THE USE of animals in teaching and research offers a potential ethical dilemma. What purpose is important enough to justify the killing of animals?
Religions provide some guidance to evaluate this problem. For example, Judaism precisely regulates the use of animals to minimize their pain and suffering. Animals may not be killed for pleasure. Their death must have some utilitarian purpose. The people who kill animals must never lose sight of the sanctity of life. A Jewish butcher cannot be deaf; he must hear the cry of the animal. Even a butcher must not become inured to death.
Leading American animal-rights activists and organizations such as People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) attempt to seize an even higher moral ground. They argue for a cruelty-free lifestyle. These groups regard no use of animals as appropriate, adopt vegetarian diets and do not wear leather, fur or bone. Their slogans are chilling. They proclaim "dairy is rape," "meat is murder." They urge us to regard animal research as a "holocaust of animals."
In reality all styles of human existence are predicated upon the death or severe discomfort of large numbers of animals. To avoid the direct use of animals for food and clothing, people must use plants or synthetic materials instead. But, agriculture for food or clothing requires the conversion of natural habitat to cultivated fields. The original wildlife is killed or dies of starvation.
Re-entry of animals into the fields is restricted by fences, trapping programs or poison. Tilling kills ground-dwelling animals. Food storage, particularly grains, necessitates exclusion or death of rats and mice. The lack of abundant quantities of rodent feces in our grains, even in the most organically grown products, is a testimonial to our society's ability to kill or otherwise reduce rodent populations.
Synthetic sources of food and clothing rely on petrochemicals. One need only recall the Exxon Valdez disaster to remind us of the cost, in terms of sea otters and sea birds, of this source of synthetic products. Beyond these necessities of food and clothing, rendered animal substances also are used in an amazingly wide variety of manufactured products such as cement and lubricants.
While for some this may be a source of sadness, human existence, no matter what the lifestyle, mandates the death of many animals. Our only choice is which animals we kill, how directly we kill them and how many of which species will die. Alternative views are fantasy.
What about the use of animals in teaching and research? Should this be abandoned or are animal research and teaching essential activities? Animal rightists claim that humans are different from animals, thus conclusions based on animals cannot be applied to people. But this faulty reasoning is readily refuted. For almost every medical problem addressed in the past 200 years, animal research has played a key role in the conception of the idea, the demonstration of the phenomenon, its reduction to practice or tests for efficacy and safety.
Animal-rights activists frequently claim that animals used in research and teaching are abused and neglected. However, this is rarely the case. Not only are scientists concerned with the humane treatment of animals, but it is also in their own self-interest to keep their animals as healthy as possible. Animals in poor health due to mishandling or neglect are a serious source of unwanted experimental error. Mistreated animals can invalidate an experiment.
The quest for knowledge is one of the most human activities. No other species shares this interest. Cave paintings and other artifacts from the earliest humans have demonstrated that prehistoric humans were incipient scientists. They counted animals in the hunt and calculated days to the full moon.
The search for understanding of our natural world, including knowledge of animals, is an intrinsic element of the human spirit. As science is a uniquely human pursuit, the attack on the study of animals is misanthropic. Scientific knowledge merits the sacrifice of some animals.
Overlooked in the heat of the conflict over the use of animals for teaching and applied biomedical research is the widespread study of animals for the sake of knowledge. Such basic research has also been targeted for termination by animal-rights organizations. Investigations of animals for the sake of knowledge must be viewed alongside the arts, humanities and many other subjects studied at the university.
The human psyche has been greatly enriched through revelations of whale songs, gorilla family relations and fishes that change sex . All this research is now very carefully regulated by federal and state agencies even though much of it is observational and does not involve vivisection.
Providing students with direct contact with animals connects them with the natural world. This should be cherished in our increasingly urbanized, artificial, TV-dominated environment. The animal rights movement rejects the real world in favor of a cartoon world where the distinctions between people and animals are blurred and distorted. By assaulting the use of animals in teaching and research, animal-rights activists feed on ignorance and fear.
The public should respond to this fringe philosophic movement by vigorously supporting the study of animals and the legal and carefully regulated use of animals in teaching and research.
Armand M. Kuris is professor of zoology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.