Each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly 820,800 guinea pigs, dogs, cats, and other animals covered by the Animal Welfare Act are used in research in the United States; of those, about 71,370 are subjected to unalleviated pain. These stats don’t track the millions of mice and rats that are used in lab experiments and excluded from the animal protection law (although the rodents are covered by other federal regulations). Scientists and their institutions say they’re committed to keeping pain or distress to a minimum in lab animals where they can. But how do you know how much pain a mouse or a zebrafish feels? And who decides how much pain is too much?
The issue of animal suffering was in the headlines earlier this year, when landlocked Switzerland banned the culinary practice of boiling lobsters alive. No one knows for sure whether these big-clawed crustaceans, equipped with only a rudimentary nervous system, experience pain. Nonetheless, Swiss authorities now require stunning lobsters in a humane way before tossing them into the pot.
I read of this milestone in crustacean rights with bemused fascination and anthropomorphic cringing, as I imagined the lobster’s hypothetical plight. But the Swiss move also made me wonder how scientists measure and deal with animal pain in research studies. Experiments that use critters to simulate human illness or injury are stepping stones to the medical treatments we all use. Yet, the benefits we reap must outweigh the costs to animal welfare for those sacrifices to be justified, ethicists and animal advocates say.