LABORATORY ANIMAL NUMBERS: GOOD NEWS OR BAD? by Andrew Rowan

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1994:

In March of this year, I reported that the number of
laboratory animals used annually had declined by up to 50%
in many European countries and also probably in the United
States. I based this conclusion on a variety of sources. In
Europe, Great Britain and the Netherlands have collected
data on laboratory animal numbers with reasonable diligence,
and their records are usually regarded as being reliable. In
both cases, laboratory animal use has fallen by approximate-
ly 50% since the mid-1970s. Switzerland also reports a 50%
decline between 1980 and 1990; the sources for this claim
are news reports in the scientific literature. Similarly,
France, Italy, Sweden, and Germany all report declining
use, although their records are incomplete and cover only a
few years in the 1980s and 1990s. Canada, via the Canadian
Council on Animal Care, also reports significant declines in
the use of the common laboratory mammals.

In the U.S, there are no satisfactory time-series
data that can be used to discern trends in animal use. The
USDA has collected data on laboratory animal use for pri-
mates, dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, and rabbits since
1972, for wild animals from 1972 until 1989, for farm ani-
mals from 1990 to 1993, and for “other” animals from 1990
to 1993, exclusive of mice, rats, and birds. These data are
not as reliable as they should be. For starters, institutions
which file their annual reports late are never included in the
yearly USDA report to Congress. Second, there are numer-
ous errors in transposing the data from the individual institu-
tional reports and in adding up the numbers. Sometimes
there errors involve transposing numbers across two years.
For example, the numbers of animals reported used by feder-
al laboratories in 1988 are exactly the same as the numbers
reported for 1989. Coincidences do occur, but this one is
difficult to accept.
Another source of data on laboratory animal use in
the U.S. is the Institute for Laboratory Animal Resources of
the National Research Council. From 1965 to 1971, ILAR
conducted surveys of institutional laboratory animal use,
covering all species, by sending out questionaires to every
institution on their mailing list and tabulating whatever was
returned. The number of returns varied from year to year,
but the tabulated numbers do provide an estimate (a lower
bound perhaps) of laboratory animal use. In addition, ILAR
did two surveys of laboratory animal resources, including
animal use, in 1967 and 1978. The 1967 laboratory animal
resources survey records a lower animal use than the general
ILAR animal use survey of the same year, for reasons that
remain unclear. Also, there is a small difference between
the ILAR 1978 count of the six species enumerated by the
USDA and the count in the USDA annual report to
Congress. The reasons for this difference are also unclear.
Finally, there are a variety of anecdotal sources on
animal use in the U.S. These include verbal comments from
individuals who are familiar with the laboratory animal
breeding business, reports by companies such as Hoffman-
LaRoche and Ciba Geigy (who both report a 70-75% decline
in animal use during the 1980s), and data on Department of
Defense laboratory animal use in a recent report to the
Armed Forces subcommittee in the House of
Representatives. Most people who have tried to determine
trends in laboratory animal use in the U.S. have either relied
on the two ILAR laboratory animal resource surveys of 1967
and 1978, which report a 40% decline in animal use, or on
the USDA annual reports to Congress. However, since the
USDA started issuing reports in 1972, it has been difficult to
discern consistent trends, as Dr. Barbara Orlans pointed out
this year in an article published in the journal Perpectives in
Biology and Medicine. When I did my analysis of the num-
bers, I included the ILAR surveys from 1965 to 1971.
During 1968 and 1969, the ILAR surveys recorded an aver-
age of 2.9 million primates, dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea
pigs, and rabbits, the six species tracked by the USDA since
1972. By 1992, the USDA report enumerated only 1.4 mil-
lion of these six species. Hence, I concluded from this and
the other sources mentioned above that laboratory animal use
had declined by approximately 50% since the late 1960s.
This conclusion drew quick attack from the animal
activist community, although none of those who questioned
the numbers took the trouble to confront me (unlike Dr.
Orlans, who let me know immediately that she disagreed,
and asked me to provide details of my analysis––which I was
happy to provide). I understand, for example, that Gary
Francione of the Rutgers Animal Rights Law Clinic dis-
agreed strongly with my assessment at the Summit for
Animals in Boston. Others in the animal rights movement
have subsequently told me that feeling against my conclusion
that laboratory animal use is declining remains strong. I
have been intrigued by the reaction and disappointed by the
apparent reluctance of any of those who disagree with me to
confront me directly (Dr. Orlans being a welcome excep-
tion). Let me deal with these two issues separately.
Why not accept success?
Why would animal rights activists be so upset by a
conclusion that laboratory animal use is falling? It is note-
worthy that there has been a similar reaction to the discovery
that the number of dogs and cats being euthanized in the
nation’s animal shelters has fallen dramatically, so the
response to the laboratory animal numbers is not an isolated
phenomenon. I see the negative reaction as being the oppo-
site of what might be expected, given that animal rights
activists have been campaigning for decades to reduce and
replace laboratory animal use and suffering. Why are
activists not then overjoyed that their campaigns are achiev-
ing a measure of success?
I have spoken to a number of people in the animal
rights movement about this counter-intuitive reaction, and
have received the following explanations. First, animal
rights activists simply do not trust the data base and the ana-
lyst. There is not much I can say if they distrust my scholar-
ship and motives because they perceive me as being
employed by “the enemy,” even if I did work for the
Foundation for the Replacement of Animals in Medical
Experimentation and the Humane Society of the U.S. for
seven and a half years, promoting alternatives to laboratory
animal use. However, I can respond to a lack of trust in the
data base. It is certainly true that the USDA and ILAR num-
bers are laced with errors and discrepancies, but these were
not the sole sources of the data. All the other sources that
were investigated also endorsed the conclusion that laborato-
ry animal use is declining. It would be difficult to explain
why this decline should occur in Europe, where the main
data bases are less error-prone, but not in the U.S.
Second, it has been suggested that activists may
accept that there has been some decline in laboratory animal
use, but that the decline is only temporary, and is about to
be dramatically reversed because of genetic engineering tech-
nology. It is true that the use of transgenic animals is one of
the few growth areas in the statistics on animal use in Great
Britain, and I would be very surprised if researchers were
not using more transgenic animals in the U.S. as well.
However, I would also be surprised if such use led to any
significant growth in total animal use. There are a number of
forces at work, some owing their existence to pressure from
the animal protection movement, that will tend to push labo-
ratory animal use down rather than up in the next 10 years.
Third, there are those within the animal rights
movement who fear that the “success” of a 50% reduction in
laboratory animal use will lead to a loss of support for the
ultimate goal which is the elimination of all laboratory use.
This may be why Gary Francione reacted so strongly: he is a
leader of the school of thought that we need an “animal
rights” revolution in attitudes and behavior, rather than a
wishy-washy “animal welfare”-driven evolution of societal
change. However, while some activists are pushing for a
revolutionary change and consequently appear to fear that
evolution will sap their ability to evoke widespread public
outrage, many other activists are still pushing forward with
incremental proposals to improve the lot of laboratory and
other animals. To date, history is all on the side of the evo-
lutionists, and I would argue that they actively need the
encouragement that laboratory animal use numbers are
declining. After all, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in
the research laboratory, if one’s actions are rewarded, one
continues. If one’s actions are not rewarded, one drops out.
Positive reinforcement really does work!
Let me turn now to the second issue, of why
activists have not confronted me to challenge my conclu-
sions. In part, probably a very large part, this is because
they presume that because I am employed at a veterinary
school, I must be trying to portray scientists in the most pos-
itive light possible. However, as an academic, I should be
dedicated to a search for the Truth. It is certainly true that
few of us can ever completely escape the influences of our
environment, and it is also true that a great deal of rubbish
has emanated from academics who should be much more
self-critical, especially when they venture into fields far
removed from their own. Nonetheless, I should like to let
the readers of ANIMAL PEOPLE know that I should be
happy to engage in a dialog with anyone who is sincerely
interested in exposing the errors in my analysis. The data
base is such that there is certainly room for disagreement.
Finally, I have been involved in campaigns to pro-
mote alternatives and to improve the lot of laboratory ani-
mals since 1976, when I joined FRAME in London as their
Scientific Administrator. When I stop and look back at what
has happened in the past 18 years, I am amazed at the
amount of progress that has been achieved. It should also be
abundantly clear that the reduction of animal use and the
improvement in laboratory animal care and housing has
occurred during a period when biological knowledge and
technology has exploded. Thus, both scientists and animal
activists should be pleased. I wonder if it will be possible to
reduce laboratory animal use by another 50%, to 25% of
what it was in 1970, by 2010?
To obtain my complete analysis of laboratory ani-
mal numbers, please write to me c/o the Tufts Center for
Animals and Public Policy, 200 Westboro Road, North
Grafton, MA 01536; call 508-839-7991; or e-mail to
arowan@opal.tufts.edu.
Editor’s note: a cynic might suggest that the reluc
tance of many organizations to accept the data on declining
laboratory animal use and shelter euthanasias may perhaps
subconsciously reflect their economic dependence upon cam
paigns built around these issues. It is also worth noting that
while transgenic animal use is likely to increase, the use of
animals genetically modified to mimic human disease
responses should lower overall animal use, by reducing the
number of experiments needed to derive meaningful results.
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