Furthering science or exploiting nature?
If you Google PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) or ALF (Animal Liberation Front) you can have access to hours of testimony and video about the potential horrors of animal experimentation.
Dating back 30 or 40 years, the evidence is horrific.
For instance, the University of Pennsylvania was exposed by PETA in 1985 for tests they undertook which analyzed head injuries by using monkeys. Primates would be strapped down and their skulls smashed using pneumatic hammers.
Also recorded in history are examples of lipstick being tested on pigs and cleaning products dropped in the eyes of rabbits.
However, not all research that uses animals is unethical. Canadian universities are forced to adhere to strict standards outlined by the Canadian Council on Animal Care. Going against these protocols can result in astronomical fines and loss of federal research funding.
The research done at Laurier that uses animals is heavily monitored by the Laurier Animal Care Committee (ACC), which is comprised of both science and non-science faculty and members of the Waterloo community not associated with the university.
The ACC oversees the treatment of animals in the facility and is responsible for approving or disapproving every scientific experiment done that uses an animal.
Not many students know that Laurier houses an animal care facility, located on the first floor of the science building behind the Tim Hortons.
Research with rats
Historically, psychologists have utilized rats and pigeons for their experiments, while biologists more often use fish and reptiles. The Laurier Animal Care Facility has at one point housed fish, pigeons, rats, shrews and frogs.
Currently the facility is home to pigeons, fish and rats.
Many experiments use rats to study behavioural science. For example, in psychology classes students may have to train their rat to push a lever where the rat then receives a reward.
Laura Tomkins is a third-year biology student currently enrolled in the Research and Learning course where she has her own rat, whom she has named Basil.
She has to go into the undergraduate holding room, weigh her rat and feed it daily. Students also spend some social time with their rats, petting and playing with them.
Failure to comply with ethics standards could result in loss of funding.
The interaction between rat and handler is for the purpose of getting the rat used to being handled. This acts as a control mechanism when rats are tested during psychology tests, as they are no longer nervous of their testers.
Although students have the opportunity to adopt their rat after their semester of experiments, the rats left behind are eventually recycled for use in other experiments.
“When we kill the animals, it’s not cruel because the animal doesn’t feel it because everything has to go through the ethics board,” says Tomkins. “If it was a painful death, they wouldn’t allow it.”
Tomkins has witnessed the death of many rats during her time in the biology department. In the past, rats were injected, but today rats are gassed before they are killed during a drawn-out process to ensure the dead rats can be used at a later date.
“They tied the rat up, pinched his skin, cut through his diaphragm and then … saline solution [is injected] into the rat. He’s not dead yet, not until all the blood is drained out due to the saline solution going through,” explains Tomkins.
Despite the graphic nature of the death of the rats, Tomkins maintains that it is to ensure that the rats are useful for further experimentation.
She also explains that those with expertise are always present for invasive procedures such as this.
“We can’t have any blood clots to the brain and the heart,” said Tomkins. “When we killed the animals for [Research in Biopsychology] they were overdosed. They were unconscious by the time we killed them, for all we know they were happy and high.”
Tomkins always keeps the end goal in mind when she is confronted with the gory nature of dissection in the labs.
“It’s always for science and improved research and to improve the lives of others,” she said.
The Laurier science faculty was surprised to learn about the many misconceptions that exist amongst the students in regards to animal testing.
Their initial responses were surprise, and laughter.
“One thing I want to know is where these misconceptions come from,” mused Laurier psychology professor Angelo Santi, who teaches Psychology 361: Research in Learning this semester. “Do people invent them up on the weekends when they’ve had too much to drink?”
When it comes to the killing or dissecting of an animal, concerns and misconceptions arise regarding whether students’ participation in these exercises become optional for those who wish not to participate.
Rudy Eikelboom, chair of Laurier’s psychology department, oversees students in a number of different masters programs.
He says that in biology and psychology courses, certain procedures are optional and will not affect a student’s mark.
“An opportunity is provided to the student to learn some skills and they’re always warned well in advance if something is happening that is particularly invasive, if you want to stay away on this day, do. It’s not a marks thing,” says Eikelboom.
Groups like LSETA lobby for computer simulations of dissection instead of the usage of real rats. Laurier currently offers both options.
The Laurier Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (LSETA) is a group at Laurier, that describes themselves as “a working group that aims to promote a change in how we view and treat animals.” Currently LSETA’s facebook group boasts 55 members.
“It’s really hard for those of us who love animals,” said Catherine Bradley, the president of LSETA, about the animal experiments that Laurier is involved with.
Bradley says that LSETA is pushing for a choice policy, which would allow for students to use computer programs that simulate animal experimentation.
“I know that at other universities, especially Harvard, has a whole software system setup so they don’t have to dissect animals,” said Bradley.
Evolution of ethics
When Eikelboom was doing his graduate work in Quebec more than 30 years ago, he admits that things were ethically different.
It wasn’t that the animals weren’t treated respectfully, everything was less regulated than it is now.
Eikelboom remembers carrying rats in a bucket through a public space from one facility to another.
“You’d never see a science student doing that through the atrium in the science building,” he said.
“There’s no doubt there’s things [that were] done to animals 30 or 40 years ago that would no longer be acceptable, that wouldn’t get through an ethics committee.”
Eikelboom hopes that knowledge regarding ethics boards and the strict guidelines experiments are subject to being available to groups against animal testing will help lessen the gap between those who believe animal testing furthers science and those who believe it to be cruel.
“People have to be open to having their minds changed,” said Eikelboom. “If you have already closed the door on any sort of justification of doing research or not doing research it’s hard to change minds.”
And although Eikelboom is of the opinion that experiments should always be carried out in the best interest of science, there may be no end to the polarization of those who support animal testing and those who lobby against it.
“We have to figure out as a society how to live with that diversity of an opinion,” Eikelboom said.
It appears as though Laurier adheres to scientific merit and the ethical treatment of animals.
However, some may disagree with the usage of animals in settings much like the one we have at Laurier in spite of this.