A report recently published by a Canadian university has disclosed a sobering statistic regarding animal testing. In an effort to bring a sense of transparency to the controversial practice of using animals for research purposes, the University of British Columbia (UBC) disclosed that more than 200,000 animals1 were used for experimentation and testing in 2010. The disclosure is the first of its kind in Canada, a country where federal law requires animal testing prior to conducting human clinical trials for new therapies. Animal rights activists have been alarmed by this number, but in context it is actually quite low, and indicative of humane testing practices at UBC.4
Human society is largely reliant on animals for a number of different things: food, companionship, entertainment, transportation, and as beasts of burden. The heated debate that surrounds the use of animals as test subjects for biomedical research has come under more scrutiny than other uses, mostly due to a sketchy ethical history. Early biomedical and even psychological studies on animals would have been considered quite cruel by today's standards, and would never have passed current regulations. Regulation in animal testing is a relatively new concept, as is animal cruelty legislation in general, and should be viewed as a sign of modernization.
Today, the research community is well aware that cruelty has no place in laboratories, and consequently scientists and technicians practice the utmost care in their research efforts in order to protect lab animals from unnecessary suffering. Whenever possible the three Rs of animal research are observed: replacement with non-animal testing methods wherever possible, reduction of the number of animals necessary wherever possible, and refinement before the animal testing stage to minimize the need for multiple experiments.
Government regulations in many countries have legalized the use of animals for the purpose of testing toxicity levels in products such as medications, vaccines, household cleaners, pesticides, and others before human use. However, the use of animals in cosmetic testing is more of a gray area, and regulation varies widely from country to country. Many argue that animals should not be used for testing of cosmetic and make-up products, which are not necessary to ensure the health of human beings. The United Kingdom seems to be at the forefront in this regard, with government initiatives such as the Animal Procedures Committee, and even there animal testing is growing more acceptable2, so long as anti-cruelty measures are observed.
In the case of UBC, while 200,000 may look like a big number, the break down shows very little in the way of cruelty or even discomfort. All of those animals were carefully reviewed to make sure their treatment was humane, and 68 percent of them were classified as receiving minor or no discomfort during the testing process. “Minor” discomfort ranges from receiving a shot to small surgical procedures no more painful or cruel than spaying or neutering. Mammals other than rodents make up less than two percent of the total animals involved, with rodents and fish heading up the list. Animals involved in invasive procedures were appropriately anesthetized, and treated with the same level of care that humans receive while undergoing surgery. Before any study can use animals in an experiment, they have to go through several levels of review and approval, and all studies are subject to annual reviews and spot-checks to ensure that all cruelty regulations are obeyed. In short, animal research is not the haphazard institution that many animal rights groups would have you believe, and UBC is hoping its transparency will help rectify that misconception.
The fact is, there is no replacement for animal testing when it comes to medical research. Even the most modern advances3 in computer and cellular technology do not come close to the complexity of living organisms. The University of British Columbia has made it clear that their researchers are committed to affording the most humane conditions possible for the animals they use in biomedical research. The current trend among humans to live healthier and longer lives is evidence that it is working, and will lead to better, more accurate animal testing in the future. The humane treatment of animals in research labs must prevail in order to guarantee the survival of our own species, and transparency is essential to keeping it humane.
Guest post written by Brittany Lyons. Brittany aspires to be a psychology professor, but decided to take some time off from grad school to help people learn to navigate the academic lifestyle. She currently lives in Spokane, Washington, where she spends her time reading science fiction and walking her dog.