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Who Speaks for the Lab Rat?

Asif Ghazanfar

What Animals Want: Expertise and Advocacy in Laboratory Animal Welfare Policy. Larry Carbone. x + 291 pp. Oxford University Press, 2004. $29.95.

The veterinarians who oversee laboratory animals often find themselves in the position of having to perform procedures that may not be in the best interest of their nonhuman patients. The vet's goal then is to produce the best possible outcome for the animal under the circumstances. When Larry Carbone started out in that profession, he hoped to improve the lot of lab animals while accommodating the needs of researchers. Unfortunately, he found that in practice, the ability of veterinarians to advocate effectively for animals is limited by a variety of factors.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals...Click to Enlarge Image

Carbone's excellent new book, What Animals Want, is the fruit of extensive research he conducted to discover what determines how we view laboratory animals and why policies concerning their care have developed as they have. In this overview of animal welfare in U.S. laboratories, Carbone examines the objectivity of those who presume to know what these animals want and to speak for them, showing that personal beliefs, theories and ideologies imbue even the most scientific reports.

The introductory chapter spells out Carbone's approach: To get at the real reasons for certain animal-welfare policies, he blends history, sociology, philosophy and science. He draws on his experience working in animal laboratories, on reviews of the literature, on letters that the U.S. Department of Agriculture received when it was updating Animal Welfare Act regulations in the 1980s, and on interviews with animal protectionists, fellow veterinarians and scientists.

Chapter 2 provides an insider's look at what actually goes on during a typical day in the lab. Chapter 3 is a lucid guide to, and excellent critique of, the various theories philosophers and veterinarians put forth as they argue for or against animal protection. Chapter 4 discusses the historical and sociological reasons that the welfare of certain animals has been strongly advocated and the welfare of others has been ignored. Chapter 5 addresses the contentious issue of cage size: Just how much space is necessary for a lab animal to live "comfortably"?

The second half of the book deals with the changing roles of veterinarians and of others claiming to be "experts" on what animals want. It also examines the ways in which these experts have influenced policies and views. Chapter 6 shows that, historically, lab-animal veterinarians carved out a niche for themselves by claiming "animal care" as their domain and leaving "animal use" to the scientists, so as not to interfere with their research. The veterinarians focused on controlling animal infections and disease, which Carbone argues left them ill-prepared to deal with the shift in the 1980s to a focus on animal behavior in developing policy. In chapter 7 Carbone shows that the care/use jurisdictional divide broke down at that time over the issue of pain management. He discusses how we define pain (particularly "psychological" pain), provides a synopsis of its political history and considers whether we can objectively assess whether an animal is distressed. Over the years, both scientists and veterinarians have moved from conceiving of animal pain in purely physical terms to recognizing that it has subjective and emotional aspects.

Chapter 8 covers the struggle in the 1980s by animal protectionists across the nation to gain seats on institutional committees regulating the care and use of animals. The protectionists questioned whether either scientists or veterinarians had the moral authority to speak on behalf of lab animals. Chapter 9 is a case study of "death by decapitation" for rodents. It addresses the problem of determining what is "scientifically justified" and discusses the need to change our assessment protocols, which currently allow any procedure to take place as long as it is agreed that there is some scientific justification for it. Chapter 10 discusses whether gregarious animals such as monkeys and dogs should have the opportunity to socialize with one another and to exercise. Some scientists and veterinarians, Carbone tells us, have interpreted the results of certain behavioral experiments to mean that dogs don't need any more exercise than they can get living alone in a small cage.

What Animals Want addresses many important issues with regard to what we think we know about what animals need. Throughout the book, Carbone shows where and how philosophers, protectionists, veterinarians, scientists and policy makers are on shaky ground. He demonstrates that our views of animals in general, our biases toward some species, and animal-welfare policies are all shaped by history, science and society.

One illustration of this influence is that some species have attracted more concern than others. Dogs and monkeys are often the focus of campaigns by animal protectionists, who feature pictures of them in cages on countless posters and in advertisements advocating the abolition of animal research. But scientists use vastly greater numbers of rodents. Dogs and monkeys make up less than 1 percent of the mammals in U.S. laboratories. But in 2002 alone, Carbone estimates, 80 million to 100 million rodents were bred for research. So why are primates and dogs, rather than rats and mice, the focus of so many antivivisection campaigns? According to Carbone, the discrepancy in large part has to do with our subjective assessment of the worth of an animal: Rats and mice are beady-eyed vermin, whereas dogs are our best friends and monkeys are our close relatives. This is, of course, why pro-research groups, instead of emphasizing research with dogs or monkeys, often state that most studies use rats or mice.

Carbone closes the book on an optimistic note, outlining a future in which all research using animals as experimental organisms has ended. That may come about, but it won't happen in the foreseeable future—not as long as we humans want to live longer, healthier lives. New diseases keep cropping up, and new scientific discoveries (for example, neuroprosthetic devices for the paralyzed) yield new hope for conditions we wouldn't have dreamed of curing just a few years ago. Thus we will continue to need animals for research. Other developments around the bend are going to further complicate the ethics of animal welfare.

Veterinary medicine is becoming increasingly specialized, and technologies used in human medicine are now being applied to our companion animals. Consider the fact that, for an increasing number of people, pets are like surrogate children, for whom they are willing to purchase insurance policies and for whom they will seek advanced medical treatments, such as chemotherapy. Thus research on some animals will certainly benefit other animals in a more meaningful way than in the past. But how about when cherished pets are offered transplants—using organs harvested from expendable "donor" animals kept at veterinary hospitals? Is there moral justification for that? We would do well to adopt Carbone's sober open-mindedness and face these ethical issues head-on and without extremism.

What Animals Want is an outstanding contribution to the field of animal welfare. Clearly written and engaging, it has something to offer both a general audience and those who are intimately involved in the issues under discussion—animal protectionists, veterinarians and scientists, for whom it is a "must read." It is written by a realistic, knowledgeable individual who daily weighs the costs and benefits of animal research. I don't envy his position, but I admire his courage and the effort he has expended to write this work of scholarship.—Asif A. Ghazanfar, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Tübingen, Germany

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