I once attended a neuroscience conference featuring a talk about spinal cord injury. The presenter showed a brief video clip that haunts me still to this day.
The presenter showed a clip of his experiment in which he had crushed a cat's spinal cord and was recording the cat's movement on a treadmill. He had forcibly implanted electrodes into the cat's brain and she was struggling to keep upright, dragging her paralyzed legs on the treadmill. She repeatedly fell off the machine.
At one point, the experimenter lifted her up to reposition her on the treadmill and the cat did something that was utterly unexpected. She rubbed her head against the experimenter's hand.
I have focused on the human side of the equation. But we should also take a brief look at the animal side:
Just who are these animals abused in experimentation?
It's difficult for us to imagine what the lives are like for these animals. This is because these secretive experiments are hidden from public view and have been retreated to windowless, basement laboratories. We want to believe that those in the white coats are acting responsibly and that the animals are treated humanely.
Well, I have visited numerous laboratories and witnessed countless experiments on animals and I can tell you from personal experience that nothing is further from the truth.
As soon as you walk into a laboratory, you can't help but notice the rows and rows of barren cages holding sad animals living under the glare of fluorescent bulbs. Their bodies are burned, mutilated and scarred. Animals who have had their heads crushed grip their faces and convulse as blood pours out of their noses. You can smell and taste the stench of blood, feces and fear.
Animal protection guidelines and laws serve as smoke and mirrors. They give the impression that animals are protected from suffering when in fact, the guidelines actually serve as a cover for the protection of the experiments.
Due to the lobbying efforts of the taxpayer-funded animal experimentation industry, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) does not include upwards of 95 percent of all animals used in experiments: rats and mice. It also does not cover birds, reptiles, amphibians and animals used in agricultural experiments. Under the AWA, these animals are not considered animals.
Even for the animals covered, the AWA provides minimal protection and leaves enforcement up to the notoriously incompetent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
As explained by Mariann Sullivan, former Deputy Chief Court Attorney at the New York State Supreme Court (1):
The standards set forth... require little more than that animals be fed, watered, vetted and kept in reasonably clean and safe enclosures that allow them to make species-appropriate postural adjustments.
In other words, the AWA basically stipulates that animals be fed and be allowed to move about, if only a little, in their cages.
The AWA also requires that experimentation facilities set up so-called "Animal Care and Use Committees" to "consider alternatives" and "minimize discomfort, distress and pain to the animals." However, the AWA provides loopholes for even these standards and animal experimenters and their friends dominate the committees.
Bottom line: any experiment, no matter how painful or how much suffering it causes, can be justified under the guise of "science."
Even when animal welfare violations are found, the fines charged rarely serve as a deterrent for future violations. In December, the USDA fined Harvard Medical School for repeated violations. Two monkeys died because they were not given access to water. One died from strangulation from a toy. The fine? $24,000. For an institution that receives hundreds of millions of our tax dollars to fund its experiments, the fine was a slap on the wrist.
If these egregious violations can happen at Harvard, what do you think goes on in laboratories with far less visibility?
Surely we can do better than this. The animals used in experiments are much more than furry test tubes left over after years living in fear. These animals, when given the opportunity, can experience joy, empathy and affection. Watch a rat laugh as his belly is tickled or takes a bath and you can see how much joy they are capable of experiencing.
I often find myself thinking back to that cat I watched at the neuroscience conference. I said a quiet prayer that her spinal cord injury wiped out her ability to feel pain in her legs and I can't help but wonder if anyone else in the audience noticed what I did. Even at the peak of her suffering, the cat was seeking comfort from the very hand that caused it. Ten days later, she was killed and her brain dissected.
What does this say about us? Are we going to continue to turn a blind eye to the suffering we cause? Have we, to borrow a phrase from Pink Floyd, become comfortably numb?
As Matthew Scully, a special advisor to President George W. Bush, wrote it in his book Dominion:(p.382)
When scientists abandon moral scruple in the treatment of animals, growing numb to the disfigurement and suffering before their eyes, regarding life itself as a mere instrument to be used and discarded, used and discarded, the habit is hard to shake.
Isn't it time we shake this habit, take a stand against this senseless suffering and pursue science that represents us at our best? We don't have to choose between helping animals or humans and we never did. And I say this as a medical doctor, neurologist and public heath specialist: by ending the abuse of animals in experiments, not only do we save them, but we will also discover the most effective research methods that will save us.
Animal experiments don't represent the pinnacle of scientific achievement, but the basement. Unlike the naysayers, I believe that we are capable of so much more. All we need is the courage, vision and resourcefulness to make it happen.
Let's make that our collective resolution for 2014.
Follow Aysha Akhtar, M.D., M.P.H. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrAyshaAkhtar