PRIMATE RESEARCH: Animal Rights and Scientists Do Battle
More than 80 threatening letters -- in envelopes lined with razorblades -- were sent last week to academic institutions nationwide by an underground animal rights group protesting the use of animals, particularly primates, in scientific research. But scientists including those at the Harvard-owned New England Regional Primate Research Center, remain undeterred by the letters, contending that primates are ideal specimens because of their biological similarity to humans. Ironically, activists argue that it is this very characteristic that makes primates "worthy of protection." Princeton University bioethicist and animal rights movement founder Peter Singer adds, "There are very careful studies that (such primates) are self-aware beings with rich and complex emotional and social lives. On that basis, they should have special status and not be used for harmful experimentation." While some primates at the center are used only for blood and urine samples, many "involuntary sacrifice their lives for scientific research intended to benefit humans." Due to increasingly stringent regulations and greater use of test tubes, tissue cultures and substitutes for dissections, animal testing overall has declined in the past few decades. Still, no good non-animal substitute has been found to replace laboratory research. As Peter Theran, a veterinarian and director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, notes "There are researchers doing terribly important research that is justified on primates because there are no other options." But another scientist commented, "It is not unhealthy for people to always question the use of animals when they will lose their lives" (Hsu, Boston Globe, 11/6).
Animal Rights Hotspot
Calling it the "gathering spot for animal liberationists," scientists and university leaders nationwide have been keeping a close eye on the University of Minnesota in light of last week's threats. They cite the growing violence on this campus as the "best argument for a big boost in federal protection of researchers." The "progressive political climate" in Minneapolis has made the city "a magnet for animal rights activists from around the country." In April, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) raided two university laboratories, causing at least $700,000 in damage and temporary halting research on a cancer vaccine for brain tumor patients. Another campus group, the Student Organization for Animal Rights (SOAR) -- the most prominent youth animal rights organization in the Midwest -- applauded ALF despite mixed reviews from the student population. Some commended the activists for their passion; others called them "crazy" and "very cliquey." Minnesota scientists use 152,516 animals each year in their research. But school officials are "quick to note" that the "medical breakthroughs" they have developed -- including open-heart surgery, pacemakers and the heart lung-machine -- were all possible because of animal research. Dick Bianco, the university's director of experimental surgery says the federal government "needs to wake up" and provide more funding for security and "be more vocal in defending science." He concludes, "I'm not trying to be paranoid and I'm not trying to be alarmist ... But the tactics that [animal rights groups] are using are escalating ... Are we going to have a dead body before we really do something?" (Woodward, Pioneer Planet, 11/7).