People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals recently helped rescue a mutt named Sheena from a laboratory at the University of Utah where she was slated to be used in experiments. Sheena’s guardian, who had surrendered the dog to a local animal shelter because she could no longer care for her, trusted that the shelter would try to find Sheena a new home. Instead, the shelter sold Sheena to a laboratory where other homeless dogs have had holes cut into their chests and necks and pacemakers implanted onto their hearts in order to induce irregular heartbeats. The dogs were then killed and dissected.
When Sheena’s former guardian learned that her dog had been sold—and sold out—by the animal shelter, she called PETA and a few days later the dog was safe in a foster home. Sheena’s life was given back to her. Most animals in laboratories are not as lucky. Each year in the United States, more than 100 million animals suffer and die in chemical, drug, food and cosmetics tests; for biology lessons; in medical training exercises; and in curiosity-driven experiments. Exact numbers aren’t available because mice, rats, birds, and coldblooded animals – who make up more than 95 percent of animals used in experiments – are not covered by even the minimal protections of the federal Animal Welfare Act and are not counted.
The law allows rabbits, cats, dogs, pigs, monkeys and others to be burned, shocked, poisoned, isolated, starved, paralyzed, cut open, addicted to drugs and have their brains damaged. What happens to animals in laboratories would be considered criminal cruelty to animals if it occurred elsewhere. No experiment—no matter how painful or trivial—is prohibited, and painkillers are not required. Even when viable alternatives to animals are available, the law does not require that these alternatives be used and, very often, they aren’t.
Gallup polls have shown that over the past 10 years, the public’s opposition on moral grounds to the practice has risen. A 2009 Pew Research poll found that 58 percent of adults age 30 and younger object to animal testing. Fewer people are buying into the animal experimentation industry’s fear-mongering, ad hominem attacks, distortions of the efficacy of animal tests, whitewashing of the systematic violence against animals in laboratories and attempts to hide behind a Mickey Mouse oversight system. This was apparent in our discussions with conference attendees and passers-by during our recent protest outside the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting at the San Diego Convention Center.
This trend will continue as the public gains increased access to information about the misery that animals are forced to endure in laboratories, the rapid development of humane and superior non-animal research methods, the overwhelming failure of relating the results of expensive and cruel animal experiments to humans, and the mounting evidence of the cognitive and emotional similarity between humans and other animals.
It is this last discussion that fuels the fundamental ethical argument against animal experimentation. Evolutionary theory and empirical evidence tell us that animals—from mice to monkeys—possess all the same biological and cognitive characteristics that make it repugnant to experiment on nonconsenting humans. Animals that are locked in laboratories and the dogs and cats with which we share our homes have their own lives and preferences and experience pain, suffering and pleasure.
Animals aren’t chosen to be used in experiments because they are inferior to humans in some morally relevant way. It’s because they are weaker and look different and because some people have unfairly decided that our pain is more important than theirs.
Those who support animal experimentation are quick to acknowledge the similarities between species in order to justify the use of animals as proxies for humans, but they are even quicker to minimize and disregard the obvious moral implications. Research, by nature, often leads us to conclusions that are uncomfortable and inconvenient, but science and society will never progress if people only choose to assimilate ideas that reinforce their personal biases. Such an approach to science lacks academic and personal integrity.
Opposing animal experimentation, and supporting animal rights in general, is about social justice; justice for Sheena and the millions of other thinking, feeling beings confined to miserable laboratories and which—like humans and our beloved animal companions—deserve to be treated with care, dignity and respect, and not enslaved, tormented and tossed away like disposable laboratory equipment.
Justin Goodman is associate director of PETA’s Laboratory Investigations Department.