Science & Research

Across Ivies, animal research raises ethics questions

Faculty and students working with laboratory animals emphasize careful protocol

By and
Senior Staff Writer and Contributing Writer
Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Many Brown researchers spend their days working with mice, bats and primates, a practice that many members of the community call a scientific necessity. But others say they find animal research morally ambiguous, an opinion that has become especially salient due to a recent complaint filed against a Rhode Island Hospital study for alleged mistreatment of pigs. In the study, led by Frank Sellke, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at the Alpert Medical School, researchers examined alcohol’s effects on the porcine cardiovascular system.


Animal ethics across Ivies

Violations in animal research protocol have been the subject of debate at Ivy League universities for many years.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine published a report in 2011 on Ivy League Animal Welfare Act violations, citing Penn as the most egregious offender, followed by Princeton and Yale, which were tied for second.

Though the committee ranked Brown as the third-best Ivy League school, they cited the University for 35 violations of the Animal Welfare Act and noted, “Students used animals in surgical experiments not approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Two had to be euthanized.”

The allegations were based on United States Department of Agriculture reports. Some Ivy League administrators found fault with the report’s analysis of these statistics because they did not account for the size of the research institution, the Yale Daily News reported at the time.

The report incited more volatile reactions among students at several universities. Students at Penn took to the streets with protest flags, criticizing their school for the mistreatment of animals that led to a puppy dying, the Daily Pennsylvanian reported at the time.

More recently, Harvard has come under scrutiny for its primate research practices. Last September, researchers at the New England Primate Research Center were charged with violating the Animal Welfare Act multiple times over the last several years. Since 2010, at least nine mammals, inlcuding a goat and monkey, have died in Harvard research facilities as a direct result of protocol violations, according to the report. In December, Harvard was found guilty by the USDA of 11 violations of the Animal Welfare Act and fined $24,036, the Harvard Crimson reported at the time.


‘Protocol at all times’

Since 1966, the Animal Welfare Act has regulated the use of animals in research. It has been amended at various times, most recently in 2008.

Under this act, every institution that uses animals for scientific research must have an Institutional Animal Care and Uses Committee, which comprises researchers, non-scientists, a veterinarian and unaffiliated members of the community.

The committee follows national guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health, according to its website.

“Every animal that gets used for research at Brown has to be covered by a protocol at all times,” said Rebecca Burwell, chair of Brown’s Animal Care and Uses Committee and a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences. “Before you touch an animal you have to have training and you have to have a protocol that spells out what you’re doing, how many animals you’re going to use, and exactly what you’re going to do with the animal.”

Burwell said the committee always asks, “Is the potential benefit of this research worth the use of these animals? Is the potential human good worth the use of these animals?”

“It’s a judgment call,” she said. “And there are always gray areas.”

All Ivy League schools are also accredited and evaluated by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, an independent nonprofit organization that advocates “humane treatment of animals in science,” according to its website.


Rights and responsibilities

Despite the recent complaint against Sellke’s procedures and the 2011 report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, most students interviewed said they were unaware of any potential animal welfare violations at the University.

Benjamin Flakoll ’16 has had hands-on experience working with mice in a lab run by Ruth Colwill, associate professor of psychology. With Colwill, he worked on a memory experiment to see if mice could predict which cage they would be placed in based on pattern conditioning. Flakoll said that he and everyone else in the laboratory had to undergo extensive training protocols before they were allowed to handle the animals.

“The mice were kept very well and had a very good quality of life, and we treated them very, very carefully,” he said.

Emily Longman ’15 worked in Professor of Biology James Simmons’ lab training bats for flight simulation studies. She said that teaching everyone in the lab the proper handling of the bats was the highest priority. “There was a ridiculous amount of training. And the bats are in a very specific area of BioMed (that) has so many precautions to get in there, to keep them safe,” she said.

But Adam Horowitz ’16, the University’s People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals representative, wrote in a statement that researchers’ treatment of animals is “cruel.”

“Forcing baby pigs to consume a half bottle of wine or one fourth bottle of vodka every day for weeks and then intentionally giving them heart attacks is wrong and it would be illegal if it happened outside of the laboratory,” he wrote.

Burwell said the concept of animal research can be looked at from two different standpoints.

“I think of it as an animal welfare approach versus an animal rights approach,” Burwell said. From the animal welfare approach, “we as humans are responsible for animals,” she said. “We are obligated to use them in the most humane way possible.”

The animal rights standpoint asserts that “animals have the same rights as humans do,” Burwell said. From that perspective, “if you could save one hundred children by sacrificing a single rat then you wouldn’t do that, because that would be violating the animal’s rights,” she said.

Burwell added that she supports the animal welfare approach. “I can’t say that I don’t have moments of doubt. But pretty much I think yes, if I can do an experiment using 30 rats that will save a human child, I think it’s worth it.”

  • Jwop Ewn

    I thought hiring Paxson were part of animal research.

  • Amy

    Even if one were to agree that there are times when animal research can benefit human studies of disease, which is highly debatable, this study is unnecessary and beyond cruel. I am appalled that any such study could exist, especially at an institution of higher learning.

  • Credibility?

    It would be useful to know if anyone lodging the complaint has had personal experience with animals in Brown research. So far it does not seem that way.

    • Crud Bill

      Thank you Brown Dean for this question. It shows the limit of your imagination. Typical.

  • Richard Heck

    There is no such thing as “a scientific necessity”

  • laurelladesborough

    It seems that the animal rights “disease perspective” has been contracted by many individuals. It is also highly likely that a significant number of those individuals who complain about the “cruelty” of animal research are individuals who have personally benefited from exactly that kind of research. Members of the public, especially the younger ones under 50, have no memory of the terrible diseases that plagued humanity less than a hundred years ago. So many diseases and terrible physical conditions have been studied and now understood, vaccines created, methods devised to save life and limb…all directly related to animal research.

    Folks, do a little more research on the background and benefits of animal research before you join the PETA crowd and the well meaning but ill informed individuals who think that ANY animal research is wrong and cruel. Just perhaps YOU might not have the health and life you enjoy today IF it were not for past animal research!

    Also, take note…Physicans Committee for Responsible Medicine is NOT a group of physicians…it is an animal rights organization which is opposed to all animal research. Do some fact checking before you believe everything you read.

    • njcatlover

      Not only is PCRM NOT a group of physicians, and opposed to all animal research, they are also a Vegan group, not from the star Vega, but they preach that we should eschew the use of animal products for ANY purpose whatsoever.
      This means not only no meat, milk or eggs, no leather, wool or silk, but if taken to the logical extreme, we should not even eat any crops that are fertilized by bees or other insects. Can we survive on a diet of only wind-fertilized grain and wind- or self-fertilized fruit? Would you want to live that way?

      • laurelladesborough

        Good points njcatlover…it is truly a shame that the general public do not know the facts about these radical groups with these “impressive sounding” names…they select names that appear to provide some kind of credibility. Unfortunately, it is credibility “in name only” not in actuality.

  • TheRationale

    You’d have to be either ignorant or a sociopath to put the welfare of animals before the welfare of humans. I suspect most are the former.

    Simple test: Go find a lab experimenting on an animal in an attempt to cure disease X. Now go to the hospital and tell a patient suffering from disease X that you’d rather the animals live than the patient. If you seem unable to do this, congratulations, you’re not a sociopath, and hopefully not ignorant anymore either. If you really need help, conduct this test in the children’s ward.

  • Patrick

    Many prominent scientists, supported by a vast
    amount of research, doubt the value of animal testing. Many of the alleged
    advances in medical science using animal testing were failures and ended up
    being harmful to humans even though they were not harmful to animals.

    Vioxx was
    tested extensively on monkeys and proven to be beneficial to monkey hearts, but
    this mistake will cost Merck & Co. billions of dollars to settle all the personal-injury lawsuits. Vioxx is just one example.

    In fact, in a USDA press release January 12, 2006,
    Health & Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said:

    “Currently, nine out of ten experimental drugs fail
    in clinical studies because we cannot accurately predict how they will behave in
    people based on laboratory and animal studies.”

    But there is a simpler argument that testing is
    either morally or scientifically dubious: The animals must be a great deal like
    us for the results to be scientifically unproblematic, but very different from
    us in order to be morally unproblematic. When we want scientifically useful
    results, the more like us they are, the better. When we want clear consciences
    over causing disease, suffering, and death to innocent creatures, the more like
    us the animals are, the worse.

    And when animal advocates maintain that animals matter in their own right, that
    amounts to acknowledging the possibility that something could be beneficial to
    us, but still morally dubious. There may be advantages we’re not entitled to or
    that it would be wrong for us to seek out and pursue. If so, there may be hard
    questions about what we must be prepared to give up.