On Sunday, August 2nd 2008, in Santa Cruz, California, a firebombing destroyed David Feldheim’s car. The smoke from the fire filled the first floor of his house, so he and his wife, along with their 6-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, had to drop a ladder from the window of a second floor room to escape. Dr. Feldheim has no criminal record. He isn’t affiliated with organized crime, or even a member of some contentious political organization. Instead, the attack on he and his family was instigated because Dr. Feldheim uses mice in his research on how the brain develops. Animal rights extremists are conducting attacks on scientists across North America and, in the process, slowing down the very work that is needed to advance our understanding of how the human body undergoes disease, and what we can do to cure it.

Animals in Research

Each year in the United States, approximately 20 million laboratory animals are used in biomedical sciences research. They are used to study cancer, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease, metabolic diseases such as diabetes, and even the common cold. Indeed, animal testing forms the crux of biomedical sciences, and virtually every notable landmark in the field over the last hundred years has been characterized by the use of animals. As Dr. Thomas J. Carew, the President of the Society for Neurosciences, attests, “[responsible] animal research has played a vital role in nearly every major medical advance of the last century, from heart disease to polio, and is essential for future advances as well”. Even when animals are not used to research the pathology of disease itself, they form the crux of the regulatory framework that protects humans from adverse reactions to newly found drugs and treatments. In Canada and the United States, even before reaching clinical trials, treatments must first conclusively demonstrate safety on animals first. In fitting irony, veterinary medicine depends on animal testing, too: not only are many treatments developed for humans now used on animals too, but rabies, feline leukemia, and other vaccines were developed through animal testing.

Critics, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), suggest that there are alternatives to the usage of animals in research. In certain cases, this is true. For example, cell culture has proven useful as an alternative in the production of certain kinds of antibodies and in certain skin treatment tests. But in most developed countries, and certainly in the US and Canada, scientists are already obligated to follow a set of guiding principles for the use of animals in research termed the “three R’s”: reduction, refinement, and replacement. In summary, a scientist is obligated to use non-animal methods over animal methods whenever it is possible to achieve the same scientific aim (replacement), must minimize animal pain, suffering, and/or distress (refinement), and must use the least number of animals possible within an experiment (reduction). Every established university in Canada and the US has an animal care committee that oversees the usage of the three R’s in research, and scientists are strictly reprimanded if they fail to live up to them. So while alternatives to animal research can and must continue to develop, the number of animals still used today emphasizes how important they are to biomedical sciences research. This is emphasized by the awarding of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to the pioneers of gene targeting in mice, which has allowed for the elucidation of the roles of numerous genes in development, physiology, aging, and disease.

Terrorist Attacks on Researchers

The brunt of responsibility for terrorist attacks on biomedical scientists falls on the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a leaderless resistance that claims itself analogous to the Underground Railroad. In public statements, the group claims responsibility for any direct action to further the cause of animal liberation, where all reasonable precautions are taken to safeguard human and non-human life. Still, there has nevertheless been criticism of ALF activists for either engaging in acts of violence or failing to condemn them. Before the 1990s, the majority of acts committed by ALF activists were termed by the FBI “low-level criminal activity”. In 1977, ALF took two dolphins from the University of Hawaii’s Marine Mammal Laboratory, and released them into the ocean. In 1985, 486 animals were removed from a University of California, Riverside laboratory – causing nearly $700,000 in damage and shutting down eight of the seventeen research projects active at the laboratory. But as author Rachel Monaghan notes, around 1982, there was a shift in the non-violent position of ALF. Death threats, letter bombs, and threats to contaminate food erupted in North America and Europe. In 2001, the director of an animal-testing laboratory, Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), was attacked by men wielding pickaxe handles. Two researchers at the University of California, Dr. Dario Ringach and Dr. David Jentsch, have attested to the terrorism: “we have seen our cars and homes firebombed or flooded, and we have received letters packed with poisoned razors and death threats via e-mail and voicemail. [Our] families and neighbors have been terrorized by angry mobs of masked protesters who throw rocks, break windows, and chant that “you should stop or be stopped” and that they “know where you sleep at night.” Some of the attacks have been cataloged as attempted murder. Adding insult to injury, misguided animal-rights militants openly incite others to violence on the Internet, brag about the resulting crimes, and go as far as to call plots for our assassination “morally justifiable.”

Suffice it to say, animal rights groups like PETA who operate legally cannot and must not take responsibility for the kinds of attacks that victimize biomedical scientists. Moreover, each and every member of society has a voice in deciding how far biomedical scientists ought to be able to go when it comes to using animals in research. Two examples have recently surfaced where this is especially apparent. First, the field of biomedical sciences is dawning on a new age of technological capability, which begs the question: in what respects should scientists be allowed to introduce human genes or materials into animals? Britain’s Academy of Medical Sciences launched a study on November 3rd, 2009, with the goal of establishing guidelines for scientists around the world on how far society is prepared to see them go in mixing human materials with animals to discover how to combat disease. Second, the use of nonhuman primates in research possesses a unique set of ethical issues because of their cognitive and emotional capabilities. Accordingly, nonhuman primates represent fewer than 1% of all animals used in research, and are in general used only for studies which necessitate their presence, such as in studies on the elaboration of complex brain functions.

Protecting our Scientists

The violent and non-violent acts of ALF and similar direct action animal liberation groups are an affront to the rights of scientists in North America, Europe, and around the world. More needs to be done to protect the well-being and safety of individuals who contribute to biomedical sciences research. The passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006 in the US, which set out to “”provide the Department of Justice the necessary authority to apprehend, prosecute, and convict individuals committing animal enterprise terror”, is a step in the right direction. Similar acts need to be passed in every developed country that conducts biomedical sciences research. But the attacks against researchers points toward a broader trend towards a public discourse on animal testing that is fraught with ambiguity, bias, and downright misperception of science. PETA aims misinformation about animal testing towards children and college students, and the entertainment industry produces movies characterizing scientists as amoral and unconcerned with the welfare of animals. To underscore this point, the Pew Research Center recently published a survey demonstrating that only 52% of the American public views animal research favorably.

Ultimately, scientists themselves must brave the storm of extremists and reach out to the public to explain their work, why it’s important, and how they are sticking to the strictest possible ethical guidelines. Too often, the general public is under the impression that scientists can do whatever they want with however many animals they want as long as they term it ‘research’, but this simply is not true. The current guidelines are born out of the recognition that animals do undergo discomfort, pain, and death, in biomedical sciences research, and that society does have a desire to find suitable treatments for diseases that cannot be found without the use of animal testing. Multiple levels of scrutiny, including grant reviews, university committee approvals, provincial and federal regulator inspections, and accreditation by independent organizations, go into deciding whether or not animal research ought to be conducted. But even if an individual is not directly or indirectly engaged in biomedical science research, the stake he or she has in finding cures for diseases remains the same. Do you want scientists to find cures or better treatment plans for diseases? The time to speak up is now.