The grueling propaganda war over the use of animals in biomedical research has shifted to an improbable battleground--the august pages of the 224-year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica and, specifically, the latest entry under the heading "Dogs."
There, buried in the usual boilerplate--descendant of wolves, impressive olfaction, et cetera--the Britannica's anointed dog expert has seen fit to include what biomedical researchers, in high dudgeon, describe as a little antivivisection agitprop.
"Another common use of dogs, especially purpose-bred beagles, is in biomedical research," part of the entry reads. "Such use, which often entails much suffering, has been questioned for its scientific validity and medical relevance to human health problems.
"For example, beagles and other animals have been forced to inhale tobacco smoke for days and have been used to test household chemicals such as bleach and drain cleaner. In addition, dogs have been used to test the effects of various military weapons and radiation."
Hundreds of outraged scientists, including a Nobel Prize winner and officials of some of the country's most prestigious scientific societies, have peppered the Britannica with mail, demanding retractions, revisions, errata, anything to set the record straight.
The Britannica now concedes privately that the entry is "unbalanced," and has proposed a revision for the 1993 edition. But the author, a vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, refuses to go along. He says that his statements are factual, and that he may take legal action if they are changed without his consent.
All this venom has rattled at least some at the Britannica, a place unaccustomed to bitter controversy--or at least more accustomed to maneuvering through international border disputes than the notoriously angry fight over animal rights.
"We seem to have blundered into a minefield of a war we scarcely knew was being waged, one in which discourse and courtesy have given way to threat and accusation and in which everyone behaves rather badly," Robert McHenry, the general editor, reflected in a recent letter.
The flap is rooted in the Britannica's decision to hire Dr. Michael W. Fox, a British-born veterinarian and author of dozens of books on animal behavior, to do a regularly scheduled revision of its articles on dogs and cats for the 1991 edition.
Fox holds several degrees, including a Ph.D., for work in animal behavior. He is also author of a recent book called "Inhumane Society, the American Way of Exploiting Animals."
According to Fox, his revisions underwent "a very careful review of every word" by the Britannica. In an interview this week, he said he included his comments on biomedical research because "I wanted to get a good word in for my best teachers, my canine companions."
The handful of paragraphs in the seven-page article might have gone unnoticed had not animal rights activists highlighted them in a newsletter. The activists' report was read by a scientist who monitors animal rights literature, and he described it in his own newsletter, the Garbage Collector.
The scientist's newsletter found its way to the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics in Bethesda, Md. The society's president fired off a letter to the Britannica and suggested in a mailing that his society's 4,300 members do the same.
The Society for Neuroscience, the American Physiological Society and others joined the fray. By mid-December, the Britannica had received hundreds of letters arguing that Fox's statements were unbalanced and left out any mention of the fruits of animal research.
As for suffering, they say research with animals is closely regulated through federal law to ensure humane treatment, good veterinary care and public oversight. With the help of anesthetics, researchers say, the animals used rarely experience any pain.
As for scientific validity and relevance to health, researchers cite 11 Nobel Prizes awarded in the last century for biomedical research using dogs. They point to advances in coronary bypass surgery, stroke therapy and organ transplants thanks to dogs.
Finally, they say the horror stories cited by Fox are extreme and dated examples that have little to do with biomedical research. If such cases are to be included in the article, they say, the Britannica should also include examples of the benefits of animal research.
"It does a great disservice to the readers," said Christopher Guerin, a UC Santa Barbara neuroscientist who contends that animal rights activists have shifted their focus recently to influencing children through materials used in schools.
"We are very concerned that people with no background would go in and read that kind of entry and accept it because it's in something as prestigious as the Britannica," he said.