Medical Research with Animals

(This column first appeared in the May 8, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    P.E.T.A. has been taking its knocks lately.

    Those initials, in case you don't recognize them, represent People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The organization has been in the news over its aborted "Milk Sucks...Got Beer?" campaign to encourage college students to drink beer instead of milk.

    Heaven knows where they came up with that idea. The organization withdrew the initiative when it ran into an enraged response from M.A.D.D. -- Mothers Against Drunk Driving. But it is reasonable to ask: Why was P.E.T.A. after milk drinking in the first place? Did they think that they would somehow protect cows if their campaign was successful? Surely even the cows would be against them, worried as they should be about being taken to the slaughterhouse if their milk lost value.

    Even this was not enough. P.E.T.A. then proposed a campaign modeled on those milk carton pictures of missing children. Their replica would display a "missing" cow -- lost to animal medical experimentation. Imagine how that must have impacted families looking for their lost children.

    I believe that P.E.T.A. and other animal rights organizations played an important positive role in changing the way non-human animals are cared for in medical research and surgical practice. Modern animal research facilities are very different from their counterparts a half century ago. Today alternatives to animals such as non-living models, computer simulations and tissue cultures are employed whenever possible. The number of animals used is way down -- over the past 20 years the total has been reduced 28 percent, the number of cats and dogs more than 99 percent. In fact, today over 95 percent of the animals in research labs are rats and mice. The legislated standards for facilities are extremely strict. In each of the six universities in which I taught, for example, proposals for animal experimentation or other use had first to be reviewed by broadly representative committees. And lab inspections are regularly scheduled.

    Thus the animal rights groups have achieved an honorable victory and we should credit them for that. Unfortunately, they will not be satisfied until all non-human animal research activities are stopped. (Of interest is the fact that they appear quite happy to accept experimentation on humans.)

    Here are some of the statements made by animal rights leaders that I find unacceptable:

    I am even more concerned about the violence done by animal rights extremists to animal research facilities as well as their attacks on individual researchers. There were three attacks on research facilities in 1999 alone. At the University of Minnesota, for example, animals were stolen, files were destroyed and equipment damaged, seriously setting back research on Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases and cerebral palsy. Among the cultures lost were human cancer cells from brain tumors. (Additional attacks are detailed at Targets.)

    Medical research based on animal experimentation has led to understanding of and responses to many health concerns, among them malaria and yellow fever, polio, typhus, diabetes, breast cancer and AIDs and has given us tissue grafting and organ transplants. Two-thirds of the 20th century Nobel medicine prizes were based on animal research.

    Animal rights groups go too far. I join C. Everett Koop when he says, "I care about animals. But I care about people more."-- Gerry Rising


Note: For more background on this subject, readers may wish to consult the P.E.T.A. website as well as responses from the medical community at AnimalRights.net and the Americans for Medical Progress Educational Foundation homepage. A series in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer provides additional information.