Do We Still Need Animals
to Build a Better Aspirin?
Four lab workers were indicted on animal cruelty charges against beagles in North Carolina, last week, a decision considered groundbreaking because it’s still legal to test on dogs in the U.S.
About 70,000 canines are routinely experimented on by the U.S. cosmetics and pharmaceuticals industries, the majority of which beagles, chosen for their size and docility.
At the same time, in the U.K., a government report said that animal testing increased three percent there in 2010, to a staggering 3.7 million experiments on animals.
We’re most definitely not going to describe exactly what these animals undergo in the hands of lab technicians, because you can find that sort of gory, graphic account on any Website dedicated to end animal testing and vivisection.
It’s suffice to say, though, that unfortunately dogs are not the only ones to be sacrificed in the name of our bottomless vanity and desire to outlive our bodies’ natural cycles. Cats, birds, monkeys, rabbits, mice, fish and pigs are also victims.
Big pharma is one of the most powerful industries in western societies and its potential to generate wealth is unsurpassed. Such high stakes are the main reason why it invests so much trying to preserve its prerogative of using animals in research, regardless of real benefits (or ethical implications).
On the other hand, scientists with as much passion to develop cures for diseases as to pursue high moral standards for their profession, have been fighting for generations such influential lobby in favor of animal experimentation.
They’re not alone. Animal activism has grown exponentially in the past half century, and beagles, for example, have their own advocacy, the Beagle Freedom Project. Much of our awareness to the issue is also due to P.E.T.A.’s fearless army of volunteers and similar groups.
The biggest obstacle to end all animal experimentation has to do with economics. One would’ve been hard pressed to identify specific medications developed from those 3.7 millions of tests, but would have no such hesitation pointing to the nearest drug store.
In fact, they became so ubiquitous in cities throughout the world, compared to the often absolute lack of medical care in the countryside, that there’s only another kind of store capable of challenging their omnipresent numbers: bank branches.
An equivalent metaphor is about medicine itself: If we’re so much better off now, as the medical establishment seems to imply, shouldn’t we have less hospitals, not more?
In other words, and we’re not talking about poverty-stricken nations here: shouldn’t our therapies be working to prevent us from seeking repeated treatment, not compelling us to go for them over and over again?
But at its core, animal experimentation belongs to an ethical and moral debate that started way before technological advances forced a reevaluation of their cost-effectiveness.
Are we, as a species, morally superior to animals as we’ve believed for two millennia? Superior to eat them, use them for spare parts, test them with toxic substances, do as we please with them?
That’s what was behind the great debate over vivisection of the 1700s. Then as now, at issue was whether animals are sentient creatures, or a mere step above vegetables. As philosopher Jeremy Bentham said, “The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but rather, “Can they suffer?”
To illustrate the mores of those times, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins invokes the father of rationalism, philosopher René Descartes, who firmly believed that animals did not have souls and, therefore, were incapable of feeling pain.
He then would proceed to vivisect a living mammal, restrained on an operating table, just to, what he though, prove human’s god-like authority towards all other living beings on this planet.
Things may have gotten in many ways better since, but judging by those 70,000 dogs, not so much for the animals. To this day, inside or outside the confines of cold fluorescent-lit labs of the world, they have no way of protesting what’s been done to them.
Which doesn’t mean they don’t experirnce the pain and terror any human would. Except that with animals, researchers are even allowed to extract their vocal chords, so they won’t be able to “disturb” such an important work with their desperate pleas.
Dawkins goes beyond the dubious claim that animal testing is crucial for development of medicines, listing also other accepted practices, perpetrated in the name of equally dubious rationales.
“Branding cattle, castration without anaesthetic, and bullfighting should be treated as morally equivalent to doing the same thing to human beings,” he says.
This discussion is as far from a conclusion, as both animal and human physical pain are close to an end. And in the current debate, we’re in the losing side, we’re sad to say.
There are powerful interests fully invested in the issue and, at the end of the day, this is definitely not a clear-cut matter. Most of us don’t even have a clear picture of where the boundaries of our relationship with the animals should lay.
But some organizations are working to bring it to another level, and awareness, education, compassion, everything helps to inform and compound a new evolutionary view of the issue.
There’s no single solution either. We should all choose very carefully our own course of action. There’s a lot of preaching going on about what everybody else should be doing, and not enough personal humility setting a higher standard.
Perhaps it’s time to pursue alternative ways of developing medicines, the same way we need to replace our dependence on burning fuels for energy. It’s hard because a whole system is built around both addictions.
But whereas one is a practical imperative, since soon enough there won’t be any to power our machines, the other is a moral imperative, because we need the animals to survive as much as we need to survive ourselves.
After all, they were already here when we arrived. So it’s just fair that we should spare them all from whatever we may wind up doing to our own species that may cause our extinction.