Barbara Amiel on the ethics and emotions of testing drugs on animals

I am a dog owner of insane commitment, but even I can’t turn a blind eye to the advances of research


Littlelif Photography

Beagles are dogs that are described almost universally as docile and aching to please their owners. Rather like me, I think, although my editors may disagree. These qualities make the beagle the dog of choice for medical experiments. Along with bunnies and mice, they spend their lives in cages with, inter alia, catheters inserted in various organs, kidneys blown up in toxicity tests, radiation that leaves skin, well, not exactly smooth like the shaved bottom of a show poodle.

The debate over animal rights versus animal research brings out some pretty sicko responses. University of Pennsylvania professor Joseph Bernstein writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics drafted what he called an “animal research advance directive” for all animal rights proponents. As he saw it, in order to be consistent, animal rights supporters should agree to do without all benefits obtained from animal research. Thus no cardiological care, no chemotherapy or surgery for malignancies, no radiation treatment, no vaccines for their children. Broken limbs to be amputated without pain medication, since both the fracture-fixation field and pain management—like the aforementioned fields—had been “contaminated” by animal research (largely dogs).

Professor Bernstein was evidently pleased with what he mawkishly calls his “modest proposal” but I think he’s an ass. I happen to be a dog owner of insane commitment, but with friends facing terrible and desperate medical conditions, I can’t turn a blind eye to the advances of research. Unlike Bernstein, neither can I ignore unnecessary or excessive suffering of animals. Some labs may care about their animals but give them very little quality of life, even though they are awash in protocols about cage size and sanitation.

Sanctimonious pronouncements of animal care committees and animal welfare acts melt like snow when faced with the sunny mantra that human lives are being helped. And perhaps human lives are, and I will want that medicine or procedure myself that was developed with the aid of beagles and so will your husband or son. But you don’t know. Because no one really knows how necessary or useful animal testing is. What we seem to know, according to essays such as those in the Royal Society of Medicine’s publication Laboratory Animals, is that quite often tests are poorly designed and use more animals than are needed.

How anyway does monitoring a beagle on hormones or chemo drugs tell us anything very accurate about side effects for humans over our much lengthier lifetime? Dogs can be poisoned by foods that humans tolerate and vice versa. Medical science says it works and I can’t say it doesn’t. Because thalidomide was tested on animals successfully but wreaked havoc with human embryos isn’t conclusive, since it was not first tested on the embryos of pregnant animals.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel Never Let Me Go is narrated by Kathy H., a student at an English boarding school. All the pupils are clones, created purely to become “donors” of body parts until “completion”—death. Laboratory beagles are like Kathy H.—“purpose-bred” until death. Or at least that’s the response the huge pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca gave in January to a registered charity group called Beagle Freedom Project (BFP) operating in California.

AstraZeneca is closing animal breeding facilities in Sweden and an estimated 300 beagles were set to be transported to the U.K. The BFP hoped to re-house the dogs, as they have with more than 100 other ex-laboratory beagles. AZ wasn’t having any of it and responded with the “purpose-bred” justification and began shipping off the dogs to their facility in the U.K. AZ, a global company with facilities in Mississauga, Ont., has developed some wonderful drugs for cancer, heart disease, respiratory and gastrointestinal conditions, but they just didn’t see the point of not using up their hard-working lab dogs. In the face of such moral astigmatism, it’s hard to refrain from dreaming of AZ executives restrained in cages while having the Draize eye test administered.

Being “purpose-bred” doesn’t stop a dog from being a dog. The beagles may accept the endless gavages, the multiple surgeries and a life in which they never see outdoors, but their nature as a dog is not transformed. On Feb. 27, 10 beagles from a laboratory in the Midwest (BFP doesn’t name labs they work with in order to avoid publicity for co-operating companies) arrived in Valley Village in southern California. The dogs had travelled more than 1,600 km. The van stopped every three hours for a potty break but the dogs wouldn’t go out. They didn’t know what to do, having never been out of their cages except for medical procedures and examinations.

Videos of it are online. At arrival, the beagles are timid, unsteady on paws. Then, gradually, tails begin to go up, that characteristic beagle white tip starts wagging and shaky legs start walking, then jumping. “They were up all night long playing with one another,” said a BFP spokesman. Foster care and socialization will deal with fearful behaviour that drives lab beagles into corners or crouching under tables. “Most lab dogs have terrible teeth, skin infections. All of them have ear infections,” says one BFP organizer. “But we get them to vets before adoption.”

Pain, distress and death from induced tissue and organ breakdown are the normal trajectory for the laboratory animal. If we need them, and we probably do, we might give them a bit of solace toward the end, a few years of playful retirement—as good as that awaiting the mordant professor Bernstein.

Have a comment to share? barbara.amiel@macleans.rogers.com


Barbara Amiel on the ethics and emotions of testing drugs on animals

  1. Thank you Barabara.

  2. Thank you for getting behind the global fight to stop beagles being used for research. The very least that any one person can do is to boycott cosmetics and household cleaning products that have been tested on beagles and other animals. The Beagle Freedom Project and other beagle rescue groups have all proven that beagles used for research CAN be given a normal life IF THEY ARE GIVEN THE CHANCE .

  3. There are more than a few factual errors presented in this article. Many beagles are in fact adopted out after they are used in research. A friend of mine had one for many years. The dogs in the facilities I’m familiar with have large cage runs, toys to play with, and have daily interaction with the caretakers who take their responsibility towards the animals very seriously.

    The comments about Thalidomide are a bit deceiving as well. Yes it was tested on animals, but no it was not tested on pregnant animals to study the effects on a fetus. In fact, at the time scientists didn’t think a drug taken by a pregnant woman would pass to the fetus. So it’s not that the animal testing failed to show these problems, it’s that they weren’t tested for to begin with.

    I also think the author missed the point of Professor Bernstein’s comments which were to point out the hypocrisy of those apposed to animal research. You don’t get to rail against the use of animals in research but then take full advantage of the developments. It’s like saying it’s OK for me to have them but any future developments for anyone else are morally wrong.

    There’s this common misconception that people working in animal research must hate animals. The truth is very different. Most people I know that work in the feild have many pets and love them the same as those who profess to be “ultimate animal lovers.” The truth is the author wouldn’t have those loveable beagles without animal research. Or at least they wouldn’t be as healthy. How does she suppose vaccines for rabies, Parvovirus, Coronavirus, Lyme disease, etc..were all developed? For that matter how does she suppose vaccines for humans such as Typhoid, Smallpox, Cholera, Malaria, Diptheria and Tetanus were developed? Has she ever had an MRI or a CT scan? How about treatment for diabetes, heart disease, cancer, asthma inhalers, care for premature babies, the list goes on and on. All of these were developed through the use of animal models.

    To assume that those working in research don’t care about the animals we work with is misinformed at best. We care very much about their welfare and well being while they are in our care.

  4. I say bring back the ethics and procedures of “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study” for studies on the efficacy of treating “Bad Blood”.

    Save Fido!

  5. If one believes in the right of workers to fair labor conditions, then you don’t buy products from companies that exploit them. If you do, you are helping perpetuate a practice you consider immoral. Similarly, if you believe in the rights of animals to live in freedom and free from human interference you should refrain from benefiting any medical research derived from them. Consuming medications/therapies developed via animal research would only serve to perpetuate the practice. Professor Bernstein was correctly challenging animal rights activists to accept the consequences of their ethics. I take from your reaction to his suggestion that your dog and everyone else in your family are vaccinated. Are they not?

  6. I am strongly against testing on animals for something trivial like new shampoos. However when it comes to testing new medicine that could save the lives of loved ones, i believe that it is a necessity. Ban the practice of testing on animals for cosmetics, but come to understand that medical research benefits society and leads to medical breakthroughs.

  7. Why we would use animals for medical testing when the world is full of Conrads is beyond me.

  8. Thanks for doing this Barbara.

  9. Jack and Dario are right . Animal t
    Research leads to medical progress we
    all benefit from. Time to stand up and defend those that help find cures and treatments we all take for granted.

  10. This is interesting, and frankly I place it in this context: Each of us has only so much time to work with. So, we can either takes measures to lengthen that amount of time, or show more respect for time.

    In all honesty, does all this research lead to increased quality of life, or is it just means to delay the arrival of the Grim Reaper?

    • I my case it was to increase the quality of my husbands life for the time given. It allowed both of us to travel to a few of those bucket list places, participate in that last year of family functions and generally enjoy the last few months at home instead of tied to a bunch of tubes in a hospital. My husbands cancer still took his life, but he lived a pretty normal life until the very last day. And true to his promise, we never spent even one night while married apart. No one.

      • You and your husband received a mulligan, and that puts you in exclusive company.

  11. A rhetorical scalpel in “Barbara Amiel on the ethics and emotions of testing drugs on animals” exposes the brain of Pennsylvania professor Joseph Bernstein, revealing a malignant form of thought commonly called the ad hominen fallacy; she carves out this paraphrase: “As he saw it, in order to be consistent, animal rights supporters should agree to do without all benefits obtained from animal research.“

    So I am a hypocrite? Although in principleI I abhor the testing of products and procedures upon animals, I have and will continue to take advantage of whatever good might come from such experiments. I might be inconsistent in saying that something ought not to be done but
    behaving in a way that seems to condone the very act in question. But the mere fact that my actions conflict with my beliefs says nothing about the moral validity of my philosophical position. Mr Bernstein is well advised to eschew mudslinging and address these facts: animal testing is sometimes unnecessary,often excessive, and all too often inhumane.

  12. I say use more humans for research. At least humans can offer feedback to help researchers. Feedback like: “That hurts.” Or, “I’m scared.” Or how about this one: “Please leave me alone now … I’m really, really scared and I have been for most of my time in this cage.” Maybe something could be learned like … oh gee, I don’t know … maybe we don’t have to actually torture our “research assistants” in order to get results. Maybe there’s a better way.” Just cause you wear a lab coat doesn’t always mean you’re not evil prick down deep.

  13. one word…karma…don’t treat your best friend like a petrie dish, for their sake, if not your own.

  14. Problem is that the main motive behind animal experimentation is the financial benefit of the pharmaceutical companies and their shareholders. Is anyone actually hoodwinked into thinking that this is some kind of philanthropy?
    Drugs don’t actually “cure” anything. It’s just come to light that it costs over $35 million annually in Canada alone just to treat seniors for adverse toxic reactions to drugs. It’s more than 10 times that in the U.S.
    There’s a long history of using humans for drug experimentation and it happens every day at your local medical centre: “here, try this free sample and let me know how it’s working…”
    Google “illegal drug testing” and see what comes up, besides the well-known antics of IG Farben in Nazi Germany.
    The medical industry protects its own interests first.

  15. Folks that are moved by Dr. Bernstein’s challenge would do well to look into the history of vaccine development with more care. For those with “pro-life” proclivities, look up the origin of the MRC-5 or WI-38 diploid cell lines…then have a look at the vaccines that use them as cultures. These are only two examples (well many, as these cell lines had to be proven effective) that have involved the use of humans in vaccine development (some of these uses would not pass contemporary REB approval)…I’m assuming (well, hoping) that the folks alluded to earlier will still use vaccines. If we find significant therapeutic breakthroughs using human embryos as sources for pluripotent stem cells, I would take it that people will understand folks availing themselves of the technology even if these patients have deep misgivings about using human embryos. Dr. Bernstein’s challenge, though appearing to score easy points, doesn’t fit the complexities of either the use of human or nonhuman research subjects in the development of effective therapeutic interventions.

  16. I under stand that animal testing is needed, and that Beagles are used because the breed is true, meaning it breads true for the lat 100+ years. But I think all animal testing can be done with caring for these animals, I like when I hear they have runs out side, toys and can play with other dogs if they dont have contageouse deseas’es. I think these companies will get more out of these dogs if they are well cared for than not. It does cost alot of money and they get their money’s worth when they are care for properly. And I know their are a lot of people that would take these dogs in, when the company can no longer use them.

  17. Poor animals. ;.; They are also tested for unimportant things, such as dumb makeup.

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