Abcarian: The seizure of thousands of mistreated beagles sparks unsettling questions about animal research

The rescue of 4,000 beagles from deplorable conditions last month at Envigo’s Virginia breeding and research facility raised uncomfortable questions about the use of animals in scientific research. As it turns out, beagles lend themselves to research because they’re cute, docile, and small. Pooh.

After writing about Nancy, an Envigo beagle now in foster care in Sherman Oaks, I received emails from two groups who were very interested in the topic.

The first came from PETA, the animal rights group that has evolved over the decades from Ingrid Newkirk’s one-woman crusade against cruelty to an elaborate operation involving scientists and lawyers dedicated to ending animal cruelty and the use of animals – all animals – have prescribed scientific research.

Spotted portrait illustration of Robin Abcarian

opinion columnist

Robin Abcarian

“Even zebrafish?” I asked Kathy Guillermo, PETA’s senior vice president of laboratory investigations, in a phone call last week. (The fish is useful for scientists studying embryology because it’s transparent, and they’re cheaper than mice.) “Whether you want to recognize it or not,” she replied, “a fish is a sentient being.”

PETA’s undercover investigation into conditions at the Envigo facility contributed to its closure, a fact that has been overlooked in much reporting, including mine.

The second email came from a London-based group working to educate the public about the benefits of using animals in scientific research.

“I don’t typically contact US journalists as we’re based in the UK,” wrote Chris Magee, head of policy and media at Understanding Animal Research, “but the use of dogs happens around the world for a very simple reason that they excellent at predicting human safety.”

Delving into the contentious world of animals in scientific research means – pardon the expression – falling down a rabbit hole that will test everything you believe about yourself as an empathetic, animal-loving human who renounces suffering. There is no question that numerous advances in medicine have been made possible through the sacrifice and suffering of animals. By far the largest number of animals used in laboratories are rats and mice. But thousands of cats, dogs, monkeys, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, and other creatures are experimented on every year. Some experiments test effectiveness, others toxicity. And there’s a lot of debate as to whether the high failure rate in all experiments means no animals should be used.

A step in the right direction: A bill introduced in Congress last year would end the federal requirement for pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies to test their products on animals to determine safety and efficacy because alternatives exist.

How can we say we love animals and support attaching electrodes to monkey brains in research aimed at determining whether sex or power is more persuasive in brand advertising? I sure can’t.

And many scientists who’ve worked in animal labs can’t change their minds about the suffering they’ve caused, either.

In documentary filmmaker Alex Lockwood’s short film “Test Subjects,” a researcher said her thesis supervisor refused to accompany her to her graduation ceremony because she dedicated her dissertation to “All the Animals I Killed: I’m Sorry.” I was wrong.”

“Whoever stands by science wears the mantle of scientist,” primatologist Lisa Jones-Engel once told a Guardian reporter. “If you stand for the animal rights movement, you wear the mantle of the advocate, the moral, ethical person. I have one foot on each side because I understand both sides. And it’s a terrible place.”

I can imagine.

Jones-Engel left the world of academic research after 35 years and is now Senior Scientific Advisor for Primate Experiments in PETA’s Laboratory Investigations Division.

After vigorous campaigning by PETA and other animal rights activists, the European Union banned the sale of cosmetics tested on animals. Thankfully, the use of the infamous Draize eye irritation test, which involves opening rabbit eyes to test the toxicity of cosmetics and household cleaning products, has declined.

But what about animal testing aimed at alleviating common human suffering – pain from arthritis, injuries, cancer or headaches? I think for most of us it’s a much more complicated moral dilemma.

Researchers justify their experiments “by the magnitude of the problem the experiments are designed to solve,” the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said in a 1991 paper. “Without research on a relatively small number of laboratory animals, there is little hope that further progress can be made in alleviating this widespread human condition.”

Magee told me the UK has a rigorous, centralized system where researchers have to justify the use of animals in laboratories down to the last detail: “You can’t use an animal if there’s an alternative,” he said.

This is also said to be the case in the United States, but oversight is far less stringent.

PETA has filed a novel lawsuit against the National Institutes of Health, alleging that the $10 million the agency spends each year funding mouse sepsis research is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Sepsis, a catastrophic response to infection, kills about 270,000 Americans each year.

Using mice for studies of sepsis is misguided, PETA claims, because sepsis in mice does not exactly replicate the disease in humans. The lawsuit also alleges, “Despite decades of intensive studies, no new pharmacological treatments for sepsis have been developed.”

The solution to the animal testing dilemma may come from scientific and technological breakthroughs such as sophisticated computer modelling, tissue engineering and other human biology methods. Harvard’s Wyss Institute has developed “organs on chips,” described as “microfluidic devices lined with living human cells, for drug development, disease modeling, and personalized medicine.”

“To be fair,” Guillermo said, “the NIH funds some of that, too.”

I look forward to the day we stop using living things in laboratory experiments. We must find ways to improve people’s health without harming or killing other living beings.

@AbcarianLAT Abcarian: The seizure of thousands of mistreated beagles sparks unsettling questions about animal research

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