My first waking thought these days is not what jollies the day may bring or how much I miss my family in India, but how my lab mice must be doing. If you are a grad student working with animals, you are probably having a déjà vu right now. I think taking care of them and making sure not a single breath goes unnoticed is enough to cure the gravest case of ADHD. Lab animals are like children: you wake up in the wee hours to perform a surgery, monitor it every couple of hours until it frolics, examine its body for the tiniest scratch or hair roughening, nervously fix an appointment with the veterinarian when it refuses to eat. And just when you think you have done everything right, smug that you saved a life, the animal welfare people give a little tap on the shoulder and charge you with reckless endangerment.
“What now?”, you whimper after a thoroughly exhausting day. “Well” they reply, “There’s a little spot on your lab coat. You could have given the mouse an infection. The angle at which you wore your shoe covers is wrong. You could have contaminated the entire department. Also, the tip of your glove touched a mouse whisker during the surgery, thereby breaking sterility, and posing the risk of a fatal infection to the mouse. You should consider yourself lucky if the mouse lives, or else you are in for manslaughter”
You fantasize committing a first degree right there.
You might think that I am exaggerating for comic relief, but everything except the legal jargon is true. Every place of research doing more than a dime’s worth of animal studies has an animal welfare department being a pain in the wrong place. They pick and prod. They make an issue of logically insignificant details. They siphon the money off our grants to install security cameras monitored by secretaries paid to sit on their ass and take pictures of you picking your nose. They make you want to quit your research program and seek asylum in the Himalayas. All in the name of animal rights. This makes me wonder if I slept through some ecological overhaul because there’s no other way this sudden precedence of animal rights makes sense.
I admit I don’t go weak at the knees when I see animals. But, I don’t believe that animals should be cruelly slaughtered at our hands either. Sure, they are defenseless creatures that deserve a right to life without undue pain. The purview of animal welfare should end right there. But, it rarely does. It goes on to put animals right next to human beings in their right to life. The focus is not on the pain or suffering anymore but the morality of using animals for our gain. What is forgotten in this heart-melting love for animals, and I am walking on eggshells here, is: Not everything that lives has an equal right to life. This means it is not barbaric to give humans priority over animals when it comes to their lives.
There is a subtle double standard in the level of contempt for using animals as fodder and for research. Let’s not kid ourselves here; meat eaters take great joy in savoring the fruits of the jungle. We are not exactly picturing the animal squealing in pain while biting into the chunk. Why then the special vitriol reserved for animals used in research? I often see foie gras munching, bacon relishing hypocrites get all ‘holier-than-thou’ about pricking a mouse. After all, is there a shred of doubt that the lifesaving therapies we have today—everything from aspirin to zolpidem—are a result of animal testing? Any opinion to the contrary would be just that, and a lousy, misinformed one at that.
The best case against the use of animals for research I have read so far is that there are ‘alternative methods’ of testing available. What are these methods, I pray ask? Computer simulations? Bacterial testing? As amazed as I am about technology constantly giving humans a run for their money, being able to predict with a fair degree of certainty, the efficacy and the safety of a drug is yet elusive to its robotic arms. Bacterial or any other microbial modeling might provide an insight at best, but cannot successfully model our complex physiological system. Are we seriously willing to let our animal-guilt make our medical choices? Pamela Anderson might settle for a lipstick that hasn’t touched a rabbit, but would she take a drug straight off the chemistry lab for say, cancer?
To this you might say that you do not believe animal testing should be done away with, just that researchers should be constantly reminded what a grand privilege it is. I am taking that to mean less pain and suffering and probably less number of animals where necessary. I am with you on that. Pain relief is necessary where it is justifiable. But, what if the drug is being tested for shock or trauma? It makes no sense to test it on mice that are subjected to neither of those or confound the results by giving them pain killers that would mask the effect of shock. As far as the number of animals go, a consensus exists that the statistical power of most animal experiments is low—that is, it takes a lot more animals to achieve reliability of the observed results. Thus, by reducing the number of animals indiscriminately, we are defeating the purpose of the experiment as well as dumping the data obtained from the very animals whose welfare we are talking about. Next comes the question of the regulatory steps that need to be taken to prevent cruel treatment. Regulation is necessary, but not to such an extent that it hampers the research it oversees. Researchers invest a lot monetarily as well as in time, for animal research. The cost of the animal, at least in the United States is prohibitively expensive and probably has some kind of ‘sin tax’ built into it. When a researcher is ready to take on the burden of the cost and comply with any justifiable pain relief procedure, isn’t it egregious to hold up the animal welfare card at every step?
Save some severely intrusive procedures on humans themselves, animal testing pioneers drug discovery today. Period. If we feel the need to show our respect to the little creatures, I suggest we think of their contribution every time we pop a Tylenol!