Irresponsible behavior by animal rights activists in the midst of a global health crisis

April 28th 2020

On April 22 – in the middle of a global health crisis that has killed over 200,000 people worldwide, including nearly 57,000 Americans, police were called away from their important public safety efforts in order to respond to an angry, disruptive protest in an otherwise generally quiet suburban neighborhood near Washington DC.

Protestors, some of whom were seen to be lacking personal protective equipment like face masks, were driving through neighborhoods, screaming at residents, honking their car horns and even getting out of their vehicles to confront police and local residents, placing everyone’s health and safety at risk.

Who were these protesters? And what were they railing about?

These were anti-scientific progress protesters, marching under the banner of “animal rights.”

The individuals, opposed to all uses of animals by humans, were demonstrating in the neighborhoods of Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and that of an internationally renowned National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) investigator. The scientist’s research advances our understanding of the brain systems that are responsible for memory, emotion and learning, crucial aspects of brain function that need to be understood for treatments of memory or emotional disorders to be advanced.

The protesters were led by Ingrid Newkirk, a long-time leader in the so-called “animal rights” movement, who has been quoted as saying:

“Even if animal research resulted in a cure for AIDS, we’d be against it.”

Apparently, Newkirk is now taking advantage of people and public safety during a global health crisis. She is turning her attention to disrupting animal research on COVID-19 and important work on mental health disorders, leading her followers to oppose medical advancements that will address these disabling and – often – lethal conditions.

Perhaps these anti-animal research  groups are feeling a bit desperate these days, as the public is becoming better aware that science needs to be the cavalry that rushes in to save the world from deadly pandemics that disrupt life and the global economy.

Will they be consistent with their absolutist message and dare to tell us that animals should not be used to develop vaccines and cures for COVID-19? Of course not. Following their usual strategy, they are looking for “soft targets” to exploit public sentiments such as research with animals like monkeys and whose benefits are not always as obvious to the public as a vaccine for the coronavirus.

The research at NIMH, which Newkirk and her supporters are targeting, seeks to reveal how healthy brain function gives rise to healthy behaviors and – in turn – how pathological brain function gives rise to mental illness and associated disabilities. An estimated 26% (1 in 4) American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder at any given time, and these disorders wreak substantial personal, social and economic tolls.

Many of these NIMH studies involve monkeys to study brain structures that are either absent in rats and mice or, at the least, quite dissimilar in structure or function. Not surprisingly, it is the brain systems that have substantially evolved in non-human and human primates that give rise to our most complex mental functions.

These fundamental studies support the science upon which many modern theories about the biological origins of brain disease are predicated. These studies are also humane. Yes, monkeys briefly view potentially frightening stimuli (e.g., a taxidermied snake). Fear responses serve a healthy, protective function when they are regulated properly, and it is this very thing that some NIMH researchers are trying to study. Their work is designed to understand how our brains respond to threats with defensive behaviors that protect us from harm and has implications for diseases of exaggerated fear (e.g., phobias).

In addition, it is true that monkeys experience brain surgery as part of the project. These veterinarian-supervised surgeries, which are conducted in a manner nearly identical to human brain surgery, is intended to directly manipulate the function of brain structures in ways that cannot be done with people, ultimately providing clues to potential treatments for emotional and behavioral disorders.

Though this work is important and conducted in the most humane and responsible ways, it has been opposed by animal rights groups, who in principle are against any kind of scientific research that uses animals.

However, this is not the first time Dr. Collins, his neighborhood and his neighbors have been the targets of animal rights tactics. In 2015, at the urging of anti-animal research groups, mass mailings were sent to residents that live near him and his family in an attempt to intimidate him into ending monkey research at NIH. These types of personal attacks are dangerous and irresponsible, putting individuals trying to advance human health through science at great risk. One such project that was the focus of the mass mailing was eventually ended, though the cause of the closure is not clear.

We, at Speaking of Research, have called for NIH (and NIMH) to more proactively defend and explain the scientific importance of this research. On his blog, NIMH Director Joshua Gordon wrote:

“…to understand the full complexity of the brain – particularly how the circuits of the brain drive behavior, and the role of molecular and cellular processes in the development and function of those circuits – animals will continue to play a crucial role. We must, therefore, ensure that they are used appropriately to answer those questions that would be impossible or unsafe to answer using human subjects.”

Now is the time for Drs. Collins and Gordon to get specific and advocate for the research and researcher being affected by these malicious protests. By connecting the dots, NIH can help the public understand how studies like these are in the public’s interest and comprehend just what is at risk if further attacks by animal rights extremists end up thwarting crucial research like this. Now is the time for the NIH to call out PETA and other self-proclaimed “animal rights” activists on their highly irresponsible behavior. It is no surprise these groups are lashing out because, now more than ever, animal research is important to each and every citizen around the globe.

~Speaking of Research

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