After a whiff of entry on 'Dogs,' scientists whoof at Britannica

January 23, 1992|By Janny Scott | Janny Scott,Los Angeles Times

The grueling 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, impressive olfaction, et cetera -- the Britannica's anointed dog expert has seen fit to include what biomedical researchers, in high dudgeon, 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 officials of some of the country's most prestigious scientific societies, have peppered Britannica with mail, demanding retractions, revisions, errata, anything to set the record straight.

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, refuses to go along. He says that his statements are factual, and that he may take legal action if they are changed without his consent.

All this venom has rattled at least some at Britannica, a place unaccustomed to bitter controversy -- or at least more accustomed to maneuvering through international border disputes than the notoriously angry fight over animal rights.

"We seem to have blundered into a minefield of a war we scarcely knew was being waged, one in which discourse and courtesy have given way to threat and accusation and in which everyone behaves rather badly," Robert McHenry, the general editor, said in a recent letter from Britannica's headquarters in Chicago.

The flap is rooted in 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.

Mr. Fox, who lives in Washington, holds several degrees, including a Ph.D., for work in animal behavior. He is also author of a recent book called "Inhumane Society, the American Way of Exploiting Animals."

According to Mr. Fox, his revisions underwent "a very careful review of every word" by Britannica. In an interview, he said he included his comments on biomedical research because "I wanted to get a good word in for my best teachers, my canine companions."

The handful of paragraphs in the seven-page article might have gone unnoticed, had not animal rights activists highlighted them in a newsletter. The activists' report was read by a scientist who monitors animal rights literature, and he described it in his own newsletter, "The Garbage Collector."

The scientist's newsletter then found its way to the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics in Bethesda. The society's president fired off a letter to Britannica and suggested in a mailing that his society's 4,300 members do the same.

The Society for Neuroscience, the American Physiological Society and others joined the fray. By mid-December, Britannica had received hundreds of letters arguing that Mr. Fox's statements were unbalanced and that they left out any mention of the fruits of animal research.

As for suffering, they say that research with animals is closely regulated by federal law to ensure humane treatment, good veterinary care and public oversight. With the help of anesthetics, researchers say, the animals that are used rarely experience pain.

As for scientific validity and relevance to health, researchers cite 11 Nobel Prizes awarded in the last century for biomedical research using dogs. They point to advances in coronary bypass surgery, stroke therapy and organ transplants thanks to dogs.

Finally, they say the horror stories cited by Mr. Fox are extreme, dated examples that have little to do with biomedical research. If such cases are included, they say, Britannica should also include examples of the benefits of animal research.

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