Nov 29th, 2019, 05:33 PM

Animal Testing: Should You Be Outraged?

By Isabelle Wheeler
Photo of animal cruelty, Image Credit: Unsplash / Denilo Vieira
Photo of animal cruelty, Image Credit: Unsplash / Denilo Vieira
Medical research would grind to a halt if animal testing was banned, but there is NO excuse for cruelty

On the morning of October 18, 2019, I woke up to one of the more appalling articles that I have ever read. Leaked videos (warning: graphic descriptions) and photos from an undercover journalist feature the stuff of nightmares in a northern German laboratory: beagles swing dead from meat hooks on the ceiling, cats and dogs are lying in their own blood and feces, and a lab attendant smashes a macaque monkey’s head against a doorframe before strapping him into a metal harness. Horrified, I did further research and found that the investigation was led by two animal rights groups, SOKO Tierschutz and Cruelty Free International, into the Laboratory for Pharmacology and Toxicology (LPT) in Mienenbüttel, south-west of Hamburg in Germany. This has spread over the news like wildfire. As a result, people are renewing the cries to stop animal testing. However, is this recent bust really representative of what actually goes on in laboratories or is it a heinous crime and exception?

The truth is that this recent bust was an exception. I interviewed Mark Wheeler MD on November 11 and he gave me some invaluable insights into animal testing and how it has greatly evolved over time, but has been mischaracterized by many activist groups. Dr. Wheeler’ insights are particularly poignant because he is Board Certified in Internal Medicine with 20 years of experience as a practicing doctor and has been working in new drug development for cancer and tissue repair since 2002. In the interview, he told me very clearly that:

“If animal testing stopped new drug development would stop the same day”

Experiment in a Laboratory, Photo Credit: Unsplash / Louis Reed


He specified that in the past there were many extremely unethical tests performed on animals but that currently they were much more highly regulated. I will spare you the details of historically unethical animal tests in this article; as it was pretty upsetting having all of those images trotting around in my head. I wouldn’t want to burden you with it! Typically, what first comes up when you Google “Animal Testing” are articles from PETA, the Humane Society, and other activist groups. On one hand, there is nothing inherently wrong with that because these groups have good intentions. On the other hand, it creates a bias towards sensationalized information and sometimes extreme information, such as the article I read on the German lab. These aberrances should be stopped but it is wrong to influence the public to petition against all animal testing.

Medical quotes are often taken out of context on these websites. For example, a quote that is often used is that of Dr. Richard Klausner, former director of the US National Cancer Institute, who said: “The history of cancer research has been the history of curing cancer in the mouse. We have cured mice of cancer for decades and it simply didn’t work in human beings.” True although that may be, the quote is misdirected because there are different groups of animals that are tested sequentially before human subjects are used. Dr. Wheeler explained that typically tests are done on mice as a preliminary. Then animals such as rats, pigs, and usually chimpanzees are tested upon in a progression towards species whose genetic makeup is closer to humans. Without all of these tests on animals, despite many failed experiments, we would not have drugs to help treat major diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s, hepatitis, malaria, and dozens more. On the Foundation for Biomedical Research website is the following quote:

“If you’ve ever taken a medicine or had a medical procedure, you’ve benefited from animal testing and research.”

Woman’s hand on hospital bed, Photo Credit: Unsplash / Olga Kononenko

They go on to specify that research in crows helped create the world’s first vaccine, which in turn helped end smallpox. Studies in certain primates led to the polio vaccine. Additionally, over the years there have been numerous legislations for animal welfare such as the United States Animal Welfare Act (1966), the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, and other international laws for the ethical treatment of animals in laboratories.

Dr. Wheeler also told me that there have been huge advancements in alternative methods to animal testing over the past several years. He is personally involved with research on isolated organ growth, where an organ is grown artificially but performs and reacts like a normal human organ.

Replacing animals in laboratories with algorithms and/or samples of cultured human cells is the ultimate goal, but we are certainly not there yet. In fact, ultimately it comes down to the difficult moral decision of sometimes choosing human life over animal life. The suffering of animals can at the very least be prevented through anesthesia and studies are now highly regulated.

This case in Germany represents an abhorrent exception. It also serves as a reminder that activism that calls for shutting an entire branch of science down and tries to enlist the majority of the population in a campaign that could potentially devastate huge swaths of human life is also extremely unethical.

I’ve certainly been reflecting over my visceral reaction to this article over the past few days and my understandable initial thought that all animal testing should be stopped. It has brought to mind the wisdom of waiting and informing yourself through multiple sources before coming to a sound decision.

I leave you with a Ted Talk from 2012 on how the Internet can create widespread change. It is an important time to reflect on how the face of activism has changed seven years after this talk was given (think Cancel Culture). Ask yourself if we are really changing the world for the better and what we can do better. Personally, I believe there have been incredible changes because of the power of social media and the internet but I also believe that incendiary reactions triggered by highly specific aberrant exceptions can also be misleading and should not be used to characterize society as a whole.

By no means am I condoning what happened in that laboratory in Germany. However, I do want to appeal to logic and well thought out ideas for the sake of a healthier and more thoughtful activism.