Life-saving animal research still targeted by animal rights

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CHICAGO - The Mason Lab at the University of Chicago just completed a study of helping behavior and empathy with 24 rats. The study showed how rats will help a trapped rat escape and how rats will share with the trapped rat once it is free. “Empathy facilitates social cohesion. Empathy increases the inclusive fitness of organisms by enhancing survival in a variety of ways (e.g., providing increased defense against predators) and serves to bond individuals to one another, especially mothers to offspring,” according to mission statement on the Mason Lab website, “The most basic expression of empathy is emotional contagion, the transfer of an emotional state from one individual to another. This capability has been shown to exist in both humans and non-human animals.”

One of the amazing discoveries at Mason Lab was that rats feel empathy for other rats, unless they are on anti-anxiety medication. Discoveries like this can raise or answer questions about the ramifications of prescribing mood-altering medications to people. Other questions empathy research on rats can help answer is about the role of empathy in social groups, how empathy impacts health and intelligence, and how memory facilitates empathy. This is important research and the rats are treated well for their contributions.

Peggy Mason, professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago and the leader of Mason Lab, said “the ultimate goal is to explore things in the rats that we can’t explore in humans.” She went on to describe the empathy experiment, saying, “We can’t do that experiment in humans, just can’t do it, obviously.”

Mason Lab reports that about 200 rats go through the lab every year and that they are euthanized after they are used if there is no other use for the rats. The rats in the empathy study lived to adulthood. Only about 5% of rats in the wild reach one year old. Most domestic rats are bred as food for other animals and their numbers are not counted, so it is not possible to determine how many domestic rats reach one year or if even 1% will reach one year old or even adulthood. So the life expectancy of a laboratory rat could exceed that its wild or domestic counterparts.

There are no official numbers for how many rats are used in research labs. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA) is an animal rights organization with an over 30-year history of fighting against animal research. PeTA claims that millions of rats die in labs each year.

Dr. Alka Chandna, PeTA’s senior laboratory oversight specialist, said rats are social, intelligent and exhibit self-awareness as humans do. Dr. Chandna said the use of animals in experiments is “an application of the morally bankrupt ‘might is right’ principle.”

“It boils down to the moral principle that we do not have the right to manipulate and kill animals for our own purposes,” Dr. Chandna said. “It is not necessary or ethical for nonconsenting people or animals to be tortured and killed for ‘the common good.’”

Dr. Chanda’s employer, PeTA, operates an animal shelter where it takes in thousands of animals every year from people who want to find new homes for their pets and good Samaritans who have rescued wildlife. Animals are brought to PeTA for shelter, care, and protection but PeTA kills most of the animals it takes in.

In 2015, PeTA took in 2063 animals, 1938 were surrendered by their well-intentioned owners. PeTA killed 1502 animals that amounts to about 73% of the animals received. PeTA’s kill rate for 2015 is part of a decline in its killing practices after being targeted by public and legislative scrutiny from its previous rates that often exceeded 90%.

In 2015, Virginia governor, Terry McAuliffe signed Senate Bill 1381 that makes it clear a private animal shelter is “a facility operated for the purpose of finding permanent adoptive homes for animals.” PeTA lobbied against the bill, which overwhelmingly passed both houses with broad bipartisan support.

Dr. Chanda claimed, “In laboratories, rats are treated like disposable laboratory equipment, rather than the feeling beings they are. “They feel pain, fear, loneliness and joy just as we do.”

PeTA’s actions of disposing of pets that could have homes or be rehabilitated is a sharp contrast to its arguments that animal research, where animals live healthy and purposeful lives, treats animals as “disposable laboratory equipment.”

Dr. Chandna also questioned whether the results of animal research can be applied to humans.

Paula Clifford, executive director for Americans for Medical Progress, opposed Chandna’s position. She said practically every cure and drug we have today was developed with the help of lab animals and that is “simply not true” that animal research is not applicable to humans.

“It is true that not all work with animals is successful, but even these failures add to the body of knowledge that advances medicine,” Clifford said.

 

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