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Friday, May 20, 2005

PETA: 1, Science: 0...(Nature -5)

Let me begin by saying that I have always been an avid naturalist and do not condone cruelty towards animals. Very few things disturb me as much as the destruction of the environment and its inhabitants. However, I am also a scientist so I find myself in a particularly awkward situation when I hear about cruelty to animals in a laboratory setting, such as the one recently documented on video by an undercover PETA lab technician as reported here.

This story is particularly suspicious for several reasons:

Obtaining animals to be involved in experiments is incredibly difficult, most of all in the case of primates. Once obtained, the last thing an investigator would ever do is jeopardize the animal's health and well being by physically insulting them in any way.

The ultimate goal of any experiment is to gather good quality data with as few confounding variables as possible. The results of a biological/psychological study will most definitely by influenced by the stress of, say, being punched and choked.

All laboratories where animals are kept are required to staff a veterinarian and are subject to multiple inspections every year. Furthermore, all lab activity must be approved by the institution's bioethics committee (Institutional Animal Care and Use committee) which must abide by federal standards (including the Animal Welfare Act). Any laboratory not adhering to the federal code of animal ethics is immediately closed. Certainly no one would risk his employment (and likely future employment as well) by violating federal guidelines.

If this video is indeed authentic, then I am completely disgusted with the treatment of the animials by the lab. But how far will extreme animal rights activists go? For example, recall the Silver Springs Monkey incident, in which a PETA undercover operative sabotaged the lab where he worked by failing to properly clean the facilities and feed the animals. For this, the principal investigator, Edward Taub, was arrested, tried and sentenced (later overturned). Deja vu?

I will concede that some forms of animal research is inherently cruel. But organizations like PETA would oppose the keeping of pet animals, let alone housing animals in a laboratory where they are fed ad libitum, occasionally given a mating partner and kept from all abrasive natural stimuli. While we may or may not agree on the ethics of the practice, we all must agree that there are right ways and wrong ways to combat opposing views.