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Nearly one hundred people crowded into the small State House hearing room yesterday to hear testimony presented to the Committee on Natural Resources on the repeal of the Pound Seizure Law-a controversial bill which permits research institutions to requisition unclaimed dogs from pounds for use in research laboratories.
In recent years, repeal of pound seizure has been the focal point of the mounting controversy over use of animals in laboratories. Although few of the animal welfare organizations who oppose pound seizure are completely anti-vivisectionist, repeal of pound seizure is seen as the most effective way to force researchers to justify their use of animals for certain experiments.
Harvard researchers originally lobbied for passage of pound seizure in 1957 in an attempt to curb anti-vivisectionist sentiment stemming from the marked increase in dog-nappings. Pound seizure laws permit researchers to purchase dogs for three dollars apiece from public pounds. In states without pound seizure laws, stealing dogs and then selling them to researchers is an extremely lucrative business. In addition, pound seizure laws reduce the costs of research--researchers would otherwise pay $200-$300 for farm-bred dogs. To date, there are only nine states which still have pound seizure laws.
At present, Harvard is the single largest user of pound dogs in the Boston area. Although over 85 per cent of the dogs used for research came from animal dealers, last year over 2000 of the almost 3000 dogs used for research at Harvard were pound dogs. If pound seizure is repealed, Harvard officials estimate the cost of breeding dogs at $100-$150 per animal.
Many Harvard researchers fear repeal of the pound seizure law is the first step in an outright ban on the use of animals in research experiments. This year, bills to repeal pound seizure are being heard in the Massachusetts legislature, in both the Committee on Natural Resources and the Committee on Counties. Last year the Committee on Counties voted to repeal pound seizure but the proposal was defeated in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Last year, New York repealed its version of the pound seizure law, the Metcalf-Hatch Act.
"I don't think the Pound Seizure Law will be repealed," Dr. Ronald Hunt, director of Harvard's Animal Resource Center (ARC) says, "but in politics anything is possible. It is an emotionally charged issue, and I know the people in the State House would love to see it go away. However, the use of animals in medical research is necessary for the elimination of diseases. This research translates directly into the lessening of suffering of millions of humans. And the use of pound dogs translates into lessening of spiraling medical costs."
The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA), one of the Pound Seizure Law's most vocal opponents, claims the low cost of pound dogs encourages researchers to use dogs where alternative methods (such as computer modeling or tissue cultures) might be applicable.
"The MSPCA feels animals coming through pounds are pets, and pets should not wind up in research labs. No matter how valid the research," Nancy Payton, humane issues analyst for the MSPCA, says. "Most research experiments require dogs the investigator has a history on. Pound dogs have no such history. And they are cheap. So pound dogs are used in frivolous experiments. They are more expendable."
In practice, however, repeal of pound seizure, in itself, would have little effect on the use of dogs, or other animals, in research institutions. Legally, animal dealers could still purchase dogs from pounds--selling them to research institutions for around $50. Harvard, which owns and operates its own dealership, could purchase dogs directly.
"If pound seizure were repealed we could still get dogs, but we could only operate normally for a year or so," Dr. Hunt says. "If Harvard continued to get dogs from pounds they would be going against the intent of the law. If there is a strong enough sentiment against the use of pound dogs to get the pound law repealed, then the next step would be to outlaw dealerships," he adds.
In anticipation of a marked increase in the market for dealer dogs, MSPCA is lobbying to link repeal of pound seizure with bills to prohibit sale of pound dogs to dealers and to extend the authority of humane societies to inspect animal care facilities which presently exist under pound seizure. In addition, the MSPCA advocates a ban on the interstate traffic in dogs.
"But I don't think our job stops when we get pets out of the labs," Payton says. "Then we have to go on and ask if the experiments are valid. But I think it's premature to try and do that with pound seizure. I think bringing in the whole anti-vivisection question is introducing a whole battlefront we don't have to fight."
But the issue of the use of dogs in research experiments can not be divorced from the larger question of the use of animals in research. Each year, over 60 million animals die in experiments--the majority in the multiple toxicity experiments performed by industries to test cosmetics and new food additives. Research institutions, however, account for over 9 million deaths. Harvard alone uses almost 240,000 animals a year.
"One thing about anti-vivisectionists is at least they're aiming towards something concrete," Ralph Charlwood, assistant director of the ARC, says, walking along the endless corridors of Harvard's Animal Resource Center. "This is where I differ with the MSPCA," he continues. "What's bad for a dog is bad for mice and rats as well. I don't care what kind of animal it is. What's good for one is good for them all."
The ARC, a four-building complex in the medical area, houses over 40,000 animals on any given day. The air is antiseptic clean and only occasional patches of sawdust interrupt the endless whiteness of the corridors. Over 225,000 mice and rats pass through the ARC in a year. Most are used in "acute" experiments--operations where the animal is killed. Although Charlwood is responsible for the well-being of all the animals in ARC, the final responsibility, he says, lies with the investigator.
"How the heck are you going to inspect this mammoth place," he says, walking past two animal technicians who are unloading a new shipment of rats into small opaque plastic boxes. "The MSPCA inspects but they don't really do anything. They just walk through the building to see if the animals are all right. He's the only one who's close to them. He takes care of them everyday. You could torture thousands of mice and no one would know but the technician," he adds.
Charlwood opens the door to a room containing farm-bred beagles. The beagles respond to the intruders with what sounds like muffled barking, for, unlike pound dogs, farm-bred dogs are de-barked (their vocal cords are several automatically by the breeder. These beagles will probably be used in long-term experiments, but over 50 per cent of the experiments, involving dogs at Harvard are acute.
Although repeal of pound seizure will reduce the number of dogs used in research laboratories, the bill will not affect the root of the problem--the continued funding of repetitive and often unnecessary experiments by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other funding institutions. Harvard, which receives over $40 million from NIH annually, relies almost exclusively on NIH's peer review committee (comprised solely of researchers) to screen out repetitive research proposals. In sharp contrast to experiments involving human subjects, where Harvard considers all possible risks to the subject, Dr. Hunt and Harvard's Animal Care Committee merely check to see if proper anaesthesia will be used and if there is sufficient space available in ARC. Unlike Harvard's ethics committee (which reviews research involving humans), there are no lay-people on the animal care committee. And neither NIH nor Harvard cross-examines the researcher to determine if all possible alternatives to animals have been properly considered.
"In contrast to studies involving humans, which are limited in number, there are hundreds of studies submitted each year involving animals," Dr. Hunt says. "It is impossible to review animal research proposals with the same scrutiny as human research. And the majority don't need to be scrutinized," he adds. "They involve rats and mice. And those are simply going to be approved."
Hunt argues the NIH peer review system is the best possible mechanism to prevent repetitive and unnecessary experiments. However, in recent years, there has been growing belief within the scientific community that scientists can no longer justify their monopoly on decisions pertaining to the scientific community.
Scientists can not automatically assume the members of the peer review committee will be aware of all the work being done in their field and will thus be able to prevent repetitive experiments, Barbara Orlans, President of the Scientists' Center for Animal Welfare and executive secretary of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Advisory Council at NIH, says. "It takes a long time for scientific knowledge to disseminate," she explains. "Very often scientists arrive at the same answer working at different ends of the country. And then, of course, the experiment has to be repeated and validated before it will be accepted."
Orlans contends the most effective way to curb the excesses associated with animal experimentation is not through more legislation, but through increased lay-person participation in the funding process, and by educating medical students on the ethical use of animals. At present, 14 universities offer courses on ethics and animals--Harvard does not.
"In the end I think scientists should be more accountable for the research that goes on in labs," she says. "It would be ideal to have lay-people on the research proposal committees at research institutions. This is done in Canada but is rarely done here. But scientists feel very threatened that anti-vivisectionists are going to come in and mess things up," she explains. "It will take decades to get full lay-person involvement."
In the meantime, both Orlans and Hunt agree economic considerations are the primary limiting factor on the use of animals. Although repeal of pound seizure will have little long-term effect on the use of animals in experiments, the dramatic increase in the price of dogs will force researchers to reevaluate the number of dogs they are using--and provide a strong economic incentive to develop alternative research methods.
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