Scientific Research and Animal Cruelty Laws

Should some animal testing be exempt from anti-cruelty laws?

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One controversial question about anti-cruelty laws is whether or not they apply to scientific experiments on animals. Some states (Kansas and Texas, for example) exempt scientific research specifically. (Tex. Penal Code § 42.09(5) exempts persons "engaged in bona fide experimentation for scientific research"; Kan. Stat. Ann. § 21-6412 exempts "bona fide experiments carried on by commonly recognized research facilities.") The New York law exempts experiments in labs that have been approved by the state health commissioner; Vermont exempts research conducted by competent researchers "in a humane manner" with a minimum of suffering. In most states, however, scientists are not prosecuted because statutes prohibit only "needless pain or suffering," and pain inflicted in the name of science is not considered "needless."

The most famous case of a scientist prosecuted and convicted for cruelty to animals is that of Dr. Edward Taub, who in 1981 was in charge of animal research at the Institute for Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, Maryland. His experiments involved severing nerves in monkeys' arms and legs and then trying to teach the animals to use the limbs again. His federally funded laboratory was regularly inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has responsibility for laboratory animals' welfare; the USDA found no violations. ("Taub v. State: Are State Anti-Cruelty Statutes Sleeping Giants?" 2 Pace Envt'l L. Rev. 255 (1985).)

An employee, however, complained about conditions, and county police took 11 monkeys from the lab and arrested Taub. Taub appealed his conviction to the Maryland Supreme Court, which reversed it. The court ruled that it didn't think the state legislature had intended the anti-cruelty statute to apply to federal research programs. (Taub v. State, 296 Md. 439, 463 A.2d 819 (1983).)  Under current state law, research conducted "in accordance with protocols approved by an animal care and use committee, as required under the federal Animal Welfare Act or the federal Health Research Extension Act" is exempt. (Md. Ann. Code tit. 10,, § 603.)

The emotional issue of whether or not scientific research should be exempt from anti-cruelty laws is still being debated. Those who want to protect researchers emphasize the importance of animal research in discovering cures or treatment for human illnesses: cancer, AIDS, and all the other killers. Those who want to protect animals stress the thoughtless overuse of animals, the indifference to suffering that could often be avoided, and the existence of alternative research methods.

There certainly seems no good reason for giving science a blanket exemption from anti-cruelty laws. It encourages callous disregard for animals and closes off legitimate debate on what, as a society, we want to allow in the name of science. Merely labeling an activity "science" should not put it beyond scrutiny.

Even under existing laws, it seems obvious that much of the cruelty inflicted on animals in the name of research or education is "needless"—and thus illegal. Much of the experimentation done on animals for scientific "education" is especially egregious. Students perform experiments that countless others before them have done, learning little except, perhaps, disregard for animal life.

Making scientists justify their actions or face prosecution under anti-cruelty statutes might mean some abuses would be stopped. But criminal prosecutions are hit-and-miss. They depend on local politics, citizen involvement, government budgets, and a host of other unpredictable factors.

A much better approach would be to evaluate and approve or disapprove research programs involving animals before they begin. Such a system would provide both much more consistent protection of animals and needed guidelines for researchers and educators. Current federal law (the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act and the Improved Standards for Laboratory Animals Act (7 U.S.C. §§ 2131 and following; §§ 2143 and following) doesn't address actual research methods; it covers only laboratory conditions such as food and housing, and enforcement of even those minimal standards is spotty. The analysis should be based on such factors as importance of the research, number of animals, availability of alternatives, and the methods to be used.

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