Animals in US Laboratories: Who Counts, Who Matters?

Guest post by Alka Chandna

How many animals are experimented on in laboratories? It’s a simple question, the answer to which provides a basic parameter to help us wrap our heads around the increasingly controversial and ethically harrowing practice of locking animals in cages and conducting harmful procedures on them that are often scary, painful, and deadly. Yet ascertaining the answer in the United States – the world’s largest user of animals in experiments – is surprisingly difficult.

In the eyes of the US Animal Welfare Act (AWA) – the single federal law that governs the treatment of animals used in experimentation – not all animals are created equal. Mice, rats, and birds bred for experimentation, and all cold-blooded animals – estimated by industry to comprise more than 95 percent of all animals used – are all unscientifically and dumbfoundingly excluded from the AWA’s definition of “animal”. Orwell cheers from his grave while Darwin rolls in his.

Leaving aside the question of whether mice and rats should be categorized as vegetable or mineral, the exclusion of these animals from the AWA also results in a dearth of data on the most widely used species, as the only figures on animal use in US laboratories that are systematically collected, organized, and published by the government are on AWA-regulated species.

By comparison, the European Union, Canada, and many other countries cover all vertebrate and some invertebrate animal species under their experimentation policies and publish data on their use.

Needless to say, this American blind spot makes it almost impossible to know the full scope of current and past animal use in experiments and the impact, if any, of government policies and programs committed to reducing animal use. Some analyses have suggested that there has been sizeable growth in US animal use over the past several decades due to increased use of genetically modified (GM) mice while others claim that animal use has decreased by as much as 50 percent over the past 25 years.

My coauthors and I tried to find a way out of this confusing labyrinth of conflicting speculations by obtaining and examining unpublished data contained in reports that institutions funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) are required to submit at least once every four years. Unlike the data collected under the AWA, these little-known but critical NIH reports include the average numbers of all vertebrate animals (including mice, rats, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians) held and used for experimental purposes at a given time. While the NIH does not analyse or publish these data, the individual documents for the facilities it funds can be requested through federal open records laws, so request we did.

Our study found that total animal use at the top 25 institutional recipients of NIH grants increased 72.7 percent over a 15-year period from 1997 to 2012, driven primarily by increases in the use of mice. Additionally, 98.8 percent of the animals at the institutions – even higher than previous estimates of 95 percent – were not covered by the AWA. To our knowledge, this is the first time data on the use of these species in the US have been analysed and published.

Our findings contradict industry claims of reduced US animal use but are consistent with trends in Australia, Great Britain, Israel, Germany, and China that show increased use of mice (mainly GM) and, in some cases, fish while reporting declines in the use of cats, dogs, primates, rabbits, and hamsters. Even in the US, government reports indicate a 10 percent decrease from 2008 to 2013 in the number of AWA-regulated animals in laboratories.

Apparently, the popularity contest that can determine success or failure for humans has plunged its tyrannical talons into animals as well: charismatic species (deemed to be cute, cuddly, or more intelligent) are accorded greater moral consideration (in the US, federal policies restricting the use of chimpanzees, dogs, and cats in experimentation have been enacted in response to public pressure) while those species unfairly derided as ugly, pestilent, or just plain unworthy continue to suffer – the science on the sentience of these species be damned.

In recent years, we have seen that growing public concern over animal experimentation, mounting evidence that animal models do not faithfully translate to humans, and the development of technologies that supplant animal use have fuelled calls for movement away from animal use from surprising quarters, including the US National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, a former NIH director, and the current NIH director.

The industry has claimed that having to report data for all species would be too burdensome, but laboratories already are doing so for NIH as a matter of course and law.

If, as it claims to be, the US government is at all serious about reducing the numbers of animals harmed and killed in laboratories or even assessing the extent of the problem, it must, as an elementary first step, join the rest of the western world and start paying attention to the data it is collecting on the subject.


Read the full paper here.