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Animal Rights

Welcome To The Monkey Lab: The Battle Over Animal Research

In May 1981, Alex Pacheco, cofounder of an animal rights organization called PEOPLE FOR THE ETHICAL TREATMENT OF ANIMALS (PETA), went to work as a volunteer at the Institute for Behavioral Research, a private research center in Silver Spring, Maryland. Pacheco told the institute's chief research scientist, Edward Taub, that he was fascinated by animal research. Taub's research involved the surgical crippling of monkeys using a procedure called deaf-ferentation, in which the spinal cord is opened and various nerves leading to arms and legs are sliced away, causing numbness.

At the time Pacheco joined his lab, Taub had performed the procedure on 17 macaques, attempting to show that function could be restored to limbs by forcing new nerve growth. He had destroyed the nerves to only one arm on some of the monkeys, and then used straitjackets, binding up the good arms to force the animals to use their damaged arms, and had also applied electric shock to restrained monkeys if they did not move their numbed limbs. Taub planned to kill the monkeys after a year in order to determine whether this forced movement had stimulated nerve growth.

After receiving permission from Taub to work at night, Pacheco set to work documenting the filthy, cramped conditions of the lab, and the stressed behavior of the monkeys, many of which were chewing their numbed limbs open. With his PETA cofounder, Ingrid Newkirk, stationed outside with a walkie-talkie, Pacheco took photographs and brought in sympathetic veterinarians and scientists to provide affidavits about the lab conditions. Several months later, he took his documentation to the local police department, which seized the lab's monkeys and filed 17 charges of animal cruelty against Taub, under state law. The scientist was convicted on all the charges, but an appellate court decided that a federally-funded researcher was not required to comply with state laws. Eventually, Taub's lab lost its federal funding and discontinued animal research.

Many participants in the debate over animal rights view the 1981 seizure of the Silver Spring monkeys as a turning point for the animal rights movement in the United States, heading it in a more combative and less compromising direction.

Animal welfare has long been an issue in the United States. As early as the mid-1600s, the Puritans prohibited cruelty toward animals, and by the nineteenth century, groups such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the American Anti-Vivisection Society had been organized. Animal experimentation has been controversial not only between the animal rights movement and the scientific and medical research communities but also between the activist groups themselves.

Supporters of the use of animals in research are as adamant in their advocacy of the use of animals in research as animal rights activists are in their opposition to such use. Supporters of the use of animals in research point out that virtually every major advancement in medicine during the past century has been made possible by the use of animals in research. Researchers point out that, with the use of animals as subjects, scientists may be capable of curing or reducing the death and disability rates caused by such diseases as kidney and liver failure, birth defects, cancer, and AIDS. Former U.S. SURGEON GENERAL Joycelyn Elders said, "The use of animals in biomedical research and testing has been, and will continue to be, absolutely critical to the progress against AIDS and a wide range of other applications in both humans and animals."

The biomedical research industry has responded vigorously to criticisms of animal research. A 1988 study by the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, acknowledged the controversy over animal testing, stating that although animal research has saved human lives, it has caused suffering and death for the animals involved. Nevertheless, the study concluded that such experimentation has contributed significantly to the increase in human life expectancy since 1900 and that animals have been critical to research on most antibiotics and other drugs. Frankie Trull, executive director of the National Association for Biomedical Research, has argued that animal testing is necessary to sustain the human race.

Supporters of animal research frequently direct attack towards animal rights activists, often labeling animal rights groups as "extremists." Joseph Murray, who in 1990 won the Nobel Prize for medicine in recognition of his work on organ transplants, said, "None of this could have been done without animal experimentation. It's a tragedy and a waste of resources that scientists have to combat the anti-vivisectionists," referring to animal rights groups. Animal research supporters often argue that the tactics employed by animal rights groups impede the progress being made in the medical community through the use of animals in research.

The supporters of animal research and the animal rights activists have clashed in both the courts and in the legislatures. Concerned that animal rights activists would cause the dismantling of all animal research, the biomedical research community lobbied successfully for years against the passage of all legislation restricting such research. But in the early 1950s, Christine Stevens founded the Animal Welfare Institute and the Society for Animal Protective Legislation, which successfully worked against passage of state laws that would require pounds to turn their dogs and cats over to researchers. Stevens then began working for passage of federal legislation that would also protect laboratory animals. In 1966, Congress enacted the Animal Welfare Act (7 U.S.C.A. § 2131 et seq.[1994]), which regulates the treatment of animals in federally funded research. Congress charged the U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE (USDA) with overseeing the inspection of laboratories for compliance.

In 1985, after Stevens documented continuing inhumane laboratory conditions, the Animal Welfare Act was amended to strengthen standards for the humane handling, treatment, and transportation of animals by dealers, research facilities, and exhibitors. In 1991, the secretary of agriculture issued regulations implementing the amended act.

During this period, the animal protection movement continued to expand. By the early 1990s, PETA had grown to more than 400,000 members and had an annual budget of nearly $10 million. Over 400 animal rights groups had been organized in the United States, claiming a total membership of 10 million. Although each of these groups can be said to support the humane treatment of animals, their philosophies vary dramatically.

The most radical group is the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), an underground organization formed in 1982 with an estimated worldwide membership of several hundred as of the mid-1990s. ALF opposes the use of all animals in medical and scientific research, including psychological and surgical experimentation on living animals; ALF also opposes using animals for testing new drugs and cosmetics, for instructional purposes in biology and medical school classes, and for food, clothing, sports, circuses, and pets. ALF claimed responsibility for more than 75 attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1995, including stealing animals from labs in Arizona, California, Florida, Maryland, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.; burning and vandalizing the University of Arizona's veterinary lab and a new $3 million veterinary diagnostic center for farm animals at the University of California, Davis; vandalizing offices of researchers and stealing their research animals in Michigan and Texas; and starting small fires in four of Chicago's largest department stores to protest the sale of furs. Although most of ALF's targets have been scientific research labs, the group claimed responsibility for bombing the cars of two research scientists in England in June 1990. ALF has also conducted raids in more than a dozen other countries.

By 1988, in response to raids by ALF and other groups, more than 20 states had enacted protective legislation prohibiting interference with animal research and agricultural facilities. In August 1992, citing the inability of state and local law enforcement agencies to conduct interstate or international investigations, Congress passed comparable federal legislation. The Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992 (18 U.S.C.A. § 43[1994]) prohibits the disruption of "animal enterprises" such as research facilities and zoos by intentionally stealing or damaging property including animals or records.

Many scientists believe that ALF is a thinly disguised division of PETA. PETA denies any connection between the two groups but has expressed its admiration for ALF's activities and often publicizes the group's raids. Both ALF and PETA share a common goal of ending all animal research, a philosophy that represents a fundamental split from other animal rights organizations such as Stevens's Animal Welfare Institute and the Humane Society of the United States, which accept animal experimentation but work for the humane treatment of animals in that and other contexts.

Supporters of animal research debunk many of the claims of animal rights activities as pure myths. For instance, animal rights activists often direct their attention towards the use of such animals as dogs, cats, and non-human primates in medical research, but scientists point out that the use of such animals accounts for less than 1 percent of the total number of animals used in research. The vast majority of animals used in research, according to these scientists, are rodents, including mice and rats bred specifically for the purpose of testing them. Similarly, these scientists refute animal rights advocates' claims that alternatives to animal research exist in the form of computer models and tissue cultures but that the scientific community refuses to accept them. Scientists claim that even the most sophisticated technological model cannot replicate the genetic and physiological systems of humans as those found in live animals. According to the Foundation for Biomedical Research, the limitations in the use of computer models and other alternatives may overcome the need for animals in research, but these alternative methods serve only as adjuncts to basic animal research.

In a nationwide survey conducted in December 1993 by the Los Angeles Times, respondents were asked whether they agreed with the following statement by PETA's Newkirk: "Animals are like us in all important things—they feel pain, act with altruism, they talk and suffer fear. They value their lives, even if we don't understand those lives." Of the 1,612 adults polled, 47 percent agreed with Newkirk's statement and 51 percent disagreed. The survey also found that 54 percent opposed hunting for sport and 50 percent opposed the wearing of fur. Forty-six percent said the laws protecting animals from inhumane treatment were satisfactory, whereas 30 percent said the laws did not go far enough, and 17 percent said the laws went too far. Animal rights leaders expressed surprise that so many Americans agreed with some of the principle tenets of the animal protection movement.

A new wrinkle in the Animal Rights movement has been the attempt to gain the recognition of legal rights for animals. Animal rights advocates in both PETA and ALF had spoken for years about the need for animals to have legal rights under U.S. law. But this theory remained abstract until the end of the twentieth century.

Then in 2000, Stephen Wise published an influential animal rights book. Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals took a legalistic approach in arguing that at least two human-like species, chimpanzees and bonobos, and perhaps other species that were similarly developed, should be considered "persons". The book was reviewed in such noted publications as the Yale Law Journal and the Harvard Law Review. Among those legal scholars discussing the book were RICHARD POSNER, eminent professor at the University of Chicago law school and judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and Lawrence Tribe, professor of CONSTITUTIONAL LAW at Harvard University.

Tribe seemed especially taken with the book's arguments. "Broadening the circle of rights-holders, or even broadening the definition of persons, I submit, is largely a matter of acculturation," said Tribe in a speech in Boston in support of the book. "It is not a matter of breaking through something, like a conceptual sound barrier. With the aid of statutes like those creating corporate persons, our legal system could surely recognize the personhood of chimpanzees, bonobos, and maybe someday of computers that are capable not just of beating Gary Kasparov but feeling sorry for him when he loses."

In 2002, Wise published a book called Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights, in which he expanded his rights arguments to include other species. But the arguments remained very similar. "On what nonarbitrary ground," he asks, "could a judge find [that a] little girl has a common-law right to bodily integrity that forbids her use in terminal biomedical research but that Koko [a gorilla with an IQ equal to that of a 4- or 5-year-old child] shouldn't have that right, without violating basic notions of equality?" What influence this nascent movement for the legal rights of animals has on the general animal rights movement promised to be interesting to observe.

Many legal commentators have been supportive or, at least, sympathetic toward the views of Wise and writers with similar opinions. Other legal scholars, on the other hand, have pointed out that granting broad rights to animals conflicts with some of the basic assumptions of the U.S. legal system, as well as the legal system elsewhere. Even where laws provide heightened protection for animals against abuse, the animals are still treated as a special form of property. If the law were to extend recognition of animals as holders of certain legal rights, their status as something greater than property raises difficult questions. For instance, when would these rights conflict with recognized HUMAN RIGHTS, and could the right of an animal in a certain case be greater than a right enjoyed by a human? Likewise, how can society merge the recognition of animal rights with the traditional, and in some cases, fundamental uses of animals, including their functions as sources of food and as goods and services that may be bartered? Scholarship and debate by legal experts continues to grow regarding these questions.


Carbone, Larry. 2004. What Animals Want: Expertise and Advocacy in Laboratory Animal Welfare Policy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Monamay, Vaughn. 2000. Animal Experimentation: A Guide to the Issues. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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