire. Although not every test is "terminal" -- some are used for multiple tests and some are studied through old age -- most die either because that's the only way for scientists to study the disease or injury in the animal or because it's deemed inhumane to have it suffer.
Animal protectionists generally denounce the experiments as cruel and unjustified by the results.
“Acceptance of animal suffering is ingrained in how animals are thought of in the research field,’’ said Kathleen Conlee, director of animal research issues for the Humane Society of the United States. “While there are laws and guidelines for how some lab animals are sheltered and cared for, there is really nothing prohibited in what can be done in an experiment.”
Proponents counter animals have aided almost every major advance in biology and medicine of the past century, and will for the foreseeable future.
"If you've ever had a vaccine, antibiotics, chemotherapy, joint replacement or bypass surgery, among many other therapies, you've been a beneficiary of animal research,'' said Liz Hodge, communications director for the Foundation for Biomedical Research, a Washington nonprofit sponsored by research institutions and companies.
Researchers feel they need advocates to promote their work since testing opponents “are incredibly effective in getting their message out there … with emotionally-charged material," Hodge said, often using graphic videos shot by undercover volunteers of animals and lab workers in their worst moments.
The battle for public support is reflected in national polling reported by the foundation. After showing support for animal studies around 70 percent for decades, polls showed that acceptance falling to 64 percent in 2004 and 54 percent in 2008. It was at 60 percent in January.
Many researchers feel American attitudes toward lab animals reflect a society where 63 percent of households own pets, but only 2 percent of the population lives on working farms, or even in rural areas. Others cite the “Disney effect” of films and television shows.
Research advocates say scientists want and need animals to get proper care and be healthy to get the best results from them.
“People don’t understand the amount of personnel (in labs) that are devoted to making sure animals are well cared for,’’ said Bill Yates, a researcher-administrator at the University of Pittsburgh. "Even small to moderate sized institutions have a large veterinary staff. Most have enrichment specialists who try to make the daily lives of the animals more pleasant with toys and exercise equipment."
Kathy Guillermo, director of research lab investigations for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, counters: “There aren’t many laws that protect animals in labs and the few that there are, are routinely violated at facilities across the country. Most labs have some degree of abuse and neglect.”
Scientists who work with dogs, cats or monkeys are most likely to be confronted by protests, hate mail, web pages decrying their work, even vandalism of their cars and homes.
For scientists like Stuart Zola, director of the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, who has faced protesters for years, the pressure is part of the job.
After a panel discussion on “Why it is unethical NOT to continue animal research” held during the February meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, during which several scientists said they dropped out of animal work due to activists, Zola said he didn’t know anyone personally who had quit. But he also objected to a reporter videotaping the discussion.
He said his greater concern is that public support for biomedical research in general, as well as with animals, has waned because scientists fail to adequately explain “what we do and why we do it, as well as how much care we take with animals.''
Even veterinarians who have taken an increasing role in trying to improve the lot of lab animals say they don’t want the studies to end.
"I have presided over the deaths of thousands of laboratory animals, and have seen more pain and suffering than I care to recall, yet I make no call to stop animal experimentation now, only to make it better," Dr. Larry Carbone, chief veterinarian for the University of California at San Francisco, wrote in his 2006 book "What Animals Want," which examined lab animal issues.
The one area of agreement between researchers and animal protectionists is that research and investment into alternatives to animal studies is accelerating.
“We’re spending a lot of time and money focusing on finding better ways and better data -- animals really aren’t good sources for answers to human problems,’’ said PETA’s Guillermo. “Even the National Institutes of Health is putting some pressure on scientists to show their research is … not just satisfying someone’s curiosity.”
Zola says, “No matter how much technology we put into test tubes and chips and genes, the question is always what’s the best and fastest way to get therapies to people. That still has to involve animal research. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t have to do it.”
Copyright 2011 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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