Animal-rights proponents have a paradoxical and double-edged item on their current agenda: support of a bill now before Congress that would kill twice as many animals as it would "save" and which would raise the cost of medical research by about $70 million per year to boot.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Robert J. Mrazek (D-N.Y.), would prohibit the use of animals from pounds and shelters by any researcher who holds a grant from the National Institutes of Health, the largest single source of support for biomedical research in this country.
Proponents of the bill have concluded that forcing scientists to turn to animals specially bred for research will somehow save the lives of pound animals.
In truth, most pound animals face certain destruction because no one wants them. That means that researchers would have to pay the high cost of purpose-bred animals while dogs and cats in pounds die anyway.
At issue is the notion that animals that find their way to the nation's pounds and shelters ultimately will be reclaimed by their owners or adopted into new homes, provided that their release to research or educational institutions does not preclude such a happy outcome.
The facts, however, tell a different story.
Contrary to popular belief, most pound dogs and cats--the estimates range as high as 80%--are brought to what is usually their final destination by their owners.
For the vast majority of pound animals--more than 10 million dogs and cats each year--the next step is not adoption but death after a holding period of three days to two weeks.
Most pounds and animal shelters have neither the space nor the funds to keep them alive any longer.
Of those 10 million animals, a small number--fewer than two out of every 100 dogs and cats left in pounds--are released for use in education and research to medical schools, veterinary schools and research facilities.
Many such animals are critical to investigations of human and animal health problems.
Pound-derived dogs, for example, have played an important role in the advances made in the treatment and prevention of heart and lung diseases during the the past several decades. Cats are valuable in studies involving physiology and the nervous system, research into blindness and deafness, virology and certain cancers.
Some animals are used in nonsurvivalpractice surgery to help train future physicians and veterinarians. The surgery takes place under anesthesia from which the animal never wakes.
What would happen if pound animals were no longer available for research?
In addition to the extra senseless loss of animal life--including the pound animals that will die anyway as well as the purpose-bred animals that will be required to replace them for research--the cost of research would rise significantly.
The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment has estimated a difference in price of up to $500 between a pound-derived dog and a purpose-bred animal. Multiplied by the number of dogs and cats needed in research, that difference adds up to $70 million or more each year.
Research grants will not increase by this amount to accommodate a new government directive. The rise in the costs of research requiring dogs and cats will discourage many researchers from pursuing promising areas of scientific investigation.
Other scientists may have no choice but to shift to less scientifically reliable research models. The result will be delays in knowledge that could help solve human and animal health problems.
The bill's supporters say that the National Institutes of Health has a policy against the use of pound animals. This claim, too, is inaccurate.
While the National Institutes of Health does not obtain animals directly from pounds, it does use "random source" dogs and cats for its in-house research projects. By definition, these are animals from a variety of sources and are not purpose-bred animals from dealers licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and regulated under the federal Animal Welfare Act. The dealers obtain the animals from a number of sources, including pounds and shelters.
No one enjoys using animals in research. But the fact remains that for the foreseeable future they are essential to medical progress.
No one wins--not medical research, not sick people, not taxpayers, not animals--with a law that merely substitutes the life of one animal for another and, in the process, prices much valuable research and education out of existence.