The Complications of Saving Fluffy
Disclaimer: I am using this blog post in an attempt to get my thoughts together on an ethically complex subject. If I use words with more than three syllables, I apologize. I have this silly optimistic notion that most people are smart enough to get what I’m saying. Other people constantly remind me that scientists are poor communicators. Sometimes I think that they are correct.
Yesterday, I attended a seminar presenting a viewpoint that is not often given to the public: advocacy of using animals in biomedical research. For me, this is sort of like preaching to the choir. As a researcher, of course I think it’s necessary to use animals to help develop medical breakthroughs. To the public, though, which has been inundated with ads by animal rights groups, this is horrifying. They don’t want scientists torturing Fluffy just for the hell of it. But that’s the entire problem. Animal rights groups spend millions of dollars each year lobbying for their viewpoints while research institutes say nothing, just hoping that this stuff goes away. And since the public never hears scientists present their side of the issue, they just assume the worst.
But first things first. Scientists do not torture animals for the hell of it. There are a lot of protocols and rules in place to prevent that from happening. And if animals are used for a research project, it’s required that they be treated humanely. When a primary investigator writes a grant to do biomedical research, there’s a section where he or she must justify using research animals. Is there any other way that you could do the experiment without the animals? Trust me–if in a particular project, there was a way, people would do it as it would be cheaper and less time consuming. But in a lot of biomedical research, this is simply not feasible. A dish of cells is not going to tell us the same thing as an entire organism. But then some would argue–if that’s so, then one could turn the argument around. If you’re testing a drug for humans, then why not go straight to human subjects rather than testing them first on animals? A drug that might work on a mouse may not work on humans, so why use the mouse in the first place? Even if the mouse anatomy may differ in the details from that of the human, both mouse and human are fundamentally the same. The mouse is used as a screen to narrow down the possibilities before human trials start. If the research animal step was eliminated, that would result in far more human trials. And more trials mean more things could potential go wrong (maybe even fatally wrong) for humans in the quest for that breakthrough drug.
So let’s say that the grant for using animals in research gets approved. This does not mean that the scientist has free run of the research institute’s animal facility. Before working with any animals, every researcher who is going to handle the animals must go through training for humane treatment of animals. (I do not think this applies to invertebrates like flies and worms, though, since as an undergrad, I was allowed to play around with those without any particular training.) All the research animals are looked after by a veterinarian. In fact, research animals are probably given more checkups than we humans. If an animal falls sick, it will either be given medicine or be euthanized as painlessly as possible depending on the illness.
The public, of course, may still be leery about all this. While 80% of the public say they would kill a mouse if they found it in their house, 50% would not want that same mouse be used in biomedical research*. The group that is the most opposed to animal research, young liberal women, call this a “necessary evil” at best even though they are also pro-choice. (Conversely, conservative women who favor animal research are also pro-life.) Why are so many people morally inconsistent? I would say that it is a mixture of gut ethics–where something is called bad if it elicits a primitive feeling of disgust regardless of whether or not it was rational–and blindly following social movements because it seemed good at the time. Most people are worried about the mundanities of life like keeping a job, getting food on the table, taking care of the kids. If someone’s going to present an easy way to view the issue and seemingly feel good about it, they’re going to take it without looking too deeply about the rationale, especially compounded with the existence of Fido and Fluffy.
What would your life look like if you suddenly decide to boycott everything that has involved animal research? For one thing, your medicine cabinet would be empty except for maybe a couple of FDA unapproved nutritional supplements. And if you had the misfortune of ending up at the hospital and told all the doctors you didn’t want anything that went through animal testing, pretty much the only thing they could give you would be water. Some people would not be alive today if it weren’t for animal research. And all that support for breast cancer research you’re seeing online and offline? Disease research like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis? The research itself couldn’t be done without mice and other animals. Because we have yet to develop any better way of studying disease in a biological system, eliminating animals from the equation is just going to set any research even further back. And the public is an impatient bunch. They want that miracle drug NOW without the understanding that even if all the research steps went perfectly, it’s going to take years to develop**.
We are not Star Trek. It’s still the twenty-first century. The notion that there are modern day Bones developing cures in six hours is still a fantasy.
Let’s say you do understand all of this but that you’re still opposed to animal research because of ethical reasons. There are two groups that fall into this category–the pet lovers and those who think that animals have the moral equivalency of a human. Their argument against animal research is that it is speciesist–that scientists discriminate against every species except their own. But some of those same pet lovers may eat meat or propose that we do research on snakes and spiders instead. Is that not speciesist? If you want to accord a dog or cat moral status, why would that exclude poultry, reptiles, or invertebrates? They might not be cute and furry or have the sort of brains that could simulate behavior a human can relate to, but they are just as alive. As for vegans and vegetarians–are they not speciesist, too? They don’t eat anything living except plants. The poor carrot is a species, a living thing. It may not have the sort of awareness that even a sea slug possesses, but it’s still alive. So why single it out to be eaten?
And why even stop there? Microbes are also living things. If you don’t want to be a speciesist, then form a microbe protection league! Suppress your immune system so they can have a safe harbor against the cruel world!***
So if you were to give animals moral consideration–why keep pets in the first place? Isn’t that slavery?**** And what would you do in the case that they kill other animals for food, territorial disputes, or because it’s simply in their nature? If you say they have the moral equivalency of a human, you’d have to try them for murder. If you don’t, they wouldn’t be morally equivalent, would they?
Thus, it is the case of those not having sinned casting the first stone. If you’re going to claim to be an all inclusive non-speciesist, you might as well just switch your entire diet to artificially synthesized chemicals. (Although given how so many things are in pill form these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone tried to do this in the near future.)
There are certainly some people who cannot be reasoned with. These people think it is morally justifiable to kill people to save animals. (There have been cases where scientists who work on fruit flies had their houses blown up because of these extremists.) But I think most people can be reasonable if it can be explained to them that research animals are used for the overall good. Besides, ask the ordinary Joe: Who would you save from a burning building if you could only choose one–your daughter or your dog?
As an aside: It’s been pointed out that animal rights extremists aren’t all crazy types who look like they rarely come out of their parents’ basement. A lot of them are lawyers, doctors, housewives, celebrities. That particular demographic struck me as very peculiar. These people come from very privileged backgrounds in first world countries. People from other cultures probably think the topic of research animals is a non-issue. With privilege, it’s very easy to take anything for granted without thinking about where anything really comes from.
*Statistics are from surveys done by “Research Saves” and quoted from the seminar that I attended.
**Want to have a personal understanding of how long it takes? Apply for grad school in the sciences now!
***Fortunately, there is no such thing or I would be tried in a court of law for multiple counts of pouring bleach into a flask of hapless bacteria.
****I believe this is the argument for those on the more extreme end of animal rights activists. They want to eliminate all animal companions. But pet lovers are a pretty large constituent, so that’s probably why they just focus on research animals.