Attitudes Towards Lab Animals In Different Countries
The ethics of animal use in medical research are challenging. In recent decades, images of lab animals peering out from their cages have stirred public sympathy. As a result, their use in medical research has become less acceptable. In response, researchers started to implement a system called the Three R’s — Replace, Reduce and Refine with the intent of limiting animal use. This concept was first introduced in 1959 by scientists to improve the welfare of laboratory animals. The aim of this approach was to use animals only when no reasonable alternative existed, and then to use as few as possible. Nonetheless, millions of animals still die across the world each year in research labs, as the implementation of the Three R’s is subjective and uneven. To evaluate the acceptability of this practice, people use various ethical frameworks. Societal culture and views on animal welfare are also key elements of individual attitudes towards the use of lab animals.
To better understand the interplay between ethics and culture, researchers in this study compared attitudes in China, Japan, and the Netherlands on the use of animals in medical research. A total of 1,910 respondents completed online surveys in November 2015 and May 2016. Chinese subjects completed 504 questionnaires, Japanese subjects, 900, and Dutch subjects, 506. Survey topics included demographic details and attitudes towards animals. Subjects also responded to questions about their beliefs about the use of 10 specific animal species in medical research, as well as their ethical ideology—idealism versus relativism. Moral idealism views ethics in terms of outcomes that emphasize avoiding harm to others. Relativism defines peoples’ behaviors in terms of how they vary based on beliefs in universal rules.
Rodents and insects were the most acceptable for research in all three countries. Chinese subjects were the most tolerant of using all 10 animal species in medical research. This might suggest that residents of Japan and the Netherlands had greater awareness of welfare issues for lab animals. Ethical idealism was more likely to predict Dutch attitudes towards animal use. However, Japanese attitudes were better predicted by subjects’ level of moral relativism. Japanese people show greater idealism and are less supportive of lab animal research. For the Chinese, neither idealism nor relativism was predictive of attitudes towards animal-based medical research.
Respondents’ overall attitudes towards animals were negatively correlated with whether they found the use of animals in medical research acceptable. In other words, the more subjects valued animals, the less likely they were to want them used in lab experiments. Part of the difference between western and Asian countries may be due to how western culture conceives of animal minds and thus the ability of animals to suffer. Chinese and Japanese people also believe that animals have mental experiences. But these two societies believe in a hierarchy that places humans above animals. For these societies, this may partly justify using animals in experiments to advance humanitarian causes.
This study shows how cross-cultural differences affect beliefs and attitudes about the use of animals in medical research and for advocates, these insights point to the need to craft culturally sensitive campaigns on the use of laboratory animals. A better understanding of the societal basis for attitudes towards animal welfare will improve our effectiveness. In turn, this will reduce the suffering of untold numbers of animals.