A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Vivisection: The Moral Dilemma We Face

Where do you draw the line on animal experimentation?

By Michael Mountain

When Gayle Nielsen took her dog, Sheena, to the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter, all she wanted was for Sheena to get a better home. Nielsen could no longer afford to keep three dogs, and Sheena was having trouble getting along with the other two.

A few days later, Nielsen called the shelter to see whether Sheena had found a new home. What she learned, from a somewhat chagrined staff member, was that Sheena had been sold to the University of Utah as part of its vivisection program. Rather than being in a loving new home, Sheena was going to be used in experiments that would typically involve having holes cut into her chest and neck and a pacemaker implanted onto her heart in order to induce an irregular heartbeat . . . after which she would be killed and dissected.

Nielsen contacted an animal rights group, and after a bruising campaign on the dog’s behalf, Sheena was recovered. She was placed in a foster home and has since been adopted.

Last week, after a series of undercover investigations that brought more of this dark world to light, the University of Utah announced that it would no longer take dogs and cats from animal shelters for use in biomedical experiments.

What if you needed a pacemaker?

Most of us would be relieved that Sheena was spared the pain and trauma of medical experimentation. But that’s the easy answer.

What if your heart was failing and you needed a pacemaker and you heard that research was being done on animals like Sheena with a view to finding a better treatment? Would you mind someone else’s pet going under the knife for your benefit?

What if they brought it closer to home and asked you to hand over your own family pet to help find a cure for your heart – or someone else’s? What if that cost was 1,000 dogs? Or 50,000 dogs? How many dogs’ lives is it worth to design the perfect pacemaker?

The University of Utah’s announcement is good news for dogs like Sheena. But that alone won’t alter the vast, largely hidden vivisection industry that uses, abuses and consumes up to 100 million animals every year in the United States alone. They include dogs, especially beagles, which are specially bred for experimentation because they are by nature passive and cooperative, as well as millions of cats, pigs, dolphins, sheep, chimps, birds, mice, hamsters and many others.

The fat monkey business

While dogs like Sheena can be bought cheaply, that’s not the case for some other animals. In 2009, more than 22,000 primates were shipped into the United States from overseas, and labs will routinely pay more than $4,000 for a macaque or other small monkeys – much more for a chimpanzee.

At the Oregon National Primate Center, about 150 of the 4,000 monkeys currently there are involved in an obesity study. They’re forced to live like couch-potato humans, fed endless junk food, and then given experimental drugs to see what happens. “Seeing what happens” involves killing them and studying their brains.

The health care and pharmaceutical industries are heavily vested and invested in overcoming obesity and its related conditions. And there’s no denying there is a huge societal benefit to curing it: tens of billions of dollars in associated costs; quality of life issues, and the very real and direct cost to human lives.

But isn’t obesity in large part based on our “bad behavior” – the product of our lifestyle choices in the food we eat and the exercise we avoid? Should it give us pause that animals are being sacrificed because of the choices we make? Are people bad if they want an easier solution and are willing to sacrifice “just” a monkey to get it?

Is it warranted to pluck these conscious creatures from their homes and subject them to all of this? Are we any better for it? Does it make us healthier? Skinnier? Perhaps even more to the point, what does it say about us that we condone it?

The Cancer Conundrum

Like obesity, certain kinds of cancer, notably lung cancer, are often lifestyle related – but not always. Even the healthiest lifestyle is no guarantee. The “cure for cancer” remains one of the holy grails of medical experimentation.

Mice are among the favorite animals for cancer research because they can be genetically engineered by the batch to be deaf or blind or deformed according to the specifications of the study. No one knows exactly how many mice are born, used and killed in experiments since, by law, mice are among the many animals not classified as “animals” by the government, so records don’t have to be kept or reported. But the number is generally considered to be close to 100 million a year. Mice aren’t the only species not classified as animals. That list includes birds, reptiles and all rodents, and these make up 90 percent of the creatures used in lab experiments.

If you’re a bit queasy about Sheena and the many thousands of dogs and monkeys killed for research each year, how do you feel about the tens of millions of mice and rats? How much less valuable are their lives? Are the lives of dogs and monkeys intrinsically more valuable because so many of us have relationships with them? What would people with pet rats say?

If there’s any light on the horizon for mice and rats, it may be that many experiments involving animals are beginning to go out of fashion. Cell cultures and computer models are already providing less expensive alternatives. They are also easier to work with, and arguably produce better results. But that doesn’t mean the vivisection industry will be shut down any time soon.

The sanctity of life?

At the core of the debate about vivisection is the premise that human life is intrinsically of greater value than the lives of animals. Roughly half of all Americans believe in the sanctity of human life – but only human life.

But in fact, throughout history, we’ve never considered all human life equal. Nazi Germany scientists experimented on people they considered to be racially inferior. For 40 years, the U.S. government ran a syphilis experiment on poor, rural African Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama. For two years, the U.S. government also funded an experiment in which American scientists deliberately infected Guatemalan prisoners and mental patients with syphilis.

We may be shocked by all of this, but the unfortunate fact is that it is part of human nature to put those closest to us first, and to do the unpleasant stuff to “others” – other humans, and, because it’s far easier, other animals.

Albert Einstein said that our task as enlightened humans should be to “widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Most of us are rightly outraged by what our government did at Tuskegee … we’re queasy about selling a homeless pet to a university lab … uneasy about doing it to our cousins the chimps … and, perhaps, more out-of-sight-out-of-mind about the billions of mice who only live to die.

But where do you draw the line? What’s a life worth and what’s OK and what isn’t?

What’s the ethical way to treat other animals? And – a slightly different question – what do you feel OK about doing to other animals, even if it doesn’t quite match your best moral standards?

We all have to make choices. And the simple fact is: Life is complicated.

Next: How Rexy the dog was saved from Utah lab