A recent Gallup poll contained what should have been great news for animals: The number of Americans who oppose using animals for medical testing reached a record high, with 44 percent of respondents calling the practice “morally wrong.” In 2001, only 26 percent of Americans felt this way.
Meanwhile, studies continue to demonstrate that animal models simply don’t work. In fact, evidence shows that in certain areas of research—for example, drug development for nervous system disorders—the animal model may even be holding us back from scientific breakthroughs.
On average, it takes approximately 13 years and $1 billion to develop a new drug, yet 95% of drugs that advance to human clinical trials following promising animal tests ultimately fail in humans. The failure to translate the findings from experiments using animal models to humans results in wasted time, money, resources and lives.
Despite this, after several years on the decline, the number of Animal Welfare Act (AWA) -covered animals used for medical experiments and teaching actually increased in 2016. Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that earlier this year, important information about animal experimentation was suddenly, and without warning, deleted from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) website. And while public pressure from animal advocates helped to see some of the data restored, the available information is still woefully inadequate.
In 2016, the USDA reported that 820,812 animals were used by institutions licensed under the AWA for basic research, safety testing of chemicals, personal care products, drug research and development, and educational purposes. This number represents an increase of 6.9% over 2015 numbers.
Significantly, this already large figure does not include mice, rats and birds. These animals are excluded from “protection” under the AWA, yet they account for 90-95% of all animals used in science.
Under current U.S. law, institutions using animals for any of these purposes are required to submit annual reports to the USDA on the number and species of animals used (excluding mice, rats and birds). They are not, however, required to specify how each of these animals is being used—they only have to note if the animals were subjected to pain and, if so, whether pain killers were used.
But why is it important to know how animals are used for research?
The first reason is that millions of animals are being born and bred only to suffer in research facilities or testing laboratories for the alleged benefit of humans. This is despite huge advances in the availability of non-animal methods of conducting research and safety testing, methods that do not harm animals. Researchers insist that animals need to be used, but there is little or no accountability given to weighing the animals’ suffering in making that choice.
Another reason is that animal testing is a big business. Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on animal testing and research, again with little accountability to the public regarding the type of research or the number of animals used in perpetuating this archaic reliance on animal models.
Knowledge of how animals are used, for what purpose and with what results, is important in advocating for change. In 2014, NAVS submitted a petition for rulemaking to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the enforcement division of the USDA that directly addresses these issues. The petition notes that current data collection and reporting methods in the U.S. lack the scope and detail found in the system currently in use in the European Union and asks that APHIS amend its requirements for recordkeeping and reporting on the use of animals by entities, including research facilities, which are licensed by the USDA under the AWA.
NAVS’ proposed new rules would greatly improve the type of information collected from research institutions and would then make that information available to the public. Comments on our proposal were solicited in 2015 (and more than 1,700 were received); however, no further action has since been taken by APHIS. NAVS continues to pursue a response from this government agency.
In the meantime, NAVS continued to rely on information on animal use provided by APHIS on its searchable online database, the Animal Care Search Tool. The information provided by APHIS, while incomplete, was still a basis for understanding trends in animal use and for investigating violations by research institutions licensed under the AWA.
This past February, however, this search tool was taken offline and public access was denied.
In March, the Animal Welfare Accountability and Transparency Act (S 503/HR 1368), was introduced in the U.S. Congress. This legislation would restore public access to records collected by the USDA regarding inspections, enforcement actions, regulations, registrations and AWA-licensed businesses. It would also restore access related to the Horse Protection Act (HPA), a law aimed at ending a cruel practice known as “soring,” wherein a horse’s forelegs are treated with painful chemicals or by mechanical means to make the horse’s gait higher when it walks.
In the intervening months, the USDA has reposted some records concerning animal use under the AWA in a stripped down, less customizable database, although no HPA records have been reposted.
Under current AWA regulations, all research facilities that use or intend to use live animals in research, tests, experiments or for teaching are required to submit an annual report to APHIS. These reports must include assurances that:
- acceptable standards have been used by the research facility regarding their animal care and use;
- alternatives to painful procedures were considered; and
- any exceptions that cause animals pain and suffering were approved by a facility’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which must review and approve all proposed research on animals.
The annual reports must also include the number and species of animals used by any research facility and where they are being housed. Additionally, reports must note how many animals of each species were used for painful experiments, with and without painkillers.
As things stand now, much of APHIS’ once instantly-accessible information is still not available to the public. And the online information that has been restored is not easily searchable.
Access to this information is crucial in knowing how animals are being used and how our taxpayer money is being spent. The Animal Welfare Accountability and Transparency Act would require the return of all regulatory records under the AWA and the HPA in a user-friendly searchable database.
As an ever-increasing number of Americans are coming to understand the folly of animal tests, and are demanding progress toward the development of humane alternatives, it is time for the government to become more—not less—open about its use of animals. Passage of the Animal Welfare Accountability and Transparency Act will play an important role in replacing the use of animals for research, testing and education with more humane, predictive and human-relevant testing methods.
You can lend your voice to this effort by sending a letter to your federal legislators in support of the Animal Welfare and Transparency Act through NAVS’ online Advocacy Center at [link].
A version of this article originally appeared on AlterNet.org.