Who Speaks for the Lab Rat?
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.
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
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
Connect With Us:
Happy Birthday to Alvin! August 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of Alvin, the submersible that has been so influential in ocean research, including the discovery of hydrothermal vents. In 2014, a retrofitted Alvin also took its first test cruise.
Heather Olins, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, studies microbial ecology at deep sea hydrothermal vents with the help of Alvin, and shares her personal tribute to the submersible on these landmark occasions.
To view all multimedia content, click "Latest Multimedia"!
A free daily summary of the latest news in scientific research. Each story is summarized concisely and linked directly to the original source for further reading.
An early peek at each new issue, with descriptions of feature articles, columns, Science Observers and more. Every other issue contains links to everything in the latest issue's table of contents.News of book reviews published in American Scientist and around the web, as well as other noteworthy happenings in the world of science books.
To sign up for automatic emails of the American Scientist Update and Scientists' Nightstand issues, create an online profile, then sign up in the My AmSci area.