In 1965, Americans were stunned to read about Pepper, the Lakavage family’s affectionate Dalmatian, whose story changed America. Pepper was often found accompanying Julia Lakavage on her nursing rounds in an Allentown, Pennsylvania hospital. One summer evening in 1965, Pepper disappeared. After a desperate search by Pepper’s family and her supporters, Pepper was found dead in a New York hospital laboratory. She had been stolen by dealers and sold for use in research experiments. Pepper’s story, published in Sports Illustrated, along with a Life magazine article, “Concentration Camps for Dogs,” showing starving, chained, and dead dogs at a breeding farm, galvanized support for the US Laboratory Animal Welfare Act.
When the US Congress passed the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act in 1966, it provided minimal protections to every dog, cat, monkey, and other nonhuman animal living in taxpayer-funded laboratories. But, in 2002, Congress inserted a loophole to arbitrarily exclude birds, mice, and rats from being counted as “animals.” There are still no absolute limits as to how much nonhuman animals used in research can suffer, even for those covered by the Animal Welfare Act and other international guidelines. Upwards of 100 million nonhuman animals are used in experiments each year.
Many of the ways that nonhuman animals are used in society, including in research experiments, are reminiscent of the ways in which humans have been maltreated. Sometimes changes in laws only occur in response to public fury, as in Pepper’s case. Concerns about systematic selection of humans for research because of their easy availability, class, compromised position, or manipulability have also led to significant improvements in human research protections. Recorded abuses of human research subjects served as the impetus for the establishment of the Nuremberg Code, the Declaration of Helsinki, and the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research and resulting Belmont Report.
Once again, public concerns have driven a recent shift in US federal policy governing animal research. Concerns about chimpanzee research have moved front and center. My colleagues and I have shown that chimpanzees used in laboratory research experience signs of posttraumatic stress disorder and other psychiatric disorders, similar to mental illnesses experienced by war veterans, rape survivors, and human torture survivors. The results of our purely observational international study were featured as a reason for Scientific American editors’ call for a ban on chimpanzee experiments.
In response to public concerns about chimpanzee experiments, US Senators Bingaman, Udall and Harkin, and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson requested the National Institutes of Health commission an independent report by an Institute of Medicine committee to analyze the need for chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral research. Unlike virtually all previous federal-level reports regarding the protection of human and nonhuman research subjects, this report was accepted as federal policy within two hours of its public release on December 15, 2011. The resulting report recommended what are unusually demanding guidelines for taxpayer-funded animal research. The policy change opened the door to larger questions about the lives of other nonhuman animals who are used in research experiments: What about other nonhuman primates? Or dogs, cats, or mice?
A new article collection entitled, “Rethinking the ethics of research involving nonhuman animals,” published in the esteemed journal Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, openly challenges traditional notions about animal experimentation. Editors Tom Beauchamp, John Gluck, and I asked authors to examine how concepts traditionally reserved for human research could be applied to considerations about the use of nonhuman animals in research. In this original article collection, authors explored how major concepts in human research ethics – such as autonomous decision-making, informed consent, assent, dissent, obligations to avoid harm, and demands of justice – could and should be applied to decisions about animal research.
The time has come for a more honest and thorough evaluation of the ways in which humans use and treat nonhuman animals. Barring nonhuman animals from basic protections undermines the fundamental principles on which protections for humans are based, and exclusion of nonhuman animals from basic protections opens the door to subjugation, discrimination, and abuse of nonhuman animals and vulnerable humans. Only when we take these issues seriously will we see justice for all animals – including humans.