Animal research is an area of controversy that we have given some attention to here on our site. While some important scientific findings have stemmed from this research, it is important that we ask, “at what cost?” New scientific developments as well as ongoing ethical discussions have forced us to reevaluate our need to exploit animals for research. One particularly noteworthy development is the NIH’s recent decision to defund all chimpanzee research. For this reason, I am shocked by the University of Washington’s decision to construct a large underground research laboratory to house their 650-plus primates, along with tens of thousands of other research animals.
The rationale behind the development of UW’s new animal research laboratory is to consolidate where their research animals are kept, improve conditions for humans and nonhumans, as well make it easier for proper oversight. This oversight is primarily provided by IACUC’s, or Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees, the Institutional Review Board equivalent for animal research at universities. Through my monitoring of these groups and my experience as a student at Penn State University, I have found that IACUC’s consist of researchers who experiment on animals and are sympathetic to those who do, willing to approve any project as long as the harm to the animal is not egregious. What they will not reject, however, is research that has minimal scientific value but is harmful to the animals. For example, a researcher could easily get a project approved that examines fear responses in mink, holding captive and harassing animals with little benefit to society. Such studies are simply ploys to produce sparsely read academic journal articles.
With animal research in the spotlight, UW’s new lab has received a lot of media attention, both in opposition and support of it. Animal rights activists argue that the underground lab is to keep the facility out of the public eye while animals are tortured and killed. Proponents counter by stating that the facility will improve welfare and will allow for beneficial scientific advancements. They also argue that researchers have been wrongly stereotyped as callous and insensitive to animals because of a few high-profile cases of abuse.
I argue, however, that it is difficult to respect life when it is encapsulated in a sterile, controlling environment. Where rats live in transparent drawers by the thousands, stacked up to the top of walls. Where primates only leave their enclosures for surgeries.
UW decides to live in the past while other universities and institutions look for ways to move beyond animal research.