Posted by: Green Knight | April 24, 2012

World Day for Laboratory Animals

Today is another one of those observation days I hadn’t heard about before but am passing along, with thoughts and comments. This one appears to have gotten its start in the UK. As usual, this isn’t a black or white situation. There are all sorts of animal tests conducted out there, for widely different purposes. Bunny rabbits having chemicals dripped into their eyes or on shaved patches of skin to see if ingredients in cosmetics will cause irritation. Cats being “intubated,” having a tube shoved down their throats for medical students to get some practice in doing it to human patients (the cats frequently die or are severely injured). Chimps being dosed with viruses or toxins, or having experimental transplants. More recently, there’s been some talk about the Coast Guard using goats for first aid/triage training, anesthetizing them, possibly not always effectively, and inflicting wounds, breaking bones, or cutting off legs, and having the trainees then repair the damage. Rats being used to test the toxicity of chemicals. The list goes on and on.

Some of this stuff is as barbaric as the vivisection tests on dogs performed by Robert Hooke in 1667 for the Royal Society in London, or some of the studies conducted on dolphins in the 1950s-60s to test their intelligence. How far have we really come? First, we must think about the term “unnecessary.” I am firmly against unnecessary animal testing, but what does that mean, and how do we get to where it’s ALL unnecessary? Or even, can we? That depends on what we’re willing to sacrifice on our own personal terms, as you’ll see.

Think about unnecessary surgeries or involuntary testing on us humans. When I was a kid, if you got tonsillitis, it was an automatic tonsillectomy, then you got ice cream for a week. Luckily, I kept mine, because with the right treatment, your tonsils will heal up and keep doing their job, which IS to get inflamed so as to keep the bad bugs from getting further into your system. I had tonsillitis about four or five times in my teen years, but it healed up every time, and now they’re still there doing their thing. On the other hand, appendectomies are usually necessary. Appendicitis will give you peritonitis and kill ya. I had a twisted-up small intestine 12 years ago (2nd time it happened to me), with gangrene this time, so while they were in there, they took out my appendix just because, and now that’s one less thing I have to worry about.

But then there are hysterectomies. It used to be a standard (male) doctor practice to prescribe that procedure for almost anything, again, in the ’50s and ’60s, when it wasn’t necessary at all. Just another moneymaking thing they had going. The flip side, though, and there usually is one, is that my friend’s mom has ovarian cancer, which is pretty much always fatal, AND very hereditary, but my friend won’t get it because she had a hystie. Go figure; as I’ve said before, biology is weird. One of my favorite singers/composers/piano players, Laura Nyro, died from ovarian cancer, and so did her mom and her aunt, and grandmother, I think.

Then there’s the current practice in hospitals of marking someone’s arm or leg with grease pencil so the surgeons don’t accidentally amputate the WRONG ONE. It’s happened frequently enough that this has become a routine thing. Depressing, ain’t it?

So, back to animals. Most animal testing of the types I described above is unnecessary. There are substitute techniques for pretty much all of them. The one area where it’s still needed is in the field of toxicology. How many human subjects do you know who are willing to line up and have some new chemical tested on them? Usually just the ones who already have terminal conditions, e.g., AIDS or Alzheimer’s or ovarian cancer or some other death sentence. Clinical trials to see if a new treatment works or not; what do they have to lose? But the evil side of THAT coin is the experiments conducted on unknowing or unwilling subjects. That doesn’t just include evil Nazi medical experiments, or the horrible stuff the Japanese did to Chinese prisoners during their war of expansion, before and during WWII, either. It also includes testing chemicals and radiation on US soldiers, because they are actually “government property.” Even now, if a guy or gal on leave gets a bad sunburn, they can get written up for damaging government property. Then there were the uninformed, or sometimes informed but unwilling, people in Naples, Sardinia, and Mexico, who got dusted or sprayed with DDT repeatedly in the ’40s and ’50s. And the notorious Tuskeegee syphilis “experiment” on old black sharecroppers; surely a badge of shame, lesser in scope but equally as bad as the attempted genocide on Native Americans because of its formulaic characterization of people and lack of humane qualities. And we’ve tested stuff on our own jailbirds without their knowledge many times.

Getting back to my point (I do get carried away sometimes, but it’s all germane), what about animal toxicology testing? Again, but in a different light, you’ll find a lot fewer humans lined up to get tested on for potentially hazardous chemicals than for potentially beneficial ones. “Dioxin? Sure! Let me inhale some and let’s see what happens!” Bloody unlikely, mate. Most human data we have for toxins are from accidental exposures. All the people who want to eliminate toxins don’t realize that there are plenty of natural ones too, and it can’t be done; see my previous post “Hazardous vs. Toxic,” and a couple of others. So how do we determine IF something’s toxic or not, and just HOW toxic, so we can protect ourselves from it? Answer: animal testing. And plant testing, and a whole bunch of other stuff, but I’ll attempt to stick to the issue. What animal is closest to a human? A chimpanzee, because they share between 98-99% of our DNA. Chimps have been used a lot in testing, but there have been a lot of well-founded complaints about it, and we’re seeing a phaseout, because of valid ethical considerations. Sentient beings shouldn’t be tortured. Hell, I even put earthworms into the grass if I see them baking on the sidewalk. The animal that’s closest to us for lab testing, though, isn’t the chimp, because of its different dietary and lifestyle habits, it’s the PIG. Pigs are omnivores, like us, and of about the same body size and weight and metabolism. Some tests have been done on them, but they’re expensive to maintain, and have agricultural value, so there aren’t many tox tests done on them.

So instead we mostly experiment on the well-known lab rat. And mice, and rabbits, sometimes. How do you think we know that parathion is way more toxic than DDT, or that methyl ethyl ketone is way more toxic than acetone? Lab rats. Their data aren’t always that transferable to human conditions due to differences in biology, but they’re cheap, plentiful, breed readily and rapidly in the lab, and we can breed strains that are resistant or susceptible to different environmental factors. I know people that have pet rats, and they can be cute pets, but remember that they also spread bubonic plague and wiped out a third of the population of Europe a couple of times (it was their fleas that were the carriers, or “vectors,” but still, and if we could get meaningful data by experimenting on fleas, flies, ticks, and mosquitoes instead of rats, i’d do it in a heartbeat). This doesn’t mean that I’m callous about lab rats; I’m not. But we wouldn’t even KNOW how bad this chemical was compared to that one unless we’d had those studies, and it’s based on those data that we even HAVE our workplace protection standards under OSHA and our environmental standards under EPA.

So, what do we do in terms of ethics? I’m not a PETA supporter even though the E stands for Ethical, because they think feral cats should all be euthanized, and as regular readers know, I do the TNR thing, the trap-neuter-return program for the kitties. Alley Cat Allies is my bunch. But what we can do is EVOLVE beyond the Robert Hooke vivisection days of 345 years ago, and get better. Our technology has certainly improved in a lot of other areas, and it’s getting better here as well. Want to know if some ingredient in makeup will irritate your eyes or skin? Just take a Q-tip swab sample of some eye or skin cells off a human and culture it in a Petri dish, and test it on THAT. True, you won’t be able to tell if it’ll have an eventual effect on the kidneys that way from chronic exposure unless you test the whole critter over time, humanoid or rat, but that’s where you hit the razor’s edge of necessary vs. unnecessary. Same thing with a lot of other products. They’re also getting a lot more advanced with computer modeling simulations, of how this molecule will interact with that one, say a chemical compound interacting with a human liver cell. What we need to do is improve, and that doesn’t mesh with the idea of a retreat from technology. We got INTO this mess because of tech, and as my guy Carl Sagan used to say, it’s gonna take more of it to get us OUT of that mess. I’d like to get back to the Pleistocene myself, but it isn’t feasible, there are just way too many of us. My point is that it must be responsible technology, and who’s gonna make sure THAT happens? “Responsible industry?” ROFL, now there’s a myth for ya…no such thing. The dollar signs are permanently glued to their eyeballs. Well, I guess then, ummm, it’d have to be the “dreaded government regulators” like I used to be, whom the climate change deniers are trying to remove funding from. Regulators who give a damn, along with a well-informed public, which is really tough to put together, but that’s why I teach and write. My recommendation is to think, then vote. Not the other way around.

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