In 2009, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will disperse approximately $15 billion of our tax money to animal experimenters. These researchers and the underpinning industries of animal breeders and transporters, cage and equipment builders and food manufacturers have a financial interest in convincing you that all this cash goes only to research aimed at saving human lives. It does not.
Our taxes have recently funded studies to see how brain damage affects the sexual behavior of hamsters, whether loud noises impact yelling by tamarin monkeys, if young rats like saccharine and cocaine more than older rats do and whether cats who have had their brain stems cut and portions of their brains removed will walk on a treadmill.
Rather than working in a clinical setting with people who suffer from depression, experimenters use federal funds to "create" animal models of the disease by putting mice in water tanks and making them swim to the point of drowning or by subjecting rats to inescapable electrical shocks.
Our tax dollars still support nicotine experiments on animals even though we've long known that tobacco can cause disease in nearly every organ of the human body. In one study, experimenters paralyzed 47 dogs with drugs, dissected their chests, forced them to breathe cigarette smoke and then killed them to study the effects of the smoke on airway irritation-even though animals don't respond to cigarettes and their ingredients as humans do.
On top of this terrible waste of life and money, the system put in place to protect animals in laboratories is a mess. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) employs just 100 people to ensure that more than 1,000 laboratories and 7,500 other animal facilities comply with the few animal protection laws that exist. These laws don't prohibit any experiment-no matter how redundant, painful or just plain useless it is.
Regardless of the purpose of an experiment, it is ethically wrong to imprison and harm animals for our own ends. Even researchers who support their families by experimenting on animals should agree that animals must not be used when equally good or better non-animal methods are available. Yet the number one violation of laboratory oversight committees, according to the USDA, is that the committees don't require experimenters to do an adequate search for non-animal methods.
Experimenters should agree not to build their careers around redundant studies, such as the decades-long practice-still thriving in primate laboratories today-of taking infant monkeys from their mothers and raising them in isolation. We've known since the 1950s that this creates psychological trauma so severe that it causes lifelong psychoses.
Laboratories should eliminate practices that are painful and obviously ridiculous, such as identifying mice, rats and guinea pigs by cutting off some of their toes; collecting blood from mice by inserting glass tubes behind their eyes or from rats by snipping off bits of their tails; using outdated anesthesia that immobilizes animals but doesn't eliminate pain during surgery; and keeping monkeys so thirsty that they'll cooperate in exchange for a sip of juice. Rodents need bedding material, dogs need regular exercise outside their kennels and monkeys need real mental stimulation-and not simply a mirror attached to tiny cage bars, which laboratory personnel pretend is psychologically enriching. Most species need companionship and should never be housed alone.
Those shocked to find out what goes on regularly inside animal laboratories can contact their members of Congress and ask them to include rats, mice and birds in the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). Right now, these species-who make up more than 90 percent of all animals used-are specifically excluded from the AWA, which is the only federal law that offers any protection for animals in laboratories.
These improvements won't end all the suffering in laboratories, but they can mean a world of difference to animals in the coming year.
Kathy Guillermo is director of laboratory investigations for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.StopAnimalTests.com.