Animals Used In Science: A Review Of Laws In The U.S.
Animal testing is undoubtedly a controversial topic in the eyes of the general public. Proponents argue that increased scientific knowledge justifies the harm done to the animals, whereas opponents argue that it is unethical to exploit animals for our benefit. Though there is pressure from the public to make animal testing adhere to the 3R principles (reduction, refinement, and replacement of animal testing methods), much of what goes on happens behind closed laboratory doors, leaving the public with very little ability to monitor the industry. In this context, laws protecting laboratory animals are one of the only recourses to making sure they have some level of welfare. This article, published by the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research, highlights gaps in U.S. protections for laboratory animals alongside the consequences of these gaps.
The main U.S. law in place to protect laboratory animals is the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The AWA was passed by Congress in 1966 in response to public outcries over testing on dogs, some of whom were stolen pets. The AWA is meant to ensure protections for laboratory animals at the federal level, since many state animal cruelty laws exclude laboratory animals. These protections include regulations for adequate food, water, housing, and pain-relief. The main issues with the AWA are that the scope of its protections are very limited, and what protections it does offer are poorly enforced.
A huge, glaring limitation is the fact that the AWA completely excludes birds, rats, and mice bred for research. This excluded group constitutes the vast majority (by some estimates, around 95%) of animals who undergo testing. Another major limitation is the fact that pain relief can be denied to animals in cases where providing an analgesic would impact the results of the research. This loophole is undoubtedly easy to exploit: as long as a scientist or group of researchers claim that not using analgesics is scientifically “necessary” for their experiment, the animals under their care can be subject to suffering through any number of painful procedures. Other limiting clauses lead to consequences such as dogs housed in groups being denied exercise, and primates lacking in social enrichment.
On top of all of this, a 2014 report from the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health found, through an audit of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, that the AWA is inadequately enforced. This means that laboratories can get away with faking compliance with these already-minimal standards without having a real chance of getting caught or punished once they are caught. With enforcement agencies underfunded and understaffed, some may think members of the public are the next best way of keeping laboratories accountable. Unfortunately, many relevant records are kept from public view. Even Freedom of Information Act requests can be refused if the scientists claim that their information constitutes a “trade secret,” which would put them at a business disadvantage if revealed. Furthermore, the AWA lacks a citizen suit provision. This means that private citizens can only take violators of the AWA to court if they can establish standing by proving that the case directly impacts them (the human private citizen) in some way. Establishing standing in these cases is almost impossible since violations of the AWA generally only impact animals, who have no legal standing themselves.
There are plenty of reasons to care about protecting laboratory animals from undue suffering, not least among which is the fact that these animals feel a wide range of emotions, including pain. Polls have shown that the majority of Americans want animals to be treated humanely. On a more practical level, animal testing can be inefficient in finding solutions to human ailments. A 2007 panel of experts from the National Research Council of the National Academies advised alternative testing methods for toxicity testing, citing unreliability in extrapolating from animal test results to humans as a primary concern.
The authors of the article conclude by making several suggestions to bolster the AWA and make it better suited to its purpose of protecting laboratory animals. First, the AWA should include all laboratory animals, regardless of breed or circumstances of birth. Second, minimum care requirements should be updated and expanded to better serve the needs of each species. Third, all research facilities should have to follow mandatory reporting laws and there should be public transparency regarding what each laboratory is doing to look after its animals. Fourth, a citizen suit provision should be added to help individuals combat violations of the AWA. Finally, researchers should learn more about the animals they work with, including the animals’ capacities and needs in-depth, so that they can make more deeply-rooted and informed commitments to the 3R principles. It is especially important for those in the scientific community to take a public stand in favor of protecting laboratory animals and ensuring that their needs are met. Advocates can educate the public about the gaps in the AWA and lobby for greater legal protections for laboratory animals, until a day when we don’t use animals in any experiments whatsoever.