In the summer of 1965, the news reported the heartbreaking story of a Dalmatian named Pepper. This cherished companion animal had been stolen from her Pennsylvania home, and desperate appeals to a local animal dealer to search his farm for the family dog were denied.
The family eventually discovered that Pepper had been sold to a hospital in New York where her chest had been cut open in a botched test of a cardiac pacemaker. This sensational story enraged the public who feared that their own companion animals were at risk of being stolen and could end up in a research facility.
Just a short time later, on February 4, 1966, Life magazine published a shocking expose, “Concentration Camps for Dogs.” Photographs captured the desperation and pain of hundreds of emaciated, chained dogs living in squalor. The images brought unprecedented attention to the shadowy, unregulated business of animal dealers who supplied the research industry with dogs, cats and other animals for its experiments. It was estimated that half of all missing pets were stolen by “dognapppers,” who sold them to dealers. Despite denials of animal cruelty from the defenders of animal experimentation, the evidence was printed here in black and white.
Members of Congress and the Senate were bombarded with angry letters, and for a time, their volume even surpassed that of letters concerning the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Lawmakers passed the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act of 1966, later simply known as the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), to prevent pet theft and regulate animal research that extended both to the dealers’ premises and to the research holding facilities where animals were kept before being used in experiments.
Ultimately the AWA became the most comprehensive animal welfare legislation in U.S. history and the first federal recognition of animals as sentient beings worthy of protection. It applied not just to dogs and cats, but to monkeys, rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs in federally funded labs.
Though the passage of the AWA was seen as a positive step by many, others in the animal advocacy community—including NAVS—opposed its passage, as it sanctioned the use of animals for research while providing them with only minimal protections. The AWA addressed the animals’ housing conditions, but it had no impact on their treatment inside the lab, where some of the most distressing cruelties took place. On August 26, 1966, the Chicago Tribune reported:“President Johnson today signed the petnapping bill that prohibits the theft of dogs, cats, and other pets for sale to research facilities. But the President noted that the use of animals in research and experimentation “just must go on.”
And so it does.
Millions of animals are still used in experiments every year. Over the past five decades there have been many changes made to the AWA, some positive and some negative. Among its most significant failures has been the decision to exclude mice, rats and birds bred for research from all protections and accountability. These animals represent the vast majority of those used in science—more than 98%, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics.
And 50 years later, tens of thousands of dogs continue to be used for “research, testing, teaching or experimentation” despite growing opposition to animal experimentation. This past summer, the public was shocked and repulsed to learn of a failed University of Missouri experiment, wherein six beagle puppies were killed after their eyes had been purposely damaged with acid. In their defense, the university released a statement that claimed all their experiments were conducted in accordance with industry standards and had been approved by the MU Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. The AWA did not protect these dogs.
A National Institutes of Health workshop in September of this year that was charged with examining the ethics of nonhuman primate experimentation resorted to a “cost-benefit” analysis that justified any “cost” to the primates or any other nonhuman animal used in research as acceptable for almost any possible or potential “benefit” to humans. There was almost no recognition of the implications of animal sentience on the morality of using animals, nor was there a review of alternative methods that could replace their use. The AWA does not restrict any type of experiment, no matter how painful or stressful, based on ethical concerns.
While NAVS holds that no animal should be exploited in the name of science, amending the AWA to include protections for all animals would be an important step in the right direction. Opportunities to further discuss the ethics of animal use among bioethicists, not just those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, should be pursued in light of growing understanding of animal sentience.
A full accounting of all animals and how they are used is also urgently needed and will aid in understanding animal use trends. This, in turn, will reveal areas that should be prioritized for the development of smarter, human-relevant alternatives, as well as areas where available alternatives are not being used to their full potential. The time is long overdue for a law entitled the Animal Welfare Act to make that a reality.