Nothing fair about this research

A new study out of Emory Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta is being hailed as groundbreaking because it shows that brown capuchin monkeys have a sense of fair play. Apparently, when one monkey was given only a piece of cucumber, but he saw a fellow monkey receiving a tasty grape, he tossed his cucumber aside in a fit of pique.

So now we know that monkeys can see what’s fair and unfair. It’s too bad that the people who keep these monkeys in cages their whole lives-a truly unfair sentence for intelligent beings who have committed no crime-don’t enjoy the same sensitivity.

But then again, proof is everywhere that we are a species behaving badly.

Here are just two examples: In Amsterdam they’ve had to dissolve the honor system of offering public bicycles because so many have been stolen, repainted and sold. And in a study of visitors to Antarctica, it was found that people with a university or post-graduate education were significantly more inclined to harass seals and trample plants.

Average people, both well-educated and uneducated, are capable of worse acts than we like to believe. What this means is that animals, the elderly, children and anyone else in a vulnerable position are more likely to be abused than we would like to believe.

The medical and scientific researchers, like those at the primate center, conducting experiments on animals are no exception. Lab experimenters, despite their often lofty goals, have been no more successful in policing themselves than have average citizens.

The examples of horrific behavior inside laboratories are legion and fresh. University of North Carolina researchers cut off rodents’ heads with scissors without any effort to lessen their suffering. Researchers in a lab in New Jersey were caught slamming petrified monkeys into steel cages and, having tied them down to the table, stuffing bottles in their mouths and mocking them.

Someone once said the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. We change the victims but keep the behavior. The past atrocities in the name of medical research prove that point.

The Tuskegee experiment, in which poor black men were used as research subjects and not told that they had syphilis is one of the most studied cases in research ethics. Orphans were used in tuberculin tests and trials of low levels of radiation; and poor migrant Irish women were used in gynecological practice surgeries that, when perfected, were performed on wealthy, paying customers.

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration require thousands of tests on animals, and many companies-that sell everything from detergent to lipstick-voluntarily test their products on animals. Even if lab workers always followed proper procedures, there are few regulations for animal welfare. In the case of mice, rats and birds-the majority of animal subjects-there are no laws governing their treatment.

Rats and mice, though they feel pain the same way humans do, are used in labs because, in the words of the head of laboratory science at a Washington medical school, “they are cheap, convenient and easy to handle.” That’s uncomfortably similar to the justification we used for experiments on disadvantaged humans just decades ago, and we should be ashamed to accept it today.

Defenders of animal tests argue that the advancement of science and human safety outweighs animal welfare concerns. But researchers have known for years that the results of animal tests can never be reliably assumed relevant to humans. An EPA official at a recent conference on neurotoxicity admitted: “We know the rat isn’t the right model. It’s like being in a bad marriage-you know you should get out but you don’t because there’s so much history there.”

There is no good reason not to summarily end all behavioral studies of primates and other animals in laboratory settings when we can now travel to even the remotest corners of the earth and observe animals in their homes, without molesting them. And there is no good reason not to divorce ourselves from barbarous and needless animal tests and switch to more sophisticated modern testing methods. The use of whole human DNA, computer screens of human data and in-vitro testing using human cells, unlike animal experiments, are relevant to the human experience.

Undoubtedly, we will look back on the treatment of animals in labs, as we have done with so many past injustices, with horror. May we be able to say that each of us had the nerve, the principle and the vision to help put an end to animal tests.

Ingrid Newkirk is president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front Street, Norfolk, Va. 23510.

(c) 2003, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

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