Although the idea of consuming animals for gustatory pleasure disgusts many of us, including non-vegetarians, most have grown up eating meat, conditioned to ignore the fact that between those two buns lies a sizzling chunk of cow corpse.
But this attitude is illogical. Invasive biomedical animal research has a valuable purpose: the pursuit of knowledge that can be applied to saving lives or lessening the symptoms of disease. Non-vegetarian eating is essential only for the titillation of our taste buds.
Sarah Bottjer, USC professor of biological sciences and psychology, recently published a study in Nature Neuroscience about her discovery of a brain pathway partially responsible for the vocal learning of zebra finches. Her findings might someday help treat stuttering and other speech problems common in autism, Alzheimer’s and other diseases. Unfortunately, the study required surgical lesions to the brains of the little orange-cheeked birds.
The controversy surrounding this type of research is extremely complex. It’s easy to dismiss as immoral, but we need to approach the issue objectively and use our knowledge to make the most ethical decisions on a case-by-case basis.
A number of medical breakthroughs throughout history would have been impossible without invasive animal research. In 1921, scientists discovered insulin could be used to keep people with diabetes alive after performing surgery on dogs and tying up their pancreatic ducts. In 1955, a vaccine against polio was made available after nearly 100,000 Rhesus monkeys were killed in its development.
Unfortunately, birds, rats and mice bred specifically for research are not protected by the Animal Welfare Act, which regulates the conditions under which research animals live and requires scientists to consider alternative ways of obtaining the same information. Despite a variety of lawsuits, the AWA still doesn’t consider these species “animals,” so inspections aren’t conducted and reports aren’t filed.
That really is something to be concerned about. These species make up a majority of the animals mutilated in the name of science, and they are almost always killed after the experiments are over.
A couple of years ago, I met some middle-aged chimpanzees who had just retired from their unpaid jobs as subjects in invasive biomedical research. Although their living conditions had been closely regulated, they were pale, emaciated and traumatized — one female had a bald patch on her stomach because she would pluck her hair out of stress; another obsessively clutched a teddy bear to her chest. At the lab, she was used to breed six baby chimps that had all been taken away from her.
The chimps lived in cramped cages and were repeatedly anesthetized and injected with different vaccines so researchers could evaluate the toxicity in their livers and kidneys.
While writing a story about these chimps for a newspaper, I was introduced to the complexity of this issue. Some experts I interviewed claimed that all of the research is futile and outdated, and the main reason it persists is because it’s a profitable industry that, if abolished, would eliminate thousands of jobs, including those involved in the transportation and the breeding of the animals.
Scientists can study brain function by directly viewing different regions in action and taking photos of injured human brains. Transcranial magnetic stimulation allows doctors to harmlessly study what happens when you increase or decrease the activity in a brain region.
Above all, it’s crucial to consider alternative research methods and use them if they can yield the same information.
Brain imaging, for example, has provided an alternative to dissecting animal brains.
We need to direct more time, money and energy into developing alternative research tools and improving existing technology to lessen the necessity of ethically questionable methods.
We should neither embrace nor dismiss invasive research on animals. We must fully understand its complex aspects so that, using both our hearts and our heads, we can make decisions that advance the interest of our species while respecting the creatures who have already done so much for us.
Jean Guerrero is a senior majoring in print journalism. Her column “Scientastical” runs Mondays.