Frequently Asked Questions

May 26, 2023

The responses presented here are by no means the only answers to common questions. They are intended as suggestions and as a source of ideas when formulating your own responses. We recommend that you do not try to memorize and repeat these, but rather, incorporate them into your own comments.

“Hasn’t every major medical advance been attributable to experiments on animals?”

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Medical historians have shown that improved nutrition, sanitation, and other behavioral and environmental factors-not anything learned from animal experiments-are responsible for the decline in deaths since 1900 from the most common infectious diseases and that medicine has had little to do with increased life expectancy. Many of the most important advances in health are attributable to human studies, among them anesthesia; bacteriology; germ theory; the stethoscope; morphine; radium; penicillin; artificial respiration; antiseptics; the CAT, MRI, and PET scans; the discovery of the relationships between cholesterol and heart disease and between smoking and cancer; the development of x-rays; and the isolation of the virus that causes AIDS. Animal testing played no role in these and many other developments.

“But many treatments we have today were developed on animals-like polio vaccines, for instance.”

In fact, two separate bodies of work were done on polio-the in vitro work, which was awarded the Nobel Prize and which did not involve animals, and the subsequent animal tests, in which close to 1 million animals were killed and which the Nobel committee refused to recognize as anything more than wasteful. Also, polio died out just as quickly in areas of the world that did not use the vaccine as in the United States.

However, certainly, some medical developments were discovered through cruel animal tests. But just because animals were used doesn’t mean they had to be used or that primitive techniques that were used in the 1800s are valid today. It’s impossible to say where we would be if we had declined to experiment on animals, because throughout medical history, very few resources have been devoted to non-animal research methods. In fact, because animal experiments frequently give misleading results with regard to human health, we’d probably be better off if we hadn’t relied on them.

“Scientists have the responsibility to use animals to keep looking for cures for the diseases people suffer from.”

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More human lives could be saved and more suffering spared by educating people on the importance of avoiding fat and cholesterol, quitting smoking, reducing alcohol and other drug consumption, exercising regularly, and cleaning up the environment than by all the animal tests in the world. Animal tests are primitive, and besides, we have modern technology and human clinical tests.

Even if it could be proved that we have no alternative to using animals-which it can’t-as George Bernard Shaw once said, “You do not settle whether an experiment is justified or not by merely showing that it is of some use. The distinction is not between useful and useless experiments, but between barbarous and civilized behavior.” After all, there are some medical problems that can probably only be cured by testing on unwilling people, but we don’t do it, because we recognize that it would be wrong.

“If we couldn’t use animals, wouldn’t we have to test new drugs on people?”

The choice isn’t between animals and people. There’s no guarantee that drugs are safe just because they’ve been tested on animals. Because of the physiological differences between humans and other animals, results from animal tests cannot be accurately extrapolated to humans, leaving us vulnerable to exposure to drugs that can cause serious side effects.

Ironically, unfavorable animal test results do not prevent a drug from being marketed for human use. So much evidence has accumulated about differences in the effects that chemicals have on animals and humans that government officials often do not act on findings from animal studies. In the last two decades, many drugs, including phenacitin, Eferol, Oraflex, Suprol, and Selacryn, were taken off the market after causing hundreds of deaths and/or injuries. In fact, more than half the drugs the Food and Drug Administration approved between 1976 and 1985 were either removed from the market or relabeled because of serious side effects. If the pharmaceutical industry switched from animal experiments to quantum pharmacology and in vitro tests, we would have greater protection, not less.

“If we didn’t test on animals, how would we conduct medical research?”

Human clinical and epidemiological studies, cadavers, and computer simulators are faster, more reliable, less expensive, and more humane than animal tests. Ingenious scientists have developed, from human brain cells, a model “microbrain” with which to study tumors, as well as artificial skin and bone marrow. We can now test irritancy on egg membranes, produce vaccines from cell cultures, and perform pregnancy tests using blood samples instead of killing rabbits. As Gordon Baxter, cofounder of Pharmagene Laboratories (a company that uses only human tissues and computers to develop and test drugs) says, “If you have information on human genes, what’s the point of going back to animals?”

“Animal experimentation helps animals, too, by advancing veterinary science.”

This is like saying it’s acceptable to experiment on poor children to benefit rich ones. The point is not whether animal experimentation can be useful to animals or humans; the point is that we do not have the moral right to inflict unnecessary suffering on those who are at our mercy.

“Don’t medical students have to dissect animals?”

No, they don’t. In fact, more and more medical students are becoming conscientious objectors, and many students now graduate without having used animals; instead they learn by assisting experienced surgeons. In Great Britain, it is against the law for medical students to practice surgery on animals, and British physicians are as competent as those educated elsewhere. Many of the leading U.S. medical schools, including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, now use innovative, clinical teaching methods instead of old-fashioned animal laboratories. Harvard, for instance, offers a Cardiac Anesthesia Practicum, where students observe human heart bypass operations, instead of dog labs; the Harvard staff who developed it have recommended that it be implemented elsewhere.

“Should we throw out all the drugs that were developed and tested on animals? Would you refuse to take them?”

Unfortunately, a number of things in our society came about through others’ exploitation. For instance, many of the roads we drive on were built by slaves. We can’t change the past; those who have already suffered and died are lost. But what we can do is change the future by using non-animal research methods from now on.

“Aren’t the animals protected by the law from cruelty?”

There is no law in this country that prohibits any experiment, no matter how frivolous or painful. The Animal Welfare Act is very weak and poorly enforced. The Act does not include rats and mice, even though they are the most commonly used animals. Also, the law does not include cold-blooded animals, birds, or animals traditionally used for food. It is basically a housekeeping act; it doesn’t prohibit any type of experiment on animals in laboratories-they can be starved, electrically shocked, driven insane, or burned with a blowtorch-as long as it’s done in a clean laboratory.

“Most scientists care about animals-they have to, because their research depends on the animals’ well-being.”

Investigations at our most prestigious institutions show that this is simply not the case. At the City of Hope in California, one of the country’s most prominent research facilities, animals starved to death and drowned in their own feces “by accident.” Many experimenters become calloused after years of research and don’t see the animals’ suffering-they treat animals as disposable tools for research. Improvements in the animals’ care are fought as “too expensive.”

“What about peer review and animal care committees at institutions?”

Many such committees are composed mainly or totally of people with vested interests in the continuation of animal experimentation. It has taken lawsuits to permit public access to committee meetings.

“Aren’t cats and dogs killed in pounds anyway? Why not let them be used in experiments to save lives?”

A painless death at an animal shelter is a far cry from a life of severe pain and deprivation in a laboratory before being killed by experimenters.

“Would you allow an experiment that would sacrifice 10 animals to save 10,000 people?”

Suppose the only way to save those 10,000 people was to experiment on one mentally-challenged orphan. If saving people is the goal, wouldn’t that be worth it? Most people will agree that it is wrong to sacrifice one human for the “greater good” of others because it would violate that individual’s rights. But when it comes to sacrificing animals, the assumption is that human beings have rights while animals do not. Yet there is no logical reason to deny animals the same rights that protect individual humans from being sacrificed for the common good.

“What about experiments that don’t harm animals but simply observe them?”

If there really is no harm, we don’t object. But “no harm” means that the animals aren’t kept isolated in barren, cold steel cages, because the stress and fear of confinement are harmful, as shown by the differences in blood pressure between caged and free animals. Caged animals also suffer by being prevented from performing their normal behaviors and social interactions.

“If you were in a fire and could save only your child or your dog, whom would you choose?”

I would save my child, but that’s just instinct. A dog would save her pup. Regardless of whom I save, however, my choice proves nothing about the moral legitimacy of experimenting on animals. I might save my own child instead of my neighbor’s, but that hardly proves that experimentation on my neighbor’s child is acceptable.