Killing One Primate to Save Another: The Ethics of Animal Rights

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
—Mohandas Ghandi

A fire-bomb is left (undetonated) on the porch. Lives and careers shift. Laws are made and broken. What is it? Religious conflict? Ideological rifts? Kind of.

In this week’s Nature, the scientist Dario Ringach tells the disturbing story of how, because he did research on primates, he was targeted for violent treatment by so-called ‘animal rights extremists’; how after the fire-bomb incident (the bomb was accidentally left on the wrong scientist’s doorstep), for fear of his and his family’s safety, he discontinued his animal research; how he is speaking up now, three years later, because “we’re getting awfully close to the situation where somebody may be killed. There is a general trend toward polarization in our society.”

There is a lot going on here. For now (not because they’re not important), let’s set aside (1) the obvious irony of killing one kind of primate (a person) because you’re upset he’s studying another kind and (2) the glaring analogies to some of the more radical abortion rights foes. Instead, let’s talk about animal research, ethics, and religion.

We Western humans of the Judeo-Christian tradition have come a long way in our understanding and engagement with non-human animals. Crudely put, we realize now that animals are not put here for us to use as we please. And, due in many ways to animal rights activists, research on animals is now done exponentially more carefully than at any point in the history of such work.

When I teach research ethics to the future scientists of the world—graduate students and post-doctoral fellows—we spend a lot of time talking about this. Not just the important party line of the special offices at research facilities devoted to animal care: “refine, reduce, and reuse.” But also about deeper questions: should we do research with animals at all? With certain animals and not others (much of basic research is done on yeast, worms, fruit flies, and mice)? And what kinds of research (research that might cause pain or even death, observational research, etc.)?

In the Nature interview, Ringach points to the results of a recent Pew survey in which, unsurprisingly, 93% of scientists favor animal research. (Though the survey neither broke the issue down into the important questions above nor differentiated ‘animal testing’ from ‘animal research,’ it is still informative). In stark contrast, only a bare majority of Americans favor animal research. Intriguingly, most men and Republicans favor animal research (again, broadly defined), while less than half of Democrats do.

Ringach says scientists need to do a better job of demonstrating the benefits of animal research, and that, instead of retreating, researchers should “invite the public into the lab.”

At my own institution, I have seen animal research security, especially for facilities working with primates and other mammals, increase dramatically in the last few years, as threats and pressures from society grow. To even get into a lab (no matter who you are) can be a challenge, and then nearly anything done or said there, it seems, needs to be approved by several layers of bureaucracy.

While I understand the paranoia and the good reasons for it, I agree with Ringach (he should know): we scientists and our research institutions should follow a more productive, creative, and proactive tack. American scientists do, after all, rely on government dollars for their research.

Ringach seems to be implying that if we invite them in, they will come, and they will get it. Maybe, maybe not; but if a welcomed, educated, reasonable public doesn’t like it, and science can’t convince them it should be done, perhaps we shouldn’t do it. This is a risk, but a valuable, productive one—very much unlike a bomb.

Most Judeo-Christian traditions are now more thoughtful about animal interactions: know your animals, do not harm them unless you can make a very good case. I even heard the Dalai Lama once say in discussion with his fellow Buddhists (who believe animals should be treated equally as humans because they are reincarnates like people) that if the situation is dire—a choice between animal and human survival—he might then consider harming an animal.

This is and should be an ongoing conversation among scientists, religious communities, those concerned about animal welfare and rights, and society at large. Ringach hopes “the public will understand we are open to dialogue but we can only do so in an environment where we know that we will not be attacked when we go back home.” A reasonable hope.

There are, after all, more than enough rich and important questions to chew on: (1) one day, a day some (not me) believe is nigh, we will no longer need animal models at all; we will develop artificial models which will work as well to accomplish our goals and test our ideas for basic knowledge, drugs, and other therapies; (2) another animal we do a lot of testing on is ourselves, humans; if we’re going to raise questions about research on animals, we must carefully examine research on humans; (3) and a final irony: the more research we do on animals, the more we discover, for better or worse, just how similar they are to us.