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Better days for lab animals—and for science

From Animal Sheltering magazine November/December 2016

Wayne Pacelle and his adopted dog, Lily

When I adopted my dog Lily—a mixed breed whose beagle ears, yowl and temperament dominate the package—the veterinarian working with the rescue group put her age at perhaps 4 or 5. Since then, my wife Lisa and I have often wondered about the pain and suffering she may have experienced before we knew her, since her behavior frequently suggests past traumas. For a variety of reasons, we suspect she was a puppy mill dog, or a discarded hunting dog. But at times, we’ve wondered if she may have come out of a laboratory, since beagles are frequently used in experiments because they are so trusting and docile.

Our speculations about Lily’s background are one reason I was excited by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent signing of legislation to require publicly funded institutions of higher education to give dogs and cats used in biomedical research and testing a chance at adoption. It’s great news for hundreds of animals in state-funded institutions. Rather than discarding these creatures, New York has made it possible for them to know love and affection with a caring human pack. California, Connecticut, Minnesota and Nevada have enacted similar measures. These measures help to solidify a growing trend, as more and more research facilities across the United States have voluntarily instituted successful adoption programs for dogs, cats and other animals.

In a remarkable coincidence, Gov. Cuomo put his signature on the Research Animal Retirement Act nearly 50 years to the day that President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the federal Laboratory Animal Welfare Act (now the Animal Welfare Act), which was motivated by a wide public concern for the welfare of dogs, and which many animal shelters supported.

The use of dogs in research has substantially declined since the 1960s when the Animal Welfare Act passed, a time when some 2 million dogs a year passed through our nation’s laboratories, almost none of them coming out alive. In 2014, according to USDA data, the number of dogs used in U.S. laboratories stood at 65,153 (a decline of almost 12 percent from the prior year). At the same time, fewer and fewer institutions purchase dogs from random-source Class B dealers, not least because, in October 2014, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) stopped funding research involving dogs procured from these questionable sources.

On the issue of the treatment of laboratory animals, we are seeing gains for other species, too. We’ve worked with NIH to end the use of chimpanzees in invasive experiments, and nearly 700 chimps are on their way out of laboratories and into sanctuaries.

And in June, President Obama signed legislation to revamp the Toxic Substances Control Act and to reduce the use of animals in chemical testing protocols. His signing of the bill gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) an unmistakable mandate from Congress that it must continue to embrace 21st century science and transition away from outdated animal testing protocols, which are expensive and slow and often don’t accurately translate to human physiology. At our urging, the EPA is also dramatically decreasing animal tests for pesticide hazard assessments and is now working to replace animal tests in its endocrine screening program. In fact, in 2016, the EPA proposed to waive skin lethal dose tests (where chemicals are slathered onto animals’ skin to determine the dose at which half the animals die) for pesticide formulations.

Fifty years since the nation’s policymakers first turned their attention to the plight of dogs and other animals in laboratories, we’re on the threshold of even greater opportunities to spare animals from any risk of harm in laboratory usage. A combination of moral intention, along with innovation and technology, is allowing us to move beyond this ugly chapter in our dealings with animals and usher in a better, safer era for nonhuman animals and for humans as well. 

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About the Author

Wayne Pacelle is the former President and Chief Executive Officer of The Humane Society of the United States. Under Pacelle's leadership, The HSUS has been approved by the Better Business Bureau for all 20 standards for charity accountability, voted by Guidestar's Philanthropedia experts as the #1 high-impact animal protection group, named by Worth Magazine as one of the 10 most fiscally responsible charities, and is ranked in the top 10 for nonprofit brands.