The Animal Welfare Act Claims Rats and Mice Are Not Animals
September 29, 2016
By Marc Bekoff
This essay appeared originally in Psychology Today and the Huffington Post.
Where have all the scientists gone? Bad welfare is bad for animals and bad for science because of abnormal and non-repeatable results
While talking with a colleague about the use and abuse of individuals called “laboratory animals,” I was reminded that the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is celebrating its 50th anniversary (for more about the AWA please see). I was stunned, because while some people are celebrating this event and joyfully claiming nonhuman animals (animals) are much better off than they were in the past, an incredible amount of invasive research that causes deep pain, suffering, and death still is business as usual in the United States and abroad (please also see). In earlier essays, I called into question just how good the AWA is for research animals (please see, for example, “Animal welfare and the federal Animal Welfare Act: Are animals really better off?”, “Rats Like Tickling: Why Is the Animal Welfare Act So Lame?”, and “Invasive ‘Rat Research’ Should Be Abolished Once and For All”), and a recent research paper motivated me revisit this question.
The research paper that got me thinking once again about the AWA, by Joanna Makowska and Daniel Weary, is called “The importance of burrowing, climbing and standing upright for laboratory rats,” and is available online. The abstract for their paper reads as follows:
Standard laboratory cages prevent rats (Rattus norvegicus) from performing many behaviours that they perform in the wild, but little is known about how this may affect their welfare. The aims of this study were (i) to record the propensity to burrow, climb and stand upright in 3-, 8- and 13-month old laboratory rats housed in semi-naturalistic environments and (ii) to compare the frequency of lateral stretching in semi-naturalistic versus standard-housed rats; we predicted standard-housed rats would perform more lateral stretches to compensate for the inability to stretch upright. Rats’ propensity to burrow remained constant as they aged (approx. 30 bouts per day totalling 20–30 min), suggesting burrowing is important to rats. Climbing decreased from 76 to 7 bouts per day at 3 versus 13 months, probably because of declining physical ability. Upright standing decreased from 178 to 73 bouts per day, but continued to be frequently expressed even in older rats. Standard-housed rats stretched much more frequently than semi-naturalistic-housed rats (53 versus 6 bouts per day at 13 months), perhaps in compensation for inability to stretch upright and to relieve stiffness caused by low mobility associated with standard housing. These findings suggest that standard laboratory cages interfere with important natural behaviours, which is likely to compromise rat welfare.
In essence, and not surprisingly, performing natural behaviors is important for rats. This is hardly surprising. However, not only do the rats want to perform burrowing, climbing, and standing upright, but the inability to perform these behaviors not only comprises their welfare, but also can compromise science. In an interview in an essay by David Freeman called “Lab Rats’ Cramped Cages Called Bad For Animals And Science Too,” lead researcher Joanna Makowska notes, “These animals are not ‘normal,’ and therefore may yield ‘abnormal’ results’...This leads to lack of reproducibility between studies, as well as lack of validity of the results because these results may be idiosyncratic to the specific animals who were used in a particular study, rather than to ‘rats’ in general.”
Along these lines, Dr. Larry Carbone, a laboratory animal veterinarian at the University of California at San Francisco, notes, “Scientists have to make sure that their use of animals really does lead to quality, useful data...and they have to do their best to meet current standards of animal welfare.” (For more on the lack of reliability in studies using nonhuman animals please see some essays here.)
The money-driven animal-industrial breeding industry does well to have rats and mice removed from the animal kingdom: It’s a shameful self-serving sham
I am always incredulous that the AWA does not consider rats of the genus Rattus and mice of the genus Mus to be animals. Other animals also are conveniently tossed out of the animal kingdom. When I tell people this they are shocked. We know from detailed scientific research that they have highly evolved cognitive and emotional capacities, they experience empathy, and rats laugh and like to be tickled. And, we know that tickling laboratory rats is good for science. What more do we need to show that these are sentient beings with rich and deep emotional lives?
The science that clearly shows these rodents are sentient beings continues to be totally ignored. Thus, in the 2002 iteration of the AWA, we read,
“Enacted January 23, 2002, Title X, Subtitle D of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, changed the definition of ‘animal’ in the Animal Welfare Act, specifically excluding birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research.”
The first time I saw this I had to read it a few times to be sure my eyes were still working. They were and still are.
Birds and fishes also get incorrectly and misleadingly dissed (for more on the cognitive and emotional lives of birds, please see Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence, and for more on fishes, please see What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins).
Yes, these rodents and some other animals are not considered to be animals. And numerous scientists sign on to this ludicrous claim. I’ve pondered the question, “How do you explain to a youngster that rats aren’t really animals?” It beats me, but it’s clear they’re written off because of their widespread use and because they make a lot of money for those who wantonly breed and use them in all sorts of research.
Of course, they are animals. They surely aren’t plants. And, they surely aren’t inanimate objects. But the money-driven animal-industrial breeding industry and the careers of many scientists do well to have them removed from the animal kingdom, and allow them to be horrifically abused as if they were non-feeling objects. This is a classic—some might say iconic—example of how animal welfare patronizes other animals.
It all comes down to the fact that science surely is voracious, as Dr. John Gluck aptly notes (please see his essay called “Second Thoughts of an Animal Researcher” and his forthcoming book Voracious Science and Vulnerable Animals: A Primate Scientist’s Ethical Journey), in this case devouring millions upon millions of animal lives and lots of money for a wide variety of research projects. As one of my non-scientists friends said when he learned about the exclusion of rats, mice, and other animals from the animal kingdom, “This is a shameful self-serving sham. How do they get away with this nonsense? Why aren’t the researchers protesting this?” It’s difficult to disagree with him and difficult to explain how highly educated biologists continue to benefit under this idiocy.
We must close the knowledge gap and use what we know from detailed comparative research to protect other animals
Focusing on rodents for now, it’s high time to “reclassify” rats of the genus Rattus and mice of the genus Mus as animals, for they surely are, and for demanding the termination of invasive and abusive research on these sentient beings. Laws and regulations for protecting other animals from harm, suffering, and death must keep up with the latest science, and we’ve known for years that those rodents, and many other animals who are routinely used and abused in research, suffer not only their pains but also those of others. So too do “food animals” and “fashion animals,” and those sentient beings who are used for entertainment and who suffer immensely to make us laugh. We must close the knowledge gap and use what we know from detailed comparative research to protect other animals. Science could save animals, but it’s not doing a very good job at doing so.
Where are all the scientists who know that rats and mice are sentient animal beings?
A much-needed call to action. Before people pat themselves on the back and claim that things are just fine, and better than they were years ago for the billions of research animals who suffer and die at our hands, I hope people far and wide will call for an immediate and thorough revision of the Animal Welfare Act and other legislation that takes into account the results of detailed research, and that researchers themselves will actively partake in the process of restoring rats, mice, and other animals to the animal kingdom, the place where they clearly belong. Indeed, researchers should mandate an immediate, biologically-based corrective to the AWA and openly lead the way.
When I’ve talked with some researchers, they openly express their incredulity for removing these animals from the animal kingdom, but they don’t do anything about it. It’s about time they did. Surely, it would make them seem more credible in the eyes of non-researchers, many of whom are themselves incredulous that they allow animals to be classified as non-animals.
A better life is not necessarily a good life. “But, we’re giving animals a better life,” some researchers claim. While many researchers say they’re working hard to give animals a better life, a better life is not necessarily a good life. I often wonder why so many researchers balk when I ask them if they would treat their companion dog in the ways they treat laboratory rats and mice. And, while researchers are busy pondering how to give other animals “a good death”—“humane killing” some call it—they also should be pondering how to end the lethal research once and for all. What’s taken to be a good death for researchers likely isn’t a good death that was preceded by a good life for the animals who they used.
Some people also claim that science is supposed to be objective and scientists shouldn’t be activists. Well, clearly science is not objective because we know rats, mice, many other non-animals, and individuals of species who are still considered to be animals experience rich emotional lives (please also see), and by not coming out against this misclassification and the reprehensible abuse that follows, they are indeed activists for the animal-industrial complex. Not to do something is to do something, and this silence amounts to activism against the animals.
There shall be no more excuses for those who ignore the latest and greatest science about the fascinating, rich, and deep emotional lives of other animals. And where are all of the scientists who know that rats and mice are sentient animal beings? If they don’t know these facts they shouldn’t be doing the research they’re doing. How do they and the USDA get away with this sham? Why aren’t they demanding a revision that correctly classifies rats, mice, and other so-called “non-animals” as the animals they truly are? After all, they brag and exaggerate the utility of “animal models” of human disease, for example, but they don’t consider the millions upon millions of rats and mice who are used annually in often horrific research to be animals.
Simply put, they want it both ways. But, it’s about time that people question this incredibly fallacious stance. Try explaining to a youngster, a student studying biology, or to people who look to science for guidance that rats, mice, and some other animals are not animals.
Let’s celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Animal Welfare Act by immediately placing rats and mice back into the animal kingdom
Let’s celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Animal Welfare Act by immediately placing rats and mice back into the animal kingdom. And let’s tighten up all legislation so that the lives of all individual animals are well protected from abuse. It’s high time to replace the science of animal welfare with the science of animal well-being in which the life of each and every individual matters so that they can live free of pain, suffering, and death. It seems laughable that rats, mice, and other animals aren’t considered to be animals in the latest iteration of the Animal Welfare Act, but it is not! It’s a tragic sham that results in horrific pain, suffering, and death “in the name of science” and, some rightly say, “in the name of money.”
It’s bad self-serving science that makes numerous researchers look ridiculous and unprofessional because they know—yes, they know—that these animals are not only animals, but also sentient beings who care about what happens to themselves, their families, and friends. By speaking out they are supporting good science and the animals need all the friends they can get. If those who draft the revisions of the AWA don’t listen to the very researchers who have done the research on the cognitive and emotional lives of these sentient beings, they surely won’t listen to non-researchers. And, right now, they don’t listen to anyone, perhaps because enough researchers simply have not said “enough is enough,” rats, mice, and other non-animals are animals.
Let’s also not forget that World Animal Day is rapidly approaching on October 4, and we can begin to celebrate this very special day as well by putting rats, mice, and other animals back where they belong and calling for rigorous revisions and enforcement of legislation that supposedly protects the dignity and lives of billions of nonhuman animals who are used and abused each and every year in a wide variety of venues.
About the Author
Marc Bekoff, author of The Emotional Lives of Animals, is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a former Guggenheim fellow. He has published more than a thousand scientific and popular essays and thirty books. His forthcoming book co-authored with Jessica Pierce, The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, will be released in April 2017. He lives in Boulder. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcBekoff and visit his website.