Ever wondered what happens to animals in laboratories?
A whistleblower has just leaked photos and allegations of animal abuse at a Harvard lab. If you’re thinking, “Haven’t I heard this one before?” it’s because you pretty much have. The source, a Harvard Medical School (HMS) insider, reached out to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The whistleblower describes HMS experimenters injecting mice and rats with caustic materials, and killing and decapitating the animals.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, PETA then secured correspondence between HMS and the National Institutes of Health (which funds a lot of HMS’s experiments on animals). The 224 pages of correspondence documents more than 74 incidents from December 2012 to October 2015, of HMS failing to meet animal welfare guidelines. The documents show that animals suffered pain, injury, and death as a result of neglect, incompetence, and deviations from approved protocol.
Mice died from thirst when no one noticed their water bottles had emptied. Mice died from radiation overdose; suffered temporary paralysis; and fell lame after experimental surgeries. Workers failed to monitor mice who grew tumors larger than what the study’s protocol permitted. A marmoset monkey fractured her leg bone when someone tried to catch her incorrectly. Hundreds of zebrafish died after their life support system got turned off by accident—twice. A mouse died in a cage left in a remote area of the laboratory. The lab had forgotten him.
I think Harvard can do better.
If you’re wondering whether this level of disregard for life happens in laboratories beyond our university, it does. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) excludes most mice and rats from its definition of “animal.” This means they lack protection from the only federal law with legally-enforceable standards for the treatment of animals in labs. AWA also excludes birds bred for use in experiments, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and agricultural animals used in agricultural experiments.
So there’s no government agency standing at the ready to issue a citation, give a fine, or take any other action to protect mice, rats, and other excluded animals—regardless of what happens to them. This problem goes far beyond Harvard. Take something simple, like giving animals pain relief after using them in painful experiments. A survey found that mice and rats who undergo painful, invasive procedures like abdominal surgeries, burn experiments, and spinal surgeries only receive post-procedural pain relief about 20 percent of the time.
Mice and rats are mammals, like us. They have nervous systems similar to ours. They feel pain, fear, loneliness, and pleasure like we do. They experience consciousness. They get emotionally attached to each other. Male mice woo mates with love songs. Infant rats giggle when tickled. Rats show empathy when they see another rat in distress. And they exhibit altruism, putting themselves in harm’s way rather than allowing another to suffer.
It’s time we exhibited a little altruism ourselves. When it comes to animals suffering and dying at the world’s #1 university, enough is enough.
Alene Anello is a third-year Harvard Law student and outgoing president of HLS Student Animal Legal Defense Fund.
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