Pondering Animal Research

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | October 15, 2010 10:52 am

Picture 6The Secret of NIMH debuted in the summer of 1982 when I was two years old. Last night I watched the film again and while I remembered the music and characters, I had long forgotten the story. In this animated film, animal testing by scientists has transformed rats and mice into rodents with human intelligence. The ability to read helped them to escape from NIMH (which stands for the National Institute of Mental Health) where they had been subjects in a series of torturous experiments (notably alongside frightened puppies, chimpanzees, and rabbits). It’s a good movie, but I suspect that for some youngsters, likely served as a frightening introduction to scientists.

Yes the plot was fanciful, but the depiction of animal testing wasn’t completely exaggerated–some laboratories do conduct research on animals. Having been inside such facilities, I’ve observed firsthand that the conditions and the scientists involved vary tremendously. Some researchers care a lot about the well being of each animal, treating them with a great deal of respect. Others act as if they couldn’t care less.

Obviously, this is not a black and white issue, but it is something I spend a great deal of time thinking about. On one hand, animal testing has led to tremendous advances in medicine. At the same time, needless suffering should be avoided at all costs. My perspective is similar to Jane Goodall’s: Since research will continue, I would like to see it limited to the greatest extent possible as we develop and utilize alternatives where appropriate.

With that, I am interested to hear our readers opinions…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Media and Science

Comments (26)

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  1. Define “needless”. In addition, please explain how our current system does not limit animal research to the greatest extent possible and use alternatives where possible. You know, since these are highly explicit parts of the well-regulated system of oversight of the use of animals in research.

    It is very easy to throw Fox news type “I’m just asking the questions” excrement up against the wall. Far harder to be specific with both your accusations and your answers to the hard questions. Harder still to maintain consistency in your approach in the face of a health issue affecting yourself or those close to you.

  2. Its an important question Sheril.
    I haven’t been involved with animal testing (I’m a geologist after all) but it occurs to me that we really can only ensure that we are humane. Unless we are prepared to start first pass tests on humans (which of course cannot be proposed with out a choice of subject protocol, which would be a terrible subject) then we seem to have an imperative to test on animals. That said, it excites me that at some stage we may develop technology to simulate a human, and that then we will be able to test on animals. We may even be able to develop proxies for parts of humans using stems cells (I don’t know – but to me this is yet another argument in favour of allowing all forms of stem cell research).

    I would like this sort of debate to be simply rational, without any form of interference from scripture or religious belief (I’m not saying this is an particular problem here, just anticipating unforeseen advances from some religious types). I would also like people to respect animals more – it is a measure of our humanity, the way we treat animals. It worries me that we need to test on animals, but then I guess there is a human imperative that overrides this to some extent. It should be limited to only that which is entirely necessary and then, it must be humane.

    Perhaps we need to ask Peter Singer?

  3. Walker

    NIMH has long had an affect of getting young people to think about animal testing. But if you are going to use NIMH, why bring up the crappy movie? The book is much more scientific and pro-science, while the movie quickly descended into Disney magic.

    For those of us who grew up on the book (required reading when I was in the 4th grade), the movie was unrecognizable.

  4. DF

    We have a decision to make between potentially furthering our understanding — in order to help mitigate diseases found in humans — and taking the hardline position of, say, PETA, by banning any and all such testing at the expense of scientific insight.

    Ultimately, I think we have to act in our own interest: and knowledge is plainly key to our survival.

    At the same time, of course, we have to recognize that as animals we humans are completely exploiting our biological kin — so we must try to limit suffering as much as possible. And while categorizing levels of suffering is certainly gray, we need to decide whether our own existence is more important (to us, that is) when compared with the wild freedom of the animal world.

    If I have to choose between a better understanding of the processes of cancer, for instance, by imposing suffering on other forms of life who (likely) have relatively limited conscious capacities, versus ending animal research and as a result alleviating their inflicted suffering, then selfishly I would have to push for the former.

    Complex life evolutionarily employs strong defenses and offenses in order to survive. For us humans, intelligence (and the subsequent pursuit of knowledge) is itself an evolutionary advantage: And if this advantage is not engaged, our species stands to lose tremendously.

  5. if you are going to use NIMH, why bring up the..movie?

    Simply because I happened to see it last night. I was surprised because I had no recollection that animal research was involved in the story.

  6. Chris Mooney

    I didn’t remember any of this about the movie either. Eye opening.

  7. hayley

    Anthropomorphism is a very dangerous thing, any introduction to biology will tell you that.

  8. Robert E

    I think you mention what should be the key to this issue: “needless suffering should be avoided at all costs” — with emphasis on needless. Not really that simple, I know, as people have a HUGE gap in what they consider “needless”.

  9. ” On one hand, animal testing has led to tremendous advances in medicine. At the same time, needless suffering should be avoided at all costs.”

    I think this a (purposefully?) oversimplified way of putting it. With respect to your first “hand”, yes, animal testing has led to tremendous advances in medicine. But – and this is coming from an ardent supporter of ethical animal testing – there are plenty of arenas where medicine has little to do with it. Cosmetic and toxicity studies are regularly carried out beyond the “Goodall approach” of limiting the number of animals and exhausting all other options first. In addition, psychology studies seem like they are much more “fuzzy” in their ability to predict the mental stresses put on the animal subject. And where do you put zoos? Surely they are ecological studies, but is where does that fall under animal research?

    WRT your other “hand”, I think everyone agrees that needless suffering should be avoided. But you might be careful with the use of “at all costs”, because that is the same attitude that ALF and others use when they torch cars, flood houses and harass scientists. I know you don’t feel that way, but there is an expanse of opinion between the two sides you laid out and I don’t like to view it as a choice between research and no research.

  10. Aaron C

    I am sure a lot of other arguments can need to have “What is the meaning of life” answered first, but if we let the animals other than ourselves define it, we are here to propagate our species. Animals do this not only to other species, but to other animals within their same species (males killing smaller males to prevent breeding, thus keeping lines strong).

    In the big picture of the animal kingdom, testing on animals is completely acceptable regardless of condition.

    Now before I am branded a monster…. as humans I believe we have a higher capacity for greatness as well as compassion, so I do like the idea of holding ourselves to a high standard (preventing needless suffering all cases). I have the good fortune to see a lab that tests on beagles before and can assure you that they were treated with the utmost care, respect and dignity. Cages were cleaned on a very regular basis. Toys were not reused. Dogs were kept very clean and were very socialized. Most importantly in my opinion, were the on staff vets that were employed. At first I was horrified that they were testing on dogs, but afterwards I found myself saying “if this needs to be done, this is the way it should be done”.

    I agree with DF in saying knowledge is key to survival.

  11. sunnygrrl

    Try reading “Plague Dogs” by Richard Adams (author of Watership Down); this is one of the most moving, beautifully written stories I have ever read, also about animal research.

    I too have mixed feelings on this subject. I have long felt that if we just devoted energy to developing alternatives to animal research, rather than just accepting it as the status quo, then better solutions could be identified. Some of the research that is approved, and the manner it is carried out in, is just cruel and unnecessary. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard, making the use of animals the last possible choice for methodology.

  12. I was thinking about this movie a few months ago as well, and I do remember the animal testing in it creeped me out quite a bit (I was 5-6 when I saw it on VHS).

    Admittedly, I have not the spine to deal with animal testing. I acknowledge that it is a necessary part of science, but I never want to be personally involved in it. As such, I’ve navigated my interests into an area of research does not require me to work with animals.

    I do still have to read papers over animal research, and they’re not pleasant. I won’t admit to scientists that are higher up in the chain of command my squeamishness over it, but it’s there.
    One day, I was running some samples to a medical school, and I had to access a room through the loading bay. This particular day they were unloading a dozen large pigs for some sort of research…it really bummed me out for the rest of the day. Internally I just have to hope that those in charge act in a humane way.

  13. Lindsay

    WHOA. Just got that the Secret of NIMH is associated with NIH. This blows my toddler mind. I wonder if NIMH had to do any PR damage control for children, if they would try to bring 3 year olds in for studies during the 80s.

  14. The film ran on the “This” cheesy-movie channel recently. They tend to rerun movies fairly often. If you have a hankering to see the flick, check your local listings.

    The movie was not as good as the book, which was fairly brainy for YA fiction.

    The movie was pretty intense, and far scarier than what would rate a G rating these days. While the scientists are scary, and some mice are shown being swept to their deaths, the real villain of the piece is one of the uplifted rats.

  15. It’s also freely available on Hulu.

  16. Sheril Kirshenbaum says “On one hand, animal testing has led to tremendous advances in medicine. At the same time, needless suffering should be avoided at all costs.”

    How thoughtful! Tremendous advances? Rubbish. I say it is the outrageous lie of the supporters of vivisection, a lie serious in its consequences, that animal experiments take place for the good of mankind. The opposite is the case: animal experiments only have an alibi function for the purpose of obtaining money, power and titles. Not one single animal experiment has ever succeeded in prolonging or improving, let alone saving, the life of even one single person.

    Kirshenbaum claims there is necessary suffering – at least for others, including animals -so she can avoid suffering. Such a noble, heroic, compassionate, reasonable woman,

    Read Jane Goodall’s Preface to Sacred Cows and Golden Geese: The Human Cost of Experiments on Animals, by C. Ray Greek, MD, and Jean Swingle Greek, DVM –


  17. I think some readers are confusing the book, The Rats of NIMH with the movie, The Secret of NIMH. Having loved both, I can vouch that they are very different concepts in focus and scope.

    Here’s my $.02:
    Animal testing for medicines for both humans and animals is fundamental and necessary to furthering the research.
    Animal testing for cosmetics, lawn fertilizers, or other other products of hubris would be fine, except in many cases it’s taken to the extreme. I remember the propaganda attacks on Mary Kay by Berkley Breathed in his Pulitzer Prize winning Bloom County. I had read up on the issue before his month-long siege on the pink ladies and was happy to find someone with an outlet to the masses say something about the needless testing. It came at a time when protest groups were becoming more vocal. This was the result of their efforts!

    Of course, it still goes on regardless of public opinion. I, for one, am quite pleased with the progress our pharmaceutical companies are making toward helping people with serious medical conditions. And those researchers have to do a job I could not bear to do. I am grateful for them.

  18. sunnygrrl

    Read Plague Dogs!

  19. Reason

    @Jimbo: Really? Not a single animal experiment has improved the life of a person? Do you know anyone with Type I Diabetes? That person would be dead if not for the discovery of insulin, and the ensuing medical developments that resulted from animal research. In 1952, there were 52,000 cases of polio, leaving many of its victims dead or paralyzed. March of Dimes was coined in response to this devastation; FDR was confined to a wheelchair after contracting the disease as a child. Vaccines were developed (using animals) and mass immunization ensued. In 1964, only 121 cases of polio were reported. Now polio has been virtually eradicated in the United Sates. Vaccines for smallpox, tetanus, anthrax, and rabies (among others) were all developed in animals. Penicillin was tested on mice in 1945. Have you ever taken an antibiotic, Jimbo? Unless you choose to forgo medical treatment for the rest of your life, and encourage all your loved ones to do the same, the strict anti-animal research stance is completely hypocritical.

  20. Just realized that for some reason most comments on this post were held up in our spam filter. I will look into the reason and inform Discover.

  21. Kevin

    Perhaps Christine O’Donnell confused the movie with a documentary, and that is where she got her ideas about mice with “fully functioning human brains”?

  22. Nullius in Verba

    A lot of animal testing was introduced as a result of safety legislation.

    Industry has a great new product that involves a new material. They want the general public to share in this bounty. “But is it safe?” they cry, “It’s got chemicals in it!” they complain. So how do you test to see if it’s safe for humans without illegally exposing any humans to untested, potentially unsafe chemicals?

    The other question is about what you are comparing it to. Animals in the wild suffer too, and few people see any great need to prevent such suffering. Disease, predators, parasites, poisons, sexual violence, territorial disputes, accidental injury and slow starvation. There’s no Medicaid in the animal kingdom.

    Take the Tarantula Hawk Wasp, for instance. I’ve seen cheery animal-loving naturalists on kid’s TV shows pointing these out, and telling us about their evil ways. An agonising, paralysing sting, being buried alive, only to get eaten alive by a wasp grub, that carefully eats around the vital organs so as not to kill too soon. But the TV naturalists let them continue on their ways, unmolested. Perhaps they think the spiders deserve it.

    This is at the core of the ethical question. Would it be right to try to stop the Tarantula Hawk Wasps doing what they do? You can be sure, if a human had done what they do, she would be condemned as unspeakably cruel; worthy of punishment. But not an insect. So is the ethical question really about the victim’s suffering, or is it about the perpetrator’s intentions? Is it actually the fact that a human is breaking the social rules against cruelty that bothers us? Instinctive human rules about human behaviour.

    Because if so, then the right question to ask is what the social rules actually are. We have to understand that those rules vary from person to person, can change arbitrarily, are not necessarily consistent, and there are no objective standards to be sought out. It is a political question, one where you can seek to sway society’s opinion towards less cruelty, to make it wrong.

    But we should bear in mind the law of unintended consequences.

  23. Joy

    Sheril I agree with your point of view entirely. Any non-health related testing (i.e. makeup, food, dyes, etc.) should be outlawed, and the animals that are involved in health related testing should be cared for the the fullest extent and with the utmost respect.

  24. Kinkydog

    The pompous “supreme” being comments here, deciding if and when a living being, an animal, should be tortured, used as a “model/tool” are sickening. Can you define “humane treatment” when an animal is tortured. Ahhh, so its “Kind cruelty”? No, it is nothing less than blatant, intentional animal cruelty, and murder.
    You sit in your ivory towers with the the gravy train of NIH grants and bring pain and torment to innocent animals – no better than the slaughterhouse worker. Your ivory tower is covered in the blood, that screams with the cries for mercy from the millions inflicted with endless suffering by the “white coats” and all who mindlessly, selfishly support such crimes against animals.

  25. Leigh Jackson

    “Since research will continue, I would like to see it limited to the greatest extent possible as we develop and utilize alternatives where appropriate.”

    The question is whether animal research ought to continue. Does Goodall wish it wouldn’t, even if there are no good alternatives? The statement implies that possibility. Is that your position Sheril?


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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