The following is a guest post by Caitlin Aamodt, a neuroscience graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a debilitating motor neuron disease that progressively destroys the neurons required for voluntary movement, speech, and eventually breathing and swallowing, killing patients in just three to five years. Through the Ice Bucket Challenge the ALS Foundation has raised over $100 million in funding while simultaneously providing a platform for over three million people to voice their support for scientific research. But the wildly successful social media campaign was not without its critics. Some were hesitant about the idea of wasting clean water, a luxury that isn’t afforded to many parts of the world and one that is growing more and more precious as the drought in the West worsens. Others, particularly religious leaders, were unhappy with researchers’ use of embryonic stem cells, citing a conflict with their belief that life begins at conception. But one of the most common criticisms, and the most dangerous, is that organizations that fund animal research should not be supported.
Initially it may seem harmless. One might see a post about it in their Facebook feed and think, “Oh, so-and-so really has a soft spot for animals,” and then continue on without giving much thought to the implications of what they just read. The issue can become murky, since the vast majority of people support the idea that animal abuse is wrong. However, animal research is not abuse, and it is dangerous to voice opposition without considering the implications of what that really means.
What would one have to do to really extract him- or herself from taking advantage of the benefits of animal research? To start this would involve declining any and all vaccinations, accepting vulnerability to dying from disease. This actually extends to any intravenous injection, so all life saving therapies involving this simple procedure would be eliminated. Death from blood loss due to a traumatic injury could not be prevented by a blood transfusion. All surgeries would be off the table. The basic antibiotics we take for granted would no longer be an option. No insulin treatment for diabetics. No dialysis for those suffering from kidney failure. Any hope for those suffering from breast cancer or depression would be lost. Even the most recent medical advances, such as transplanting organs engineered from a patient’s own stem cells, would all be unavailable. With these and countless other treatments directly resulting from animal research you would think that these activists would be sending us thank you cards instead of blind criticisms!
Could this hypocrisy be mitigated by any validity to their claims? Absolutely- except for the fact that these concerns have already been addressed and protections already put in place. Researchers and lay people alike want to ensure that no animal needlessly suffers. Multiple oversight committees govern research activities conducted at universities. All federally funded research centers have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) made up of experts in the field as well as lay people to ensure that experimental design is deemed humane by both scientists and people unfamiliar with research practices alike. Considerations include alleviating pain and side effects, minimizing the number of animals used, ensuring that animals are used appropriately and only when necessary, overseeing their healthcare and living facilities, and even requiring that a plan be in place to save the animals in the event of a natural disaster. Research animals should be respected, and in keeping with that ethical consideration IACUC and many other oversight organizations ensure that they receive the best possible care.
The general perception of animal rights activists is that they are well-intentioned, if uninformed, individuals who are exercising their First Amendment right to protest whatever they want. Unfortunately the reality is that their members include dangerous extremists willing to harass and carry out attacks on researchers. At UCLA researchers are all too familiar with anti-research terrorism. In 2006, 2007, and 2008 firebombs were planted at the homes of UCLA scientists. In 2007 Dr. Edythe London’s home was flooded, along with a threatening note. Dr. David Jentsch’s car was set on fire while he was in his home in 2009. The terrorists also left a note filled with razorblades detailing a fantasy about sneaking up on him and slitting his throat. On-going harassment includes yelling slurs at scientists outside their home. In 2011 they referred to the daughter of holocaust survivors as “Hitler with a cunt,” and directed the homophobic slur “You cocksucking bastard” among others toward another researcher. These extremists even directed their terrorism toward the children of Dr. Dario Ringach. In 2010 they put on masks and banged on his children’s windows to terrify them and sent letters threatening to target them at school.
In the words of Dr. David Jentsch, “The anger generated by their failure to make a persuasive argument to the public, amplified by their sense of self-righteousness, is sufficient to convince them they are entitled to use violence to achieve their goals.” We can no longer afford to be silent. Animal research saves lives. Anybody who reaps the benefits of animal research while claiming to oppose it should be made aware of this hypocrisy. It is also essential that we banish the myth that modern-day biomedical research animals are tortured. There are many layers of protections in place to ensure that they receive the best possible care. There is no excuse for terrorism. Nobody should fear for their lives or that of their children, especially researchers who dedicate their lives to scientific progress. Now is the time to disseminate the truth about animal research and stand up for the welfare of all biomedical researchers. The next time you hear someone claim to oppose the ice bucket challenge on the grounds of animal research be sure to speak up and educate them. Society needs to hear the voices of the scientifically literate. Don’t let them be drown out by ignorance.
UCLA neuroscience graduate student