Larry Carbone, a veterinarian who is in charge of the lab animal welfare assurance program at a major research university, presents this scholarly history of animal rights. Biomedical researchers, and the less fanatical among the animal rights activists will find this book reasonable, humane, and novel in its perspective. It brings a novel, sociological perspective to an area that has been addressed largely from a philosophical perspective, or from the entrenched positions of highly committed advocates of a particular position in the debate.
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Larry Carbone is at University of California, San Francisco.From Scientific American:
The one time I saw the inside of an animal laboratory, at a prestigious university, the veterinarian who showed me around was subsequently fired for that transgression. So it is little surprise that Larry Carbone, a laboratory animal veterinarian, gives us few peeks behind the door: the book has virtually no anecdotes. Instead he takes off the lab's roof to offer a bird's-eye view--distant, measured and worded with sometimes excruciating care--of the battles raging within. A veterinarian's oath binds her to "the benefit of society through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge." It imposes contradictory tasks on the laboratory animal veterinarian. "So you keep them healthy until the scientists can make them sick," Carbone quotes a skeptic as saying. A lab animal vet can please no one, it seems--certainly not the animal lover, who suspects her split loyalties, nor the animal researcher, who resents her attempts to oversee not just animal care but also experimental practice. Carbone, who holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and in the history and philosophy of science, is a vet in the animal facility at the University of California at San Francisco. In early chapters of What Animals Want, he describes the unending philosophical debates over animal care and use, while in the more interesting later chapters he documents the jostling that determined the rather limited turf of the lab animal vet. Laboratories first hired veterinarians in the 1930s, he explains, to assuage public concern over animal care and indeed restricted their duties to keeping animals healthy until needed. With the passage of the Animal Welfare Act in 1966, and its several amendments, veterinarians came to play a more central role. Today they run animal facilities, answer to federal inspectors (most of whom are themselves veterinarians), and advise on anesthesia and other aspects of research. Even so, Carbone notes that supervising veterinarians often cannot keep track of animals once they leave an institution's central animal facility for research. And whereas only veterinarians are authorized to perform surgery on pets, surgery in the lab may be entrusted to an inadequately trained student or technician. And no one is charged with weighing the potential benefits of a research project against the cost, in pain, suffering and death, to the animals. Often the tug-of-war involves the question of what an animal feels. The chapter on mouse decapitation is fascinating, although I cannot recommend it as beachside (and certainly not bedside) reading. Many researchers prefer killing by decapitation, which contaminates tissues less than other methods do. Carbone details how a finding that brain waves in rats persist for up to half a minute after decapitation caused initial concern that the process entails intense pain. That interpretation was instantly smothered by a pile of papers pointing out that such brain waves could mean anything. Indeed, animals are assumed to feel pain in situations where a human would, and in this case we have no way of knowing. Revealingly, though, one paper argued that decapitation was "far too important a tool" to be rescinded on such a flimsy basis. In truth, animal welfare legislation and public concern are both more focused on pain than on death itself. Philosophically, the "cost" of death hinges on the worth of an animal's life. Anyone who has tried to stomp on a cockroach will have gained the impression that even such a lowly creature cherishes life. But how does one measure this value? The question has become critical with a recent explosion in the numbers of transgenic mice--close to 100 million are consumed a year in American labs alone. (In 1996 U.S. laboratories used around 20 million laboratory animals.) Three quarters of the mice are wasted, according to Andrew Rowan of the Humane Society of the United States: now that many institutions have their own breeding facilities, far more mice than needed are being born. The fact that mice are small and virtually indistinguishable compounds the problem: they have become a "standardized animal" to a medical researcher, in the same way that a molecule is a fundamental unit to a chemist. One observer describes scientists using and discarding mice with as much thought as if they were tissues, of the nose-blowing kind. Carbone pleads for treating each mouse as an individual--for assuming its life has some value or for tailoring the dose of an anesthetic to a specific creature's need rather than to the statistically defined response of a "standardized" mouse. His task is made even harder by a 2002 amendment that took birds, rats and mice out of the definition of "animal" in the Animal Welfare Act: these creatures are not protected by federal law. They are not even counted. Most scientists take pride in being caring and sensitive, Carbone notes. Oddly, that can have its downside: "Protecting their self-identification as someone who would not hurt animals could lead these people, ironically, to refuse to see that their animals might indeed be in pain." For such reasons, he argues, laboratory animals should have an in-house advocate--and who better than the veterinarian? One can only hope that such a metamorphosis in her role will come sooner, rather than billions of mice later.
Madhusree Mukerjee has covered the use of animals in laboratories for this magazine, where she was an editor for seven years. She is author of The Land of Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders (Houghton Mifflin, 2003).
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