Deep beneath the Chemistry Building, East Hall, Undergraduate Science Building, College of Pharmacy, and School of Public Health — staple buildings and second homes to STEM students — lies a relatively unknown operation. Walking down a few flights below ground level, your nose will pinch, skin will bead from the humidity and pupils will dilate to adjust to the low lighting. As decayed as these conditions may sound, these basements are rigorously monitored to uphold an atmosphere for the beings that know this place to be their primary and forever home: rodents. Here, hundreds to thousands of rats and mice are kept in cages that line special containment rooms — either awaiting, in the middle of, or having gone through experimentation.
The University of Michigan has a vast Animal Care and Use Program that sets and disseminates ethical standards for the use of animals for both education and research purposes. In addition to ACUP’s 41-page website that details (ad nauseam) the roles and responsibilities necessary to ensure animal welfare, the University of Michigan also has a publicly available and transparent database of all the laws, policies and guidelines researchers are required to follow.
In combing through the resources and precautions put in place for everything from fish eggs to primate hair, a common theme emerges: our institution ensures the highest standard of care and attention to animals. As documented in the official position statement of the University of Michigan, the universal “Three Rs” of biomedical research — Reduce, Replace and Refine — are at the heart of the whole endeavor. Spelled out in context, the three Rs stipulate that whenever a non-animal replacement isn’t available, the least amount of animals necessary should be used, and they should receive the best animal welfare.
Yet animal experimentation strikes a nerve with many people on campus — such as the U-M Animal Ethics Society and Michigan Animal Respect Society — and no meticulous list of regulations will change that. Irrespective of the exhaustive measures that research-intensive universities like the University of Michigan undertake to ensure best animal use practice, many consider the non-consensual, abrasive and unknown outcomes of experimentation on sentient beings to be grounds for the complete separation of animals from research. Period.
An attainable and realistic middle ground between animal rights activists and animal researchers simply cannot exist. The discrepancy lies in the value system each party subscribes to. The core belief that a mouse’s life is as important and precious as a human’s cannot be altered with data showing, for example, that countless life-saving drugs have been developed rapidly because of rodent experimentation, and that thousands of students learn best from tangible manipulation of animal models.
Little progress has been made to reach peace with animal experimentation abolitionists because scientists often view activists’ fundamental beliefs as malleable ideas — as if crunching the numbers about in-vivo productivity can shift entire ideologies rooted in deep cultural, religious and ancestral ways of life. Nonetheless, the closest anyone has been to harmony lies in novel alternatives to animal testing. The National Institute of Health, the blueprint for biomedical research practices in America, syndicates various research endeavors to develop, scale and test new methods of replicating live, multi-organ environments. The most promising models involve artificial intelligence prediction of chemical toxicology, embryonic stem cell culture and the use of invertebrate creatures.
While these cost-effective alternatives would relieve the burden of skilled manpower required to conduct animal experiments, research labs have little incentive to fully switch to animal-free models. The observability with which gene therapy technologies, drug administration and physiological change occur in live animals — which go on to yield results that appeal to medical journals, funding committees and Big Pharma on the cusp of a new drug rollout — supersedes the alternatives that would really only work for projects vaguely related to the main research question.
With the threat of pandemics persistent, human drug resistance and other health challenges that demand quick output of biomedical solutions now more than ever, pushback from animal rights activists and their demand for complete conversion to animal alternatives is something the world cannot afford at this time. The NIH notes, for example, that in addition to the use of animal models that greatly aided their own COVID-19 vaccine efforts, Moderna’s lightning-speed rollout of their mRNA vaccine was the result of preclinical data in thousands of genetically-altered mice. And as of summer 2022, more than 223 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the U.S.
But if partial use of animal alternatives, care precautions for current animal experimentees and benefits of animal experimentation aren’t enough to satisfy pacifists, how do we proceed? How does the next generation of doctoral researchers, clinicians and industry leaders — who are currently dissecting amphibians in Biology 226: Human and Animal Physiology Lab and assisting in pig perfusion studies in Surgery 499: Surgical Research — ensure a welcoming and morally respectful transition into their next phase of animal research?
A necessary period of peacetime to rebuild our population’s health can be achieved with simple ideas from utilitarianism, the philosophy that contends what’s moral is what is most beneficial for the largest population. A recent study in livestock production trends indicates that “between 2000 and 2050, the global cattle population may increase from 1.5 billion to 2.6 billion, and the global goat and sheep population from 1.7 billion to 2.7 billion.” The amount of animals’ lives claimed at the hands of researchers is estimated to be around 115 million annually, a number that pales in comparison to the global meat and dairy industries’ averages. In the end, farm animals are ultimately slaughtered to provide the average human X minutes of gustatory pleasure, whereas laboratory animals’ deaths are more so the result of X amount more data that has the pleasure of moving forward life-saving research.
Here, this utilitarian view regards species membership as morally irrelevant, but supports that the quantity of positive outcome drives what’s moral. Dr. James Casey, an instructor for one of the most popular animal physiology labs on campus, illustrated this concept to The Daily, saying, “The authentic responses (students) see in these animal models teach these students how living animals’ physiological systems respond to different changes in their external environment. One of the things that we do practice is … grouping students in groups that are small enough to learn, but large enough that we use a minimal number of animals.” Here, the education of what a real epinephrine dose to an African bullfrog’s hearts does, which Casey notes informs a mostly pre-health track audience, is best for a clinician-deprived population than had those same creatures been untouched in the wild — justifying the act as a whole.
Our current inability to control deaths from infectious diseases — in both humans and animals — warrants the liberation of livestock before laboratory animals, and is the utilitarian key we need. Here, this philosophy requires that animal rights activists neither stratify various species based on perceived importance nor abandon their push for completely animal-free research. The latter will come to fruition in a day when scientists successfully convince animal rights activists to rank biomedical research on the last rung of industries to target on their ladder. Through fully-supported mechanisms of animal education and research, only then can we ultimately reinstate support for a healthier tomorrow.
Namratha Nelapudi is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.