10/29/2010 03:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Federal Animal Welfare Act: Are Animals Really Better Off?

This week, a meeting sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is being held to recognize improvements that have been made in animal welfare. But, are laboratory animals really better off now than in past years?

Consider that about 15-20 million rodents are used in research each year in the United States (actual numbers are not reported). Consider also that we know mice display empathy, and feel their own pain and that of other mice... and this study was published four years ago. Furthermore, the empathic response in mice is mediated by the same brain mechanisms as it is humans.

Have these scientific facts, demonstrated by a prestigious research group at McGill University and published in a prestigious scientific journal, Science, been factored into increased protection for mice and other rodents? No. So, it's fair to ask: Why not? Why are mice and other animals still ignored by the federal Animal Welfare Act, despite the fact that they are sentient beings, just like the relatively few species and individuals who are protected?

There also is growing concern about the fate of 186 "retired" chimpanzees, who some researchers at the National Institutes of Health want taken out of a sanctuary in New Mexico, where they could live out their lives in safety, and return them to laboratories where they would once again be used in biomedical research. In opposition to this proposed move, renowned primatologist Jane Goodall noted, "Most of these chimpanzees are older and have already been subjected to years of invasive research ... Would it not make more sense to leave these chimpanzees in permanent sanctuary at the Alamogordo facility?"

Last month, the European Union banned the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research (except in certain cases of life-threatening diseases). How unethical it would be to take these chimpanzees back to laboratories and once again expose them to invasive research after they'd been able to live without being used and abused. What an egregious double-cross. Shame on those who even ponder this possibility.

So, are tens of millions of animals better off than they were years ago? No.

Why is the NIH congratulating themselves about improvements in animal welfare when they support the use of tens of millions of sentient beings in invasive research and won't let the chimpanzees live out their lives in peace and dignity?