Confronting Cruelty

Harvard should not tolerate unnecessary cruelty in its labs

On Sunday, activists gathered in Harvard Square and near Harvard Medical School’s New England Primate Research Center to protest animal cruelty in HMS’s labs.  NEPRC has been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violations of the Animal Welfare Act, an offense for which, protesters believe, Harvard should have its license to experiment on animals suspended. We are enormously disturbed by the incidences of animal cruelty uncovered in Harvard labs, and believe that HMS should be held accountable for its alleged negligent handling of lab animals. As members of the Harvard community, we all have the opportunity to urge Harvard faculty and administrators to regard charges of animal cruelty with the utmost seriousness and to recognize our institution as a leading university that should set an example for many other institutions.

Among the nine animals that were subjected to mistreatment were, according to the USDA, rabbits, a dog, a sheep, and a goat. But what is particularly difficult to confront is that three primates were also among the animals that died under poor conditions in HMS labs. Primates have cognitive faculties so similar to those of humans that primate experimentation has been outlawed in several nations. Spain, Austria, Germany, Belgium, New Zealand, Sweden, and the Netherlands have all banned experimentation on apes, and primate experimentation has not been approved in the United Kingdom in over a decade. In light of the extremely contentious global status of primate testing, these deaths are particularly uncomfortable.

While there is no doubt that HMS should be held accountable to the USDA, Harvard should also employ its own policies to prevent animal cruelty in the future. For example, administrators should consider commissioning an internal investigation or implementing a regular internal auditing process. A citation from the USDA results only in a letter of warning or in a fine of up to $10,000, neither of which are severe enough consequences to encourage our enormously wealthy university to clean up its act seriously.

In addition to actively working to prevent cruelty in its animal experiments, Harvard can also seek to prevent animal cruelty by becoming a leader in developing alternatives to animal experimentation. The Johns Hopkins University, for example, opened its Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing in 1981 and has since led the way in developing humane alternatives to animal experimentation, enabling many organizations to reduce and even eliminate their reliance on animal testing. Non-animal methods, such as in vitro testing, can be even more accurate than animal tests because they do not rely on data from animals that are not genetically identical to humans. By prioritizing the development of non-animal experimentation methods, as has JHU, HMS can become a world leader in biomedical ethics.

As a university with unparalleled resources, Harvard stands uniquely positioned to reduce cruelty in scientific experimentation. Some oppose animal experimentation on principle and some do not, but we can all agree that humane alternatives to animal testing, when available, are far preferable. Sentient beings should always be worthy of our consideration. As animal testing will no doubt continue for the foreseeable future at Harvard-affiliated institutions, we should make sure that government regulations are adhered to and animals subjected to the minimal amount of pain or mistreatment possible.