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Can [Animal Rights] Research Conflict be Resolved?

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen

December 23, 2004, p. 7A

NOTE: For those more than casually interested in the issues surrounding animal rights, a substantial amount of useful additional, supporting text and links to sources is contained in the endnotes provided here (though not, of course, in the published version).

An additional item that appeared much later involves the human indifference to animal suffering -- in this case of U.S. Department of Agriculture employees paid to not be indifferent -- with regard to meat packing practices. Editorial, "USDA Snoozes on Animal Humane Laws," The Gazette, March 16, 2006.

Because the article is copyright by the Iowa City Press-Citizen as well as Nicholas Johnson, any commercial use of the material requires the permission of the Press-Citizen (and the author). The author grants permission for any non-commercial reproduction provided the entire article is reproduced and includes reference to this Web site. Brief quotes, with attribution, are of course "fair use."

Can the University of Iowa and Animal Liberation Front find agreement?

Following the trashing of Spence Laboratories, the likelihood reminds me of an online project. A group I was involved in tried to find common ground among leading "right to life" and "pro-choice" spokespersons. Both extremes of the animal rights issues are fully as emotional as those addressing abortion.

But it's worth the effort.

The Dec. 13 letter to the editor from Frankie L. Trull, president of Foundation for Biomedical Research, caught my eye. She wrote:

"While it isn't always easy to reconcile our love and appreciation for animals and the essential need for biomedical research, knowing that the animals are treated respectfully and responsibly strengthens our understanding and respect for research and those researchers."1

Let's take the first clause first.

She's right. Millions of Americans have a "love and appreciation for animals." It's not just some radical fringe of "bunny huggers." Even the research scientists themselves2 are now experimenting on half the number of dogs and cats used in 1970.3 We spend $15 billion a year4 feeding and caring for our 64 million pet cats5 and 73 million dogs6; 30 percent of households feed wild birds.7 "Sometimes vegetarians" now make up 21 percent of supermarket shoppers8; 91 percent of expensive restaurants offer vegetarian entrees.9

A Political Force

Earlier this month the oil tanker Selendang Ayu broke in two in the Bering Sea and started leaking oil. There were early reports of harm to one sea otter, a harlequin duck and two other birds.10 The news ricocheted around the world to anxious readers faster than the number of human deaths in Darfur Africa.11

Movie goers are reassured with the American Humane Association's "no animals were harmed" disclaimer.12

Everyone has now heard of the Animal Liberation Front.13 But there's also the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals14, the Humane Society15, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals16, and the World Wildlife Fund17 -- to name a few.

That the concern is not unanimous was reflected in a Web site parody of PETA: "People Eating Tasty Animals."18

But the millions who do care represent a powerful political force. And Congress regularly responds to that force with laws such as the Animal Welfare Act19 and Endangered Species Act.20

Like Congress, those advocating what Trull calls "the essential need for biomedical research" simply must take this political force seriously.

Some animal advocates insist animals never be used experimentally. Indeed, among all Americans those who approve human benefit from experiments that cause pain to dogs has declined to 53 percent.21

Yet most recognize possible benefits. Humans can be helped.22 However, they can also be harmed. Half of those animal-tested new drugs produce unanticipated side effects in humans.23

But Americans want to know: What is the anticipated human benefit -- cancer cure or cosmetics? Are alternative, possibly better, research methods available? Could fewer animals be used? Would experimental redesign reduce suffering? Which, and how many, animals will be used? How will they be harmed? How are they housed, fed and cared for?24

Spirit of Science

Some University administrators and researchers offer only generalizations to these questions, insisting their scientific work is essential to human betterment and that all animals are well treated. Others bristle at any questions, preferring increased security and secrecy to increased public knowledge and support. They say, simply, "trust us."25

President Ronald Reagan was an optimistic, trusting soul, but even he advised, "trust but verify."26

If America's millions of animal lovers are to know "that the animals are treated respectfully and responsibly" they must have verification, and answers to their questions.

Therein lies possible reconciliation. Are the University's animal researchers secure in the confidence that each experiment positively benefits humankind, and minimizes harm to animals? If so, why not post the details of each animal experiment on the Internet along with answers to the obvious questions?

Ironically, one of the fundamental purposes of the First Amendment is the substitution of informed dialogue for violence.27 Would posting experimental details eliminate all opposition? Of course not. But it would surely help. It's in the spirit of science. And, as the second Spence break-in demonstrates, putting wagons in a circle hasn't been very effective.

Reach Nicholas Johnson, a visiting professor at the University of Iowa College of Law via

(linked Web sites were all active when last visited, December 15, 2004)

1. Frankie L. Trull, Letter, "Don't be Duped by Extremists," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 13, 2004. And see her Foundation for Biomedical Research,

2. See, e.g., Madhusree Mukerjee, "Trends in Animal Research," in "Forum: The Benefits and Ethics of Animal Research,"Scientific American, February 1997, pp. 86, 88-89 ("The Scientists"), available online at Docs/SciAm articles/AnmResrchProCon.pdf.

3. "[T]he use of dogs and cats is down by half since the 1970s." Ibid at p. 86.

4. "[D]omestic pet food sales [are] nearly $15 billion." USA Today, July 13, 2004, online at

5. There are various systems for estimating the number of households with pets, and the total numbers of cats and dogs, most of which put the numbers at something in the range of 70-something million cats and 60-something million dogs. See, e.g., "Formulas to Estimate Pet Numbers," reprinted from the 2002 "U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook," online at (last visited December 15, 2004), and "Pet Incidence Trend Report," NPD Group, Inc., available online at Pet Food Institute, It is a publication of, and available for sale from, the American Veterinary Medical Association,, at

6. Ibid.

7. "30% of households fed birds in the past 6 months and of these households . . . 71% feed year round," Carolyn Allen, "History of Wild Bird Seed," available online from at,template=1&content=78&nav1=1&. The National Sunflower Association reports 2.4 billion pounds of sunflower seeds were sold in 2004. See also
Wild Bird Feeding Industry, We're also interested in wild animals in zoos. The National Association of Zoos and Aquariums reports that "more people visit aquariums and zoos than the total U.S. attendance for all professional sports combined." Glenn G. Page, "When Aquariums Think Outside the Tank," National Wetlands Newsletter, vol. 24, no. 2,  March-April 2002, p. 5, available online at

8. "HealthFocus also keeps tabs on those who 'usually or sometimes maintain a vegetarian diet' . . . for a grand total of 21 percent of primary shoppers who are full- or part-time vegetarians." "Your Questions Answered," American Demographics,  Nov 1, 2001, available online from Look Smart Find Articles at Obviously, vegetarianism is not something limited to the United States: "Currently . . . 150 million people in Europe are either vegetarians or meat-reducers." From "Organic, Natural, Ethical & Vegetarian Consumers," Datamonitor, available online at

9. "Ninety-one percent of restaurants with an average check price of $25 or more offer vegetarian entrees, compared with 72 percent of restaurants with an average check of less than $8." "Your Questions Answered," American Demographics,  Nov 1, 2001, available online from Look Smart Find Articles at

10. "The slick near an ecological reserve in the Aleutian Islands has killed at least one sea otter, a harlequin duck and two other birds," "Birds affected by major oil spill in Alaska," IOL (Independent News & Media, South Africa), December 15, 2004, available online at See also, Warren Cornwall, "Effects of oil spill in Alaska could linger in remote bay," Seattle Times, December 14, 2004, available online at

11. See, e.g., Abraham McLaughlin, "US, Africa team up to help Darfur," Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 2004, available online at; Fred Bridgland, "Darfur: Africa’s hidden holocaust?" Sunday Herald (Scotland), April 11, 2004, available online from at

12. American Humane Association, Some have questioned ties between the AHA and the motion picture industry and the effectiveness of the AHA's monitoring. See, e.g., CBS, "Animals Harmed In Movies?" March 13, 2001, available online at

13. Animal Liberation Front,

14. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,

15. The Humane Society of the United States,

16. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,

17. World Wildlife Fund, There are numerous other organizations and Web sites, including Tufts University's Center for Animals and Public Policy,, and the Animal Rights Legal Foundation,

18. People Eating Tasty Animals,

19. Animal Welfare Act and Regulations,

20. Endangered Species Act 1973, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,

21. "Public support of animal experimentation, though higher in the U.S. than in Europe, has been slowly declining. In 1985, 63 percent of American respondents agreed that 'scientists should be allowed to do research that causes pain and injury to animals like dogs and chimpanzees if it produces new information about human health problems'; in 1995, 53 percent agreed." Madhusree Mukerjee, "Trends in Animal Research," n. 2, supra, at 88 ("The Public").

22. For examples see, Jack H. Botting and Adrian R. Morrison, "Animal Research is Vital to Medicine," in "Forum: The Benefits and Ethics of Animal Research,"Scientific American, February 1997, pp. 83-85, available online at Docs/SciAm articles/AnmResrchProCon.pdf.

23. "These frightening mistakes are not mere anecdotes. The U.S. General Accounting Office reviewed 198 of the 209 new drugs marketed between 1976 and 1985 and found that 52 percent had 'serious postapproval risks' not predicted by animal tests . . .." Neal D. Barnard and Stephen R. Kaufman, "Animal Research is Wasteful and Misleading," in "Forum: The Benefits and Ethics of Animal Research,"Scientific American, February 1997, pp. 80, 81 ("Animal Tests Are Inapplicable"), available online at Docs/SciAm articles/AnmResrchProCon.pdf.

24. "British zoologist William M. S. Russell and microbiologist Rex L. Burch published The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique (Methuen, London, 1959), in which they put forth the 'thee Rs.' This principle sets out three goals for the conscientious researcher: replacement of animals by in vitro, or test-tube, methods; reduction of their numbers by means of statistical techniques; and refinement of the experiment so as to cause less suffering. Although they took some decades to catch on, the three Rs define the modern search for alternatives."  Madhusree Mukerjee, "Trends in Animal Research," n. 2, supra, at 89 ("The Three Rs").

25. Here is an example from a letter to the editor from the University of Iowa graduate student researchers whose work was the target of the Animal Liberation Front.

The writers candidly acknowledge that "As scientists, we have unfortunately been remiss in communicating the purpose and results of our research with the general public. Let us take a step to rectify this now."

That is, of course, precisely the proposal with which this article concludes. So far so good, and the students are to be commended for recognizing this need. But their rectification involves the "trust us" generalities to which this article refers:

"In truth, we are all deeply concerned with the welfare of research animals. . . . Our . . . research [has] the potential to alleviate vast amounts of suffering in both human and non-human animals. . . . [We have] unwavering belief in the necessity of our work . . .."
They do add that "This research has provided important insights on how the nervous system functions, specifically concerning areas of learning and memory, thirst, depression, sleep, epilepsy, and movement." That is an additional step forward, and holds out the hope that they -- along with the University's administrators and relevant professors -- may be willing to go the next step and actually post to the Internet the details and answers referred to in this article.

The full letter follows:

Adele Seelke, Matt Campolattaro, Bethany Plakke, Elisa Na, Jeff Anderson, Mike Morris, Damon Ng, Ethan Mohns, Imelda Pasley, Letter, "Thanks, community, from psych department," Daily Iowan, December 14, 2004

One month ago, our buildings, labs, and livelihoods were attacked by a terrorist group. Our lives as scholars were disrupted, our mentors and friends were threatened, and valuable data were lost. During this difficult time, the university community rallied around us. You have supported our personal efforts in research, recognized the value of scientific exploration, and condemned the criminal actions of those acting on behalf of the Animal Liberation Front. For this support, we extend our most sincere and deepest thanks.

In the wake of this terrible attack, we have found several sources of comfort. First, we know that terrorism is ultimately unsuccessful. While the Animal Liberation Front may have slowed our research in the short-term, we know our long-term commitment to science and the search for knowledge has not been affected. We will not be bullied into leaving our fields of research. Second, we know that science has always survived attempts to stifle progress. The many instances of this include Galileo and continue through the present day. Achievements in science will not be held back by those who fight progress.

Animal researchers are not monsters. The front has attempted to portray animal researchers as malevolent, sub-human individuals whose sole purpose is to needlessly torture other living creatures. This characterization is unequivocally false and personally offensive. In truth, we are all deeply concerned with the welfare of research animals. We work with these animals on a daily basis, and it would be foolish for us to inflict needless pain upon any of them. Furthermore, our goal is to obtain valid behavioral and biological data from these animals, and our science - our data - would suffer significantly if our animals were mistreated or in pain. Finally, we all willingly abide by federal and university regulations that protect the welfare of research animals. We all recognize the importance of life; this is a primary reason that each of us has chosen to study it.

As scientists, we have unfortunately been remiss in communicating the purpose and results of our research with the general public. Let us take a step to rectify this now. Our work involves basic research on fundamental phenomena of the brain and body. This research has provided important insights on how the nervous system functions, specifically concerning areas of learning and memory, thirst, depression, sleep, epilepsy, and movement. These lines of research have the potential to alleviate vast amounts of suffering in both human and non-human animals.

Again, thank you for your continued support as we regain our momentum in conducting our research. Our recovery will be quick. The foes of science may choose to attack our labs and our lives once again, but our unwavering belief in the necessity of our work, coupled with the strong support of the community, will ultimately conquer any future criminal attempt to stop our research. So, rest assured, we will press on.

Adele Seelke, Matt Campolattaro, Bethany Plakke, Elisa Na, Jeff Anderson, Mike Morris, Damon Ng, Ethan Mohns, Imelda Pasley

UI graduate students, psychology department

26. "We must keep up our guard, but we must also continue to work together to lessen and eliminate tension and mistrust. My view is that President Gorbachev is different from previous Soviet leaders. I think he knows some of the things wrong with his society and is trying to fix them. We wish him well. And we'll continue to work to make sure that the Soviet Union that eventually emerges from this process is a less threatening one. What it all boils down to is this. I want the new closeness to continue. And it will, as long as we make it clear that we will continue to act in a certain way as long as they continue to act in a helpful manner. If and when they don't, at first pull your punches. If they persist, pull the plug. It's still trust but verify. It's still play, but cut the cards. It's still watch closely. And don't be afraid to see what you see." Farewell Address, January 11, 1989, available online at

27. Justice Brandeis concurrence in Whitney is oft-cited for this proposition:

"Those who won our independence . . . knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones." Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 372, 375 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring).

These ideas are echoed in law school casebooks, e.g., "Safety valve. When a government permits freedom of expression, it not only allows society to be exposed to a wide range of ideas, it also brings about a stable and adaptable community, according to the late Professor Thomas Emerson. T. Emerson, The System of Freedom of Expression, 11-14 (1970). Substituting force for logic, which is what happens when freedom of expression is suppressed, makes it impossible to come to rational decisions. In addition, coercion is ineffective in changing thoughts and beliefs. Instead, stifling expression breeds discontent that focuses not on the issues being suppressed, but on the act of suppression itself.

"Emerson argued that freedom of expression will not cause society to become fragmented, to divide into opposing camps. Rather, suppression of communication will do that. Freedom of speech and press will allow dissidents to express their ideas 'in a release of energy, a lessening of frustration and a channeling of resistance into courses consistent with law and order.'" T. Barton Carter, Marc A. Franklin and Jay B. Wright, The First Amendment and the Fifth Estate (6th ed., 1999), p. 19.

For an illustrative general discussion of the purposes of the First Amendment see Laurence H. Tribe, American Constitutional Law (2d ed. 1988), pp. 785-89. For reference to "stable government," "values of tolerance and diversity" and "tolerably responsive and responsible democracy" see p. 788, text and notes at note calls 23 and 26.