Animal Suffering in Laboratories: A Failure to Care

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By Alka Chandna, Ph.D.

Animal experimenters from Canada's McGill University recently determined that mice - like humans and other mammals - make grimacing facial expressions when they are in pain. For the study, the ill-fated mice were videotaped after experimenters injected noxious chemicals into their abdomens, ankles, hands and feet; placed them on hot plates; placed their tails in hot water; clamped metal binder clips on the tips of their tails; and performed various surgeries on them without administering pain relief.

The results of the new study should bolster the argument that these animals suffer as we do and should not be treated like disposable laboratory equipment. Instead, the authors are ignoring the moral implications of their findings and will instead use the results as fodder for more dreadful pain experiments on animals. This is like subjecting a person to surgery without anesthesia just to pave the way for further surgeries with anesthesia. There's simply no good reason for it.

Mice and rats are mammals with nervous systems similar to our own. It's no secret that they feel pain, fear, loneliness and joy just as we do. These highly social animals communicate with each other using high-frequency sounds that are inaudible to the human ear. They become emotionally attached to each other, love their families and easily bond with human guardians. Male mice woo mates with high-pitched love songs. Infant rats giggle when they are tickled. Not only do rats express empathy when another rat or a human they know is in distress, they also exhibit altruism, putting themselves in harm's way rather than allowing another living being to suffer.

Unfortunately, we need look no further than U.S. animal protection laws to see that, to mice's great misfortune, moral consistency is not one of modern science's strong suits. More than 100 million mice and rats are killed in U.S. laboratories each year. But even though these animals feel pain and suffer as much as dogs, cats and rabbits do, they are excluded from the meager federal Animal Welfare Act provisions that extend at least some protection to these other species. Forced to live lives of extreme deprivation in barren shoe box–sized cages in laboratories, mice and rats are burned, cut open, shocked, poisoned, socially isolated, starved, dehydrated, forcibly restrained, addicted to drugs and brain-damaged.

Because they are not covered by the law, experimenters don't even have to provide mice and rats with pain relief. While experimenters who use guinea pigs must provide them with pain relief and must at least show that they've looked for modern alternatives to the use of animals, experimenters don't even have to count the mice and rats they kill. Some estimates indicate that as many as 800 U.S. laboratories aren't subject to federal laws and inspections because they experiment exclusively on mice, rats and other animals whose use is unregulated.

It would be nice to think that experimenters are providing analgesics anyway. But a 2009 survey by researchers at Newcastle University found that mice and rats who underwent painful, invasive procedures such as skull surgeries, burn experiments and spinal surgeries were provided with post-procedural pain relief only about 20 percent of the time.

Why is it that the majority of experimenters conducting such cruel procedures on mice and rats fail to provide pain relief? Given our extensive scientific knowledge - and common-sense understanding - about mice's and rats' ability to feel pain, it is clear that the problem in laboratories is not a failure to anticipate or detect pain. It's simply a failure to care.

Alka Chandna, Ph.D, is a laboratory oversight specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;

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