Animal Research: Activists Argue Validity, Morality of Experiments
Seven-year-old Lee Rumpf nearly died at birth. His life was saved by a heart-lung bypass machine that was developed through experiments on baby lambs. His mother, Nora Rumpf, has no doubt that baby lambs died in the process, and she believes that's a good trade-off. "I don't care how many lambs died so that this procedure is ready," says Rumpf. "I could not possibly equate any other creature's life to my son's-or any other human's, for that matter."Most of us would react the same way. We value the lives of the people we love above all others. Of course, we recognize that it would be immoral to take the life of one human to save another that we love. But what parent wouldn't sacrifice the life of an animal to save her child? There are animal rights activists who would argue that the sacrifice of animal life is equally immoral. But others say the argument is a red herring. They believe research can be conducted so that we rarely have to choose between one species and another. They suggest alternative methods, such as computer modeling and tissue culture tests. Besides, they say, results of animal tests don't always apply to humans anyway. Mainstream animal rights advocates raise some interesting questions about the value of animal research. But the moderate voices in the movement are often overwhelmed by the stridency of extremists. When we think of the animal rights movement, we think of research labs being vandalized and firebombed. The Nora Rumpfs of the world are convinced that animal protectionists value animal life more than human life. The two sides are so polarized that any constructive criticism of animal research is lost. Jeff Getty, the AIDS patient who received a baboon bone marrow transplant last year, sees the animal rights people as a bunch of terrorists. "I've had death threats when I was fighting for my life in the hospital," says Getty. "And horrible, disgusting letters wishing me dead, wishing the animal had survived and I had died. I received four or five of these pro-animal rights letters while I was in the hospital." Getty points to an incident in 1989, when a group identified as the Animal Liberation Front torched a laboratory at the University of Arizona and released a thousand rodents being used for research on cryptosporidium, a parasite that is lethal to AIDS patients. "Later there were outbreaks of cryptosporidium in Las Vegas and in Milwaukee that killed hundreds of people with AIDS, and there's still no cure," says Getty. "This research was set back years. How does that make me feel? A person with AIDS who's lost a good friend to cryptosporidium. It makes me very, very angry." But Getty's anger is aimed beyond the Animal Liberation Front. When I reached him by phone to interview him for this article, he put me through the third degree. Who have you talked to, he wanted to know? And what did they say? It seems that he's come to view as the enemy anyone willing to listen to the arguments of the animal rights people. The Anger Cuts Both WaysEach side accuses the other of lies, insensitivity and miscellaneous villainy. "In my experience, the people that I have met in the research community are some of the lowest, most corrupt, manipulative people I've ever met in my life," says Elliot Katz, not one to beat around the bush. The white-bearded veterinarian is the director of In Defense of Animals, a national group based in Mill Valley. "I'm not saying all of them, but many of them are just the lowest slime you can think of. You lose a certain sensitivity when you have a concept that an end justifies the means, that you can blind and burn and break backs and do all these things to feeling, caring animals. The people that do that have so manipulated their thinking, that it's O.K. for me to break the back of this rat, to paralyze it, to let it be in pain, to let it not be able to urinate, to get cystitis. They can't urinate, they have to be squeezed out. It's a mess. There's nothing clean about what's going on."Regarding Jeff Getty, Katz believes he's "a puppet of the biomedical community." Katz debated him once on KPFA. "I sat with him and he had everything written out. When it was his time to speak, he would read, it was all put together for him."In fact, Getty, who used to work as an administrative analyst for University of California at Berkeley, has been researching AIDS treatments for years. He accuses the animal rights movement of setting up paid shills. The Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), he tells me contemptuously, is a "front group" set up by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "And they are not physicians," he says on the phone, spitting out his words with such anger that I'm glad this interview is not taking place in person. "They have a couple of physicians, the rest of it is all bogus. There is no grass-roots group of physicians pulling for animal rights. It's a lie, it's a myth." Dr. Ray Greek strenuously disagrees. PCRM is one of the groups represented by Greek, an anesthesiologist who has become a spokesperson for animal rights. He tells me he stopped practicing medicine after cutting off his thumb in a blender accident six months ago. "I do not accept money from animal rights groups," he says. "My source of income right now is my disability insurance, and I have never received and, God willing, never will receive any money from any of the animal rights movements. And there are other physicians who I personally know who help PCRM from time to time who do not receive money for their time or for their efforts." Greek believes the vast majority of animal research never yields any benefits for humans. "Where the great strides in medicine have come from is human research and in vitro research," says Greek. He thinks the bypass machine that saved Lee Rumpf's life is a case in point. After supposedly being perfected on animals, it was tried on humans and at first it didn't work. Greek says clinicians had to make adjustments based on the human failures before they came up with something that would help people. What Greek doesn't say is that the idea for the bypass machine could have come out of some vague "fishing expedition" done on animals. Some researchers spend years on esoteric animal studies before they stumble upon an unexpected discovery that proves useful. And some never do. Of the $10 billion a year the National Institutes of Health spends on research grants, millions go to projects that none of us would miss. Animal activists question whether we really need to subject rats to nuclear radiation to find out if it will affect how they run. Or whether we need to know if baby chicks will cheep differently when they are in pain.Even research with potential medical applications may be subject to questionable experiments in order to satisfy Food and Drug Administration requirements. Animal rights groups say that animals are not always reliable models for drugs to be used on humans. And some AIDS activists agree. "If there's not an appropriate animal model for which to test the safety or potential indications of effectiveness before something goes into humans, then it's really a crime against nature to do esoteric research on animals," says AIDS activist and patient advocate Brenda Lien of Project Inform in San Francisco.Lien is a strong supporter of animal studies that do help AIDS patients. But she sees researchers spending too much time spinning their wheels to satisfy pointless regulations when they could be moving on to studies that can benefit sick people."If you go to an international AIDS conference and you start looking at what they're researching and the questions that they're answering, the number of really silly things being asked to maintain grants, there's a lot of that happening," says Lien. "I think there's a lot of abuse of animals and the researchers are not required to justify what they're going after. These folks live in a little world that is completely removed from the needs of the community. They're doing interesting little experiments that sometimes just have no application."Lien has had some success in working with the FDA to ease requirements for animal studies of Kaposi's sarcoma, an AIDS-related cancer. "For a long time there was no appropriate animal model," says Lien. "And the FDA was requiring tons of animal testing to be done and none of that provided any information for moving forward in the clinic. And we kept saying why? This isn't helping anyone. And eventually the regulations changed so they don't require this kind of testing."Ray Greek applauds Lien's efforts, although he doesn't see the FDA responding in other areas. "The AIDS activists have done a lot to streamline getting new drugs released, but it's only the AIDS community. If you have cancer, you're still shit out of luck. That's the way it is. Drugs in general get released in Europe maybe ten, twenty years before they're released in the United States."Sometimes drugs that later prove safe for humans are held up for years because they make animals sick. The heart medication digitalis, for example, was kept off the market for a time because it induced high blood pressure in dogs. On the other hand, drugs that are safe for animals aren't necessarily safe for us. Animal rights people point to the thalidomide disaster, in which thousands of children were born armless after their mothers had taken this medication for morning sickness. No birth defects were found during animal testing. Greek doesn't believe that animal rights advocates have ever had any influence on the FDA, but he agrees that's no reason not to try. "There have been much more powerful political bodies, such as the AMA, who have lobbied the FDA to change its drug release protocol unsuccessfully," he says. "But yeah, AIDS activists and animal rights activists-really the entire public should come together on this. This is not an animal versus human issue, it's an ethical issue." There are some in the animal rights movement who concentrate their arguments on the philosophical level. Ned Buyukmihci, a professor of veterinary medicine at UC Davis and president of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, believes that all animal testing is wrong for purely moral reasons. His thinking goes like this: We agree that we can't justify harming other humans on grounds that they might be physically, intellectually or morally inferior. If we accept that it is immoral to do medical experiments on humans, how can we justify it with animals, he asks? We know they feel pain. We know their lives can be enriched or impoverished. We know that lab animals are often subjected to hideous mutilation.We experiment on animals, Buyukmihci says, "because we believe we will benefit from such behavior and because we have the power to dominate those animals. We tacitly act upon the morally repugnant principle that might makes right." In other words, we allow ourselves to act immorally because it is to our benefit."I do, in fact, prioritize human life on a hierarchy," says Brenda Lien. "Whether that's good or bad, right or wrong, I don't think that you get anyplace talking about it." In recent years, Lien says, a lab rat was finally developed that could mimic Kaposi's sarcoma. "And they were able to identify a female sex hormone that, when delivered to the rats, cured them of KS. They've gone on to try this in humans with preliminary positive results. If it cures someone of this cancer, which I've seen kill people in really miserable ways, I think that's worth it." In the minds of the scientists who conduct experiments on animals, a hierarchy of life is implicit. But they don't necessarily think much about how their research might benefit humans. UC Berkeley psychology professor Russell DeValois, who has been targeted by Elliot Katz's group for inhumane experiments on monkeys and cats, seemed taken aback when I asked him about the medical applications for his work. After a pause, he said, "The application is understanding the brain, which is a value of itself. The human brain is the most complex thing in the world and, I think, the most important thing to understand. It's the noblest thing that one can imagine, understanding how the nervous system operates."UC San Francisco physiology professor Mary Dallman has been studying the effects of stress on rats for 30 years. After subjecting groups of rats to chronic cold, or to the acute stress of being trapped in a tube, she kills them and performs autopsies to determine their hormonal responses. She loves her work. And, although she speculates that someday it may have human applications in treating jet lag or adjustments to shift work, it's clearly the abstract science that excites her. "It's a magnificently honed system," she says of her area of study. "And it's gorgeous, it's very, very aesthetically pretty. In college I was a chemistry major, and I fell in love in college with the structure of the steroid molecule. And for the next thirty years, it's been stunning how wonderfully engineered these systems are. The beauty of it is just unbelievable. The cleverness with which the system I study works has me boggled."Still, it probably helps that she loathes rats. Once, she took two lab rats home as pets for her children. Her daughter named them Mary and Jerry, she tells me, obviously not flattered by the choice of the female's name. "Jerry got to be well over a pound of rat," says Dallman. "They ate up all the rugs and chewed her sheets in pieces. I was continually furious. They even chewed the nose and hands off one of her dolls. It was classic. Isn't that what rats do to babies in India?" When Dallman went to put the rats back in their cage, "Jerry got up on his hind legs and began chittering at me. And that, in rat language is 'I'm gonna getcha.'" And how do the rats in her lab interpret her body language when she puts their little heads in a miniature guillotine and chops them off? Dallman says she personally performs about 60 percent of the executions. "I'm very, very good at it," she says. In Elliot Katz's view, animal research is an industry, and the researchers who conduct it are simply guarding their financial interests. "Right now, they've got a system where $6 billion a year goes into various forms of animal experimentation," says Katz. "People are protecting their careers and they don't want anything basically to change." And the funders of research, says Katz, are less interested in the eradication of disease than in looking for treatments and cures, which are more profitable.Katz doesn't call for a complete stop to animal research, but he would like to see more alternative methods used. Rather than giving healthy animals diseases and then treating them with experimental drugs, for example, we could test the drugs on sick animals in the veterinary clinics. "Everything that we have, pretty much, dogs and cats have," says Katz. "I've treated I don't know how many dogs that have congestive heart failure that you treat the same way as people. But what do they do in the universities? They go in and tie off a blood vessel going to the heart of a perfectly healthy dog so it causes an infarct and the dog gets kind of a partial heart attack, rather than using drugs on dogs that actually have heart conditions." Diane Allevato, director of the Marin Humane Society, says that rather than call for an end to all animal experiments now, we should at least eliminate all the obviously inhumane and unnecessary research. That should keep us busy for a long time."Let's take one step at a time," says Allevato. "Let's eliminate all the redundant research. Let's eliminate the pain and suffering. And when we get to that point where it's humanity or a gorilla, then we can talk about the trade-offs between species.