A Modest Proposal

Recently, an increasing number of individuals opposed to the use of animals in biomedical and behavioral research have called for near total video surveillance of laboratories where animals live and are studied; in response to my earlier blog, several commenters called for video access to laboratories in order to evaluate public assurances that activities going on there are as scientists describe them to be. The request for additional sources of monitoring appear to reflect an inherent mistrust for the processes currently in place to ensure the quality of the research programs and the welfare of the animals involved, including – but not limited to – unannounced inspections by federal regulators that can impose fines or stop and/or censure research programs not in compliance. These agencies (US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the National Institutes of Health Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare) are designed to identify and stop non-compliant activities, if they occur. This mistrust for the system in place appears to stand in stark contrast to calls for expansion of this oversight to also include most mice, rats and birds, but that is an inconsistency to be taken up in another blog post.

Before addressing this issue further, I believe it’s crucial for people to understand that stopping poor treatment of animals is not the primary goal of research and researchers. It’s preventing and avoiding it from ever happening in the first place. At almost every research institution in this country, a tremendous effort is made every single day to prevent and avoid negative effects of scientific research on animal welfare. Long before the first mouse is studied in an experiment, scientists formulate the design of their study and receive the critical and constructive input of a veterinarian who recommends best practices and state-of-the-art approaches that avoid unnecessary pain or distress (like using highly effective pain killers like Rimadyl or Buprenex). Then, an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee made up of scientists, lay people and veterinarians reviews the proposal, often recommending modifications that reduce animal numbers, alternatives to animal use or refinements that avoid potentially painful procedures. In parallel, laboratory staff are trained by experienced persons on how to monitor animal welfare, identify pain or distress and communicate with providers of veterinary care. External bodies (both federal agencies and voluntary accreditation organizations) review and approve these mechanisms.

All of this effort is designed to avoid and prevent the kind of pain and suffering that animal rights activists mislead the public into thinking are a regular occurrence. They are not. While I assert that even one example of unjustified animal death and suffering is unacceptable, I also underscore the fact that they are extraordinarily rare. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of research institutions in the nation. There are literally tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of persons who work in labs around the country. Yet the number of problems with animal welfare are comparatively few, meaning that almost all scientists do the job that society expects of them exactly how public expects them to do it. Most laboratories function for decades with no single example of a problem with animal welfare. Don’t take my word for it – simply review the USDA inspection records that are freely available on the web; the number of findings that affect animal welfare are remarkably few and far between. These are facts that people pointing to a few bad apples want you to miss. They want to convince you that the exception is the rule.

Nevertheless, those opposed to research point to examples of animal deaths or suffering that they conclude are a result of a flawed oversight system, and in turn, they recommend that cameras be installed to ensure even more monitoring.

  • I agree that rigorous oversight is necessary in order to ensure the public that the systems in place to attend to animal welfare function properly. I support the strengthening of both investigations and inspections, and I strongly endorse an increase in the size of the financial penalties to institutions and researchers found to be non-compliant. I also support measures to suspend research programs if they are found to have systematic problems.
  • I agree that ensuring animal welfare is a top priority, and strengthened methods to achieve it are welcome.
  • I agree that transparency with respect to the care and use of laboratory animals is of upmost importance, including – but not limited to carefully realized public access to laboratories and vivaria where animals live. One of the reasons I have willingly participated in interviews by unbiased news bodies (Los Angeles Magazine; the Chronicle of Higher Education; SoCal Connected on PBS) is because I believe that the public’s right to know how research is conducted is paramount.

A monkey living in my laboratory at UCLA.

But if we are take seriously calls for increased monitoring of animal welfare in labs, we must simultaneously consider applying this oversight more broadly. I believe that ensuring animal welfare outside the lab is just as important, and indeed, the track record of the general public when it comes to caring for animals is far more problematic. Animal abuse happens in private homes all around this country. Animal hoarding and deficient animal care within the animal rescue/welfare community is not uncommon. With that in mind, if animal rights groups call for cameras in laboratories, they should be consistent and call for them in the homes of all pet-owning persons and rescue organizations (including their own homes). And, of course, they should be calling for them to be placed on farms – both family and factory farms alike.

As noted above, the treatment of animals in labs is already federally-regulated and –monitored; activists routinely call for more and tougher inspections. I agree. Of course, if activists really wanted to legitimately improve animal welfare, they would support unannounced USDA inspections of all private homes where pets are kept (including their own). They should support serious and escalating fines and sanctions for all individuals found to be maintaining an animal in pain or distress. Certainly, more harm to animals will be prevented with the use of cameras and unannounced inspections in those locations, if only by virtue of the sheer number of animals affected. There are orders of magnitude more animals in private homes, shelters and rescue organizations than in all the labs in the country.

This dystopian vision is the logical conclusion of calls for electronic monitoring of laboratories. If those opposed to research were consistent, they would support this modest proposal.

But, of course, they are not. They are not actually interested in improving animal welfare. They just want to shut down labs, by any means necessary. It’s with that obvious goal in mind that their calls for increased monitoring should be evaluated. Instead, research institutions and investigators should develop their own methods for providing public access, including opening their doors to legitimate news sources and fostering on campus and off campus outreach regarding the goals and conduct of animal research.

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One comment

  1. The idea of having video monitoring accessible by the public sounds good in theory for animal welfare, but bad in practice.

    My first concern is, is the public a good judge of animal abuse? Well, there are plenty of videos on youtube with public comments available about human interactions with animals (http://youtu.be/-bxxAO8exFA). Look at the response to this video about a cat being given a bath. People are debating whether or not this is animal abuse. There are plenty of cat bath videos on youtube, and it’s interesting to read the responses. I bet who is giving the bath also matters to the reaction of the comments and likes/dislikes. Imagine some videos of say, grad students learning to restraining rats and take IV blood samples?

    Then some of it may just become one whole PR exercise instead of the intended prevention of animal cruelty. For example, how clean the cage looks. Or being politically correct around animals, for example no making jokes about the animals. And dealing with animals when they don’t like to be handled. If you look up any ‘video protocol’ with animal procedures, they always pick a ‘tame’ animal. This is not always reality, and no matter how gentle you are, animals don’t like being touched by potential predators. Just like many cats don’t like having baths. But are these things cruelty to animals?

    I agree fully with the idea to introduce such a thing into pet owners homes before the lab. AR rarely focuses on the companion animals. So many pet rats have been mistreated out of ignorance and stupidity. Animals are killed because of overpopulation and they can’t live independent of humans usually. And like you mentioned, hoarders.

    But don’t get me wrong, lab animal welfare and even rights are important and we can’t just deflect the topic entirely by saying ‘oh look at agriculture! They are more cruel! Or horrible pet owners!’. We need to look at ourselves and think how can we further improve welfare. What can we do with animals that don’t need to be killed, but are? I don’t think Sniffy the lab rat would feel better if he was told that he’s in a better situation than Porky Pig.

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