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15 March 2000 Issue
Animal Models

by Marc Bekoff - bekoffm@spot.Colorado.EDU 

Animals models of human behavior just don't work

Numerous animals are used in experimental research to benefit humans. In 1996, about 1.3 million animals, including 52,000 primates, 82,000 dogs, 26,000 cats, 246,000 hamsters, and 339,000 rabbits were used in the U. S. This staggering number doesn't include rats, mice, and birds who aren't legally protected. It's estimated more than 70 million animals are used annually. One animal dies every three seconds in American laboratories.

Many researchers believe little knowledge useful to humans has been compiled using animal models despite enormous investments of time, money, and animals' lives. In the behavioral sciences, two examples of the inadequacy of animal models are the use of maternal and social deprivation to learn about human depression, and the use of animals to understand human eating disorders, including obesity, anorexia, and bulimia.

Socially deprived monkeys are commonly used to study psychological and physiological aspects of depression. This research continues at CU's Medical School. Individuals typically are removed from their mothers and others soon after birth and raised alone, often in small, barren cages called "depression pits." In their impoverished prisons, isolated monkeys scream in despair, become self-destructive, and eventually withdraw from the world. The only social contacts with these unsocialized, frightened, and distraught monkeys occur when blood is drawn or other physiological measures are taken, or when they are introduced to other monkeys who they avoid, or who maim or occasionally kill them.

Numerous methodological and conceptual flaws plague deprivation studies, yet they're heavily funded by federal agencies as if the lack of human clinical relevance and animals' lives don't matter. They're big business. Even researchers note it's impossible to know if animals are really depressed. They view human depression as a distinctly human condition. Simplistic animal models of human depression don't work for the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of human depression. People who support other forms of animal use are offended by deprivation research. Many believe it should be stopped immediately. No ends justify the means.

Concerning eating disorders, a recent survey showed only 37% of the clinicians who treat these conditions knew about research in which animals are food-deprived and starved, force-fed, or subjected to binge-purge cycles. Of those who did, 87% said animal models weren't used in treatment programs.

The successful use of animals models for application in human clinical practice is extremely low. You probably wouldn't drive to work if you had the same slim chance of arriving successfully.

Convenience and tradition often drive animal use, but neither can adequately defend it, even in biomedical and toxicological research. In 1990, Philip Abelson, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, noted that "The standard carcinogen tests that use rodents are an obsolescent relic of the ignorance of past decades."

Unfortunately, the use of animal models often creates false hopes for humans in need. However, it's estimated that only 1-3.5% of the decline in the rate of human mortality since 1900 has stemmed from animal research. Early animal models of polio actually impeded progress on finding a cure. The New England Journal of Medicine recently called the war on cancer a qualified failure. And over 100,000 people die annually from side effects of animal-tested drugs.

Nonanimal alternatives -- including human studies that are more time-consuming, expensive, risky, and difficult to defend ethically than animal studies -- need to be developed and used to learn about human behavioral and other medical problems. Not only will numerous humans benefit, but so will countless innocent animals.

Marc Bekoff (marc.bekoff@colorado.edu) teaches in EPO Biology at CU-Boulder.

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