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Monkey Business

Have you hugged your lab animal today?

“This is vivisection,” proclaimed scores of X posters that appeared overnight all over Washington to designate April 24 an International Day for Laboratory Animals. “Don't let anyone tell you differently.” The posters were illustrated with a lurid photograph of a monkey trapped in an elaborate scaffold, its neck wedged in a narrow aperture and its arms extended, Christ-like, to the outer bars, where they were tightly bandaged. The photograph was a little deceptive. The scaffold was really a restraining chair whose “seat” was obscured by the head-on angle, and though the monkey appeared to be choking, more likely it was simply trying to jerk its head free, and was only seconds short of surrendering. This unmistakable image of suffering, however, was strong enough to lure two hundred demonstrators on the appointed day to a solemn funeral procession, led by a real hearse, that circled the Capitol, drove past the White House, and ended in Bethesda, Maryland, where an empty coffin was unloaded before the National Institutes of Health.

In a world of malnutrition, yellow rain, and prison rape, it seems more than a little dilettantish to invoke “animal welfare,” “animal rights,” or, at the most self-parodistic level, “animal liberation.” Despite such silly slogans, however, animal lovers can at least make a dimly plausible case for some of their doctrine. Vegetarianism, for instance, may not rank up there with vaccinating ghetto schoolchildren, but it's a good many ethical notches up from, say, practicing tax law. Even when militancy on behalf of animals leads to socially embarrassing situations, such as the denunciation of an impoverished Eskimo whale hunter by a Scarsdale housewife, one might argue that shining through the wealthy woman's arrogance is the faint glimmering of an ethical principle. After all, didn't the justly admired Albert Schweitzer admonish us to consider a man ethical “only when life as such is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellow man”? (Let's ignore for the moment less admirable exemplars like Caligula, who loved his horse so much that he made him a senator, and Hermann Goering, who kept a sign in his Berlin office which read, “He who tortures animals wounds the feelings of the German people.”)

IT'S DIFFERENT with anti-vivisectionists. Overtly or implicitly, they reject in principle the use of animals in experimentation. (Many will add the caveat, “experimentation that causes pain,” but in practice that means just about everything except rats in mazes.) The issue is not human appetites; their concern is not for cattle at the slaughterhouse. Nor is it human vanity. Sealskin coats may be distasteful (though more from an economic point of view than a humanitarian one), but anti-vivisection has nothing to do with the skinning of seals. To be sure, most anti-vivisectionists object to these other forms of cruelty to animals. But by strict definition, anti-vivisection is opposition to animal suffering that may ease human suffering. As philosopher Peter Singer writes in Animal Liberation, a very silly 1975 tract that grew out of an article in the New York Review of Books and became the bible of the anti-vivisection movement, “An experiment cannot be justifiable unless the experiment is so important that the use of a retarded human being would also be justifiable.” In other words, the ethical rules governing animal experimentation are the same thorny rules that govern human experimentation. (See “The Ethics of Human Experimentation” by Charles Krauthammer, TNR, December 12, 1981.)

The three major anti-vivisection societies in America— the National, American, and New England “AVs”—are seeking to prevent scientists from harming animals to help human beings. With a combined and partly overlapping membership of under 100,000, their numbers are small. But add to that perhaps as many as ten million members and supporters of various Humane Societies, SPCAs, and other animal welfare groups, which are showing an inclination to join the crusade against animal experimentation, and you have what a prudent futurologist might call an incipient national movement. The Humane Society of America, for instance, is currently seeking to prevent “pound seizure,” or the use for medical experiments of animals turned over to local pounds. It recently had a victory in the city of Los Angeles, and is now seeking a statewide ban in California. A spokeswoman for the group argues that these animals are pets—though only a fraction of all pound animals are ever reclaimed by their owners—and denies that the Humane Society is anti-vivisectionist. It may not be in theory, but clamping down on the supply of laboratory animals is an effective way to put anti-vivisection into practice. Another factor that may help anti-vivisection blossom into a nationwide movement is the odd tendency many of us have to care more deeply about cruelty to animals than about cruelty to human beings. This was illustrated vividly in 1973, when Representative Les Aspin, Democrat of Wisconsin, discovered that the Defense Department intended to use two hundred beagle puppies to test poisonous gases. To be sure, this was not an experiment whose benefit to mankind was immediately apparent. But when the volume of mail surpassed the number of letters Defense had received over the bombings of North Vietnam and Cambodia, true humanitarians had cause to wonder. Anti-vivisectionists, on the other hand, ought to have broken out the champagne. (They were much too surly to do that, of course; Singer gripes that the beagle protest demonstrated “a remarkable ignorance of the nature of quite standard experiments performed by the armed services, research establishments, universities, and commercial firms of many different kinds.”) Anti-vivisection has broad appeal insofar as all of us hate the idea of cruelty to animals. But it is, on three levels, a deeply misanthropic movement.  

THE FIRST LEVEL is the most familiar: good, old fashioned hatred of a particular individual. In this case, the individual is a biologist in Silver Spring, Maryland, named Edward Taub. Taub has become a national scapegoat for the anti-vivisection movement because of his alleged (and wholly unproven) mistreatment of seventeen monkeys that were seized from the Institute for Behavioral Research by Montgomery County police last September at the instigation of one of Taub's lab assistants, an undercover animal welfare advocate from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. (It was PETA that sponsored the “funeral procession” in April, and one of Taub's monkeys that illustrated the poster. The photograph also appeared in the Washington Post the day after the raid.) Taub has received surprisingly unkind treatment from a movement that calls itself humanitarian. “The man was guilty of cruelty on every single count he was charged with,” seethes Cleveland Amory, the former TV Guide critic and columnist for Saturday Review, whose Fund for Animals contributed $20,000 to Taub's legal harassment. Not a very merciful point of view, especially considering that the state of Maryland found Taub innocent of all but six of the one hundred and thirteen counts brought against him. And those six counts really amount to one count brought six times, in and odd legal arrangement whereby six wronged monkeys were treated rather more like plaintiffs than like collective property. The charge each of the monkeys brought against their keeper was “unnecessarily failing to provide veterinary care” by an outside vet. For this heinous crime, Taub was fined $3,000.

Mild punishment, perhaps, if it had ended there. But with all the awkward publicity, the NIH was compelled to review Taub's $200,000 grant. Two months previous to the September raid, a routine site inspection by the Department of Agriculture had approved Taub's laboratory. Now, however, NIH's eyes were opened to Taub's negligence, and it suspended his grant. Most significant among the reasons, again, was Taub's failure to keep a veterinarian around the lab. The result was that a lot of sores on the monkey's limbs went unbandaged. Some explanation is required here. Taub's experiments involved severing the sensory nerves of monkeys (we'll get to the reason later). Once a limb was numbed, or “deafferented,” the monkey had a habit of biting and scratching it. Since the monkey could feel no pain—a point anti-vivisectionists like to overlook—it tended to bite and scratch so much that bad sores appeared on its deafferented limb. Veterinarians questioned at Taub's trial voiced outrage over his failure to bandage the monkeys. But Taub argued — along with five other scientists, two of them also veterinarians who had had experience with deafferented monkeys—that bandaging only made things worse, because the monkeys tended then to bite and scratch at the unbandaged part. The court and NIH rejected Taub’s argument. Then NIH, to whom the court assigned custody of the monkeys, proceeded to follow Taub's advice: in its own treatment of the deafferented limbs, it didn't bandage them either.

Two other reasons NIH cited for suspension of Taub's grant were poor ventilation and dirty animal cages. Dr. William Raub, Associate Director for Extramural Research and Training, says these were the “major issues.” Taub dismisses the criticism of his ventilation system as a technical violation of NIH guidelines that even labs at NIH'S research campus in Bethesda routinely violate. NIH guidelines say nothing about cages. Let's assume, however, that ventilation was poor and the cages were dirty. Would Taub routinely expose himself to an environment that was unclean enough to threaten health? For if the monkeys were in danger, surely anyone who handled them as much as Taub did might also be in danger. Remember also that a lab that was dirty enough to be unhygenic was not likely to go unnoticed by the inspector from the Department of Agriculture who had dropped by, unannounced, in July. Likelier than not, NIH was troubled by appearances, not by ethics. The best way to keep up appearances was to agree with the anti-vivisectionists that Taub shouldn't be allowed to experiment on monkeys. So NIH suspended Taub's grant. Consequently, Edward Taub can't at the moment experiment with monkeys, as he has for the past twenty-five years. (He claims he has spent more time studying deafferented monkeys than anyone else alive.) Is the world any worse off? The answer is yes, and the reason brings us to the second level of misanthropy in anti-vivisection: to rule out animal suffering is to condone human suffering. Taub's experiments were directed at a phenomenon known as “learned nonuse.” It is common among stroke victims, and also occurs sometimes to sufferers of spinal injuries. Learned nonuse is exactly what it sounds like: when life doesn't depend on using a limb deadened to sensation, a person (or monkey) may never make the effort to use it. Although muscles may function normally, the loss of sensation results in a kind of voluntary paralysis. Victims thus must relearn how to use the limbs. Taub says his research may be applicable to roughly one-sixth of all stroke victims, and has already been adapted into clinical technique at two hospitals in the United States. This is the “inhumane” research that anti-vivisectionists have curtailed. They would also like to end the practice of poisoning laboratory animals to determine the lethality of potential drugs and cosmetics. They argue that lethality varies wildly from species to species, particularly in the oral LD 50 test, in which sixty to a hundred animals are fed enough of a substance to kill 50 percent of them. That's true. But the alternatives they suggest—tests on tissue cultures and computer models—are even more unreliable. Such methods are fine for use in preliminary tests, to weed out obviously toxic substances. But those substances not weeded out inevitably must be tested on whole systems. And, as Dr. Raub testified before the House Subcommittee on Science, Research, and Technology, in the study of “the integrated functions of an intact higher organism or the interaction of organ systems, animal experimentation is inevitable.” The only alternative—releasing a drug without such testing—amounts to human experimentation.

In response to the anti-vivisectionist cry against animal experimentation, Representative Douglas Walgren, Democrat of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Science, Research and Technology Subcommittee, has submitted the Humane Care and Development of Substitutes for Animals in Research Act. The main features of the bill are the addition of red tape in the processing of animal research grants, including the creation of an “animal care committee” on which one place is reserved for an animal welfare advocate, and the appropriation of $75 million over the next three years for development of alternative research methods and “improving animal care facilities.” The first provision— red tape—is at best needless (the NIH and Department of Agriculture are already responsible for review and inspection of animal treatment) and at worst a blow to biological (and consequently medical) science. Anti-vivisectionists like to bring up the example of Britain when they try to seem reasonable; licensing for animal experimentation is severely restricted there. British fondness for animals is one of that culture's most endearing qualities. Who among us wasn't touched when the Duke of Edinburgh recently complained that the Falklands conflict might lead to the death of many whales, who emit echoes that sound like Argentine submarines? Deference to the animal kingdom is also, some scientists say, the reason animal research in Britain lags behind in an otherwise impressive tradition of biological research. And as psychiatrist Jeri A. Sechzer has written in the British journal, Social Science and Medicine, whatever limits are placed on scientists in Britain would have much worse effect in the U.S., “where there are thousands of research centers and scientists” as compared to the relatively small scientific community in Britain. "Should the use of animals for research and teaching be curtailed as a result of hastily conceived legislation,” Sechzer writes, "progress in gaining knowledge crucial to human and animal well being would be disrupted.”

The problems inherent in this sort of regulation are illustrated in the troubling issue of anesthesia. Everyone agrees that animals should not be exposed to unnecessary pain. But neither should scientists be hamstrung by the requirement to use anesthesia in every animal experiment that might cause pain. There are too many experiments—particularly those testing the effects of drugs—that would be impossible to conduct in any scientifically reliable way if this additional chemical variable were made mandatory. The Walgren bill requires “in any case involving surgery or other invasive procedures on animals, appropriate assurances of the proper use of tranquilizers.” A subcommittee staffer says the word “proper” allows researchers to fudge when anesthesia might threaten results. But would an “animal care committee” interpret its mandate the same way?

The appropriation of $75 million for upgrading facilities and searching for alternatives to animal experimentation is also a blow to the progress of human well-being. No one is anxious to guess where the money will come from, but in the current economic climate it isn't likely this nonsense would be paid for with a new addition to the budget. Rather, the Department of Health and Human Services, which is placed in charge of this program, would have to raid the people kitty. Thus we would witness the absurdity of cutting appropriations for Medicaid, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and food stamps to pay for welfare for animals. And taking a large view, what benefits would such research provide? Given the likelihood that in 2025 none of us will feel any better about taking pills that haven't been tested on living animals, not much.  

THE THIRD and most ethereal level of misanthropy in the anti-vivisection movement is so intuitive that to launch on an extended attack of it would be sophomoric. It's that, fundamentally, animal welfare makes no distinction between the value of human life and that of animal life. The ease with which anti-vivisectionists pass from one to the other in ethical arguments is downright scary. Peter Singer's equation between the lot of a retarded person and that of a laboratory animal crystallizes the point. “I ask you to recognize that your attitudes to members of other species are a form of prejudice no less objectionable than prejudice about a person's race or sex,” writes Singer in introducing the bogeyman of “speciesism,” the animal kingdom's equivalent to ethnocentricity. Either this sort of talk makes you angry or it doesn't. An example helps. Alex Pacheco, the undercover animal liberationist who freed Edward Taub's monkeys, argues that the same premise upon which speciesism is based “was used by the slave owners and by white males against blacks and women. And it was used by the Nazis and by Hitler to justify the murder of millions of Jews.” Pacheco should ask a ghetto black or an Auschwitz survivor how he likes the analogy. And he shouldn't be surprised when he gets an uncivil answer.

Anti-vivisection may never amount to much, although it has already caused Edward Taub some distress. But this is a case where a little paranoia among liberals would be justified. The right has creationism, the know-nothing doctrine that we aren't related to the apes; the left should avoid creationism's mirror image of anti-vivisection, the know-nothing doctrine that apes are members of the immediate family. Both are anti-scientific ways of thinking that do more harm than good to the prospect that the human race may someday cure its various, far more worrisome ills.

This article originally ran in the June 2, 1982, issue of the magazine.