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Philosophy of AR > Animal Testing - Index > Anti-vivisection Index
Respect for Life - Monitoring the ethical practice of animal research


Meghana Keshavan

Their tiny, hairless bodies cool rapidly in an ice bath � hypothermia alone is numbing enough for the quick procedure. A deft slit behind their necks is followed by the injection of a clay-like substance into the base of their brains. This blockage causes fluid to accumulate rapidly, so that by the time the pups are three weeks old, their heads swell to nearly twice their normal size.

Bobble-headed rat "pups" may be gruesome in concept, but they�re vital to the hydrocephalus research that takes place in Dr. James P. McAllister�s laboratory at Wayne State University.

Hydrocephalus, which translates from Latin for "water in the head," is a fairly common disorder that was once deigned untreatable. However, medication and drainage shunts, developed largely through animal testing, have allowed this to become a manageable condition.

"There�s no way you can deny it," said McAllister, director of neurosurgical research in the WSU School of Medicine. "Using animal models to conduct research has been enormously beneficial for the progress of medical science."

Vivisection unveiled

The Plexiglas tanks where the rats reside are filled with fresh wood shavings and gnawed paper tubes. Each has a full bottle of water and tray of food pellets, and the luckier ones even have browning apple slices.

"We do everything we can to make sure the pups are comfortable," said Kelley Deren, a researcher in McAllister�s lab, who is earning her master�s in anatomy. "Mistreatment isn�t only unethical � it�s also counterproductive. After all, we have to keep the animals alive long enough to conduct our experiments successfully."

The researchers in McAllister�s lab anesthetize the rats before they operate, and give them painkillers during recovery. They�re also sedated during MRIs � which are loud, and can be quite frightening for the young rats. The animals are well-fed and hydrated, and live in clean, well-maintained environments.

The pups crowd around their mothers, still groggy from surgery, half-healed sutures on the backs of their necks. Though the litters tend to have 10 to 16 pups at birth, invasive surgery at an early age causes a relatively high fatality rate. Furthermore, mother rats tend to avoid their less-healthy progeny, so occasionally, as few as four or five survive.

"The survival rate can be pretty disappointing during the first few days," Deren said. "Though, because of the nature of our research, we don�t need to keep them longer than about 30 days."

She hesitates when admitting why the animals stick around for mere weeks � careful use of euphemism (animals are "sacrificed" or "euthanized") is common in scientific jargon.

But animals are killed � which is why both the U.S. government and research institutions have formulated meticulous guidelines on how to humanely put laboratory animals to death.

Careful scrutiny

The Animal Welfare Act, established in 1966, is a federal law that regulates the care and use of animals in a laboratory setting. It provides mandates for the ethical treatment of animals, including nonhuman primates, dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs.

However, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian Richard L. Crawford, "it specifically excludes rats of the genus Rattus and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research."

Based on this omission, one might surmise that the U.S. government could technically allow researchers free reign in rodent torture.

That�s why institutions across the country have formed departments, such as WSU�s Animal Investigation Committee (AIC), to set stringent guidelines to monitor the treatment of the watery-eyed and the whiskered.

"It�s our job to make sure that the animals are treated with the utmost respect," said Dr. Merlin Ekstrom, director of the Division of Laboratory Animal Resources at Wayne State University.

"We�ve been carefully trained � and train our employees � to understand the nature of the pain we inflict on our subjects so we can minimize it as much as possible."

The AIC is made up of 21 professionals � including veterinarians, physicians, pharmacologists and pathologists, and all are involved in animal research in some form or another.

The AIC provides both formal and informal animal handling training, with mandatory seminars on responsible practices in experimentation. One online program, for instance, is titled the "History and Background of Ethics in Animal Research."

The committee is required to earn national accreditation every four years from the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation for Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC).

The bylaws of the AIC dictate the different ways to handle species at each stage in their lives. For instance, in outlining the procedure for aborting 15-day-old rat fetuses, the AIC guidelines state, "The literature on the development of pain pathways suggests the possibility of pain perception at this time � When fetuses are not required for study, the method chosen for euthanasia of a pregnant mother must ensure rapid death of the fetus."

It goes on to detail the various methods of humane sacrificing � including decapitation (there�s actually an AIC set of guidelines for ethical guillotine use and maintenance) and approved intravenous and inhalant death-inducing chemicals.

Animal testing is, after all, a common practice at WSU. According to Ekstrom, the majority of research is conducted on rats and mice, though other animals used in campus laboratories have included dogs, cats, cows, sheep and monkeys.

"I think the Animal Investigation Committee at Wayne State is one of the best in the country � and I�ve seen maybe ten different ones during my career," said McAllister.

"I think they�re the perfect balance between being cooperative and being tough. They raise issues about pain that you are not even aware of.

"I know that some investigators here think they�re a pain in the rear � too big of a bureaucracy, what with all of the progress reports we have to file � but I don�t think that�s true. The members of the committee � and I know several � work like crazy year-round. And it�s important work."

Opinionated opposition

Despite the steps that research institutions take in regulating the ethical treatment of laboratory subjects, several animal welfare activists remain firmly against animal testing.

Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts, former president of Michigan Animal Rights Society (MARS), a University of Michigan-affiliated animal advocacy group, believes that philosophically, animal testing is wrong.

"I don�t believe that nonhuman animals are tools to be used for our ends," he said. "I believe that each life has value, and they are here on this earth to fulfill their own needs and desires. Their lives are not ours to sacrifice."

He said that he understands the standpoint of those in the medical research realm � saying it�s a necessary evil, and that it�s often important to test medications and procedures on animals before they are tested on people.

But he finds it hypocritical that researchers speak of their ethical laboratory practices, and then consume animal products in daily life.

"There is so much unnecessary cruelty," Fischlowitz-Roberts said. "It baffles me why people can�t explore other options, rather than needlessly killing hundreds of thousands of animals."

Possible alternatives to animal testing include human cell cultures � even offshoots of stem cell research. In vitro testing is rapidly becoming an acceptable substitute for experimentation on animal models.

Further, computer simulations of medical procedures are being developed to reduce the amount of necessary killing. Still, however, animal testing facilities remain an intrinsic part of scientific research.

MARS is more focused upon spreading the word of vegetarianism among those who are interested to listen. Certain groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) � particularly its militant wing, Operation Bite Back � take a more extremist standpoint. Known to destroy research facilities, one of the more damaging attacks occurred in a Michigan State University mink research laboratory in 1992.

Animal activist (also dubbed "terrorist," depending on the media spin) Rod Coronado was sentenced to four years in prison after firebombing the facility, destroying over 30 years� worth of data.

Though there have never been any threats of violence towards WSU animal testing facilities, judging by the sensitive nature of research, there�s always a risk, Ekstrom said.

For this reason, he said, extreme precaution has been taken in arranging security measures � for instance, temperature-controlled rooms and card-access doors are the norm in the testing facilities.

"There�s a lot of danger when you�re doing animal testing," McAllister said. "You�re always going to be criticized.

"One of my colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania almost went to jail for his treatment of chimpanzees � because his research was sabotaged, was wildly distorted by the media and by animal rights activists.

"After seeing what happened to him, I asked my supervisor point blank that if I got identified by the animal rights people, would he back me up ? And he wouldn�t answer me."

It�s such a slippery slope, after all, that universities have balked in the past to support animal researchers when media scrutiny gets too intense. Penn researchers in the Head Injury Clinic were publicly scrutinized after activists from ALF stole 60 hours of research tapes that documented the treatment of the animals.

ALF handed the footage over to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), who spliced the most gruesome-looking scenes together and added a voiceover commentary.

Titled "Unnecessary Fuss," the tape was released to schools, politicians and the media. The buzz surrounding the treatment of the animals in the tapes caused the university to be put on probation. The laboratory was closed.

"But at the end of the day, animal experimentation is all about the greater good you can accomplish � no matter how others may distort it," McAllister said. "Hell, I�d go to jail for my research. Because I think it�s crucial. And I think that it�s absolutely worth it."

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