Researchers and animal rights activists continue their heated debate

Photo at top: Lab rats are euthanized after research is done. (Catherine Chen/MEDILL)

By Catherine Chen

More than 200 rats “go through” Mason Lab each year.

The lab at the University of Chicago conducts experiments with the rats to study psychology, neurobiology and social behavior and advance diagnosis and treatment for human conditions.

The Mason Lab used 24 rats in their latest research focusing on rats’ helping behavior. The rats died after they fulfilled their scientific obligations.

“If there isn’t anything else we can do with them [the rats], they will be euthanized by the animal resources staff. Sometimes we want to look at their brains further, so we’ll do the euthanasia ourselves, take the brains out and do further analysis on them,” said Haozhe Shan, one of the researchers in Mason Lab..

There is no exact figure of rats killed annually in experiments across the country because laboratory rats are excluded from the Animal Welfare Act, the only Federal law in the United States that regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport and by dealers. Also excluded from the act are birds, laboratory mice, farm animals and all cold-blooded animals such as reptiles.

Dogs and primates are less widely used in labs. But statistics from the Beagles Freedom Project, an organization aiming to rescue animals from labs showed that about 70,000 dogs are used in research experiments every year, 96 percent of which are beagles.

Peggy Mason, professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago and the leader of Mason Lab, said “the ultimate goal is to explore things in the rats that we can’t explore in humans.”

One of the experiments done by the Mason Lab demonstrated who  rats will help escape from a trap and studied whether helping behavior is determined by environment rather than by genetics. Researchers found that rats would always help the rats that they grew up with, regardless of their biological differences. Rats refused to help the stranger rats to escape even if they are of the same biological breed.

“We can’t do that experiment in humans, just can’t do it, obviously,” Mason said.

“We benefit from animal research every day. The fact that I don’t have polio, the fact that I am alive today, is all due to animal research that has occurred in previous decades,” Mason said. “You don’t even need to go that far. There are new findings every day, and the fact is that you can’t find the information out on humans that used informed consent.”

By testing vaccines on monkeys, humans trumped polio in the early 20th century. Vaccines for the prevention of hepatitis, typhus, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and smallpox are all outcomes of animal research. These cures have largely decrease infant mortality rate and expanded humans’ life expectancy.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal rights organization, estimated that millions of rats die in labs each year, however.

Dr. Alka Chandna, PETA’s senior laboratory oversight specialist, said rats are social, intelligent and exhibit self-awareness as humans do.

“In laboratories, rats are treated like disposable laboratory equipment, rather than the feeling beings they are,” Dr. Chandna said. “They feel pain, fear, loneliness and joy just as we do.”

Researchers at the Mason Lab focus on rats’ helping behavior and altruism. They use rats because of the animal’s sociability.

Shan said rats are more social than larger animals such as tigers and lions and thus have more behaviors for the researchers to observe. Rats are also less expensive and easier to maintain.

Mason said the use of animals including rats in science experiments is strictly regulated by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. The IACUC in each university and research center has the responsibility to review, approve and guide animal research to assure the humane care and use of animals.

“Everything we do has to be approved by the IACUC. They go through if the procedures are appropriate, if the number of rats are appropriate, etc,” Mason said.

Chandna said the use of animals in experiments is “an application of the morally bankrupt ‘might is right’ principle.”

“It boils down to the moral principle that we do not have the right to manipulate and kill animals for our own purposes,” Chandna said. “It is wrong to experiment on animals for the same reason that it is wrong to experiment on the poor, the mentally disabled, or the institutionalized. That they are smaller, weaker, or less able to communicate in ways that we can understand does not give us the right to barter their lives away. It is not necessary or ethical for nonconsenting people or animals to be tortured and killed for ‘the common good.’”

Chandna also questioned whether the results of animal research can be applied to humans.

Paula Clifford, executive director for Americans for Medical Progress, opposed Chandna’s position. She said practically every cure and drug we have today was developed with the help of lab animals, and the claim that animal research is not applicable to human is “simply not true,” given the large number of benefits humans have gained from animal research.

“It is true that not all work with animals is successful, but even these failures add to the body of knowledge that advances medicine,” Clifford said.

Clifford said whether humans and animals are equal is a personal and philosophical question. She personally thinks humans and animals are not equal, but “all work with animals to benefit humans must be done humanely with respect for the animal while striving to eliminate all pain and discomfort.”

“Animal research is something people talk about a lot lately. I can see why it would be problematic to some people,” Shan said. “But I think it’s very important to consider the benefits that it has done to both the health of animals and humans. The fact that we can treat a lot of illnesses in animals, pets, humans, is because we did the animal research in the first place.”

Photo at top: Lab rats are euthanized after research is done. (Catherine Chen/MEDILL)