Picture this: a mad scientist hungry for knowledge forces you to take part in an experiment you’re scared of losing your life to or – worse –at a risk of being crippled and maimed forever.
Sounds barbaric, doesn’t it? This happened with the Holmesburg prisoners in Philadelphia in the late 1900’s when a curious doctor injected harmful toxins to study their effects on the skin.
This happens to millions of animals every day today. Fact remains true that animal testing in the name of medical research is a common and cruel practice that happens in almost all medical labs around the world.
The debate of what’s right and what’s wrong in a laboratory is ongoing. Advocates will justify the practice by claiming that animal testing is useful in the field of human medicine. Critics will disagree and say the benefits are poorly established and the evidence inconclusive.
"Ask the experimenters why they experiment on animals and the answer is: ‘Because animals are like us.’ Ask the experimenters why it is morally okay to experiment on animals, and the answer is: ‘Because the animals are not like us.’ Animal experimentation rests on a logical contradiction" - Prof. Charles R. Mage
It was Aristotle back in 384 to 322 BC who began this charade of using animals to study their biology and relate it to human beings. Then came the father of vivisection, Dr. Galen, who cut open pigs to study their insides. The history of animal testing to ‘better’ the world of medicine is rich but the question is: is this animal brutality necessary?
What kind of experiments are animals used for?
You would think basic ethics would define a barrier on the kinds of experiments animals are used for but this is not so. Centuries of animal testing have seen procedures of all nature and magnitude. Vivisection, a commonly known term, was one of the firsts – an open surgery performed on animals to study their anatomy.
Over the years, however, the variety of experiments on animals expanded as did the cruelty. Statistics have revealed that over 100 million animals are made subjects of experiments worldwide and this is only a rough estimate. The animals usually used in lab tests include rabbits, rats, frogs, pigs, hamsters, birds, cats and dogs. The list does not stop here unfortunately. In some countries experiments on chimpanzees, monkeys and other primates are customary as well.
Although the types of experiments performed on animals is limitless, the most common tests done include those performed to study for an effect of a drug and its toxicity, genetic manipulation, behavioral studies and even experiments to observe the effect of a known poison that ultimately leads to the animal’s death.
Animal testing is not only limited to medical research, it is extremely high in the cosmetic, make-up, personal care and house-hold cleaner market also. Read our article Animal Testing on Consumer Products is Still Common Practice: Are You Unknowingly Supporting this Trade?
Has animal testing benefited mankind?
Despite the many failed animal experiments as mentioned later, it would be unfair to disregard the ones that did make a difference – if only slightly. Animal testing has shown to be somewhat beneficial in the research relating to treating bacterial infections, tuberculosis, macular degeneration, asthma and more.
But let’s take a closer look at these cases.
Let’s talk about benefit versus harm: it’s true that animal testing has led to the formulation of drugs to alleviate symptoms of asthma but, really, think about the amount of progress made. Despite decades of testing on animals for the cure of asthma, only two major types of treatment options are available for over 300 million sufferers of the conditions. Sure, animal testing has played its part in discovering these two types but has it done enough? Was it worth it to make hundreds of animal suffer for years only to discover a symptomatic treatment?
The 3R’s approach is a good way to meet in the middle if an experiment is absolutely necessary for the betterment of mankind. This approach is defined by three R’s: reduce, refine and replace. It aims to minimize the harm done to animals should a test be carried on them.
Reduction is reducing the number of animals used in the experiments which can be done by better experimental techniques and making researches public so a duplicate experiment isn’t carried out.
Refining the experiment ensures that the animals that are experimented on are treated gently and measures to reduce their pain and stress are promptly taken. This means less invasive procedures or testing a known toxic agent.
Finally, replacing the animal with a suitable alternative can be the best approach to save the animal and help exercise its rights.
Why is animal testing flawed?
Experimenting on animals and bringing them under the microscope has been popularly thought of as a good way to make progress in human medicine. This statement, however, is backed up with little proof.
While animal testing has been a focal point in the field of medicine, critics have found that the harm to animals does, in fact, outweigh the unreliable benefits. A test can only be of value if it’s valid and applies to the human anatomy and physiology; most tests on animals have proved otherwise.
And why not?
Common sense dictates that two entirely different species are bound to have different anatomies, physiologies and responses to a certain treatment in question. In fact, two individuals of the same species can respond uniquely. So is it wise to put an animal that is distinctly remote from man under a scalpel to find out how it can be of use in human medicine?
Take the unsuccessful attempts at creating the AIDS vaccine for example. In the early 21st century, chimpanzees were used in the research which ultimately led to the development of a HIV/AIDs vaccine. While the vaccine elicited a successful immune response in the non-human primates, they failed miserably when used on human beings. The author of the research states that ‘vaccine responses in chimpanzees and humans are highly discordant’.
And that’s just one example. History is full of such failed attempts to establish a correlation between animal and human responses rendering most of the animal testing futile.
Another important and popular example of a cancer-based animal experiment that proved of little to no use to mankind was conducted by Dr. Richard Klausner, former director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). After a series of lab tests, Klausner and his team concluded that they had managed to cure mice of cancer but the same therapy cannot be employed on human patients.
Experts have argued that medical treatments for animals and humans are distinct and should not be intermixed. In The Journal of the American Medical Association, an article by Dr. Daniel Hackam published in the year 2006 warned of the unreliability of results in animal tests. In his article he explains his point saying that “patients and physicians should remain cautious about extrapolating the findings of prominent animal research to the care of human disease … poor replication of even high-quality animal studies should be expected by those who conduct clinical research.”
Animal testing has, therefore, been rightly perceived as a barbaric and crude approach with more or less invalid results. The scientific limitations that come with these tests prove that these procedures are pretty much fruitless when newer alternatives can bring sounder outcomes.
"We cannot glimpse the essential life of a caged animal, only the shadow of its former beauty" - Julia Allen Field
What are the alternatives to animal testing?
There’s no denying that prior tests are critical in any area of human medicine. As unethical it is to test new drugs and unknown agents on animals, it is equally cruel to test it on humans directly.
Science has advanced greatly in the past few years and researchers have developed several ways to tackle this sticky situation – ways that don’t involve animal cruelty. A number of alternatives for animal testing now exist and are practiced globally albeit less commonly.
The procedure of isolating human tissue in vitro is an excellent choice that has the potential to revolutionize the world of medicine completely. Harvard’s Wyss Institute laid the foundation of this idea by creating an ‘organ on chip’. These chips, as minute as a memory card, may hold the answer to all future experiments although the development of these chips is costly and still under constant improvement.
These chips contain actual human cells that mimic the function and the structure of human organs. The chips can be studied under the microscope for any evidence of effect on the different cell components when a drug under testing is injected into it.
Tissue models for experimentation have also been used to observe skin allergies as have red blood cells to determine the toxicity of drugs.
Apart from the in vitro methods that make use of actual living tissue, let’s not forget how much our computers have advanced through the generations. In silico modeling that simulate human physiology has been used to study the effects of new drugs on the organs and organ system. Quantitative structure activity relationship is another computer-based strategy to estimate the dangers of a substance in question to the human tissue.
Vivisection can now be completely replaced with human-patient simulators on which researchers can perform a detailed surgery and teach different surgical techniques to students instead of on animals which have their own unique anatomy. TraumaMan is an excellent surgical simulator that can mirror human responses to trauma and allow researchers and students to practice lifesaving techniques on it. This is a much more morally appropriate approach than experiments that require students to perform needless surgeries on perfectly healthy animals.
It is important to realize that alternatives to animal testing do exist and should be heavily promoted to not only save countless of lives but to produce more logical and valid outcomes for man.
Are there laws regulating animal testing?
Animal right laws in many parts of the world have played their part in bettering the future of animals but only a small percentage of them cover the legal rights of animals used in experiments. Although there has been a noticeable decline in the statistics of animal testing in parts of Europe over the years, the rights of experimental animals have to be strictly regulated to root out the problem.
Henry Bergh laid the foundation of opposing animals in medical research back in the 1860s when he made the ASPCA – American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Anti-vivisection organizations rose in the years to follow and emphasized on the unnecessary need of using animals in experiments. You would think the advancement in this cause would have been great by now but sadly, even today, laws to protect animals in lab tests lack.
The Animal Welfare Act, for example, protects the rights of animals in research centers but it only covers 5% of the animals tested upon. Similarly other acclaimed bodies like the Public Health Service and the United States Department of Agriculture may contribute in overseeing better care for animals outside of the testing laboratories but what goes inside is still not legally protected.
There is also a surprising lack of animal rights inspectors in this area of work and there are few to none laboratories that are required to report animals that are not protected by law.
The future of animals in science
The progress to a safe future for animals in our society might be slow but there is always hope. With more and more people speaking up for animal rights now, we might soon see an end to the suffering of animals in our scientific researches.
Animal experimenting has been in the world of science for centuries and has been taken as a ‘standard’ on many accounts. With more reliable alternatives now available, it’s time we shift to a more logical and less primitive approach in our medical researches. Because who knows – maybe we’ll finally find a cure for AIDs by testing on actual human tissue instead of on mice?
What can we do about animal testing?
Animal testing is a matter that is, in essence, beyond our control unless we are actively involved in the field of medicine. However, there are a few things we can do to raise the awareness and gain more and more public support. The more support we get behind ‘banning animal testing’ the greater the chance it will be banned forever:
Use your voice to speak up about the issues: At an individual level, it’s important that you advocate animal rights and educate those around you. We all have a circle of influence, use yours to help raise awareness for this barbaric practice. It truly is a privilege to have freedom of speak, rise strong, and use your voice to speak up for those that can’t.
Vote with your dollars: It’s equally important to consume consciously and make sure you do not use any commercial products that are a result of animal testing. You can find out which of your favourite products are cruelty-free by searching PETA US’ online database of companies that do and that don’t test on animals. You can see which charities conduct humane research at HumaneSeal.org.
Raise your opinion, suggestions and concerns with decision-makers: Educate yourself about the ethical and scientific aspects of animal use in research and teaching, and then ensure you let our elected leaders and decision makers know of your views. For further information on these issues visit Humane Research Australia. Talk to them about enhancing protection laws for animals involved in research.
Make a stand at school and university: If you study at a university you should contact the administrative council and suggest less primitive and more productive teaching methods than experimenting on animals. Visit Interniche — a great organisation dedicated to the adoption of humane education techniques, and including some great resources.
Donate kindly: When donating to a charity, ensure it is not one that supports the use of animals in research. See the list of charities which have adopted a ‘no animal testing’ policy.
Donate your body to science: A lesser-known way to support the replacement of animals in experimentation is through posthumous body donation. Here are two charities dedicated to providing valuable human bodies, organs, and tissues to medical researchers and students.