The propaganda war over the use of animals in biomedical research has shifted to an improbable battleground -- the august pages of the 224-year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica and, specifically, the latest entry under the heading "Dogs."
There, buried in the usual boilerplate -- descendant of wolves, etc. -- the Britannica's dog expert has included what biomedical researchers describe as a little anti-vivisection agitprop.
"Another common use of dogs, especially purpose-bred beagles, is in biomedical research," part of the offending entry reads. "Such use, which often entails much suffering, has been questioned for its scientific validity and medical relevance to human health problems.
"For example, beagles and other animals have been forced to inhale tobacco smoke for days and have been used to test household chemicals such as bleach and drain cleaner. In addition, dogs have been used to test the effects of various military weapons and radiation."
Hundreds of outraged scientists, including a Nobel Prize winner and officials of some of the country's most prestigious scientific societies, have peppered the Britannica with mail, demanding retractions, revisions, errata, anything to set the record straight.
The Britannica now concedes privately that the entry is "unbalanced," and has proposed a revision for the 1993 edition. But the author, a Humane Society of the United States vice president, says that his statements are factual, and that he may take legal action if they are changed without his consent.
The flap is rooted in the Britannica's decision to hire Michael W. Fox, a British-born veterinarian and author of dozens of books on animal behavior, to do a regularly scheduled revision of its articles on dogs and cats for the 1991 edition.
According to Fox, his revisions underwent "a very careful review of every word" by the Britannica.