Taking Lab Rats Seriously: The Case Against (Most) Animal Testing


Billions upon billions of animals are used every year for the purposes of scientific experimentation. It’s actually hard to think of another practice that’s as commonplace as it is controversial (biotechnology, perhaps?). It goes without saying that many of these experiments are a waste of time and resources. The NIH, for example, recently spent about $4 million exploring how the menstrual cycles of monkeys were influenced by cocaine, meth, and heroin. Other animal-based experiments, however, appear to have genuine utilitarian value, contributing useful information to our knowledge of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and several cancers. Delve into this issue and you’ll find that only one thing is certain: clear answers aren’t forthcoming.

I generally believe that animal experimentation is a morally flawed way to accumulate scientific knowledge. That said, I plead agnosticism when it comes to rare cases of direct benefit to human life. I’m sure that if one of my children were afflicted with a life threatening disease and experimentation on monkeys had a plausible chance of finding a cure, I’d reluctantly support that research. As much as I’d like to be consistent on this issue–as I’m able to be with, say, my diet–I’m afraid I must take convenient refuge in Emerson’s saying about foolish consistency and little minds. As I said, nothing about the morality of animal experimentation is easy.

Perhaps one way to come to terms with this conundrum is to consider animal experimentation in more abstract terms, rather than on a case-by-case basis (with many of those “cases” being purely hypothetical).  As I see it, one point in particular transcends specific examples of animal experimentation to suggest that we should be doing everything possible to eliminate the practice altogether–except perhaps in the most extreme cases of direct human benefit.

The point has to do with the fact that, as scientists use animals to further scientific knowledge, they do so without a full, or even half-full, understanding of the animals they’re exploiting. Animal experimentation has been happening for hundreds of years, but the field of animal ethology–the study of animal behavior and mentality–is relatively new.  Because the cart of experimentation has been put before the horse of knowledge, scientists routinely end up not only inadvertently harming animals, but unknowingly executing flawed experiments bound to yield inconsistent, and thus ultimately useless, results.

Animals, unlike objects, have emotions. Mice, rats, birds, or apes kept under one set of conditions will react differently to the same experimental stimuli than will mice, rats, birds, or apes kept under another set of conditions. Only now, however, are we coming to realize how incredibly sensitive experimental animals are to differential experimental environments, handlers, and procedures. The implications of this sensitivity have radical implications for every experiment done on an animal.

A couple of real life examples, both taken from Bernard Rollin’s insightful book Animal Rights and Human Morality, highlight the problem. The first involves mice and the experience of shock. In order to gain insight into the human experience of shock, scientists have long traumatized mice and studied their “microcirculatory shock profile.” Put aside for now the question of the experiment’s utility, and consider something even more problematic: scientists simply assumed that all mice yet to be traumatized by the scientists were starting from the same emotional/physiological baseline. In essence, that they were all passive objects awaiting human action within the framework of an experiment designed to induce trauma.

In point of fact, as Rollin himself, a philosopher no less, had to remind members of the Shock Society (yes, there’s a Shock Society), the mere act of picking up a mouse and shifting it a few feet into position initiates a shock response. Scientists who might have been rearranging animal subjects for clinical traumatization would have been unwittingly already traumatizing their subjects, thereby screwing up the results and rendering the entire experiment, not to mention the harsh treatment of the rodents, totally pointless.

Hence we come to what may very well be the inherent problem of animal experimentation: because we can never predict how an inarticulate animal capable of experiencing fear or pain or distress will react to the almost incalculable and endlessly subtle stimuli of any scientific environment, we can never fully trust the experimental results.

As this next example illustrates, the assumption of animal objectivity, and the concomitant failure to consider the extraordinary emotional responsiveness of animals, can be hideously callous. Scientists have long wanted to understand the nature of deer mule starvation. Again, let’s ignore the utility question and get to the execution of the experiment (and, I guess, the mule deer).

In an infamous experiment, the researcher simply placed a mule deer in a cage and withheld food, taking chemical readings of its rumen until it died.  Remarkably, the scientist’s control group–mule deer that were fed–were housed in a cage adjacent to the starving deer, affording the tormented creature olfactory and visual exposure to the food it was being denied. Putting aside the obvious stupidity of the experiment, the stomach secretions emitted by the starving deer were completely driven by the control group, thus rendering the results useless. And all because the researcher failed to understand a basic principle of animal ethology.

The rationale for all animal experimentation is, if you think about it abstractly, troublesome. Scientists use animals because they’re physically similar enough to humans for results to have possible meaning. At the same time, they use animals because they are–so we have long thought–cognitively and emotionally different enough from humans for our exploitation of them to be morally justified. But the more we learn about animals, the more we are realizing, as Darwin himself explained (in Rollin’s summary): “thought and feeling in animals [is] an inevitable consequence of phylogenic continuity. If morphological and physiological traits are evolutionarily continuous, so, too, are psychological ones.”

This sobering scientific reality, at the least, demands that we take a much closer look at how and why–and to what effect– we use animals to serve the interests of science. My sense is that, the closer we look at non-human animals, and the more we learn about them, the harder it will be to understand their behavior and, in turn, justify our own.



Has anybody here worked in a lab before? Without animal testing, medical and biological research would come to a screeching halt. Without animal testing we wouldn't have things like the polio vaccine or effective orthopedic surgeries (the latter having been perfected in animals like dogs before they were used in humans. Along the same line, people rarely consider the spill-over benefit to animals - many veterinary medical techniques that save our pets lives were learned through animal tests designed to aid humans!) And this is disregarding the the many ethical constraints researchers place upon themselves - at UC Berkeley at least, I know for certain that lab animals are treated humanely, or else we'd get in serious trouble (and rightly so).


I would have preferred an article that discusses the efficacy and the cost benefits (if any) that drive animal testing. What I have found instead is ill-informed discussion about how animal testing is "bad". It's not even described as being bad in a demonstrable manner. Just that it is.

We are told that the NIH spent 4 million dollars on a study, but nothing about how that money was "wasted". The link says that drug use was studied for over a decade using animal models (the menstrual effects were not the primary reason for the study). How the "direct" human benefit of that and similar studies are stated as being to determine the physiological effects of drug use and possible intervention/treatment options to overcome the addiction. A laudable effort by scientists to help eventually end the suffering of human beings, instead being treated as a federal boondoggle about how taxpayer money is being wasted.

The article (from an organization funded by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_Research_Center , make of that what you will), ignores the possible benefits that such research can produce and simply goes on to say that it's a waste of money. Instead of questioning how effective the experiment was, it instead goes for "Gotcha" journalism and asks how the scientists would explain to a median income family why their tax dollars are being "wasted". Is it a waste to try to help people who are addicted to drugs? The tone of the article and the dismissal by Mr. McWilliams that this is a waste, belies his failure to understand how animal models are intended to work.



". . . because we can never predict how an inarticulate animal . . . will react to . . . any scientific environment, we can never fully trust the experimental results."

This assertion is clearly wrong. First, why would we not trust experimental results that we can't predict? Every day, thousands of studies produce unpredictable results! That's the very point of doing the study!
Second, no scientific study relies on the "articulation" of the subjects. Instead, they rely on the quantification of some physiological response, as an analogy to the human physiological response, along with a good set of controls.
Third, you can never "fully trust" any scientific results. That's not the point! Instead, after enough experimentation and replication, we construct a model of the system we're studying (which probably contains inaccuracies) that describes the system in some way that we can test further. From there we continue to build and refine and test, but there's never a point when we say "Ah ha! we can now fully trust this".



I should also point out that there have been many psychological studies performed on many of the model organisms we use, and only in the mammal or bird ones would this even matter. take for example C. elegans, which has about 300 neurons. for which all of the synapses have been completely mapped and the purpose of each bundle is well understood. now I can say this simply because in animals which do not readily learn, the vast majority of these so called emotional responses the author is so excited about are simply physiological and can be, not only predicted, but manipulated via things like CHR2 transgenic varieties.

Ted Pavlic

There are some interesting points raised here, but I'm left confused by one thing.

How do you think animal ethologists do their research? That is, have you investigated what animal research looks like outside of animal testing?

That is, understanding proximate mechanisms often requires some pretty invasive experimentation or at least experiments that put the subjects through a great deal of discomfort. Consider, for example, the starvation that subjects go through to ensure compliance in their modified Skinner boxes. Alternatively, consider the neuroethologist who implants electrodes to do recordings of neural signaling during behaviors. These experiments are especially invasive for invertebrates, which can be experimented on without IACUC (which is like IRB for animals) approval. Keep in mind that even a gigantic octopus is an invertebrate that can be captured, experimented on, and tossed away without IACUC oversight (although a journal may feel free to not publish research based on such work).


Joel Upchurch

Have you ever noticed that any sentence that starts with the phrase, "It goes without saying" will be followed by a highly questionable statement that the author can't prove or find evidence to support?


The alternatives to animal testing:

a) Don't do any experiments on living systems - thus grinding any physiological gain to a halt.

b) Experiment on humans.

The author is assuming that only if the experiment works out and achieves some sort of clear result is it 'useful'. The fact is we progress by building on the heaps of our failures.

Sounds like someone needs to take a basic methodology of science course.


I have several problems with your post:

The first is a basic misunderstanding of how the scientific process works.
The scientific process advances knowledge through the use of experiments, of course new experiments are based on previously made claims. Claiming that "the cart of experimentation has been placed before the horse of knowledge" is a hilariously poor analogy. In order to understand how things work we perform experiments. Experimental science is the root of all knowledge. Sorry, knowledge comes from experimentation not the other way around.

The second is that you imply that animal research cannot be impartial. That is incorrect. It is completely and patently false. While there may be some relevance of so-called animal emotional state in a few studies, the vast majority of these studies do not care about and simply are not effected in the slightest by anything the animal might choose to do. A nice class of study that cannot be affected by any emotional state is tissue studies. In such studies a slice of animal tissue, let's take for example, rat brain tissue, is studied directly under a microscope. The emotional state of this brain slice is completely irrelevant.

The third is the claim that any study that is not "direct[ly] benefi[cial] to human life" is useless. I would argue that nearly all science is beneficial to human life. Directly. The fact that a layperson cannot see how something applies does not mean it is useless, only that the observer is a layperson. What I'm saying here, is simply that, in most cases, in biological science people are in the field because they want to better human life. A short-sighted approach to understanding science, technology and the investment therein is a major problem. I refer you to the ROI (to the GDP) of NASA last time I checked it was roughly 7 dollars in growth for every dollar of investment, nearly always in general science which doesn't seem, at first glance to better human life.

The fourth is the implication that a negative or unexpected, or poorly understood result is undesirable. This is false. Poorly understood results simply mean that more research is necessary. Unexpected results are exciting. and negative results are sometimes even more important than positive ones. Remember: science can only disprove with a high degree of certainty. It cannot prove.

At this point, I should probably mention that I'm a third year college student at a liberal arts college with about half of a biology degree.



As someone who both parents work in medical research, and had spent thousands of hour in lab, this is the weakest (and worse), most ignorant entry I've ever read on this blog.


I'm confused by the amount of "this is not economics" comments in this forum. Let's not be so short-sighted. Animal testing plays a large role in the pharmaceutical industry, in Science, in Academia, in our Health System overall. There are large-scale, costly ramifications of these subsidized experiments, whether positive or negative. It seems to me people are uncomfortable with the conclusion--perhaps this is too challenging a topic for you?

James Parker

Like many articles opposing animal research, this one appears to contains exaggeration, imprecision, and omission.

"Billions and billions" of animals used every year? Maybe this is just a phrase borrowed from Carl Sagan's favorite expressions, but the order is more on the scale of millions. Not counting rodents, somewhere around 20 million in the U.S.

"It goes without saying that many of these experiments are a waste of time and resources." The evidence for that claim? To make his work easier, the author might have tried to identify a medical treatment that has not come in one way or another from the use of animals.

"I’m sure that if one of my children were afflicted with a life threatening disease and experimentation on monkeys had a plausible chance of finding a cure, I’d reluctantly support that research." This statement reflects a woefully inadequate understanding of research. Researchers can't design specific research research projects as one-to-one responses to individuals' diseases or injuries. Instead, they first examine what is known about a disease as it is found in thousands of cases, look for potential natural models of the disease, refine any such models of the disease to understand this or that mechanism, scour the literature of basic and non-targeted research for clues as the etiology of the disease, conduct double-blind experiments of a number of different interventions, and test the effectiveness and safety of any treatment (first on animals, then on persons). This is a huge and necessarily collaborative effort, and it requires more than one animal or even one species for each afflicted child.

The most significant oversight of the author is his neglect of basic research. We are not talking of testing, which confronts a known condition with a fully characterized drug or procedure to be sure that the latter is effective and safe. We are talking about discovery, which has to do with the unknown. Most biomedical researchers are explorers, following one question or another to where it leads them in the unkown. It leads not to immediate application but to the store of physiological knowledge, either directly or indirectly through the frequent discovery that a certain path is a dead end. The time between postive discoveries and the eventual application of new knowledge has been estimated at about 40 years.

Finally, and ironically, it is through animal research that scientists have learned as much as we know about the feelings of animals. This knowledge has contribued greatly to animal well being.

James Parker (Co-author: "The Animal Resarch War" and author of "Animal Minds, Animal Souls, Animal Rights")


Dario Ringach

“It goes without saying that many of these experiments are a waste of time and resources.”

Is a common claim from those that hardly get past the title of a research proposal to truly understand the goals of the research. Such claims come up often in political debates. In fact, there is a very nice (albeit outdated) book entitled “The Greatest Adventure: Basic Research that Shapes Our Lives”, with a wonderful introduction by Isaac Asimov, that resulted from a similar attack on basic science by the House Appropriations Committee. Mr. McWilliams would benefit from reading a bit more about the contributions of basic science to mankind.

“I generally believe that animal experimentation is a morally flawed way to accumulate scientific knowledge. That said, I plead agnosticism when it comes to rare cases of direct benefit to human life.”

Again, it appears the author sees no relationship between gaining a basic understanding of how Nature works and benefits to mankind. This illustrates a deep ignorance about the scientific method and the way science progresses. We all wish it was that simple to determine which research will lead to a direct benefit. We can’t. That’s not how science works.

“I’m sure that if one of my children were afflicted with a life threatening disease and experimentation on monkeys had a plausible chance of finding a cure, I’d reluctantly support that research.”

Were you or your children vaccinated for Polio? If so, you already benefited form primate research.

“As much as I’d like to be consistent on this issue–as I’m able to be with, say, my diet–I’m afraid I must take convenient refuge in Emerson’s saying about foolish consistency and little minds.”

Hilarious... but I strongly doubt you would allow those that you criticize to take refuge in a similar way.

“Because the cart of experimentation has been put before the horse of knowledge, scientists routinely end up not only inadvertently harming animals, but unknowingly executing flawed experiments bound to yield inconsistent, and thus ultimately useless, results.”

You probably forgot to cite the animal rights web site where this is taken from. Please give credit where credit is due.

Our knowledge and understanding of animal cognition certainly must guide our ethical treatment of them. This is dynamically evolving and, as you probably know, some feel the case has been made for giving special protection to great apes. Your claim that researchers have no clue about the cognitive abilities and associated distress in animals is simply untrue.

Animals are used in some experiments because we have no other alternatives to obtain the information necessary in non-invasive human experiments. There are both similarities and differences in our physiology that must be taken into account when designing a model for a particular disease or condition. However, there is substantial and well documented gap in our cognitive abilities. See, for example: http://www.leecharleskelley.com/images/darwins_mistake.pdf These difference, I think one can argue, are morally relevant.

Unfortunately, much of the public understanding of animal cognition is based from their depiction in animated Disney/Pixar movies.


ana Holm

This is probably one of the most ill-informed, inane, and downright incorrect article I have seen here. Shame! I am not an animal-using scientist and am very much an animal lover. But this writer clearly has no idea how research operates. You should be ashamed!!


I think animal testing is not needed at ALL. A lot of times if a certain medicine/procedure works on an animal it still does not work on humans. Animals and humans are different and in no way are humans necessarily better than humans. If animals are going to be tested with they should at least be treated humanely while they are not being tortured. If this is not enough to change your mind check out this video http://blog.peta2.com/2009/05/animal_testing_video.html.


When "shock" is used in the context of sepsis or medical trauma, it is not primarily about the emotional state. While there is definitely an emotional reaction in septic shock, there are a flood of other physiological changes going on. These do not go on when one is 'merely' shocked (in the colloquial sense of the term that the author is using). Handling a laboratory mouse can invoke what appears to be an emotional response (though generally we try to choose the types of mice that are least bothered by it and then get them used to very gentle handling ; if you think rodents can't be trained to not be afraid of handling, I suggest you have never seen any number of classroom pets). In the worst case scenario, I would put the reaction some animals have to handling as roughly analogous to a human being startled like having someone sneak up behind them and shout "BOO!", although of course we can't know for sure what the mouse is experiencing subjectively. This is quite different from what the body goes through when you have a hyper-inflammatory response to a pathogen, such as in severe malaria. Have you ever seen someone going through medical shock?

While I'm a big fan of bloggers blogging about whatever their little bloggy hearts desire, I do feel that I cannot trust this author's take on specific animal experiments, since he apparently does not have any desire to become remotely informed on the science. When something seems weird (e.g. "there's a whole scientific society of people who study shock?!"), maybe that's a sign you need to learn more about it (e.g. "maybe they are using the term 'shock' differently from what I am used to" should be a natural follow-up thought for any person who is really starting from a stance of curiosity and not judgement).


Marvin Espinoza

I think we should all remember scientific progress exists because of both moral and immoral acts of research. Some believe science, just like economics, to be amoral. Not necessarily Moral or Immoral. Just apart.

With respect to animal testing, I understand the progress we have achieved through animal testing, and I also understand how against our nature as humans it is to purposely harm and inflict pain upon an animal that cannot defend itself.

Let us think about who we are. Animal experimentation may be necessary, but please: let's be human...and humane. Let's not kill and destroy more life than we have to.

Food for thought. Plus, the only reason why we generally allow animal testing is because the general public don't see animals as worthy of our respect and honor. Unless of course we actually--shockingly--have to take care of a creature and realize they have eyes, limbs, fingers, hearts, veins, muscles just like us (again, shockingly).

It may be for scientific progress, but let's limit it, no? This may be a question of efficiency, but let's not forget it's also a question of equity.