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.