Facebook Twitter LinkedIn

Home PI eAlert Back Issues No. 12: 5 Ways to Address Questions about Lab-Animal Research

Jun 14

No. 12: 5 Ways to Address Questions about Lab-Animal Research

Posted by: PIA in

Tagged in: Untagged 

Sign Up to receive free weekly articles like these


5 Ways to Address Questions about Lab-Animal Research

Reader Question:

"I was elected to a leadership role in a service organization in my city, and must soon address a large audience of members and guests about my work. I have no problem giving a speech, but am concerned about the Question-and-Answer session that follows. I know I'll be asked sensitive questions about my work with laboratory animals. How can I prepare for this?"

Expert Comments:

Many researchers tend to shy away from discussing in public the role of lab animals in biomedical research. It can become an emotional subject because many people seem to have preconceived notions and strong opinions.

However, it is for this reason researchers should take the time to address the subject in a forthright manner, helping their audience form an opinion based on facts.

While you don't know what questions you will be asked, the following five suggestions are likely to help you address confidently almost any sensitive issue that might be raised:

  1. Be prepared to emphasize that almost every cure, medicine, treatment, and therapy available to humans today is possible because of research with animals.

    For example, explain that animal research led to insulin for diabetes, chemotherapy drugs, asthma medication, bypass surgery, organ transplantation, joint replacement, and life-saving treatments for premature babies, to name a few.

  2. If questioned about animal welfare, point out that humans are not the only beneficiaries of animal research; this science has saved countless animals as well.

    Veterinary medicine has advanced dramatically in the past two decades. Many endangered species are being saved through a new understanding of diseases.

    For example, the herpes virus, which afflicts animals in the wild and in captivity.

    Pet owners perhaps don’t realize that everything from cataract surgery and arthritis medication to preventive vaccines for parvovirus, distemper and feline leukemia was tested in lab animals first.

  3. Discussion of animal research often conjures images of dogs and cats, so many people may be surprised when you tell them that about 95 percent of all research animals are rodents that are specially bred for the purpose.

    Yes, some studies must be done with non-human primates, dogs, cats, and pigs because they are superior models of certain diseases; however, the vast majority of animal research is conducted with rats and mice and, increasingly, with fruit flies, worms, zebra fish, and other invertebrates.

    Make clear that all of this research is not unregulated or unsupervised. Far from it. It is performed under strict regulation on many levels.

    For example, each research institution receiving federal funds must have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), which has approval authority over each project and oversees the work of researchers to ensure that all federal, state, and institutional rules, plus ethical standards, are followed, many of which are based on the Public Health Service's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. The Guide calls for the application of the "Three R's" — replacement, when possible, of animals with insentient material for experiments; reduction of the number of animals used to the minimum possible to achieve goals; and refinement, i.e., any possible decrease in severity of procedures applied to animals.

    In another example, each funded institution has an institutional official (IO) to oversee and direct the overall program and IACUC, and an Assurance (outlining its animal program) on file with the federal Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), the agency to which all IACUCs report and which enforces all federal guidelines involving animal research.

  4. If possible, in response to some questions, try to tell your personal story about why you conduct research with animal models.

    What diseases or conditions are you studying? Why do you work with a particular animal model? Do you have a personal connection to this condition or disease (e.g., having lost a loved one to heart disease, breast cancer, etc.)?

  5. Finally, take advantage of any opening a questioner gives you to paint a picture of what the future would be like without further animal research. Could cures or vaccines for cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, malaria, flu pandemics, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, spinal-cord injuries or heart disease be possible without animal research?

    There are few in the research community who would not argue that the cures we are all hoping depend on further basic and biomedical research involving laboratory animals.

Comments by Frankie Trull, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that speaks for the scientific community on legislation and regulations affecting laboratory-animal research.

Comments (15)
Grateful the reader asked the question
written by Anna M. van Heeckeren, MS, DVM, June 17, 2010
As a veterinarian involved in biomedical research, I was sometimes asked why a veterinarian would even think of using animals in biomedical research. I said to one person who clearly did not approve of such animal use, "Who better than a veterinarian to use animals in research?" This stopped her in her tracks, and left her wondering if she was listening to the right people. I have taken the time to explain to several people the IACUC process and many other talking points mentioned above, and even if I hadn't convinced them that it was completely necessary (for teaching, for biomedical advances, etc.), they felt better knowing that at least one biomedical researcher truly cares about the welfare of the animals used. They felt if most (if not all) researchers were like me, they'd feel much more comfortable with conducting biomedical research on animals. It takes talking to people who want intelligent and open conversation to bring this sensitive topic to the forefront, and less worry about the fanatics who cannot or will not listen to the other side of the story. Mandatory veterinary involvement has improved the welfare of laboratory animals.
Rhetoric and Misdirection, Not Reason
written by Animal Philosopher, June 17, 2010
While these five "ways" of addressing questions concerning animal research may well be effective for deflecting the criticism of unreflective inquirers, they fall woefully short of anything resembling a moral defense of the use of animals for research. The first statement is simply false, and the other four statements rely on the use of misdirection and fear tactics to cover over the real moral questions at issue.

The first statement is a textbook case of the "false cause" fallacy, or "post hoc ergo propter hoc" (literally, "after this, therefore because of this."). Mr. Trull claims "that almost every cure, medicine, treatment, and therapy available to humans today is possible because of research with animals". While it may well be true that animal research has been a component--even a central component--of the emergence of these medical advancements, it certainly does not follow, as Trull implies, that these advancements would not be possible without animal research. Moreover, even if we grant Trull's fallacious statement for the sake of argument, it doesn't follow from the fact that various medical benefits accrue from a particular practice that the practice in question is morally permissible. Suppose, for instance, that we could definitively cure cancer by experimenting on homeless people. Would the achievement of that cure in and of itself constitute a justification for doing harm to the homeless test subjects? So Trull's first bit of advice is, from a philosophical perspective anyway, extremely weak: not only is it based on fallacious reasoning, but even if it were true, it would not necessarily justify the harms done to animals to get the good results.

His second statement involves the use of obvious misdirection. When the inquirer expresses concern about animal welfare, what is most likely behind her concern is the welfare of the INDIVIDUAL animals who are used as test subjects. But if that is the case, what possible comfort could Mr. Trull's suggestion provide to the reflective inquirer? All he does here is attempt to shift the inquirer's attention away from the moral standing of the individual research subjects whose welfare is in question to some nebulous "benefits" enjoyed by other unspecified animal groups. To highlight the absurdity of this move, consider a situation in which you protested the use of non-consenting human subjects for painful medical research, and the researcher said to you: "No worries, mate. The pain and suffering that this captive individual is undergoing is more than made up for by the positive results for other human beings who benefit from the exploitation of these unlucky individuals." The ineptitude of this suggestion would be humorous if the results of taking it seriously weren't so horrific.
Rhetoric and Misdirection, Not Reason, continued
written by Animal Philosopher, June 17, 2010
The third statement is another exercise in embarrassingly ill-conceived misdirection. The fact that people have warm and fuzzy feelings for cats and dogs but don't really care about rodents is completely irrelevant from the moral point of the view. The important question is whether rodents are capable of being harmed, and if the answer is yes, then it doesn't make a whit of difference whether the average joe on the street is interested in hugging or exterminating them. Also notice the manipulative use of statistics to mask the serious moral problem of using higher primates and other intelligent, emotionally sensitive creatures for painful research. The fact that 95% of this research is done on rodents, if true, doesn't begin to serve as a justification of the use of the other 5% percent, especially in view of the fact that we're talking about 5% of hundreds of millions of animals per year (we're still talking about tens of millions of other creatures that people might well be interested in hugging or living with as companions--not that the feelings of such people are relevant). Finally, notice Trull's claim that these rodents are "bred for the purpose" of research, a claim that is no doubt intended to console the inquirer that these rodents are just fulfilling their destiny. To see the silliness of this strategy, consider how impressed you'd be with someone who tried to defend child slavery by saying "Have no fear, we bred these children in labs with the intention of using them as slaves, so obviously its okay." Really?

The fourth point uses the diversion tactic of taking the inquirer's eye off the ball by retraining it on another irrelevant detail: the researcher's personal story. The obvious intent here is to get the inquirer to think: "This person is so smart and so noble that if she's willing to do it, it must be morally permissible." But why think that? Lots of smart, noble people do lots of things that are morally problematic.

The fifth point is just an outright appeal to fear, not unlike the tactics used by many people in power who have a vested interest in seeing the status quo maintained. The fact is that the dominant trend in forward-looking medical and commercial testing is toward reducing and eliminating the use of animals in research and developing alternative approaches.
Animal Use
written by Hobo Joe, June 18, 2010
While philosophy is fine and dandy, arguing that someone else is wrong does little to prove that your opinions are correct and in fact lends itself to fallacious thinking. As for morality its just as easy to say there is no basis for morality as to say there is. Its easier to deal with the reality of the situation, animal research happens. Its necessary for the study of many diseases and with out the aide of these animals much of the research that results in biomedical advancement simply would not happen. I can honestly say, as I think many can, that I would prefer not to use living creatures as tools for study but as far as I can tell a lot of research could not be done any other way.
As for addressing and audience I would say that talking about the treatment of the animals is probably something worth mentioning. Many people seem to think animal labs center around some sort of cruel animal torture facility in which mad scientist do as they please. I recently began working in an animal research facility and must say that learning about the standards set in place to protect the well being of the animals has made me far more comfortable with what I do.
Reply to Hobo Joe
written by Animal Philosopher, June 18, 2010
I think you're right that there is a big difference between criticizing someone else's position and substantiating one's own. However, my point in the above posts was not to substantiate my own position (which I did not articulate), but rather to show that the "expert comments" offered above are not likely to satisfy a person who really reflects on the content offered there. I decided to make a comment because I noticed that Principal Investigators is using this article as a marketing tool to get potential clients interested in their subscription service. If the "model articles" they use to shop their wares are as poorly articulated and vulnerable to criticism as this one, I'd say that's a pretty serious "Buyer Beware!".

As far as the other topics you've raised, I disagree with the "morality" vs. "reality" distinction that you seem to be making. I think there have been many times in the history of human experience where moral concerns shared by an increasing number of people have led to important changes in the realities of the world. Imagine what the world would be like today if people had taken your attitude on the issues of slavery, or civil rights, or women's rights, or child labor laws. The fact is that the days of using animals as tools for research are numbered, and the current trend is already breaking hard toward the elimination of animal research in favor of newer, better methods. Check out this report if you're interested in a detailed, unbiased account of the decline of animal research: http://altweb.jhsph.edu/wc6/paper163.pdf
Animal researcher
written by Important points, June 18, 2010
I don't think the consequentialist argument applies to animal research. If a rat has to die so my mother can recover from a stroke, so be it. If the assumption is the humans are merely one form of animal, then animal research would be consequentialist. But humans are different. For one thing, we argue about things like this on the Internet.
Everyone has their own morals
written by Researcher, June 22, 2010
I want to thank Principal Investigators and everyone for their comments on this hot topic. The fact of the matter is that everyone has their own threshold for morals. Some people still feel it is perfectly normal and ok to use those old style bear traps while others would rather catch the bee or spider that is inside their house and let is go outside. So I feel the 5 points made in this article ARE helpful because I think many are misconceived about animal research. I also want to thank the commented that 'blasted' the article for brining out good points also. Here are a couple counter points. Key point #3 that >95% of research is on rodents or invertabretes is not to say 5% is ok but rather to point out that research tries to use "lesser" evolved animals. Now before you jump on that comment, you can argue that all animals are equal, but the reality is that we do NOT feel that way. If that were the case, we would outlaw those bug zappers that kill hundreds of bugs a night and ant sprays and rat poisons and so on. Key point #2 that other animals are also helped is not to justify the methods but rather make the point the all of this work is completely selfish and only for ourselves. Granted I agree this is not the best or strongest point. Points #1 and #5 make the listener understand the stakes that we are talking about, that this arguement isn't talking about make-up but rather about life saving and quality of life types of drugs and treatments. Lastly #4 just says to make a personal connection and I agree it isn't an arguement for animal research but rather a note to the person talking about it to give the listener something by which to judge their character. Another point that can be made is about the treatment of the animals. Again you can pick away at this comment, but in many ways animals are treated even better than the pet or even human counterpart. The concept of the mad scientist with deplorable animal conditions is just wrong. The efforts put into preventive care to prevent infections and any other complications is always a cost benefit balance. In pets and humans, vets and doctors certainly try to avoid it but ultimately know that a round of antibiotics will take care of most situations. In an experiment, days, months, or even years of work can be completely ruined by complications, so those experimenters will go above and beyond in the treatment and care of those animals (you can bet I did).
Animal research is always a hot topic and I conceed that the objections and protests over the years have vastly improved the safety, welfare and regulation of animal research, but I think most 'casual' anti-animal research people are just misinformed or grossly under informed and this article and other points help us inform that general population. It is also a complicated topic with no clear 'line in the sand', not even for individuals. For example I am a 'catch and release bees and spiders' type of person who also believes in the importance of animal research.
Reply to Animal researcher and Researcher
written by Animal Philosopher, June 25, 2010
Wow! This interchange is really fun! Thanks, Animal researcher and Researcher for your thoughtful and generous input. I really appreciate your willingness to engage my post, even and especially since I took a very critical line on it.

Regarding Animal researcher's claim that "humans are different": That's certainly true, and I agree with you 100% that there are very important differences between human and non-human beings. But the really pressing question here is not whether human beings and non-human test subjects are different (which obviously they are), but whether those differences are morally relevant to the question of whether we human beings have the right actively to do harm to members of other species for our own benefit. Just because a being is less valuable doesn't mean a more valuable being is justified in using it as a tool, unless of course you subscribe to the principle that "might makes right". If you do subscribe to that principle, however, then you should also be perfectly comfortable with the hypothetical idea of a much more advanced alien race enslaving and experimenting on human beings for their benefit. How would you feel about that prospect? Do you think it would be morally okay for the superior aliens to take the lives of inferior human beings for the benefit of their race? If you don't, then you shouldn't be so quick to think that human beings can do what they will with animals just because human beings are superior in some respects.

Another point to keep in mind that many of the attributes that people cite as evidence that human beings are superior to animals are not exemplified by all human beings. For instance, you cite the attribute of "being able to argue about things like this on the internet", and your assumption seems to be that *because* some human beings are able to engage in rational discourse and non-human beings are not, it's okay for human beings to use animals as tools. But here's the problem: infants, small children, and many severely cognitively disabled human adults are not able to engage in rational discourse either. Unfortunately, your position seems to suggest that we would be perfectly justified in experimenting on infants, small children, and the severely disabled against their will since they are not able to engage in rational discourse. I'm not saying that you believe this claim (in fact, I'm sure that you don't), but notice that it is a logical implication of the kind of argument you are making. And when arguments lead to implications this strange and counter-intuitive, that's a pretty good indication that something has gone wrong.
Reply to Researcher
written by Animal Philosopher, June 25, 2010
As for Researcher's insightful remarks: many thanks again for taking the time to express your views in such generous, measured prose. I think you're right that I could (and probably should) have been a bit more diplomatic in the way some of my objections were phrased, but I am grateful that you were able to see some of the legitimate concerns in spite of that. (I wrote the original post while a bit miffed about receiving another mailing from Principal Investigators after my third attempt to unsubscribe from the list. I figured if I wrote a critique of what they were sending out, they might be more likely to remove me from the list!). :)

A couple of things by way of reply. When you say that "everyone has her own morals", you seem to be suggesting that this observation has mitigating force against moral critiques of animal research. But why should one think that? One can make the observation that "everyone has her own morals" in virtually every arena of life, but that doesn't change the rightness or wrongness of the acts in question. These days, virtually every well adjusted person thinks that racism is morally wrong. When a racist commits a hate crime, no one says "Well, every one has her own morals, so let's just let the skinheads do their thing!" No. What we say is, "Well, racist, you may have your own morals, but they are completely out of step with what rational people are prepared to tolerate in modern society, so you're out of luck." Granted, we have not yet reached anywhere near this level of consensus when it comes to animal issues, but my point is just that the fact that "everyone has her own morals" isn't really relevant to the question of whether those moral outlooks should be tolerated.

Regarding your first point on #3, it seems obvious to me that when it comes to moral discernment, we can't just rely on how we "feel" about various animals, especially since the latest scientific evidence suggests that rodents are extremely intelligent and even emotional creatures. Indeed, their very fitness for testing is grounded in these types of similarities to human beings. Just because they are small doesn't mean that they aren't complicated, feeling beings. And I suspect that if you have done research on animals, you know this fact very well.

Regarding your comment about the "treatment" of animals in research facilities, it may well be the case that in some instances, some animals used for medical research are better off than some companion animals who are neglected by their guardians. But notice that this fact is neither here nor there when it comes to the question of whether it is morally permissible to use animals as tools AT ALL. Imagine, for example, that someone tried to justify human slavery (the use of human beings as tools) by saying: "These slaves have it much better under their master's care than they would have it if slavery were abolished." I trust we agree that even if this statement were factually true in some specific cases, that would hardly amount to a reason to think that slavery is morally permissible.

Thanks again for the great conversation!
One more point of agreement
written by Animal Philosopher, June 25, 2010
One last point that I should have made earlier is that I am in complete agreement with Anna's and Researcher's suggestions that it is unproductive to villianize people who conduct research on animals. I think it is extremely unfortunate that a small minority of animal advocates engage in tactics such character assassination and public humiliation of animal researchers, and that a fraction of this small minority engage in sabotage and property destruction. Very few (if any) animal advocates I know approve of this behavior, and the vast majority of us are regular folks who try to use good arguments and living by example as our tools of persuasion. Keep in mind, though, that the character assassination tactics cut both ways, and that it is just as unfair when people who conduct animal research imply that critics of animal research tend to be "fanatics who cannot or will not listen to the other side of the story" when the reality is that these people are a small minority within the animal advocacy community.

In calling attention to some of the problems with the strategies suggested by Mr. Trull, my intent was certainly not to assassinate his character, or to suggest that all practitioners of animal research are bad people who intentionally and malevolently engage in morally indefensible practices. The goal of my comments was to show that Mr. Trull's strategies don't really help people to understand the underlying moral issues at stake in animal experimentation, so much as they help people to "feel better" about animal experimentation without really thinking it through. In my humble opinion, people who engage in animal experimentation have a moral obligation to provide justifications for the harms that they do to animals. If they can't provide defensible justifications, then they should work harder to find some or face the possibility that perhaps there aren't any to find. But evading the central issues at stake while offering strategies that mislead average people about what the real issues are strikes me as either ignorant (if it is done unintentionally) or morally dishonest (if it is done intentionally).

What I'd like to see from members of the animal experimentation community is an honest, hard-nosed philosophical defense of the claim that it is morally permissible to use sentient animals as tools--to harm and kill them against their will for the benefit of humankind. It is not enough to say things that "make people feel better" about animal research, or to skirt the real issue (whether it is permissible to use animals as tools at all) by hiding behind the claim that most research subjects are "treated well" while they are being used as tools.
written by Bob, June 25, 2010
It is difficult to directly argue against many of the points that Animal Philosopher makes – biomedical research using animals has a distinct element of immorality and hypocrisy -- but most people would probably agree that it’s worth it. Animal research is the only way we currently have to make less miserable our existence on this planet for some conditions. It is far from an ideal way to improve on the imperfections of life, but the deliberate sacrifice of animals for these purposes is more defensible than doing nothing. This is a societal position that, in my opinion, is more noble than many other accepted practices just within the animal realm such as hunting for animals for sport, fishing, raising animals for food, encroaching on their habitat or killing animals that encroach on ours. Maybe someday exploitation of animals will be unacceptable or illegal, and it’s certainly appropriate to discuss these issues from time-to-time, but these things must be put into the context of current life and times.

Rebuttal of Animal Philosopher
written by Ion, July 09, 2010
Animal Philosopher is right in that the issue of the moral standing of animals has to be addressed directly. However, I think that the idea that animals have the same rights as humans (i.e., the basic claim of the "animal rights" activists) is difficult to justify by most modern ethical standards. For example:

1) If we argue, as Animal Philosopher seems to do, that animals have rights for the simple fact of existing, then we will find ourselves in in impractical, if not absurd, position of granting equal rights to all animals, including cockroaches, mosquitoes, flies, sponges and paramecia.

2) If, on the other hand, we are willing to give preferential rights to some animals over other, these criteria could be criticized on the same basis than giving special rights to humans. In other words, if we say some animals are superior and deserve more respect because they are more "evolved" (an unscientific concept), intelligent or emotional, then we should be prepare to give humans superior rights based on the same criteria.

3) At the end of the day, we cannot treat morality as fully independent of practical matters. Unless, of course, we advocate a fundamental concept of morality based on religious belief. Given the fact that in the thousands of years of human civilization no culture has given animals the same rights as human, nor condemned the use of animals as "exploitation", I think that people advocating the elimination of all forms of animal use has the burden of proof to justify this new moral doctrine.

4) Besides all that, it does not seem to be logical or fair to single out the use of animals in scientific research, while sparing from criticism other more popular forms of animal use like meat consumption, entertainment or company (i.e. having pets).
written by TAD, July 16, 2010
I am impressed with the comments of each of the contributors to this debate. They compise insightfull and legitimate considerations. In regards to animal rights/laboratory testing I am somewhat in the middle ground, and trying to come to grips with the issue. I am unequivocily against any form of cruelty to any life form that can and does feel pain, fear, anxiety or unusual discomfort due to expermients done on their living forms, or in the maner they are housed. A philosophical argument over animal rights serves little purpose in solving the more urgent question of pain and suffering inflicted on laboratory animals. To this end both sides would be better served to work toward insuring lab animals be treated humanely. This would include doing no experiements without the use of anestheia, post operative pain killers, adequate food and water, living space, excercise, etc. The fact that labs are infrequently and unevenly "inspected" does not guarantee these humane actions. Our medical educational system favors those with a strong stomach and ability to witness and participate in suffering in its various forms. Our grant system favors the creative mind who can justify the new and ever more bazar experiement. The fact is a lab animal has no hope or chance of survival. It is destined to a life of suffering. It is incumbant on the reasearchers to improve their lot at every opportunity and in any maner possible. Being a member of the humane species mandates nothing less.
written by Jill, August 03, 2010
Well thought out comments all around.
I would just like to point out one mistake in the original article. Zebrafish are vertebrates, just like you and I. They are NOT invertebrates, like worms and Drosophila. As such, the zebrafish (and other fish) are governed by more regulations for their use in research than are the invertebrates.
to Animal Philosopher
written by AM, August 17, 2010
Wonderful. It means something to have someone actually take this issue seriously. Not many do.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters