Thursday, January 05, 2006

Of Humans and Mice

Copyright (c) 2005 by Joel Marks
Originally published with the title “Consider daily plight of lab mice” in the New Haven Register on January 4, 2006, page A4

I read with the usual grim bemusement that researchers have created laboratory mice containing human brain cells (Associated Press, December 13, 2005). The purpose is be able to model neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease, with an eye, no doubt, to finding cures for these human afflictions.

Perhaps this is considered news because of the hint of sensationalism. Mice with human brains! Shades of Dr. Moreau, the sinister surgeon of H. G. Wells' imagination, who created animal-man monstrosities on his secret island.

What is not considered news, however, is the daily plight of millions upon millions of mice and rats, who languish and die in research laboratories across the country without any legal protection whatever. For in 2002 President Bush signed into law a farm bill containing an amendment proposed by then-Senator Jesse Helms to exclude most such creatures from the definition of "animal" under the Animal Welfare Act.

According to Sue Leary, President of the Alternatives Research and Development Foundation, this makes the United States the only country in the world, among those that regulate animal research, to formally exclude some of them.

This reaches the level of absurdity when you consider, as was pointed out to me by Dr. Barbara Orlans, a faculty affiliate at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, that, as a result of the exclusion, only 1 percent of the animals used in research are actually protected by the Animal Welfare Act. No matter how friendly to humans may be the intent of this forced labor and imprisonment of our fellow mammals -- and also birds, who are similarly unprotected -- how can we justly or humanely deny them the legal guarantee of relief from pain and distress?

The crowning irony of this situation is that mice and rats are used for these purposes precisely because of their similarity to us. The news article reports that "mice are 97.5 percent genetically identical to humans." If that were not the case, they could not model our diseases! Why, then, do we not accord these animals 97.5 percent of the moral regard considered appropriate for humans? That would include entitlement to basic legal protections.

Instead human beings often seem to think of themselves as not animals at all. There is no question that humans are different from all other species. Furthermore, I would not seriously contend that a quantitative comparison of genes can decide our qualitative similarity to other beings. But I ponder when I poop how humans could fail to see their obvious commonality with other animals!

I marvel at the human contradiction between coddling our pets and condemning puppy-killers and parrot-exterminators on the one hand, and the general complacence about exploiting completely similar animals in laboratories and slaughterhouses on the other. Only animals as smart as we are could be so stupid.

According to Leary, there is no active citizens campaign to reverse the Helms amendment, and, Orlans adds, "There is nothing in sight." Fortunately, there are some safeguards in effect, such as requirements by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in order to be eligible for grants, and by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC) International in order to become accredited.

But only the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is governed by the Helms Amendment, can close down a lab. Furthermore, says Leary, of most immediate practical concern is the need for public accountability, which, again, only the USDA can supply. The basic tool of measurement of pain and distress is needed to gauge progress in this area.

As it happens, a friend of mine has a pet rat. That rat, named Persephone, is clearly intelligent, certainly has emotions, and flaunts her distinctive personality.

Photo by Melanie Stengel

Persephone: half her life in darkness, half in light, and always in perfect balance

We can all support efforts to ameliorate the effects of the Helms Amendment on Persephone's less fortunate cousins by joining an organization such as the American Anti-Vivisection Society.

A more extended discussion of this issue can be found in my article, "When I Heard the Learn'd Biologist."

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