Animal Fights

The animal rights movement helped make vegetarianism cool, created dolphin-safe tuna, stigmatized wearing fur and persuaded zoos to replace bars and cages with spacious habitats. The membership for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has rocketed from 60,000 in 1985 to 700,000 last year.

The most divisive animal rights battle, though, is still being fought as furiously as ever.

"The animal rights [movement] has raised animal research to a higher standard," says Dr. Tom Jacobs, a grant manager for the National Institutes of Health. "But it gets out of balance when it's raised too high . . . then we have problems and can't get the work down."

Which, for many activists, is exactly the point. Those who believe in "animal rights" (humans have no authority over animals) rather than "animal welfare" (animals should be given consideration, but human needs have priority) have grown increasingly daring in the last decade, and two recent congressional actions seek to increase penalties against activists who break the law for their beliefs. The bipartisan "Animal Enterprise Terrorism and Ecoterrorism" amendment was added to a juvenile crime bill and approved in 1999, while the "Researchers and Farmers Freedom From Terrorism Act" will be reintroduced this year.

Overall, funding for biomedical research is increasing while large-animal research is declining. The USDA reports there were 1.2 million non-rodent animals used in U.S. research in 1999, compared with 1.7 million in 1989. Dogs accounted for less than 5 percent.

The decline in animal usage is partly because of the increased sophistication of computer modeling and tissue-culture research, alternatives many animal rights proponents say are underused.

"There is a resistance in the biomedical community from moving away from reliance on animals," says Dr. Elliot Katz, director of In Defense of Animals. "The people that run the funding agencies are old school. The younger people going into research want to go into non-animal technologies -- the computer studies and tissue cultures, non-invasive technologies and clinical studies -- but there's not adequate funding for them because most funding is for animal experimentation. [Animal experimenters] can't compete with new graduates who . . . are working on a microscopic tissue and cell level. It's similar to the unions fighting automation years ago. They're fighting for their careers, for their reputations, for their money."

Dr. Michael Berens and his colleagues at Barrow Neurological Institute argue that cell culture and tissue research, while certainly beneficial, is not a substitute for a whole organism. How will a drug affect the kidneys? How will it affect your memory?

As for computer modeling, Berens is developing a tumor computer modeling project at Harvard, yet stresses computers are far from having the Star Trek sophistication that many assume.

"People think you can play video games and develop skills to land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier, but it's not true," he says. "People think the Holodeck is real, but that's science fiction."

The American Medical Association is an ardent supporter of animal research, noting that more than two-thirds of Nobel Prize-winning medical advances this century were for treatments developed on animals. Or, as researchers say with a smirk, "Animal testing has allowed animal activists to yell for approximately 23 years longer."

It's also true, however, that some animal studies prove only the ridiculously obvious. Studies, for instance, proving that cocaine is addictive. Or studies like the one chronicled in Deborah Blum's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Monkey Wars," in which a project cost about $60 million and used 2,000 monkeys to prove that taking a primate away from its mother induces stress.

In their most dubious argument, PETA and other protest organizations frequently claim research breakthroughs such as the polio vaccine did not really benefit from animal testing, or that animal testing always puts researchers on the wrong track. The medical evidence and researcher testimonials to the contrary are overwhelming, and AMA polls show the vast majority of physicians heartily support animal testing.

Another argument is to blame the victim, pointing out that many human diseases are preventable. Simply switching to a vegetarian diet would go a long way, note activists, toward saving animals and reducing cancer risk.

Probably the best animal rights argument is that using animals for research is simply immoral. That killing animals is, well, wrong. That no amount of potential benefits outweigh the ethical cost.

It's like that parlor game question where a player is asked if he would sacrifice one life to save many. It's always such a ridiculous scenario, something that could seemingly never happen in real life: A fire is burning a building and you have time to rescue either a family member or a roomful of strangers. Which would you choose? For those who see the animal rights versus medical research arguments in these terms, the value of animal research has less to do with individual investigative results and more to do with their answer to this question: What is the value of the life of an animal?

In medical research, there is a sliding-scale value applied to animal life. Oversight panels give more leeway in the use of, say, rats than primates. If Berens were using mice instead of beagles, it is unlikely there would be any controversy. As Dr. Dale Dernado, an Arizona State University veterinarian and researcher, dryly notes, "I work with lizards, but most people don't care about those."


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