Science & Tech

What Animal-Rights Activists Forget

A vial of the measles, mumps, and rubella virus (MMR) vaccine at the International Community Health Services clinic in Seattle, Wash., March 20, 2019. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)
People — and sick animals — have a right to life-saving treatments developed from research on animals.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is demanding a cut of $15 billion a year in the budget of the National Institutes of Health. It’s even lobbying President Trump by driving a mobile billboard around his Mar-a-Lago resort complex. PETA claims that the NIH is spending money on animal experiments “that fail to produce cures or treatments for humans.” How soon we forget our history.

Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, but the Centers for Disease Control says it’s back. There are now 695 cases nationwide — a 300 percent increase from last year at this time.

Coverage of the issue has focused on how the refusal of some ultra-Orthodox Jews and other anti-vaccine parents to immunize their children has led to the return of measles. “With a safe and effective vaccine that protects against measles, the suffering we are seeing is avoidable,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar says.

But the measles outbreak also puts into focus just how dependent we’ve become on medical science. Until the early 1960s, nearly twice as many children died from measles as from polio. But then in 1963, a measles vaccine was developed, and within eight years, a single vaccine was on the market that protected against not only measles but also mumps and rubella. Within three decades, measles was an afterthought.

Some animal-research programs do fail, but it’s very hard to predict which one will in advance. What we do know is that the measles vaccine was one of the big successes that resulted from research on animals. The smallpox vaccine was perfected using research on cows. And the polio vaccine was built on research on monkeys and mice.

Some vaccines have been of direct benefit to animals. Feline leukemia, which kills 85 percent of cats who get it within three years, is now treated with a highly effective vaccine. Dogs can now receive immune-therapy drugs to treat bone cancer; with this treatment, they now have a much higher survival rate from this form of cancer.

A long list of advances including organ transplants, kidney dialysis, and drugs for asthma and diabetes can be credited to animal research. More than 80 percent of the 216 winners of the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine used animals in their research.

The animals used for such research are subject to strict federal regulations. Rules are in place requiring the use of anesthesia or analgesic drugs to prevent them from feeling pain. Research committees must certify that the use of animals is justified and that as few animals as possible are used.

But all this is meaningless to PETA. It is in thrall to an extremist ideology that asserts that nonhuman animals have the same rights as humans — the consequences be damned. As Frederick Goodwin, a former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, and Adrian Morrison, a University of Pennsylvania professor of veterinary medicine, have written, “PETA made it clear that alleged mistreatment of animals was not the real issue. In PETA’s view, animals cannot be used to alleviate health problems of people, period.”

PETA’s extremism on animal rights extends beyond health concerns. In one of many cases of overreach, it once sued zoos in San Diego and Tampa for importing African elephants. The elephants had so overpopulated South Africa’s Kruger National Park they were endangering the local ecosystem. Park authorities were preparing to kill some of the elephants, but the zoos offered to take them in. Attorneys for PETA and other groups sought an injunction against such a move and actually argued that the elephants “will be better off if . . . killed rather than imported and placed in zoos.” Luckily, courts rejected their bizarre argument, just as they have routinely ruled against PETA when it has tried to stop responsible animal testing.

The fair and humane treatment of animals is a highly worthy goal, but it must not become tangled up with extremist ideologies that would lead to more suffering than the pain they are trying to prevent.

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