Federal authorities are moving 4,000 beagles from a breeding and research facility in Virginia after discovering many of them were neglected or in poor health, The New York Times reports.
The news, which broke last week, has sparked interest from dog lovers across the country, some of whom have volunteered to adopt one or more of the rescued animals.
It has also raised questions about how often dogs are used in animal testing and the institutional failures that led to 4,000 beagles living in such poor conditions.
Clinical research using dogs is much more common than you might think, says John Basl, associate professor of philosophy at Northeastern, though laws are in place to help prevent unnecessary suffering. But even when these regulations are followed, there remains a moral dilemma over whether animals should be used in this way and whether dogs should be treated differently.
The US Department of Agriculture’s report on the Envigo breeding and research facility in Cumberland, Virginia, revealed appalling mistreatment and blatant disregard for animal welfare. Among their findings, officials reported that injured beagles were being euthanized instead of being treated, and many were neglected and in poor health, reports The New York Times. Now the 4,000 beagles are up for adoption.
They represent only a fraction of the number of dogs bred and used for research purposes in the United States. Dogs are “a controversial but widely used animal for animal experimentation,” says Basl. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 58,511 dogs were used in USDA-registered research in 2019, and 16,013 of those dogs likely experienced pain as part of the research.
Of the dogs used for animal testing, beagles are preferred because they are small and docile. Also, says Basl, if previous research has been done on beagles, a similar new study will likely use them as well. “One of the reasons for picking a particular species is that we have a history of data on that species, so we can make sure new data is up to date with old data,” he says.
Yet the number of beagles used in animal research pales in comparison to the number of rodents in laboratories. Mice and rats are by far the most commonly used laboratory animals – a disputed study found that more than 100 million mice and rats are used in clinical testing and they make up over 99% of animals in laboratory – but according to Basl, all clinical trials must be done on more than one animal, and one of the animals cannot be a rodent. Rabbits are not rodents, so they are used for this purpose, as are dogs, cats, and non-human primates.
That these animals come from a breeding facility like the one in Virginia is no surprise, Basl says. Sometimes institutions that perform animal testing breed their own animals. “But often that work is outsourced,” he says.
Laws governing the treatment of these animals have been in place for over half a century. In 1965, U.S. Representative Joseph Resnick introduced the Laboratory Animal Welfare Bill, a precursor to the Animal Welfare Act (Resnick’s bill was in response to reports that which family dogs were stolen and used for animal testing). In 1966, the Animal Welfare Act was passed, becoming “the only federal law in the United States that regulates the treatment of animals in research, teaching, testing, exhibition, transportation, and by dealers” , according to the USDA, one of the agencies. responsible for enforcing the law.
In 1985, an amendment to the AWA added another layer of protection for laboratory animals. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, any institution — including universities like Northeastern — that experiments on animals must establish an institutional animal care and use committee, which must include a veterinarian and someone from outside the institution. to regulate animal testing. According to Basl, for a researcher to use an animal for testing purposes, they must justify the need to use animals to the IACUC and follow the guidelines.
This prevents researchers from harming animals unless necessary to achieve research goals, he says, and also requires them to house social animals together unless the experiment specifically requires them to be. isolated.
However, “there are IACUCs that aren’t doing their job,” Basl says. In the case of Virginia, conditions at Envigo prompted lawmakers to introduce five animal welfare “beagle bills” and pressure the USDA to investigate violations of the AWA in the state. ‘establishment. The establishment will close and all dogs will be removed.
Even if the laws had been followed, should the dogs have been there in the first place? This is one of the moral dilemmas that Basl faces in his research.
For Basl, an important factor when considering the relative morality of animal testing is their mental capacity, which determines “how much you can harm a being,” he says. Rabbits, for example, generally have a narrower range of mental abilities than humans; they cannot reflect on past traumas and lack the ability to think far into the past or into the future.
“It can be the source of both great pleasure and significant pain,” he says. Additionally, “different species vary in this ability, and we don’t always know how much, and often, as humans, we underestimate the abilities of animals.”
Mental capacity is the main reason for the rarity of chimpanzees in animal testing, Basl says. “Because of the abilities that chimpanzees have, because they look so much like us, it’s much harder to justify their use, so they’re used less frequently,” he says.
Cultural factors can also influence what is considered acceptable when it comes to testing. The value placed on dogs in the United States, for example, makes it less pleasant to test on them than on rodents. At the same time, our relationship with dogs can mean that they suffer more than other laboratory animals. “Domestication has changed the profile of their abilities,” says Basl. Dogs are uniquely sociable and capable of relating to humans that differ from many other animals, he says, and this can make them susceptible to different forms of suffering.
Despite the relative nature of suffering between species, Basl says, “most mammals suffer from the kind of things that are done to them that would harm us,” and he tends to think that mammals are about equally capable to suffer.
This suffering may be harder to justify knowing that the success rate of clinical trials on animals is quite low: Basl says that only a small fraction of clinical trials using animals produce drugs that are beneficial to humans.
“Most animal studies don’t report direct benefits,” Basl says. However, the law states that clinical trials must be done on animals before moving on to humans, and, for drugs that pass trials, “the payoff can be enormous, although the same benefits can be achieved without testing on human beings.” animals and while avoiding harm to humans remains an open question.
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