by Marc Bekoff -
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
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
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 ([email protected])
teaches in EPO Biology at CU-Boulder.
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