Animal testing is not a pleasant topic, but it’s one that demands discourse. The benefits afforded by animal testing are enormous, with discoveries such as penicillin (mice), polio vaccines (monkeys) and insulin (dogs and cows) only made possible through animal experimentation, having saved millions of lives and alleviated untold suffering. However, despite these benefits, there is still the question of the animals themselves. What right do we have to use them to our ends? And if we feel their use is justifiable, then, putting it plainly, how much suffering can we subject them to? It is one of our major moral quandaries, with everyone pushing a different answer.
References to animal testing can be found as far back as the 4th century BCE, with Aristotle and Erasistratus being among the first to experiment on living animals. Avenzoar, a physician living in 12th century Moorish Spain, dissected animals to test surgical procedures before applying them to humans. Since then, animals have been used throughout the history of scientific research and education. Our own Dublin Zoo was founded by a group of medical professionals in 1831, with the aim of studying the animals it would keep.
In the 1890s Pavlov famously used dogs to demonstrate classical conditioning, and in 1922 Fredrick Banting used dogs and cows in the chemical isolation of insulin. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the large scale testing we know of today really began, with the advent of mandatory toxicological studies (studies into how toxic a drug is). The Elixir Sulfanilamide disaster of 1937, which caused the deaths of 107 people by liver and kidney failure, lead to the enactment of laws requiring animal testing in the U.S. Most countries followed suit almost immediately afterwards.
Since then animals have been used for education and research in almost every field concerned with biology and life science, with an estimated 100 million vertebrates experimented on globally every year. Many more invertebrates, such as fruit flies and zebra fish are used, but their use is largely unregulated. Animals are used in two main streams of research; pure research and applied research. The former is interested in how organisms develop, behave and function, while the latter focuses on finding solutions to specific problems (mainly diseases). Pure research is usually academic in origin, and can encompass education. Examples of it often include embryological, physiological, genetic and psychological studies. Applied research is most often carried out by pharmaceutical companies, sometimes in collaboration with an academic body, and mostly involves testing on animals suffering from human diseases/conditions or analogues, animal versions, of such diseases/conditions.
Given the extent to which animal testing occurs, and what it entails, it is no wonder that governments have imposed strict legislation for testing. The consensus is that testing should be used only when necessary and that suffering should be minimised. In the United States., for example, under the Animal Welfare Act any experimental procedure can be carried out on animal provided it can be successfully argued that the experiment is scientifically justifiable, i.e. that the likely potential benefit outweighs the suffering of the animal.
This decision is reached by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), which every institution is obliged to maintain. Beyond this or equivalent legislation, researchers in most countries apply the “three Rs”. Replacement means using methods requiring animals only when necessary, reduction means optimising experiments to minimise the number of animals used, and refinement means using methods that inflict the minimum amount of pain or distress. Further restrictions have been placed on the testing of certain higher order vertebrates, such as non-human primates. This is due to the likelihood that they experience pain and suffering in a way that is similar to humans.
The particularly controversial field of cosmetic testing is another form of applied research. However, in the EU, a total ban on cosmetic testing comes into effect as of March 11th this year. Welcome news, even to proponents of animal testing for research, considering the ultimate aim of such research and the fact that most tests involved irritancy studies, such as the Draize test.
During a Draize test, an animal (typically an albino rabbit, as the lack of pigment allows for more clear visualisation of irritation) is strapped into a harness to prevent movement, while 0.5ml of a cosmetic product is applied to its eyeball. The animal is left in that state for a set time (can be hours), then the cosmetic is washed out and the level of irritation it caused measured. Depending on the level of damage inflicted on the eye, animals are often reused for Draize tests.
Claude Bernard, known as the “prince of vivisectors” and the father of physiology, famously wrote in 1865: “The science of life is a superb and dazzlingly lighted hall which may be reached only by passing through a long and ghastly kitchen.” While Bernard was a proponent of animal testing, believing it necessary for medical and scientific advancement, his wife Marie was not. She founded the first anti-vivisection society in France in 1883. As experimentation on animals became more prevalent, so did its opposition. Today, criticism of testing comes from two main groups. One feels testing is justified only when completely necessary and is concerned with the welfare of the animals while they’re being tested. The other is opposed to any form of testing. The second group, though the minority, is gaining ground, mainly through the work of groups like PETA. They hold that any form of animal testing is a violation of the animal’s rights, and that it is never justifiable.
In a bid to counter pressure from animal rights groups, and to get greater support from the public, some researchers have banded together to form groups like Pro-Test for Science. They aim to defend the use of animals in research, by providing facts on how animals are treated and arguments on why their use is permissible.
As is likely to happen with when two well-organized and passionate groups disagree, conflicts occur. The now defunct UK branch of Pro-Test was set up to combat the heavy protesting against the construction a new research centre in Oxford by groups such as SPEAK and the threats made against the students involved in the research undertaken there by the Animal Liberation Front. In 2007 the Animal Liberation Brigade placed a bomb under the car of a UCLA researcher (it failed to detonate). In 2009, another UCLA researcher’s car was set on fire after it became known that his experiments involved vervet monkeys. Such incidents have lead to the inclusion of extreme forms of animal protesting into anti-terrorist laws in both the US and UK, and have actually served to gain support for the researchers.
Our ever increasing understanding of life, in particular disease, and the need to test that understanding, coupled with our exploding population and its demand for health means that animal testing is unlikely to stop in the near future. However, with the development of technologies such as PET and fMRI, as well as new testing methods and techniques, fewer animals are now being used and their treatment is more humane. It is a moral trade off.