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Of guinea pigs and men

In August 2005, a family-run farm in Britain announced they would stop raising guinea pigs for use in research and return to livestock farming. If this decision had been reached because of a change of heart, there would be cause for animal advocates to applaud. Rather, it resulted from six years of intimidation by animal rights extremists that included threats, explosives and the theft of a dead family member's remains. Such terrorist actions and their 'victories' do not improve animal welfare and have little lasting impact. Clearly, any changes in animal experimentation should occur only as a result of dialogue between the public, scientists and legislators. But this implies an open and informed discussion of the role of animal experimentation in society.

As reported by the British Broadcasting Corporation, even animal rights advocates like the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection acknowledge that this news is not a victory for their cause as it did not result from a shift in public support—arguably, such intimidation and violence are more likely to alienate public support. One thing that is clear even amidst the complexity of confusing opinion polls is that the public has great sympathy for animals. Most people, however, will support animal experimentation if they feel that the harm done is outweighed by the perceived societal benefit. This is also the official, although discreet, position of some mainstream groups that advocate more humane treatment of animals.

For the public to properly weigh the moral costs and likely benefits of animal experimentation as they would like, people must be presented with the necessary information. Unfortunately, the public appears generally misinformed about the role of animals in research. This was illustrated, for example, by a 1999 poll indicating only about half of people knew that all prescription drugs are tested on animals.

It is currently difficult to correct these misconceptions. Although animal rights extremists don't attract public sympathy, they have been successful at forcing individuals and companies to accede to their demands. This has caused scientists, and the institutions that should be supporting them, to try and remain unnoticed instead of affirming the need for animal research.

We therefore applaud the brave move of over 500 leading scientists and doctors in Britain who recently signed a declaration supporting animal research. This declaration reaffirmed the “three Rs” of reduction, refinement and replacement in animal research first proposed in 1959 by Russell and Burch and championed by thoughtful animal advocates. These principles have since led to a dramatic improvement in the treatment of research animals. Going forward, development of new scientific methods will still be integral to reducing the need for animal experimentation.

The recent declaration also called for increased openness and transparency by the research community. Unfortunately, the current climate of intimidation is not conducive to transparency when savvy extremists can easily threaten researchers and companies. To combat this problem, the United Kingdom passed laws making it easier to prosecute animal rights activists who resort to intimidation or terrorism. On May 18, 2005, the Counterterrorism Division of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation called for legislative action on this front in the United States because the current statute “does not cover many of the criminal acts that extremists have committed.” If law enforcement can reduce these criminal acts, it will result in an improved climate capable of fostering openness and debate between the research community and the public.

Without proper education, however, such openness can easily be used to convince people of the inadequacy of animal testing. Incredibly, several animal rights activists use the argument that the very existence of adverse drug reactions in people shows that such tests are not justified. Activists, however, have consistently failed to propose a viable alternative. Conducting tests on human subjects without the benefit of animal data, as some activists have proposed, would not only be extremely risky, but highly unethical. Such proposals ignore the fact that monetary compensation would be required to recruit experimental subjects for such high-risk tests and most volunteers would come from the socioeconomically disadvantaged parts of society.

One possibility for reducing the friction between the biomedical research community and animal advocates would be for practically minded animal advocacy groups to be more open in their acknowledgement of the indispensable role of animals in biomedical research. This would help foster a more open debate on the use of animals and dispel the intransigence that sets in when neither side feels that the other understands or respects their position. This could result in improvements in both animal welfare and scientific practice while sidelining extremists.

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Of guinea pigs and men. Nat Methods 2, 721 (2005).

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