What’s Wrong with the Animal Welfare Act and Other Systems of Lab Animal “Protection”?

If you ever engage in an ethical debate about the use of nonhuman animals in research with a vivisectionist, no doubt that he/she will quickly assure you that nonhuman animals are offered a significant amount of “protection” under the law. In fact, in a recent conversation one of my friends had with a vivisectionist (whose name I will keep anonymous), he was assured that if he “actually understood the process of writing and receiving government grants for research and the massive amounts of regulations in place to protect animals used in research, it would be obvious how absurd the anti-vivisection arguments are.”

These sorts of defensive claims are frequently made by those operating behind the veil of the scientific ideology. But are they true?

3rs science

In considering the claim that there is plenty of regulation in place to “protect” lab animals, the natural place to start is with the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) (7 U.S.C. § 2131) (enforced by the USDA), the only Federal law in the United States which regulates the use of animals in research. This law, which is said to be the “minimally acceptable standard” for animal care, was introduced in 1966, and at this point, the AWA only addressed issues concerning basic animal husbandry and veterinary care. Since 1966, it has been amended a number of times (1970, 1976, 1985, 1990, 2002, 2007, and 2008). The most significant amendment was the 1985 amendment (referred to as the Improved Standards for Laboratory Animals Act, P.L. 99-148), which describes, in specific detail, how lab animals should be treated. A few examples of what the 1985 amendment mandates: (1) researchers are not permitted to use a single animal in more than one major operative experiment, from which it was also allowed adequate time to recover as guided by a veterinarian with proper training, (2) the psychological well-being of the animals must be promoted, (3) animals must be exercised, (4) Animal Care Committees/ Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) should be established and tasked with reviewing and approving all activities that involve the care and use of regulated animals. These committees should also make semi-annual inspections of research facilities to ensure that they abide by the AWA, (5) standards of veterinary care must be established and scientists must abide by these standards, (6) no paralytics are to be used without anesthetics, (7) all individuals who handle animals in labs must be trained in humane practice.

OLAWWhile the AWA covers all research facilities in the U.S. that use laboratory animals in basic and biomedical research, education and product safety testing, there is further regulation that applies to institutions that receive Public Health Service (PHS) funding. This regulation is known as the Health Research Extension Act of 1985 (P.L. 99-198), which orders the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish guidelines for the proper care and treatment of animals used in research, known as the PHS Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (oversight is provided by Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW). The companion piece to the PHS policy is the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.

The “implicit” rule of thumb for researchers is known as “the Three R’s” (introduced by William Russell and Rex Birch in The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique): Refine (refine procedures so to cause animals less suffering), Reduce (reduce the number of animals used), and Replace (replace animals with other models whenever possible). The “3Rs” was incorporated into the 1985 amendment to the AWA.

Despite all of this so-called protection, there remains significant inadequacies and flaws with the regulation which we would hope would offer nonhuman animals minimally decent “humane” treatment. Below are just a few points that illustrate the reality of the flawed state of lab-animal “protection.” (*Note that this is not, by any means, a complete list of failures; these are just the most obvious flaws with the system which demonstrate an obvious lack of accountability in animal research).

1. 95% (approximately) of nonhuman animals used in research are not granted protection under the Animal animal researchWelfare Act. As it currently stands, mice and rats constitute roughly 95% of animals in research, yet the definition of “animal” employed by the AWA excludes cold-blooded animals, birds, rats, and mice. (“The term ‘animal’ means any live or dead dog, cat, monkey (non-human primate mammal), guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or such other warm-blooded animal, as the Secretary may determine is being used, or is intended for use, for research, testing, experimentation… ” (7 U.S.C. § 2132(g) (1982); also, the Farm Security Act of 2002 specifically excludes purpose-bred birds, rats, and mice.) What this means is that scientists do not have to take the welfare of mice and rats into consideration at all: basic standards for the housing and care of rats and mice are not enforced (such as food, drink, etc.); the number of these animals used in research is not reported; scientists are not legally required to consider alternatives to using rats and mice; scientists are not mandated to take minimally decent measures to reduce pain and distress; facilities that use mice and rats are not inspected by the USDA, and so forth. The lack of any legal protection for mice and rats explains why The University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill was able to get away with torturing mice and rats by denying them their basic needs, such as adequate living space, food, water, and veterinary care. This also explains why vivisectionists at the University of California-San Francisco cut the toes off of mice without pain relief and allowed mice to die from dehydration.

2. Questionable formation of IACUCs (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees). As mentioned previously, IACUCs are responsible for approving proposed research, inspecting research facilities, and ensuring that research is conducted in accordance with the AWA regulations. Specifically, IACUCs were created to “review, approve and oversee animal experiments and to balance the interests of researchers, animals, institutions and the general public.” Under the PHS policy, there must be 5 members who serve on each IACUC: a veterinarian, a practicing scientist experienced in animal research, a member whose primary concern is non-scientific, and a member who has no relation with the institution outside of serving on the IACUC. Note that one member can fulfill more than one of these requirements.

Despite the fact that we would expect IACUCs to be impartial and diverse, research indicates that “IACUCs have an unbalanced number of animal researchers and others who work for the university, and comparatively few members representing animal welfare or the interests of the public.” Perhaps this is because one person could serve as both the member with non-scientific concerns and the member who has no relation with the institution, leaving the other 4 spots open to those with vested interests in continuing animal research: animal researchers themselves and institutional veterinarians. In fact, Dr. Lawrence Hansen reports that the membership composition of the IACUCs are typically skewed in the favor of those whose livelihoods are linked to animal research: 67% of the committee are usually animal researchers and 15% of  the committee are usually institutional veterinarians, and the “resultant ethical monoculture may impair IACUC’s ability to meet public concern for laboratory animal welfare.” What this means is that any possible dissenter will be outvoted by those who are pro-animal research, since most IACUCs function on “majority rule” principles. Hansen also cites studies which report that 93 percent of IACUC chairpersons are animal researchers. Furthermore, the facility’s CEO chooses IACUC members, leaving us to question whether the CEO might search specifically for members who are pro-vivisection (9 CFR § 2.31(a)).

3. There is no control over unnecessary or trivial experiments. While IACUCs are instructed to ensure that researchers reduce suffering in any given experiment involving the use of nonhuman animals, in his article Reduce, Refine, Replace: The Failure of the Three R’s and the Future of Animal Experimentation, Darian M. Ibrahim points out that IACUCs “cannot ask whether an experiment is trivial, unnecessary, or likely to cause animal suffering that out-weighs human benefits.” In fact, the AWA specifically instructs IACUCs that their responsibility is NOT to judge the necessity or purpose of the experiment, i.e., whether the experiment is trivial or whether the experiment will cause an incredible amount of pain and suffering to nonhuman animals with little benefit to society. So, while IACUCs can inspect whether researchers are reducing animal suffering and using animal alternatives when possible given experiment X, the IACUC has no say as to whether experiment X is even justified, productive, or useful. Essentially, scientists are granted the authority to perform any ‘ol experiment on animals, so long as they employ the “3Rs” rule. As it currently stands, there is no committee that has the authority to challenge the actual purpose of the experiment itself. Without an independent committee to judge the necessity of the experiments themselves, excruciating experiments will be continually performed on nonhuman animals, such as the Draize Eye Irritancy Test or the Draize Skin Irritancy Test, all in the name of producing a new line of cosmetics or shampoo.

*To read about current animal research, funded by tax payers, that is  wasteful, trivial, and obviously unnecessary, visit the White Coat Waste Project.

4.There are numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act without repercussions. Numerous undercover investigations, such as those conducted by PETA, expose the blatant disregard for and violations of the Animal Welfare Act. One of the most offensive violations of the AWA was reported by Marc Bekoff  in his book The Emotional Lives of Animals. Bekoff writes that Matt Rossell went undercover at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center (ORPRC) to investigate allegations that ORPRC was in violation of the AWA. He documented that a thousand of monkeys were living in tiny, filthy cages, which were approximately four feet square. He also observed “electro-ejaculation,’” which involved strapping an unanesthetized adult monkey into a restraining chair, wrapping two metal bands around the base of his penis, and applying an electrical charge to cause ejaculation. The purpose of electro-ejaculation is, of course, to obtain semen. One monkey, named Jaws, underwent 241 electro-ejaculations.

illegal experiments

When OLAW confirms these allegations, OLAW does not take any action. Rather, OLAW permits the facility to self-police itself and to report back to OLAW when they have corrected the breach of compliance. OLAW does not even necessarily follow-up with an inspection. In fact, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine reports that a number of Ivy League schools continually violate the AWA, yet they continue to receive NIH research funding.

The bottom line: It is incredibly misleading when vivisectionists attempt to “reassure” the public that the nonhuman animals used in research are granted sufficient “protection.” Having some regulation in place does not guarantee that research on nonhuman animals will always be conducted in an even minimally decent way. The systems of “protection” for nonhuman animals is significantly flawed: it is biased toward scientists and it demonstrates a blatant disregard for the 100 million animals who are exploited each year in labs across the United States.


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