Colbinator the cocker spaniel, Mouzer and Whiskers the ferociously friendly felines, Henry the duck and Buster the bunny.
For the sake of word count, that’s a short list of my former and current pet-children. Freely they spend my working hours curling up on the couch, protecting the house from invading mailmen or duck paddling through the pool.
I’m happily obsessed with animals. And as of late, I’m happy to see my obsession becoming more mainstream with the rise of veganism, the race to battle extinction and even costly custody battles over pets.
Yet, there remains one issue—heavily pushed by animal advocates yet ignored by many spectators—I can’t add to my happy list above: animal testing.
And I was one of those “many” ignorers, until I came across a Lush campaign where a young woman volunteered to publicly undergo the same tests as research animals. She was tied by the wrists and ankles as needles pushed into her eye, force fed until almost choking, had her head shaven, just to name a few of the experiments. It was horrifyingly disturbing in the most effective way. No longer able to hide behind my caring nature for my animals, I realized why I never took on animal testing: I didn’t want to.
It’s nauseating imagining Colbinator living in a small, cold cage ironically awaiting the lab coat to offer affection before pricking him with a needle again. Or Mouzer’s adventurous personality being masked by fear and pain. I preferred the out of sight, out of mind trick to these unfortunate realities that many animals endure. That’s a dangerous adage, a dangerous mindset for animal research. But now it’s in sight and in mind.
Animal testing isn’t as small of a scientific arena as many would like to think. Today, over one million dogs, cats, monkeys, and other warm-blooded animals live in U.S. labs awaiting their research fate, according to the USDA. This state-by-state animal testing map helps break the numbers down more: 65,000 dogs, 22,000 cats, 106,000 primates, 144,000 hamsters, 51,000 pigs, and the list continues.
And not all testing on animals is created equal. Scientifically, that makes sense as certain species share more DNA with humans than others; chimps share 99 percent and mice share 98 percent, for example. Then there are animals who develop human-like diseases such as cats and FIV, similar to the AIDS virus.
Or there’s guinea pigs who have highly sensitive noses—in the allergy sense, not the dog sense. Dependent on their similarities with humans, certain animals undergo certain tests. And for almost 355,000 animals the tests are painful, and more than 72,000 never receive pain medication. Enter images of your Colbinator whimpering in pain, heartbreaking (though Beagles bare the brunt of tests with dogs).
And pain is legally okay as the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), created in the 60s to help protect the wellbeing of lab animals, allows animals to be shocked, poisoned, burned, starved, restrained, drug-addicted and brain-damaged, just to name a few, as long as researchers attempted to minimize pain. I bet those 72,000 animals would argue this doesn’t always happen.
UW-Madison came under public attack after an undercover investigation leaked their cochlear implant tests on cats involved drilling into their skulls and implanting steel coils in their eyes. A separate investigation caught monkeys mutilating themselves from “stress-induced psychosis” brought on by their living conditions. And a survey by Newcastle University found mice and rats who underwent painful spinal and skull surgeries only received pain medication 20 percent of the time in 2009. Legally, this is absolutely okay as mice and rats are not protected under the AWA.
And it may not only be the animals in need of protection from animal testing. Just because something works in animals doesn’t mean it’ll work in people. Ninety-two percent of the drugs successful in animals and therefore approved for human trials fail to receive approval by the FDA due to serious or lethal effects in humans. Prominent neurologist and public health specialist Dr. Aysha Akhtar even said people volunteering for clinical trials have a 90 percent chance the drug that tested safe in animals will be ineffective or harmful in them.
But all this said, animal testing has brought people critical treatments. Dogs helped test insulin and the rabies vaccine, rabbits helped aid in eye surgeries, guinea pigs helped with asthma treatments. And those are just a few examples of the strongest argument in favor of animal testing. One that’s understandable, rational, and now outdated.
Organs-on-chips are here, and Harvard’s Wyss Institute’s Lung-on-a-chip, “a simulation of the biological process inside the human lung” was awarded Design of the Year by London’s Design Museum. I’m no scientist, but those behind the chip hope this will remove the pitfalls of animal testing and make drug trials faster and more reliable. Take the Wyss director’s word for it, “most drug companies get completely different results in dogs, cats, mice and humans, but now they will be able to test the specific effects of drugs with greater accuracy and speed.” In two years time he says they’ll be testing 10 different organs on a chip.
Hopefully, that will end the need for animal testing, tearing down the strongest argument. Because in the end, what’s more effective than conducting human-like trials. Maybe humans-on-a-chip will be the final step? That’s probably my non-scientists self speaking. Until that happens, there are smaller yet equally important steps we can all take to reduce animal suffering from depressing labs and painful tests. Follow state legislation—many have some moving through the system now—use cruelty-free products (remember to look at smaller brands parent companies), and check out the Humane Society’s 10 ways to help lab animals.
Author: Jenna Murrell
Editor: Travis May