In a court case that set the animal rights community ablaze, the New York Supreme Court issued a writ of habeas corpus for two chimpanzees in captivity at Stony Brook University. A court hearing to determine whether the two chimps, Hercules and Leo, should remain in the lab or be sent to a sanctuary on the basis of the right to “bodily freedom” was held on the 27th of May, says an article in Science.1 Many have suggested that this series of events demands a reevaluation of current policy on research animals, but how far will these rights extend, and at what expense to the research community? As a prospective veterinary student, animal shelter worker, and animal rights enthusiast, most would expect my opinion to be in full support of freeing the chimps. However when animal research enters the news, the existing framework of legislation that protects research animals from undue harm is rarely mentioned. The rules are laid out with full consideration of the needs and well being of the animals involved, and while this case is important to open the conversation on the rights of research animals, inspection of the current policies proves that the appropriate measures are in place.
Crucial to many fields of science, non-human animal research has been a necessary component of scientific development from the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. Dr. Rachel Hajar explains this history in an article entitled “Animal Testing and Medicine”, making clear that animal research is not a new concept. Aristotle and the physician Galen used animals for experimental analysis of anatomy and physiology, though the first documented use of animal models for human medical procedures began with the 12th century Arab physician Ibn Zuhr.2 In modernity animals are widely utilized for biomedical research, and with the spread of animal research has come much debate on its ethics. But how do we establish a balance between protecting the rights of animals and advancing the many fields in which they promote research development?
Naturally, the debate on animal testing has ultimately resulted in substantial legislature both encouraging and restricting its practice. Hajar describes a 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in response to a crisis resulting from the mass production and prescription of the poisonous drug DEG that required safety testing of all pharmaceuticals on animals prior to marketing to humans.3 Trials are a necessity of the scientific method and must be carried out carefully to ensure that when pharmaceuticals and surgical methods move to the general population they will be safe. Thus animal research can be considered a necessary step in the process of drug testing; when the choice is between testing a drug with unknown complications on a human subgroup and a lab of research animals, using animals who can be studied in a more controlled setting and are apt to be less aware of and less affected by the experimentation is preferable. Thanks to the practices of animal research mandated by the 1938 act, one can take prescribed medications with full understanding of what side effects and benefits should be expected.
Since this proclamation, significant efforts have been made to maximize the progress facilitated by animal research and minimize the harms associated with it. As Hajar summarizes, “this has led to the 3Rs campaign, which advocates the search (1) for the replacement of animals with non-living models; (2) reduction in the use of animals; and (3) refinement of animal use practices”.4 Examples of these practices include the use of smaller populations of research animals, euthanasia in cases of suffering, release into protected nature preserves of research animals, and the use of “lower” organisms in place of mammals and non-human primates. This campaign preserves the dignity of animals by preventing mistreatment in research.
Ultimately, the court order presented to Leo and Hercules may draw the attention of the masses to animal testing, but it doesn’t negate the importance of animal research for scientific progress. While a life in a laboratory is by no means ideal for a chimpanzee, the gains of this research outweigh the costs when existing policies for the proper treatment of research animals are satisfied. Indeed, a significant portion of animal research is carried out with the goal of benefitting the species in question. Conservation efforts would be severely hindered if no animals were brought into the lab. I myself carried out research on threespine stickleback fish that pitted them against a natural predator, the dragonfly nymph, to observe escape mechanisms. While this research seems potentially cruel, the knowledge obtained can be utilized to preserve the species given an enhanced understanding of the dangers they face in the wild. It is widely believed that the sacrifice of laboratory mice or even chimps to spare humans in research is equally as beneficial to the greater good.
Should chimpanzees be given human rights? The essential human rights are rooted in those qualities that distinguish human beings from non-human animals— namely, an awareness, understanding, and emotional investment in one’s circumstance superior to that experienced (to the best of our knowledge) by other animals. However, this case has raised the question of whether or not these traits really are restricted to human beings. According to a Nonhuman Rights Project article on the chimps’ hearing, aspects of chimpanzee nature that were considered arguments for an extension of the animals’ rights included intelligence, autonomy and self-consciousness.5 Chimps are not only aware of their surroundings and their situation but are capable of planning and goal setting, suggesting that the toll of being in the lab may be far more substantial than previously thought. These arguments identified that the right to a court hearing and writ of habeas corpus is not about human beings but about individual freedom— a right that arguably applies to some non-human primates as well. While no verdict has been released as of yet, the nature of the hearing as described in the Nonhuman Rights Project article concurs with what I have said above: this case is less about the fate of Leo and Hercules and more about raising awareness of animal welfare practices in research.
We should use recent events, as always, to evaluate current practices and ensure that the needs of research animals are being addressed. We should recognize that while the nature of chimpanzees is such that they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, policies are in place to restrict research on non-human primates for this precise reason. Outlined on the USDA National Agricultural Library website, the Animal Welfare Act requires that all research animals be treated humanely, including a standardized certification process for “humane handling, care, treatment, and transportation of animals”.6 While this is the only federal law protecting animals in research, individual groups and facilities have formulated extensions of the law that further expand these rights and protections. One might doubt that these policies would be enforced given the absence of extensive federal regulations, but nearly all private and government research grants require specific care practices and training in humane policy for researchers. Anyone who has carried out research knows the motivating power of conditional funding.
The New York Supreme Court may have the final say in the battle over Leo and Hercules’ freedom, but the everyday actions of researchers and grant writers ensure the freedom of the animal kingdom as a whole— a freedom which rests on the knowledge obtained by controlled animal research. Without animal subjects, pharmaceutical and medical developments would practically halt and the risks to the general population of untested new products, as precedence suggests, would be severe. The toll on conservation and physiological advancement would be comparable. Only with the rise of artificially generated tissues, organs, and perhaps full organisms can we reduce the need for research animals, but even this brings new controversies. Indeed, while not ideal, animal testing seems our best bet, and thus it is the responsibility of groups such as the Nonhuman Rights Project to continue to push the research community to abide by the rules established for the sake of all the Leos and Hercules’ of the world.
1 David Grimm. “Updated: Judge’s Ruling Grants Legal Right to Research Chimps.” Science, 22 April 2015. Web. 5 June 2015. <http://news.sciencemag.org/plants-animals/2015/04/judge-s-ruling-grants-legal-right-research-chimps>
5 “Media Coverage: Hercules and Leo’s Court Hearing.” Nonhuman Rights Project, 29 May 2015. Web. 5 June 2015.<http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/2015/05/29/media-coverage-
6 “Laboratory Animals.” USDA National Agricultural Library, 4 June 2015. Web. 5
June 2015. <http://awic.nal.usda.gov/government-and-professional-
The opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of Boston College or the Boston College Biology department, and are solely the opinions of the student author.