Scientists, their pets and research…

Some presumably animal rights-leaning visitor to my blog dropped a GOTCHA! question on me this morning. This is a question she expected I would answer in a way that would poke holes in my arguments in support of humane animal research

“Well, if animal research is so important,” she says, “would you give your dogs to me so that I can use them to conduct a research project on addiction?”

This is my youngest dog, Oliver. He is, quite possibly, my favorite living being on this planet.

This is my youngest dog, Oliver. He is, quite possibly, my favorite living being on this planet.

GOTCHA, she thinks! She believes that I will either say “No, I’d never give my dogs to research”, and all my arguments that animal research is justifiable because of the benefits to human and animal welfare will fall apart. Or possibly, I’ll say “Yes”, and she’ll claim I am cruel and heartless. Either way, she wins. GOTCHA!

Here’s the thing; my answer to this specific question from this specific person is most certainly “no”, but a discussion of why shows just how pathological and uncaring some animal rights folks are and how much researchers concern themselves for both humans and animals during the conduct of their work.

My answer to her is “no” for several simple and straightforward reasons:

1) She is not a scientist. She has no concept of what quality research on addiction is or how to conduct it. She doesn’t know what has been discovered and what has not. She doesn’t know how to conduct a meaningful experiment and obtain meaningful answers. She has likely never been trained in either the scientific background or techniques needed to do anything approximating competent or valid research. For that reason, giving two sponges for her research makes no sense, much less two domesticated dogs.

2) Because she failed to articulate anything like a meaningful scientific objective for her “research”, it’s far from clear that dogs are needed for the research. Perhaps mice or even zebrafish would accomplish the same goal, and in that case, she would have defied the concept of “replacement” … the effort to use the simplest model organism possible in the course of research.

3) She hasn’t described how the research will be conducted and how she will prevent unncessary harm to the subjects in the course of it. She hasn’t described how she will obtain oversight from a veterinarian to ensure her techniques are good or how she will ensure that her work is inspected by the US Department of Agriculture (which she must, by law, as a consequence of the Animal Welfare Act).

4) She hasn’t convinced us that the research has the potential to benefit humans or animals in a way that justifies any harm (large or small) done to the subjects involved.

So, why should someone entrust a researcher like me with animals for doing work that addresses addictions?

1) I am an experienced addiction researcher with almost 20 years of accrued knowledge and experience on the brain mechanisms of addiction. I read the literature, so I know what has already been learned in past experiments and can reason what new accomplishments and findings are needed. I discuss my ideas and plans with clinical psychologists and psychiatrists to ensure it is meaningful in light of their clinical practice. My ability to do this has been recognized by my peers in many forms, and my contributions (it’s fair to say) have had a major impact on the clinical and biological understanding of addictions.

Despite my experience, my own perspectives are not enough to justify my plans. Before I ever started any project, I outlined my ideas, the approaches I would use and the rationale behind the work to a panel of elite researchers and to the scientists at the National Institutes of Health. They scrutinized my plans and approach and found it to be excellent, leading to their financial support (a grant) for my research (at least 4 out of 5 research proposals are not funded by the NIH, showing how esteemed a particular project must be in order to get supported).

2) Before starting my work, I carefully considered the species to be involved in the studies. Monkeys are involved in some very limited studies in my lab when needed, while much of the other work we do involves mice. The species chosen is appropriate to the goals and objectives of the research and the need to translate information to humans (results from monkeys are simply more valid for understanding people because of the closer relationships).

I also considered how various species may be affected by the conduct of the research and made sure that the environment was suitable for their needs, e.g., by making appropriate considerations for socialization of social animals. We also developed species-specific procedures that allow us to train subjects to participate willingly in the experiment without causing distress (e.g., voluntary blood collection, conducting behavioral tests for very palatable foods instead of using water restriction, etc.).

3) My plans are reviewed by veterinarians on campus who provide feedback on how to reduce any harm or distress in the conduct of the work and who train me and my lab if our techniques require improvement. My research is overseen on a daily basis by these vets and regularly by the US Department of Agriculture when it conducts unannounced inspections of my University.

4) Before starting my work, I’ve deeply considered the potential for the study to generate important and useful knowledge that benefits people and animals, and I’ve convinced my Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which involves unaligned community representatives, that the work is valuable.

This is the key difference between entrusting animals to responsible researchers and to nuts with GOTCHA questions. Still, underneath it all, there is a really important question that both she and I should consider deeply before answering.

If it was possible to conduct a research project that had a certain or even very high probability of alleviating substantial human harm, what would we be willing to do to see that it happens?

If I could give my two dogs, and in return breast cancer or HIV would be cured (meaning that millions of people now and in the future would cease to suffer and die needlessly), would I do it?

If I could give MYSELF, and in return breast cancer or HIV would be cured, would I do it?

These are hard questions, despite being hypothetical, and I don’t know what my final answer would be.

But I know this: to immediately say “no” is irrational and evil. The goals of such a project are so important that I would most certainly at least consider giving my own life or that of my dogs to see it done.

I once discussed this with an animal rights-leaning person. He said he absolutely would not give his dogs to research to cure HIV and that I was heartless and cold to say that I would even consider it.

I agree, it is.

But it’s nothing near as cold and heartless as those that say “No, I won’t do anything to see that life-saving research gets done” or “I place myself and these animals over the profound suffering and needless death that the work could prevent.” In circumstances like this. inaction is not a neutral position. It’s fundamentally selfish and unethical.

The commenter thinks my answer to her GOTCHA question will expose me, but I think that her question exposes her. It exposes the profound lack of empathy, concern, love and care for others that so many in the animal rights movement suffer from.

I care for my dogs deeply. But I also care for others, even people I’ve never met, and I want to see the most harm alleviated that is possible. And importantly, I believe that through limited, regulated and humane animal research, we do exactly that.


  1. Humane animal research. A contradiction to say the very least. If you’ve been doing it for 20 years and haven’t figured it out by now… get a real job. Stop abusing animals. The jails are full of pedophiles.

    1. get a real job and stop representing organizations that have no idea what they are fighting for. The last time you had a headache (which I would be surprised if you had any brains left) bet you took an asprin or any other NSAID…. that was courtesy of animal research and the “tortured souls” that saved you from pain and distress…. you tool

    2. “Humane” means compassionate, which means: “Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.” So, humane animal research is possible, even normal. You however seem to lack compassion for other people whose lives are blighted by addiction – either theirs or others.

  2. This is probably the single most spot-on, excellent overview of this question that I’ve ever seen. My three dogs and two horses are my children. But, I watched my mom die of breast cancer and my dad deal with heart disease for 25 years (which he was able to fend off for so long thanks to animal research), then finally succomb to colon cancer.

    1. This is exactly why we do what we do, Stacy! I love my dog more then some people may love their children but if his one life would save millions of other lives, human and animal alike, then I think it is a question that deserves time to consider. Often animal-rights leaning individuals take such a black and white stance on this issue that they are not open for conversation about it and that is unfortunate. I am sure most, if not all, of us that work in research would gladly give up having animals in our labs but the alternative is much worse for everyone. Balance and honest, open discussion is what really matters.

  3. Nice piece as usual, i think this is how most researchers would rationalize this.

    One of our essential adaptations as humans is our ability to have other species work for us and pets and research animals are an extension of this. As a researcher i struggle with the concept of pet ownership far more than research itself. For both welfare and ecological reasons. First of all pet ownership is not essential to our survival, medical research is. There are so many more animals bred as pets than used in research and they are the sort of species with high levels of neurophysiological sensitivity. Unlike animals in research alot of these wont recieve adequate veterinary care and may even be dumped. Cats are probably responsible for killing more rodents than research work and for what reason? Some may find this an extreme view but i think that the lay public should consider their treatment of animals before judging research procedures.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Yes, cats are surely responsible for killing more rodents than researchers are — but this is a social good for humans. It’s believed that the Black Plague spread in Europe when cats were killed off in large numbers and rats and their fleas flourished. It’s also believed that cats were domesticated *because* they kill rodents; during the advent of agriculture, cats prevented stored crops from being eaten and contaminated by rodents, and people benefitted thereby. In many parts of the world, cats are *still* employed for their rodent-killing skills: on farms, and even in some Los Angeles police stations. In addition, cats make wonderful companions, but in different ways than dogs do.

  4. Good piece. The animal rights people often assume that you can’t do harm by inaction. They ignore the (often huge )plus side of resolving illness and disability, and focus just on the (sometimes small) negatives.

    I would say that inaction can do harm. Calling for a ban on research can do harm. Let’s keep on speaking about the very real, tangible benefits from animal research.

  5. Pedophiles would not make good research subjects. By law, we have to treat our research subjects humanely and give them the best care possible. Who would want to treat a pedophile humanely?
    Animal research saves lives. There is not one person who has not benefitted from a vaccine, prescription drug or surgery. If you do not wish to partake in these blessings, go ahead and suffer, but don’t take the rest of the world down with you. You will still enjoy some of the “herd health” benefits from the rest of us being vaccinated.
    Those of us who work to take care of animals used in biomedical research do so because we love animals and people. Who else would dedicate their lives to providing them the best care? Trust me, we are not in it for the money. We do it for the animals.

  6. Thank you for your honest and rational outline, as well as sharing your love of your own dogs. It is one of the things I first noted when I met researchers who needed animals for their studies. I was amazed at how many of them had pictures of their own pets on their desks in their offices. It sounds like a strange thing to notice on a routine USDA inspection, but that is what caught my eye and stayed with me (in addition to the wonderful dispositions of the animals I met). It was probably one of the first things that made me see researchers (whom I had envisioned as “monsters”) as the truly caring people I have found them to be so many years later. After working now with researchers and animal care staff in a different capacity (accepting their animals for adoption post-research), I have found them to be some of the most caring people – to BOTH animals and people – I have ever met.

  7. Reblogged this on labmus and commented:
    An excellent reply to a very common question animal-rights leaning individuals ask those of us who work in research. I could to agree with my friend unlikelyactivist more!

  8. I adopted a retired research dog..notice I said retired not rescued. He spent five years in service and I know he has helped save countless lives. He loves to go back and visit his old colleagues and occasionally participate in clinical trials. He is one of the most social and loving dogs I know and is extremely gentle with kids, This alone is an testament to how well he was loved and cared for prior to his retirement, He has his quirks.. he hates rain, likes to plant his butt down when he does not get his way, and loves to sleep on my side of the bed!! He has an amazing little personality. Nothing abnormal. I am the lucky one!! Thank you to all the researchers and animal care staff who did everything right.

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