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Science Tuesday: In Response to an Animal Rights Apologist

Written on April 8, 2008

I’m as fond of animals as the next guy. Maybe even, as I contemplate the exorbitant cost of transporting my seven year old dog to Australia, a little fonder than most. Like most folks, I love little furry creatures and would be personally loathe to do them any harm. Like most people, I ignore the irony of pampering my pooch whilst eating and wearing another furry creature. Unlike most people, until very recently I made my living as a research scientist. Early in my career, I made a decision to avoid working with animal model systems and to concentrate on plant genetics. This was due only to personal squeamishness not a grand moral stand. Many, if not most, of my scientist friends do work on animal model systems and their work sometimes requires those animals to be killed. They are not doing this because they are sadists or monsters, they are doing it in almost every case with the goal of improving the lives of you, I and themselves.

All this is in preface to the topic at hand, a blog post that Maggie at Okay, Fine, Dammit wrote earlier this week. Maggie is an exceptionally good writer and her post reflects her skills. Like any good writer she seeks to convince the reader of a point of view or to take an action. What she wants her reader to do with this post is to think about scientific research involving animals. Certainly there are turns of phrase and particular questions posed that imply that the author frowns upon animal research, but it is certainly not a rant, not a polemic, not a diatribe. Maggie achieves her goal if the stream of comments that follows is any indication – she gets people thinking about animal welfare. The problem is that I fear Maggie is, perhaps unwittingly, supporting the position of and giving fodder to extreme anti-vivisectionists.

Maggie knows that it is unlikely that we’d be having this “conversation” without animal testing. Prior to the golden age of medicine that began with Alexander Fleming’s discovery of the anti-bacterial properties of penicillin (itself tested on mice) we would both be well past middle-age and perhaps to sick to be typing away into the interspace. The fact that both Maggie’s kids and my kid woke up this morning healthy and uninfected by crippling diseases like polio, which was eradicated by a vaccine that was originally tested on animals, is testament to the necessity of animal research. Most of the academic research done that involves animals is done on critters like nematodes, fruit flies, mice and rats – hardly the warm fuzzies that you see being abused in anti-research ads. Most of this research is done in the interest of gaining a better understanding of devastating human diseases – cancer, Alzheimers, ALS, diabetes, and so on. I’m not a fan of big pharma I can not and will not attest to what happens in corporate labs. This is where most of the horror stories come from – bunnies blinded by mascara and what not. But, as are most of the facts presented by anti-vivisectionists, these are the exceptions rather than the rule. As Maggie points out, all the drugs that are approved for human use must be tested on animals. Some of these drugs make you erect or put you at ease in social situations, but the vast majority save lives on a daily basis. They save your friends’ lives, your family’s lives and, at some point for most people, your own life.

Research scientists are not in the business of torturing animals. I have yet to meet a research scientist that is flippant about his or her use of research animals. I have yet to meet a scientist who approached the animal testing portion of their job with any more than grim determination of something that had to be done. Animal welfare is governed by strict ethical standards. The animals themselves are treated with as much respect and dignity as possible. Both the RSPCA and ASPCA recognize the need for animal testing and focus their attention on ethical treatment of research animals and the search for alternatives. The fact of the matter is that if there were viable alternatives then most researchers that I know would use them. The only alternative in most cases is to do primary testing on human subjects – most people would not consider that a viable alternative.

Many animal rights groups are completely blinded to these realities in their obsession to eliminate animal testing. Someone wiser than me said that opinions are like assholes, everyone has one and they all stink. I have no problem with animal rights activists as long as they don’t become like their opinions, as long as they don’t become assholes. An animal rights campaigner becomes an asshole when he stalks and threatens a contractor working on a building that is designed to improve housing conditions for research animals. An animal rights campaigner becomes an asshole when she torches a university building, without regard for whether or not it was occupied in protest of the school’s policy on animal testing. An animal rights campaigner becomes an asshole when he digs up the remains of a Guinea pig farmer’s mother-in-law in some kind of twisted protest against animal testing. I experienced some of this madness first hand. Before a series of court orders silenced protestors that stood outside my building on almost a daily basis, I would have these people hurling abuse at myself and my colleagues. They called us “torturers”, “killers” and “terrorists”. Just a reminder, I work on plants.

So, Maggie, my problem is not with your questions, your qualms or your desire to have people explore a topic that they may not think about enough. I agree entirely, people should be aware of what is happening in animal research labs. My problem is that they are getting junk information and junk science from animal rights extremists. Most animal rights campaigners are earnest, if in my opinion misguided, people with a real concern for animal welfare. Many of them are unknowingly being led by wild-eyed, violent, extremists that have no concern for the truth. They use shock tactics and horrifying images to mislead compassionate people. They have less regard for human life than they do for animal life. They are like climate change deniers, Maggie, they latch on to one or two poorly researched studies that say there is an alternative to animal testing and spout the same crap science over and over. By all means, then, think about animal research but make sure that you have accurate information in hand.

I would encourage people who want to know more about the truths behind animal testing to check out Pro-test and the Research Defense Society.

Filed in: Politics, Science.

43 Comments

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  1. Pingback from » Science Tuesday: In Response to an Animal Rights Apologist:

    [...] Administrator wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt [...]

    April 8, 2008 @ 9:17 am
  2. Comment by Maggie, dammit:

    This is a really great post, Chris. Thoughtful and informed, eloquent and classy, just as I would expect from you.

    The interesting term to me is “apologist”, because I guarantee you the anti-vivisectionists are calling me a research apologist, too (I get emails). And that means I’m doing my job right. That’s the balance I’m seeking to strike.

    There are no easy answers here, and I certainly don’t purport to have them. As I mentioned to you before, my mother-in-law has done this kind of testing for two decades and I know how much she loves animals. I’ve been meeting with scientists and touring labs and I see no “cruelty”. I appreciate the medical advances that have been gained and I’m grateful for the health they afford my family. My kids eat McDonald’s eight days a week. I’m not standing in judgment.

    The anti-vivisectionists I’ve met aren’t monsters, either. In fact, one of the scientists mentioned that he’s grateful for the respectful discourse we have going on in Wisconsin as opposed to the horrifying things happening in California and in England and elsewhere. The thing is, those examples of extremism that you are so close to and so justifiably disgusted with are just as powerful to you as the few examples of extreme abuse and cruelty are to animal rights activists. The things you won’t easily forget, like assholes digging up graves, can be countered to them with examples of researchers keeping monkeys in pits for years or pouring scalding hot water into the stomachs of dogs. Yes they are extreme, no 99.9 percent of scientists would never do anything remotely close to that, but it’s the kind of thing activists can’t erase from their brains. These are the things that keep you all so far divided.

    Unlike researchers and activists, most of us have to find some well-informed middle ground. There are many points I’m not bringing up here — you’ve no doubt heard them all but many “regular” people haven’t — because I don’t want to belabor the point. I mostly want to mildly defend being labeled an apologist, and to point out that someone in your position might take anything I say as sympathetic to their cause, just as activists take anything I say as sympathetic to yours.

    I remain, respectfully, a fan.

    Shall we talk about abortion now? ;)

    Maggie, dammit’s last blog post..Because I can’t afford to lose readers EVERY day….

    April 8, 2008 @ 1:31 pm
  3. Comment by SSG:

    hey they do have to test on humans too before drugs go mainstream, and thankfully for me too- I earned £400 in a week last summer taking some sort of random pill, and it gave me the best sleep I’ve had in my life. So some testing has to be done on animals first to ensure when testing gets to humans it’s going to be relatively safe, although of course there are some exceptions- http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn8852- but animal testing keeps these to a minimum.

    April 8, 2008 @ 3:02 pm
  4. Comment by KathyF:

    There are an awful lot of people who are against animal testing who aren’t burning down research facilities.

    Quite a few of them are scientists:
    http://caat.jhsph.edu/

    KathyF’s last blog post..Getting Priorities Straight in an Obama Administration

    April 8, 2008 @ 3:45 pm
  5. Comment by CDV:

    Maggie – definitely, let’s tee up abortion and the existence of god just for kicks.

    SSG, you are a muppet.

    Kathy, there are exceptions on both sides. I know that all animal rights activists aren’t terrorists. But some of the are and they’re attacking the wrong people in the wrong ways. It’s similar to, though not yet as extreme as, those people who attach abortion doctors.

    April 8, 2008 @ 4:33 pm
  6. Comment by Anonymous:

    You are an asshole for comparing people that are just trying to protect animals from turture to murderers. You and your lot are killers.

    April 8, 2008 @ 4:54 pm
  7. Comment by CDV:

    Thanks, well argued.

    CDV’s last blog post..Science Tuesday: In Response to an Animal Rights Apologist

    April 8, 2008 @ 4:58 pm
  8. Comment by maggie, dammit:

    Wait, did you write that comment yourself to drive home your point? It worked. ;)

    I’m thinking your anon commenter and mine are not the same person. They kind of sound like it, though. The “so there” is implied. Invisible ink I bet.

    maggie, dammit’s last blog post..Because I can’t afford to lose readers EVERY day….

    April 8, 2008 @ 5:40 pm
  9. Comment by CDV:

    Maggie, there are very few things for which I have less tolerance than crappy spelling.

    April 8, 2008 @ 5:44 pm
  10. Comment by Not Afraid To Use It:

    A very interesting post, CDV. I enjoy being able to read differing points of view without the name calling and the crappy spelling. So much more can be accomplished, doncha think?

    And count me in on the abortion chat. ;)

    Not Afraid To Use It’s last blog post..Don’t Fuck With the Fire Department

    April 8, 2008 @ 6:12 pm
  11. Comment by David T. Parsons:

    I am not anonymous and I can spell. I am also a scientist and anti-test. You do the same thing that you’re accusing “extremists” of in painting only half a picture. The two further readings that you suggest are as extreme in their views as groups like ALF or PETA.

    April 8, 2008 @ 7:35 pm
  12. Comment by CDV:

    Where are the ‘objective’ readings, David?

    April 8, 2008 @ 8:14 pm
  13. Comment by Nathan B.:

    Both posts were great. I don’t have a problem with animal testing or research. I guess when you grow up on a farm and participate in the slaughter of animals for food will do that to a guy (or gal). I just feel sorry for the poor plants that get overlooked in this type of argument.

    April 8, 2008 @ 8:27 pm
  14. Comment by CDV:

    Hey, way to straddle the fence, Nathan. Did you learn that on the farm as well?

    April 8, 2008 @ 8:35 pm
  15. Comment by Nathan B.:

    You have to straddle a fence to climb over it, city boy.

    April 8, 2008 @ 8:58 pm
  16. Comment by CDV:

    Well argued, Nathan.

    April 8, 2008 @ 9:04 pm
  17. Comment by Nathan B.:

    Back on topic, I’m not sure what part of “I don’t have a problem with animal testing or research” is fence-straddling.

    April 8, 2008 @ 9:55 pm
  18. Comment by Matthew:

    Nice post Chris. It is damn near impossible to find arguments that support either argument that doesn’t cherry pick data or just plain make shit up. I found this to be one of the more insightful and understanding post dealing with this topic. To be fair, I haven’t read Maggie’s post yet.

    Nathan, plants get their fair share of battles over the use of GMO’s.

    April 9, 2008 @ 2:51 am
  19. Comment by Jamie:

    Chris, don’t kid yourself, the Aztec god Huitzilopotchli will punish you for your torturing of the maize, you inhuman bastard.

    April 9, 2008 @ 3:53 am
  20. Comment by Sherrie:

    I wanted to post a comment yesterday on your excellent post, and I went to do so a couple of times, however I am a bad speller when awake, let alone after a 12 hour day of ESL. ;-)

    I am a Newfoundlander, I am proud of it, and I kept wanting to talk about those poor baby seals as . The long and the short of it is the planet is full of hypocrites. I do not like the idea of anything in pain, yet I am only to happy to slap its dead flesh on a BBQ and chow down, and should I ever have children I want those vaccinations. I do know from my own brief stint in marine biology universities do not throw money at people just because they want to stick some needles in a squid. Life is still considered sacred, and you spent more time writing your proposals to obtain permission than the research itself.

    Student got to go, but excellent post!

    Sherrie’s last blog post..Wordless Wednesday: Dreaming About Beach Vacation

    April 9, 2008 @ 8:59 am
  21. Comment by CDV:

    Nathan, I don’t even know what we’re talking about anymore.

    Matthew, definitely read Maggie’s post, it’s worth a read even if you are a carnivorous animal torturer. Which I know your not, at least the latter part.

    What do I have to do to appease Huitzilopotchli, Jamie. Case he sounds like a scary motherfucker.

    Sherri, I think that the conundrum in which you find yourself is where a lot of people sit. Bt the last sentence – about scientists recognition that life is sacred – is dead on.

    April 9, 2008 @ 9:32 am
  22. Comment by SSG:

    haha this is too fucking funny, do it again! bring on abortion! and cloning! and religion! and the point of life!!!
    I am having a baked potato with sour cream and shives for lunch if anyone wants to comment on that

    April 9, 2008 @ 1:43 pm
  23. Comment by SSG:

    i hope you like my speeeling

    April 9, 2008 @ 1:43 pm
  24. Comment by trouble:

    An excellent, excellent post. I worked in a community for a while that had a terrible problem with ALF. i know that you know who I’m talking about here, Chris. The actions of a few assholes, and the way those actions were used to terrify a great number of people who were only doing their jobs, made me a pretty much intolerant of animal rights assholes (your anonymous commenter springs to mind).

    Thanks for telling the other side of the story, and telling it well.

    trouble’s last blog post..It doesn’t get any better than this

    April 9, 2008 @ 3:02 pm
  25. Comment by Gypsy:

    Know what’s kind of pathetic? My view on animal testing comes from a truly schmaltzy teen movie called Drive Me Crazy, where the mopey hero of the tale’s animal rights extremist vegan girlfriend doesn’t realize that the mopey hero’s mother died of cancer and therefore he’s not against animal testing.

    Sigh. I can’t hang in this conversation.

    Gypsy’s last blog post..Turning back the clock

    April 9, 2008 @ 3:59 pm
  26. Comment by Jessica K:

    Wow, as a southern housewife who hates confrontation, your comment section is making my tummy hurt.
    I think every little girl goes through a phase of protesting animal testing, but when it comes down to it (to be redundant) what is the alternative?
    This was a very interesting post, though I think when you tackle abortion I’ll just skip the comment section. Or take a Xanax.

    Jessica K’s last blog post..Bedtime Snacks, Grant Style

    April 9, 2008 @ 4:03 pm
  27. Comment by arizaphale:

    Some of these drugs make you erect or put you at ease in social situations,

    what an interesting juxtaposition….

    Great post btw.

    arizaphale’s last blog post..Attrition and Abrasion of the Soul

    April 9, 2008 @ 7:13 pm
  28. Comment by An Animal Lover:

    Like all vivisectionists, you’re completely distorting the facts. You’re promoting propaganda and you are lying! The instances that you cited in Britain are completely misrepreseted by the press.

    Worst, you’re treating the topic as humor! For shame!

    April 9, 2008 @ 8:56 pm
  29. Comment by Ryan:

    I apologize for having nothing to add other than pointing out that “for shame” and its derivatives (”shame on you” and such) make me laugh out loud and wonder if there was ever a day in which that “shame”-phrase-umbrella succeeded in making someone actually feel shame…

    How fucking DARE you EVER have a laugh, Chris! I’m am OUTRAGED!

    April 9, 2008 @ 9:34 pm
  30. Comment by Ryan:

    …I cannot BELIEVE I just wrote “I’m am”…now I really AM outraged.

    April 9, 2008 @ 9:34 pm
  31. Comment by BusyDad:

    This issue will NEVER be settled. That’s because it depends on what paradigm you are arguing from. If you believe that human life is more important than animal life, then yay for animal testing. If you believe that all life, no matter what creature it belongs to has the same right to live, then nay for animal testing. Both sides can throw all the facts they want at each other, but it really just boils down to which paradigm you are operating from. Good luck changing that.

    BusyDad’s last blog post..W8Loss Wednesday – Into the Fray I Go

    April 9, 2008 @ 10:41 pm
  32. Comment by Nathan B.:

    I didn’t realize the British press was that bad…is there a Sean Hannity-type in Britain to present a fair and balanced view of this topic?

    April 9, 2008 @ 10:56 pm
  33. Comment by CDV:

    Busy day in the old comment stream!

    SSG: It’s you who pissed off that animal lover personn with your damned flippancy!

    Trouble: It’s all about intolerance from extremists on both sides. To be fair, which I’m apparently not, you run into a fair few scientists that just can’t see that anyone could have a problem with animal testing. But, fuck that, I’m not into fair ;)

    Gypsy: I saw that movie. I think it was a brilliant cinematic piece! There’s this great scene about having sex with Agent Scully, mmmm Gillian Anderson.

    Jess: I have that same aversion to confrontation. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a Southern thing – I got it from my Mom.

    Ariza: Just have to be careful not to take them at the same time – that would be scary.

    Animal Lover: I just can’t be bothered to engage. If you have something intelligent or factual to bring to the discussion, fine. Otherwise: Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.

    Ryan: As you probably know, this is the second time I’ve been shamed in about a week. And, sniff, it’s kind of starting to get to me. Oh, and I find your grammatical lapse disturbing.

    Busy Dad: I think you’re right. As with all firmly held beliefs, there is little wiggle room in people’s opinions.

    Nathan: Yeah, we only have one or two news outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch, so the news is all over the place. Very poor.

    April 10, 2008 @ 6:31 am
  34. Comment by Sinead:

    Dear Animal Lover,
    Even if Chris doesn’t want to engage I do. I am not sure how you can accuse Chris of lying when there is plenty of evidence to support that animal rights protesters dug up the body of a lady who happened to be the mother-in-law of a guinea pig farmer. In what world is that acceptable behaviour. You are probably one of those animal rights nuts who brought Oxford City Centre to a standstill once a month and used up police resources just so you could rant about animals being tortured. I was one of the people who walked past biting my tongue until it bled because Chris was restraining me from saying anything like “shut the fuck up you hypocrites, if your mother, father, son, daughter, aunt, uncle, friend, kids friend ( I could go on) were sick and dying would you be so quick then to reject the drugs which had been responsibly tested on animals as part of an ethical research program?” No scientist (and I am a scientist who has used several animal models in my research) gets a kick out of using animals in research. Their use are always carefully considered. I agree that animals do not need to be used to test cosmetics, but their use in testing novel drugs and as models for human diseases cannot be duplicated with a computer program or cell culture analysis. So Mrs/Mr/Ms Animal lover before you go on about distorting facts, maybe you should look them up yourself! Fuckwit!

    April 10, 2008 @ 8:27 am
  35. Comment by SSG:

    go sinead

    April 10, 2008 @ 8:40 am
  36. Comment by Jessica K:

    Sinead’s my new hero. :)

    Jessica K’s last blog post..Bedtime Snacks, Grant Style

    April 10, 2008 @ 2:18 pm
  37. Comment by trouble:

    I think I have a girl crush on Sinead, Chris. Not to slight you or anything, but DAMN. ;)

    trouble’s last blog post..Censored

    April 10, 2008 @ 4:24 pm
  38. Comment by Matthew:

    I’ve never heard the term “Fuckwit,” but I’m going to start using it! Love it.

    April works with mice, and she (a long with everyone else in the lab) just hates it when they “put them down,” but when studying the immune system, there isn’t much alternative.

    Honestly, I think those mice are in better living conditions than many pets.

    April 10, 2008 @ 4:45 pm
  39. Comment by Nathan B.:

    Those mice have better living conditions than many people in 3rd world countries.

    And “fuckwit” is now right up there on my list, with “douchetard”.

    April 10, 2008 @ 5:15 pm
  40. Comment by CDV:

    Oy! It’s because of you fucktards that I’m getting abuse from douchewit animal rights people! Or have I got that mixed up?

    April 10, 2008 @ 5:35 pm
  41. Comment by SSG:

    quality! douchetard! sooooo going to use that today!

    April 11, 2008 @ 9:33 am
  42. Pingback from Happy Blog-day To Me And A Gift For You | chrisdellavedova.com:

    [...] Science Tuesday: In Response to an Animal Rights Apologist [...]

    June 18, 2008 @ 10:33 am
  43. Comment by Joel:

    Penicillin was tested on mice, but it showed little to no affect. It kills hamsters/guinea pigs. It was destined to be discarded until Nobel Prize winner Howard Florey used it on a sick human patient.

    “How fortunate we didn’t have these animal tests in the 1940s, for penicillin would probably never been granted a license, and possibly the whole field of antibiotics might never have been realized.”-Howard Florey

    June 19, 2009 @ 1:19 am
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