Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

Committee on the Use of Laboratory Animals in Biomedical and Behavioral Research, Use of Laboratory Animals in Biomedical and Behavioral Research1

National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1988

The Committee on the Use of Laboratory Animals in Biomedical and Behavioral Research was organized by the National Research Council. Their report was funded by the Departments of the Air Force, Army, and Navy, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and several pharmaceutic companies. The Committee included leading proponents of animal research, including Drs. Michael DeBakey, Arthur Guyton, and Lewis Thomas. Not surprisingly, the report broadly endorses animal research broadly. In an apparent effort to claim a “balanced” review of animal research, the Committee included Christine Stevens of the relatively moderate Animal Welfare Institute. This may have been a tactical error. She refused to sign the Committee report, and her minority opinion demonstrates convincingly that the report is a one-sided political document designed to enhance public acceptance of animal research.

The report begins by begging the question of the necessity of animal research:

The basic question can be stated quite simply: Research with animals has saved human lives, lessened human suffering, and advanced scientific understanding, yet that same research can cause pain and suffering for the animals involved and usually results in their death ... Animal experimentation is an essential component of biomedical and behavioral research, a critical part of efforts to prevent, cure, and treat a vast range of ailments.1

In a later section, the report completely distorts medical history in order to defend this claim. For example, the report cites only animal research in the fight against polio. It does not even mention the in vitro culture which led to the polio vaccine, for which Enders, Robbins, and Weller won the Nobel Prize. Similarly, the report uncritically endorses contemporary animal models of human disease. For example, simian AIDS:

... exemplifies ... the criticality of animals in research ... simian AIDS ... might prove useful for testing the efficacy and safety of vaccines and therapeutic agents developed to prevent or treat the human disease ... feline T-lymphotropic lentivirus ... might prove useful as animal models for the study of certain aspects of human AIDS.1

Both “models” are of speculative value at best, and many scientists have questioned their relevance to human AIDS2,3 Meanwhile, the report ignores other research modalities. How do we know so much about the transmission of the virus, its chemical structure, and its effects on the human immune system? Have not epidemiological, human hematological, and in vitro studies been of some value? Stevens observes:

Virtually no acknowledgement of outstanding research results from scientific work appears in the report unless they were based on the use of vertebrate animals. Yet:

  • a substantial proportion of NIH funds are dispensed for epidemiological and clinical research
  • much animal experimentation produces no significant results
  • leading scientists have publicly criticized erroneous conclusions resulting from large-scale animal experiments.

These exemplify matters on which readers of the report should receive objective information. But objectivity is incompatible with the ‘strong, hard-hitting report’ promoters of animal experiments demand.1

The section on regulation of animal experimentation reflects the Committee’s agenda to promote the interests of animal researchers. Stevens notes:

The report refuses to face the widespread, ingrained problem of unnecessary suffering among the millions of laboratory animals used yearly in our country, nor does it make so much as a passing reference to the serious problem of poor research using excessive numbers of animals. The single recommendation, approved by majority vote, to improve the treatment of about 85% of research animals was reversed at the only Committee meeting I did not attend ... Material presented by Committee members on the benefits of regulation of animal experimentation and the history of such regulation in Europe was cut from the report which instead makes the unreferenced charge that in ‘some countries’ unspecified ‘strict legislation’ has ‘reduced potential contributions to human welfare.1

The Committee considers alternatives to animals in a similar manner. Stevens recalls:

I was shocked by the attitude of Committee members who asserted that we have no moral obligation to animals and expressed hatred at the idea of having a report that puts emphasis on alternatives ... During a discussion of current NIH regulations requiring that grant proposals provide data that will advance knowledge of immediate or potential benefit to humans and animals, members asked one another whether they agreed. We agree or we don’t get any money was the response. It was surprising to hear the assertion that everybody cheats and prevaricates.1

The Committee’s support of pound seizure may reflect a lack of commitment among animal researchers to perform clinically relevant research. While the scientific validity of many animal models has been challenged,4-7 a prerequisite of any useful model is that the animals must live in a low-stress environment and be treated well. Otherwise, the experimental data may reflect the effects of stress on the animal rather than the disease process under study. However, because former pets from pounds are maximally stressed by the laboratory environment, they are poor research subjects. Barnard adds:

We don’t know their age, we don’t know what diseases or parasites they may be harboring, we don’t know their history of treatments or what genetic illnesses may be in their ancestry. A study that failed to account for these variables in human subjects would never be taken seriously.8

If scientists were trying to benefit human health, why would they jeopardize their research by using such inappropriate research subjects? Perhaps former pets are preferred because they are accustomed to human affection, and consequently they are less likely to bite when subjected to noxious procedures. Also, their reduced cost may generate profits for a laboratory. If a grant supplies $500 per dog and the lab then buys dogs from the pound for $100 each, there is $400 per dog of funds available for equipment purchases and research activities that were not approved by grant review committees. Thus, pound animals may help scientists bypass the peer review process and obtain public funds for unrestricted research activities. Interestingly, Livesay has shown that, because pound dogs are often sick and need to be “conditioned,” the actual monetary savings are minimal.9

If an animal model were invalid, it would not matter, from a scientific standpoint, whether pound animals or purpose-bred animals were used. Both sources of animals would yield data for a journal publication, but the data would be irrelevant to humans. However, if an animal model system were valid, use of pound animals would undermine the validity of a study. Scientists who believed that their results would benefit people would not choose to use pound animals. Thus, use of pound animals appears to represent a tacit acknowledgement on the part of scientists that their research is inapplicable to human beings.

The recent epidemic of “studies” and articles endorsing animal research enthusiastically reflects concern among animal researchers that an increasingly sophisticated public is starting to question the scientific foundations of animal experimentation.10 Fortunately for animal researchers, the public tends to believe that academicians are basically honest people. People often accept animal researchers’ self-serving conclusions about the value of animal experimentation. Recently, the outlandish claims of animal research advocates has damaged their credibility. This, I believe, is partly responsible for the rapid growth of professional organizations, such as the Medical Research Modernization Committee and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


1. Committee on the Use of Laboratory Animals in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Use of Laboratory Animals in Biomedical and Behavioral Research. Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1988.

2. Power JD, Marx PA, Bryant ML, Gardner MB, Barr, PJ, Luciw PA: Nucleotide sequence of SRV-1, a type D simian acquired immune deficiency syndrome retrovirus. Science 1986;231:1567-1572.

3. Desrosiers RC, Letvin NL: Animal models of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Rev Infect Dis 1987;9:438-446.

4. Reines B: Cancer Research on Animals: Impact and Alternatives. Chicago, NAVS, 1986.

5. Barnard ND: Animals in Military Wound Research and Testing. Washington, D.C., Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 1986.

6. Cohen M, Young C: "Alcoholic" Rats. Chicago, National Research Information Center, 1989. Commentary

7. Giannelli MA: Three blind mice, see how they run: a critique of behavioral research with animals. In Fox MW, Mickley LD (eds): Advances in Animal Welfare Sciences. Washington, D.C., Humane Society of the United States, 1985.

8. Barnard NB: PCRM goes on the air to protect animals in shelters. PCRM Update. Washington, D.C., Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Nov-Dec 1987.

9. Livesay P: How many scruples per pound dog? Washington, D.C., Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 1987.

10. Sharpe R: The Cruel Deception. Wellingborough, Thorsons Publishers, 1988.