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Animal Research in the College Classroom

Animal research has made contributions to virtually every area of psychology. Although ethical issues regarding the use of animals can arise in any psychology course, this is particularly likely to occur in courses dealing with the brain and behavior. Thus, it is important for instructors of such courses to include the issue of animal research as part of their curriculum.

Following is a brief description of one approach used in a sophomore-level psychobiology course, presented in the hope that it will help others to address this issue in their classes.

The first step in addressing the use of animals is to point out how animal research benefits humans. This begins early in the course with a lecture on the history of neuroscience. Modern neuroscience had its beginnings in the late 19th century when physician-researchers began to study the brain. It was during this time that medicine began to accept the germ theory of disease, due in large part to Louis Pasteur’s research on anthrax and rabies using animals. Painting a vivid picture of the extremely high mortality rates from surgery that preceded the acceptance of the germ theory gives students a dramatic example of how animal research has contributed to human well-being (e.g., Ackerknecht, 1982; Gordon, 1984). It is also noted that there was a violent antivivisection campaign directed against Pasteur which, fortunately, failed to stop his research (Dubos, 1950).

It is important to remind students just how limited our knowledge would be were it not for animal research. Because virtually all understanding of how the brain works is based on animal research, it is not difficult to find examples of benefits throughout a course in psychobiology. The neuron doctrine, the nature of synaptic transmission, the development of the brain, how the senses work, the physiological bases of emotion and mental disorders, etc., are based primarily on animal research.

Those who argue against our use of animals in research often hold humans in low regard while exalting animals, a viewpoint that makes it easier to accept limits on research. Information about both human and animal behavior is presented to counter this view and to put these behaviors in perspective (e.g., Simon, 1996; Gould & Gould, 1997). For example, most students are unaware that overpopulation is not a problem in many countries as human reproductive rates in industrialized countries, including the United States, are now below replacement level, a fact that should reduce human pressure on the environment in general and animal habitats in particular (e.g., Bongaarts, 1998). Similarly, it comes as a surprise to most students that the forests in the United States have increased by 30 percent in the last 50 years or that the large number of deer found in suburbia is not due to human encroachment into deer habitats, but to our creation of ideal habitats for deer (cropland, suburban landscaping) that have led to an explosion in their population (Moffat, 1998; Budiansky, 1995).

With regard to animal behavior, students are made aware of the cruelty and waste of nature (e.g., Gould and Gould, 1997; Weiner, 1994). For example, killer whales have been observed to mortally wound an entire group (pod) of sperm whales, but only eat one (Pitman and Chivers, 1999). In the Antarctic, killer whales are known for eating just the lips and tongues of minke whales, leaving their victims to die.

Animal research, like other forms of domestication, is a mutualistic relationship in which animals, as well as humans, benefit. By being essential to research, laboratory animals have achieved increased numbers, widespread geographical distribution, and greater phenotypic diversity. As in the wild, most animals in the laboratory do not produce offspring. However, as with many wild species, laboratory animals ensure the survival of their genes by making use of the mechanism of kin selection which, in this case, involves using humans to continue their genetic lines by maintaining breeding colonies. This point is made through the assignment of a short book on the mutualistic nature of domestication (Budiansky, 1999) as well as a lecture at the end of the course that applies mutualism to animal research (Heffner, 1999).

It is also noted that it is not appropriate to refer to those who oppose the use of animals as animal “rights” advocates. One reason is because they seek to deny domestic animals the one right they need to survive, that is, the right to associate with humans. Thus, the movement to which they belong is more appropriately referred to as an “antisymbiotic” movement.

Finally, two ethical questions are covered. The first is whether it is fair that most research animals die without breeding and before reaching senility. The answer is that this situation also applies to life in the wild where first-year mortality rates for large mammals are about 80%, due primarily to starvation and disease (e.g., Gould and Gould, 1997). We protect domestic animals from the ravages of the wild and in return make use of those that would have otherwise died. Thus, the actual losers in this relationship are the parasites and predators that attack animals in the wild – and who are the reason why senility is never observed in wild animals (Hayflick, 2000).

The second question is whether humans would accept a relationship in which some of us would die in order to benefit others. The students are asked if they would accept a situation in which our standard of living would be raised, but as a consequence 30,000 people would die each year and over a million would be seriously injured. After they indicate that they would not, it is pointed out that they have already accepted it; these are the accident statistics for passenger vehicles in the United States (Heffner, 1999). In short, if we accept for ourselves the principle that some will inevitably suffer so that we can enjoy the advantages of private transportation, can we then prevent animals from a similar arrangement that ensures their survival?

Students’ response to this approach is generally good. Those from farming backgrounds are often already familiar with how domesticated animals are dependent on us for their survival. Other students appreciate being given the information they need to defend the use of animals. The few students opposed to the use of animals by humans usually have little to say.

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Bongaarts, J. (1998). Demographic consequences of declining fertility. Science, 282,419-420.
Budiansky, S. (1999). The covenant of the wild. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Budiansky, S. (1995). Nature’s keepers. New York: Free Press.
Dubos, R. J. (1950). Louis Pasteur. Boston: Little, Brown.
Gordon, R. (1983). Great medical disasters. New York: Stein and Day.
Gould, J. L., and Gould, C.G. (1997). Sexual selection. New York: W. H. Freeman & Co.
Hayflick, L. (2000). The future of aging. Nature, 408, 267-269.
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Simon, J. (1996). The ultimate resource 2. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
Weiner, J. (1994). The beak of the finch. Vintage Press, NY.

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