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Friday, February 24, 2023

What Do We Owe Lab Animals?

Brandon Keim
The New York Times
Originally published 24 Jan 23

Here is an excerpt:

Scientists often point to the so-called Three Rs, a set of principles first articulated in 1959 by William Russell, a sociologist, and Rex Burch, a microbiologist, to guide experimental research on animals. Researchers are encouraged to replace animals when alternatives are available, reduce the number of animals used and refine their use so as to minimize the infliction of pain and suffering.

These are unquestionably noble aims, ethicists note, but may seem insufficient when compared with the benefits derived from animals. Covid vaccines, for example, which were tested on mice and monkeys, and developed so quickly thanks to decades of animal-based work on mRNA vaccine technology, saved an estimated 20 million lives in their first year of use and earned tens of billions of dollars in revenues.

In light of that dynamic — which applies not only to Covid vaccines, but to many other human lifesaving, fortune-generating therapeutics — some wonder if a fourth R might be warranted: repayment.

Inklings of the idea of repayment can already be found in the research community, most visibly in laboratories that make arrangements for animals — primarily monkeys and other nonhuman primates — to be retired to sanctuaries. In the case of dogs and companion species, including rats, they are sometimes adopted as pets.

“It’s kind of karma,” said Laura Conour, the executive director of Laboratory Animal Resources at Princeton University, which has a retirement arrangement with the Peaceable Primate Sanctuary. “I feel like it balances it out a little bit.” The school has also adopted out guinea pigs, anole lizards and sugar gliders as pets to private citizens, and tries to help with their veterinary care.

Adoption is not an option for animals destined to be killed, however, which raises the question of how the debt can be repaid. Lesley Sharp, a medical anthropologist at Barnard College and author of “Animal Ethos: The Morality of Human-Animal Encounters in Experimental Lab Science,” noted that research labs sometimes create memorials for animals: commemorative plaques, bulletin boards with pictures and poems and informal gatherings in remembrance.

“There is this burden the animal has to carry for humans in the context of science,” Dr. Sharp said. “They require, I think, respect, and to be recognized and honored and mourned.”

She acknowledged that honoring sacrificed animals was not quite the same as giving something back to them. To imagine what that might entail, Dr. Sharp pointed to the practice of donating one’s organs after death. Transplant recipients often want to give something in return, “but the donor is dead,” Dr. Sharp said. “Then you need somebody who is a sort of proxy for them, and that proxy is the close surviving kin.”

If someone receives a cornea or a heart from a pig — or funding to study those procedures — then they might pay for the care of another pig at a farmed animal sanctuary, Dr. Sharp proposed: “You’re going to have animals who stand in for the whole.”