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Scientists and protestors clash over animal research

Scientists and protestors clash over animal research

Picture of Martha Rosenberg

There is probably not an industry on earth more afraid of "transparency" than animal research. Ever since Alex Pacheco of PETA exposed treatment of the "Silver Spring monkeys" in 1981, animal researchers have been reduced to uttering "it's not how it looks" or "let us explain" when unwanted images surface. 

In the 1980s, the animal research industry tried to fight back with campaigns like "your daughter or your dog." These experiments are necessary, said the researchers, and the choice is between animals and people. When that didn’t work, researchers tried to "humanize" their work by replacing dog labs with pig labs, a less loved animal. But by the 2000s, the industry had simply hunkered down and fought back, passing the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act which criminalizes interference with "the operations of an animal enterprise" and creating high security underground tunnels at its biggest centers.

So it is no wonder that animal researchers and protestors clashed this year near the UCLA campus and the home of one researcher. An angry mob of as many as 40 jeered and yelled obscenities at 11 demonstrators who had gathered to hold a vigil in honor of eleven primates held in UCLA research labs.

"Go home!" jeered the mob, their faces contorted with rage. "You kill people!" they chanted.  Some pro-research demonstrators became so livid they had to be restrained by police. It was hard to think of the demonstrators as men and women of science.

Why was the gathering enraged? A group called Progress for Science dares to question taxpayer funded research at UCLA like exposing primates to methamphetamine to study addiction and injecting pregnant monkeys with bisphenol A to study the effects on development of infants.

While the group says it is against all animal research, it has particularly focused on primate research at UCLA, even as opinion has begun to reverse. Last year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH)  announced it would begin retiring most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research. Chimps are "our closest relatives," said NIH director, Dr. Francis S. Collins. This spring, scientists in the British Medical Journal argued that "the benefits [of animal research] remain unproved and may divert funds from research that is more relevant to doctors and their patients."

Contrary to the dictum that animal research "saves lives," opponents say taxpayer supported research is less about science than about "pork." UCLA is the 12th largest recipient of NIH funds and the revenue doesn't just fund researcher lifestyles, it funds the institutions themselves, says Dr. Carol Glasser, a co-founder of Progress for Science. "Fifty percent or more" of the animal grants are skimmed off by the university says Dr. Glasser, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, Mankato and a co-founder of Progress for Science.

One example of the folly say protestors is the millions of NIH dollars that have funded experiments of UCLA researcher Edythe London. For almost thirty years, the animal researcher has addicted primates to methamphetamine and nicotine to reveal that… methamphetamine and nicotine are addictive, charge opponents. If London's work seems repetitive, it is repetitive says Dr. Glasser. "It is easier to extend an NIH grant than write a new one."

London wrote in a Los Angeles Times oped in 2007 that her addiction research comes from compassion for human beings and "is rooted in the untimely death of my father, who died of complications of nicotine dependence." Yet she also admits some of her "work was funded by Philip Morris USA" — $6 million according to press reports.

Another example of the scientific folly of much animal research is a government grant that allocated $3.6 million on experiments to study how heroin, crystal meth, and Angel Dust affect menstruating monkeys, charges White Coat Waste, a new watchdog group monitoring taxpayer funded animal research.

Animal research is a misallocation of funds and resources that could better be used with people ,say opponents. For example, London's experiments with methamphetamine and nicotine can be and have been done on human subjects, says Dr. Glasser.

Other scientific voices agree. "In humans, diagnostic criteria for substance abuse and addiction disorders typically include work-related problems, legal problems, interpersonal problems, physical impairment, or tolerance and withdrawal symptoms," Hope Ferdowsian, MD, Adjunct Associate Professor at the Georgetown University Medical Center and Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at George Washington University told me.  "Although most of these symptoms cannot develop in animals, addiction experiments commonly use nonhuman primates, dogs, cats, and other animals anyway. These experiments raise many ethical concerns related to food and water restriction, severe pain and distress, and chronic social isolation."

Upon viewing a video of the face-off at UCLA, Dr. Ferdowsian said, "The activists are reminiscent of the brave civil rights activists who used nonviolent methods to end violence, despite taunts and assaults against them. Though we still have much more progress to make in the area of civil rights, we can also hope that these protestors will be as successful as other movements that have focused on nonviolence."

Taxpayers have a right to question the protocols and results of animal research whether they are animal lovers or simply because they are paying for it, say activists. If the high budget animal research at UCLA is defensible, why were the researchers so enraged? 

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