Scientists working with animals are often accused by animal rights activists of being ‘monsters’, ‘murderers’, ‘sadists’ and worse. On the other side, animal rights leaders see themselves standing on a moral pedestal above the rest of the population, while simultaneously inciting to violence against fellow human beings they have never met. The contradiction is lost on them.
Their appalling allegations don’t deserve a reply. And yet I was asked recently by a colleague to answer the recurring claim that, somehow, scientists must enjoy harming animals in their research.
The brief answer is… of course not.
Scientists don’t enjoy harming animals. To enjoy means, literally, to take pleasure in, to get a thrill out of, to be entertained by, to relish, to savor or to delight in. I never felt any of these emotions during an experiment nor I have ever met anyone who has. In fact, the opposite is the norm. Typical emotions reported cover the range from sadness, anxiousness, nervousness, uncertainty, to uneasiness. All involved, the scientists, the students, the veterinarians and animal technicians, acknowledge that there is a personal, emotional toll that results from this work. Those that are directly involved in the daily care of animals explain that their primary motivation is their love of animals and their wish to see them treated as well as possible.
One reason for these mixed feelings comes from the recognition that harm is done to the animals, despite doing everything possible to minimize their pain and suffering. A second reason is due to the inherent uncertainty in scientific work. Put simply, there is no guarantee that the harm caused in any one individual experiment will lead to palpable advancements. In science, one cannot determine ahead of time which lines of research are necessarily going to lead to medical breakthroughs. Decisions to approve and fund an experiment are based on expert opinion based on what studies show most promise, based on well-defined hypotheses and preliminary data, but there are no guarantees.
At the same time there is no denying that animal research has produced tremendous benefits. There is universal consensus among scientists that failure to do this type of work will bring many areas of medical research to a complete halt. Importantly, and relevant to the ethical debate, there is a shared conviction that halting such research, as requested by animal rights activists and organizations like PeTA and HSUS, would result in much harm to human and non-human animals alike.
It is a failure of animal rights activists to persistently ignore this part of the ethical equation that that works against any meaningful conversation. Instead, they prefer to stick to the tenet that “do no harm” is an absolute moral principle that admits no exceptions. They find comfort living in an utopian black/white moral universe devoid of moral dilemmas, where “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy”.
The refusal of animal rights activists to acknowledge the benefits of past work, and their failure to recognize the tremendous harm one would inflict by stopping the use of animals in medical research, leads one to ask — Who exactly is being cruel?