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To Zealots of Animal Lib, Biomedicine Is a Monster

February 07, 1988|Betty Ann Kevles | Betty Ann Kevles is author of "Friends of the Species: Sex and Survival in the Animal Kingdom" (Harvard University Press), published this month in paperback

The photograph is familiar--a masked "liberator" and the rescued animal, an diode implanted in its head like a flag announcing its status as "victim."

This time it was the University of California at Irvine. The liberated animals were beagles. Before that, in August, it was a group of cats at the Maryland laboratory of the Department of Agriculture.

A glance at the beagle with a diode in the middle of its forehead tugs at the toughest heartstrings. To oppose "freedom" for such a "victim" is like opposing happiness for children. Which is why so few politicians have spoken out in favor of biomedical research, and why sympathy for laboratory animals and support for legislation making some research cumbersome or so expensive as to be prohibitive has won so much popular approval.

In 1983 when the Animal Rights Movement emerged on the California scene, its advocates picketed the primate colony at UC Davis. They were protesting the sometimes execrable conditions in the animal facilities and the careless, occasionally sadistic abuse of laboratory animals. Their supporters included some of the same people who agitate against the brutal harvesting of fur from baby seals, the wholesale slaughter of whales on the brink of extinction and who rescued the surplus goats of Santa Maria Island near Santa Barbara.

Their protests awakened consciences within the biomedical community and gave weight to the demands of others who had sought reform but been ignored. The activists seemed to be in the tradition of the founders of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of America, a tradition that historically spotlighted abuses, demanded reform and proposed legislation for oversight.

In those terms, the activists prevailed.

In 1985 Congress amended the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, spelling out--in what may be too much detail--the size and structure of cages and specified the inclusion of advocates for animals on the review committees of research laboratories. Any human enterprise is bound to include lemons, but the blatant mistreatment of what was probably never more than a small fraction of laboratory animals is now under as much control as possible.

However, the masked vigilantes are still at work.

It is important that those of us who hope to benefit from medical research understand the direction of the vigilantes' insatiable demands. The liberationists have an agenda that often overlaps with that of traditional animal-protection goals, but it is not the same. They are guided by a philosophy that is tantamount to a religion. This philosophy, as expounded by activists in the Animal Liberation Front--the group that claims responsibility for the break-in at Irvine--was explicit in the typewritten note that was dropped off at the Orange County office of The Times.

They denounce "UCI's growing use of animals in fraudulent medical research, research nothing will come of except pain and misery to humans and non-humans alike."

This is the heart of their gospel. They contend that modern medicine, which has often relied on animal models, is not only useless but downright detrimental to human health.

They do not believe in animal models for human disease because they reject the medical implications of biological evolution. Arguing that all animals are totally distinct from one another, they conclude we can learn nothing from studying them. Ignoring all the advances of modern medicine, they suggest that new surgical techniques as well as new medicines should be tried out initially and exclusively on human subjects.

They deny the enormous progress that has been made in diabetes research using insulin manufactured by pigs, or in leprosy using antibodies grown in armadillos. Over the past 80 years the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine has gone disproportionately to researchers who have worked with animal models. But the liberationists are blind to the truth that different animals provide the best models for different human physiological problems. Cats, for instance, are excellent for studying the development of the brain, primates for diseases of the blood and pigs for problems of reproduction.

The beagles at Irvine were involved in a study of the effects of air pollution on the lungs. The cats in Maryland, part of a study of highly contagious Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite responsible for about 3,000 birth defects annually in the United States, were "liberated" to perhaps continue to spread the infection.

In laboratories throughout the country, biologists are studying animals in an effort to understand the underlying mechanisms of the genetic transmission of disease as well to establish a cure for specific disorders. Most of the animals used are rodents--rats and mice especially bred for research. In some instances rodents do not provide a useful model and a relatively small number of dogs, cats and primates are used. These animals, not mice, have been the focus of the Animal Liberation raids.

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