Invasive 'Rat Research' Should Be Abolished Once and for All

02/09/2015 01:10 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

In response to my recent blog post called "Rats Like to Be Tickled: Why Is the Animal Welfare Act So Lame?", in which I discussed the well-established scientific fact that rats, mice and many other animals display empathy and are highly emotional and sentient beings, I received many emails asking why these animals continue to be used in the countless millions in highly invasive research and why does the federal Animal Welfare Act ignore research on these animals?

Many people also are incredulous that the federal register still reads,

We are amending the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations to reflect an amendment to the Act's definition of the term animal. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 amended the definition of animal to specifically exclude birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research." (Vol. 69, no. 108, 4 June 2004)

Yes, these rodents are not considered to be animals, and, in my above post, I pondered the question, "How do you explain to a youngster that rats aren't really animals?" It beats me, but it's clear they're written off because of their widespread use and because they make a lot of money for those who wantonly breed and use them in all sorts of research.

Am I being "too soft?"

Among the emails I received were two that took me to task for being "too soft" on the misclassification of rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, for surely they are animals. One person asked, "Why don't I and others simply say that invasive and abusive research on these and other rodents, who surely are emotional and sentient beings, should be abolished?" I thought about this question and I agree that we need to be more forceful in "reclassifying" these animals and for ending abusive research on them.

A few years ago I called for a moratorium on research on these animals, arguing that many researchers are extremely intelligent and clever and have dealt with numerous challenging questions. I'm sure a moratorium on abusive research on these and other animals would result in the development and implementation of a host of non-animal and more humane ways to conduct the same sorts of research, and many are already available. What a wonderful precedent this would set for future researchers and others who work closely with other animals.

So, I think I have been "too soft" in the past, so now I want to call for (1) referring to rats of the genus Rattus and mice of the genus Mus, as animals, for they surely are, and for (2) the termination of invasive and abusive research on these beings. I know this won't happen overnight, so a moratorium would be the way to get the ball rolling.

A brief exchange between Dr. Jaak Panksepp and myself

In response to my previous essay, Dr. Jaak Panksepp, whose research essay motivated my writing it, wrote the following note to me. It

sounds like you were concerned about the ethics of our research in one of your recent blogs. Just wanted to note, if you had not closely read the paper, that the only stressor was one that is used in all Vet Clinics around the world (in trying to help animals with medical problems), namely a standard injection... which is essentially the same our kids and adults get as part of the routine of modern medical life... In my mind the issue is not black -- white, but an overall cost-benefit analysis. I don't think the behaviorists, with all their endless fear conditioning, ever considered such issues... and they certainly provided very little knowledge that was medically useful.

I really appreciated receiving Dr. Panksepp's note, because I was not at all criticizing this particular project. In response, I wrote back,

Many thanks for your informed and well-thought-out note. Much appreciated, as you likely know, I hope! I wasn't criticizing the injection. I know millions of people, me included, have subjected a companion dog(s), for example, to some pain to help them heal from one malady or another or to prevent a disease -- the major point and one that I will continue to make is that the federal animal welfare act really is lame. It has not incorporated new science, yours included!, into a much-needed and long overdue revision. We know, based on yours and others' research, that mice and rats and I'm sure other rodents, are sentient beings and they display empathy and a whole host of positive and negative emotions. Why has this detailed scientific research not been factored into the act and how can they continue to say Rattus and Mus are not animals? This is just absurd; of course they're animals. There are a number of human analogies about this class or that not really being 'human' and it sickens me to think about this perverse line of thinking... Anyway, I hope that you and others who do research on Rattus and other animals get those who revise the animal welfare act and other legislation to make changes and not lag behind solid science -- it's been years since we've known about the rich and deep emotional lives of 'standard lab animals' and it's about time that their emotional capacities are used to protect them, not write them off as 'not animals.'

I'm sharing this exchange because it's useful for non-researchers to see that even people who disagree can have lively and polite exchanges.

Doing the right thing

"The question is not, 'Can they reason?' nor, 'Can they talk?' but rather, 'Can they suffer?" -- Jeremy Bentham

I recently posted an interview with Dr. Stevan Harnad called "Doing the Right Thing." Dr. Harnad will become the editor in chief of a new journal called Animal Sentience, the first journal to focus on nonhuman animals' capacity to experience feelings. "Doing the right thing" concerning rodent research would be to stop it as soon as possible. Of course, rodent research is only one sort of invasive and abusive research that should be terminated.

Focusing on rodents for now, it's high time to "reclassify" rats of the genus Rattus and mice of the genus Mus as animals, for they surely are, and for calling for the termination of invasive and abusive research on these sentient beings. Laws and regulations for protecting other animals from harm, suffering, and death, must keep up with the latest science, and we've known for years that those rodents, and many other animals who are routinely used and abused in research, suffer not only their pains but also those of others. So too do "food animals" and "fashion animals" and those sentient beings who are used for entertainment and who suffer immensely to make us laugh.

We surely can do better in protecting all of these sentient beings, and the time is now to amend, write, and stringently enforce legislation for better protecting them and the millions of other animals from being brutalized in "the name of science, food, entertainment, and fashion."

We now know, and indeed have known for some time, that many other animals who are routinely and in some cases casually mistreated, are sentient beings. Because scientific facts about their ability to suffer have been conveniently ignored as if they didn't exist, it's abundantly clear that the federal Animal Welfare Act is severely outdated and lame, and needs to be revised immediately.

I hope people far and wide will call for an immediate and thorough revision of the Act and other legislation that takes into account the results of detailed research, and that researchers themselves will actively partake in the process. There shall be no more excuses for those who ignore the latest and greatest science about the fascinating, rich, and deep emotional lives of other animals.

Note: A recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows the following results about attitudes toward animal research: "The general public is closely divided when it comes to the use of animals in research. Some 47 percent favor and a nearly equal share (50 percent) oppose animal research. Support for the use of animals in research is down slightly from 52 percent in 2009. By contrast, there is strong consensus among AAAS scientists for the use of animals in research (89 percent to nine percent). Among the general public, men and women differ strongly in their views about animal research. Six-in-ten men favor the use of animal research. By contrast, 35 percent of women favor animal research while 62 percent oppose it. College graduates, especially those who studied science in college, tend to express more support than do those with less education for using animals in scientific research.