One of the most frustrating industries to deal with in all animal protection is the animal research community. Although there are many scientists who care about animal welfare, demagogues abound within this fraternity, and they are the masters of Chicken Little scare tactics, as if every animal they prod, poke or cut open is going to yield some life-saving remedy.
There’s a classic example of this at work in the current debate in Congress over legislation to ban Class B dealers of random source dogs and cats, including stolen pets—one of the true abuses in the sector. B dealers procure dogs and cats from "random sources" and sell them to a dwindling number of research facilities that use these animals in experiments. Recently, the American Heart Association sent around a letter opposing a measure pushed by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) to ban this practice. I asked Dr. Martin Stephens, our vice president for animal research issues, for his thoughts.
Scientists are trained to dispassionately weigh the evidence for and against a hypothesis or a claim, including their own. As someone who was trained as a scientist and later pursued a career in animal protection, I’m continually appalled at how quickly some scientists shed their impartiality and critical faculties when their self-interest appears to clash with sensible reform for animals in laboratories. The latest case in point is the AHA’s defense of using Class B dealers as a supplier of random source dogs and cats.
The AHA dusts off the “status quo is fine” argument: placing B dealers off-limits as a supplier of random source dogs and cats is “unnecessary because the Animal Welfare Act already requires these … dealers to obtain animals legally and treat them humanely…” This statement ignores: (i) more than 40 years of evidence of dealers not obtaining dogs and cats legally nor treating them humanely, including the recent case of C.C. Baird, (ii) the USDA’s own admission that it lacks the resources to effectively regulate B dealers, (iii) the limited value of the USDA’s efforts to confirm the identity of people who sold animals to B dealers, and (iv) the shadowy world of unregulated “bunchers” who supply dogs and cats to B dealers.
AHA’s second argument is a variation of the sky-will-fall scare tactic: Sen. Akaka’s amendment “would jeopardize medical research on heart disease, stroke, …, and digestive diseases that require non-purpose bred dogs and cats….” This argument ignores the fact that non-purpose bred (or random source) dogs and cats would not be outlawed, just the middlemen who now supply some of them. Moreover, AHA’s associated arguments: (i) confuse the source of animals with the genetic status of those animals (genetically uniform versus genetically diverse), and (ii) claim that genetically diverse animals are better human models, despite the fact that throughout biomedical research, genetically uniform animals have been thought to be better models. Good scientists seek to rigorously control their studies and not willingly introduce unknown, data-skewing variables.
Similarly, AHA trots out the old "medical progress versus animal protection" canard: Sen. Akaka’s amendment is “anti-medical research.” But one doesn’t learn from the AHA letter that many responsible scientists strongly endorse the Akaka amendment, including Dr. Robert Whitney, former Acting Surgeon General and former director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Research Resources, with 25 years of experience in the care and use of animals in biomedical research.
A dwindling number of research facilities continue to purchase random source dogs and cats from a dwindling number of licensed Class B dealers. They do so because it may be cheaper and it’s the way they’ve always done things, not because of any loftier motives. The research community should face up to the evidence and cut this issue loose.