io9’s Revised Lab Animals Article Still Isn’t Good Enough


Recently, I was going through on my phone. Normally io9 articles represent the perfect balance of nerd culture and science writing. I can find a review of the Jurassic World trailer, a review of the Star Wars teaser trailer, and find a blog about that new DNA research I’d been hearing about. But alas, everyone makes mistakes.

Thanksgiving Turkeys That Got Away

The Thanksgiving turkeys that got away.

Begin scene: I was reading io9 on my phone while my husband bought some last minute groceries, I had just finished bagging, for Thanksgiving. I was enjoying being hopelessly and socially unacceptably in love with my phone when I ran into this gem of an article:

“Why the U.S. Is One of the Cruelest Places in the World for Lab Animals” by George Dvorsky

Having worked with animals in a research setting for the past 7 years, I have some opinions on the subject, the most liberal being that at least some provisions should be provided to certain invertebrates. I proceeded to rant at my husband while I read bits and pieces of the article aloud in the car. This behavior lasted the entire trip to my in-law’s house. 70% of what I was reading was not congruent with what I experienced working with research animals with regard to the regulations I had to abide by, the attitudes of researchers, and most frustrating of all, the author kept quoting a representative from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) who clearly had little knowledge of regulations applied to animals in the United States.

After reading and ranting about that abysmal article in the car, I found, to my surprise, a link from my husband on my facebook wall this afternoon. All it said was, “Vindicated.” He had posted a link to a

An  invertebrates that is  very well protected with regard to how it's treated, but that's a whole other story.

An invertebrate that is very well protected with regard to how it’s treated, but that’s a whole other story.

new io9 article:

“Animal Welfare, Science, an Apology and Analysis.” by Annalee Newitz

It’s a response written by io9’s editor to, what was apparently, an overwhelming response by the io9 community complaining about the same issues I just mentioned. Newitz worked with Dvorsky to revise the original article to clearly state that the PETA representative was merely stating her opinion, included quotes from animal researchers, took out some blatantly false pieces of information, and added some new ,mostly correct, information. It’s refreshing when science journalists, of any kind, do the right thing. I was also pleased that, by allowing user feedback and actually interacting with users, io9 was able to achieve a kind of pseudo-peer review process. That’s really cool and goes to show how great the internet is with regard to dissemination of information….aaaand you’ve heard this line a million times.

The article, however, is still missing one giant, PETA soul crushing, piece of information… and it’s driving me mad.

For those of you that haven’t read it, there’s a neat little part about Canada in there:

“The oversight situation is quite different in Canada. While there’s no federal law in Canada to govern the treatment of animals in labs, it does have the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) — a not-for-profit organization that oversees the ethical use of animals in science. This organization actively promotes the ethical use and welfare of animals in science by providing standards informed by scientific evidence, verifying their effective implementation, and by increasing the level of knowledge, awareness, and sensitivity to relevant ethical principles. Any institute in Canada that receives money from a medical research council or big government funding body must be CCAC accredited. To receive money, these institutions must abide by CCAC standards — standards that are considerably better than what’s seen in the United States. That said, it doesn’t have legally binding regulations to empower it, and, due to its limited resources, it can only visit labs every few years or so.”

Dvorsky, in his article, completely neglects to mention to U.S. has its own version of the Canadian Council on Animal Care. In the United States labs can apply for accreditation by the non-profit Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International. AAALAC for short.

Here’s the juicy part. Any institution that wants funding from the National Institute of Health(NIH) must be AAALAC accredited or be evaluated by the NIH itself.  In special situations there is a loophole where institutions can write a letter saying, “We promise we are being good, but our research is really important and we don’t have the money and time for an AAALAC review right this second.”  Luckily that is more the exception than the rule. I digress. The NIH awards billions of dollars in funding to research institutions every year. Likely, at least one researcher at practically every institution is using animal models in studies funded by the NIH, at least in part. That means if the institution, as a whole, wants NIH funding, everyone at that institution must follow the AAALAC rule book, affectionately known as The Guide, to maintain accreditation and therefore funding.

According to a 2003 International Workshop hosted by the National Research Council (US) Institute for Laboratory Animal Research,

” As noted above, the Guide is the principal standard used by both AAALAC and the PHS, with both applying its provisions to all vertebrate animals. When one considers the number of animals being used at academic and other institutions that receive support from the NIH and other PHS agencies, and the fact that all major US pharmaceutical companies and commercial suppliers of animals are accredited by AAALAC, it is reasonable to estimate that 90% or more of the research animals in the United States are cared for and used in programs that apply the standards of the Guide.”

Garter Snake

This is the cutest scaly thing I have been able to photograph.

This confirms my suspicion that most research animals are held to the standard of care outlined in the “The Guide” rather than the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) alone. A major complaint of Dvorsky’s was that the AWA does not define rats, birds, and mice as animals, and therefore has too many loopholes. AAALAC, however, explicitly says that The Guide applies to all vertebrate animals; mice, rats, frogs, snakes, and even fish. Yep, AAALAC provisions for those lovely scaly and slimy things that animal rights activists tend to forget about because they aren’t in the least bit cuddly or neotenous.

“In the Guide, laboratory animals (also referred to as animals) are generally defined as any vertebrate animal (i.e., traditional laboratory animals,agricultural animals, wildlife, and aquatic species) produced for or used in research, testing, or teaching. Animal use is defined as the proper care,use, and humane treatment of laboratory animals produced for or used inresearch, testing, or teaching” -The Guide

Basically the U.S. has the Canadian system with federal regulations on top of it. Though Canada gets extra kudos for provisioning for the humane treatment of cephalopods.Happy Octopus