Myth of Humane Treatment

In 1987, Dr. Jane Goodall visited a lab called S.E.M.A. (the facility now operates under the name BIOQUAL, Inc.). She described what she saw at the time.

"One of the very worst is just outside Washington, D.C., a lab called S.E.M.A. When I visited there in March of 1987, I saw pairs of three-year-old chimps crammed into cages measuring twenty-two inches by twenty-two inches and two feet high. Each cage was pushed into something that looked like a microwave oven with a little panel of glass at the top. The only contact with the outside world was through a vent with air roaring in. It was so dark in those cages that the technicians had to use flashlights to see what the chimps were doing.

Those pairs of chimps weren’t even being used in medical research. They were just waiting in quarantine, stacked up one on top of the other. Since my visit the metal chambers have gone, but the cages are the same. After quarantine the chimps are caged singly, denied contact with a companion.

What happens to chimps in these conditions? Exactly what you would find if human children were put in those conditions. They become psychotic, they rock back and forth, they give up, they show despair. A preverbal human child and a young chimpanzee have just about the same intellectual ability and share the same emotional needs for affection, reassurance, love, and contact.

We would not treat our most hardened criminals this way, yet these chimpanzees are innocent of any crime. That man who has just killed half his family and slit his little girl’s throatdo you think he’s sitting in a cage this size? If we stand by and allow this sort of thing to happen, we make a mockery of justice."

"Reaching Across the Species Barrier: Jane Goodall on Chimpanzees"
Remarks made at a press conference and lecture sponsored by Focus on Animals and ARIES, the Animal Rights Information & Education Service. Interview by Orion editor George K. Russell. Obtained online 10/4/05.

Although researchers always acknowledged the ability of animals to feel pain, this knowledge remained an abstraction for most. Scientists rarely saw any pain or suffering in their labs. Their view of lab animals as statistical aggregates overshadowed any perception of an individual animal’s feelings at any given moment. And when I went beyond the issue of physical pain to ask about psychological or emotional suffering, many researchers were at a loss to answer. Typical was the comment of one neuroscientist who, when asked about possible boredom of monkeys kept in bare metal cages, answered with a palpable lack of interest: “We can speculate about these things, but I think it’s pointless.” Another responded more impatiently: “Oh, how would anybody know that? I mean, anybody? …. I just, I wouldn’t even venture a guess.”

—Mary T. Phillips
"Savages, Drunks and Lab Animals: The Researcher’s Perception of Pain
An ethnographic study of two New York research institutions"
Society and Animals, Vol. 1, Issue 1

CageAllowed by law: Rayman, in a 5'x5'x7' cage at LEMSIP. Photo: © Nancy Megna

The American public has been led to believe that nonhuman species in research laboratories are adequately protected from physical and mental harm and suffering by animal welfare laws.

The reality is that the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is limited, vague, easily sidestepped, and difficult, if not impossible, to monitor and enforce.

The law does not regulate what animals are subjected to in experiments, leaving that discretion to the regulating agency and research institutions themselves.

Although the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently accepted most Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendations that will make psychological well-being standards more enforceable, proposals to actually amend AWA regulations have been stalled by the agency for many years following intense outcry by the biomedical industry.

The promise of protection

Under the AWA, facilities involved in animal research are required to be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) (1); inspected a minimum of once a year by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) (2); and are required to submit an annual report to the USDA.

The reality vs. the myth

But the promise of the AWA to protect animals in laboratories differs sharply from its reality. Former primate lab workers who have witnessed actual conditions and procedures in labs know full well the law’s limitations, inadequacies, and failures as well as the impossibilities of inspection and enforcement. Even in the hands of committed inspectors, the bureaucracy and language of the Act leaves animals vulnerable and only minimally protected.

Since passage of the Animal Welfare Act, there were many documented cases (see example: Coulston) of chimpanzees suffering and dying as the result of non-compliance with AWA requirements or circumstances that allow labs to circumvent these regulations.

Major flaws with the AWA

The overarching problem with the AWA is that it has no authority over what is done or not done for animals in actual experiments.

There are NO laws preventing researchers from breaking bones, withholding painkillers, forcing ingestion of poisonous substances, burning, leaving animals in complete isolation for months—or other atrocities that in the real world constitute blatant and egregious animal cruelties.

The crucial decision of what is acceptable or unacceptable to be done to a living animal is left to each facility’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) members. Required under the AWA, IACUC members are to be appointed by the institution’s CEO (3). These committees are typically composed of fellow researchers and a supposed “independent” member of the public.

The AWA has no authority over the ability of researchers to waive regulations guarding animals from pain and distress if such relief would conflict with the goals of an IACUC approved experiment.

Unlike what the public erroneously believes, federal law offers little true protection. Instead,

  • The majority of animals (rats and mice, for example) used for research are not covered by the Animal Welfare Act
  • Approved IACUC experiments may not be interfered with
  • In-house veterinarians are allowed tremendous discretion over the animals’ day-to-day conditions. Under the AWA, they are compelled to weigh the needs of the primary researcher against the needs of the animals, particularly in the area of pain and suffering
  • Training for laboratory personnel is inconsistent
  • The USDA/APHIS staff is so understaffed that meeting its annual and follow-up inspection requirements has been difficult if not impossible
  • Animals in peril are very rarely confiscated. Under the law, animals found suffering from violations of the AWA can be confiscated or killed humanely* …if: “no longer required by such research facility to carry out the research, test, or experiment for which such animal has been utilized.” (4)
  • The AWA does not allow U.S. citizens (the tax-paying financers of NIH grants) to bring lawsuits against laboratories who fail to follow the law
  • Workers at privately-owned laboratories who speak out about infractions of the AWA are offered little or no protection by law. Only a few states have whistleblower protection laws. (Employees at federal labs are theoretically offered some protection through the Federal Whistleblower Protection Act.)
*Per the CHIMP Act, chimpanzees are the only nonhuman species who cannot be euthanized simply because they are no longer needed for research.

Particulars on primates

Within the Animal Welfare Act, there are scant regulations specifically governing the use and care of nonhuman primates. Included are housing temperature/ventilation, minimum space requirements, environmental enrichment, use of restraint devices, water availability, and exemptions. Further and specifically, the AWA requires that laboratories train personnel involved in the care of animals. Lab workers must be instructed on humane practices for animal maintenance and experimentation; methods to minimize or eliminate the use of animals or to limit pain or distress of animals who are used; how to access information on related topics from the National Agricultural Library; and how to report problems in animal care. (5) However, research by Project R&R’s science team show how much laboratories are failing at meeting even the most minimum psychological needs of chimpanzees and other primates.


(1) Animal Welfare Act 7 U.S.C. § 2133

(2) Animal Welfare Act 7 U.S.C. § 2146 (a)

(3) Animal Welfare Act 7 U.S.C. § 2143 (b)(1)

(4) Animal Welfare Act 9 C.F.R. § 2.35 (f)

(5) Animal Welfare Act. 7 U.S.C. § 2143 (d); see 9 C.F.R. § 2.32. (a).

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