COMMENTARY : Should Pound Animals Be Used for Research? : No: An animal advocate says pets make poor experimental subjects and most counties have banned their laboratory use.

Robert Melvin is a founder of Stop Taking Our Pets

Almost a quarter-century ago, the county of San Diego signed a contract with UC San Diego that is protested to this day. In 1967, shortly after UCSD opened its School of Medicine, the county agreed to sell university shelter animals for research. The pound seizure contract was quietly affirmed, then renewed over the years, and nothing more was heard of it until 1981.

By then, opposition to pets in labs had arisen from animal lovers, humane societies, animal rights groups, professional shelter personnel, and even from researchers themselves. As early as 1972, Dr. Thomas Bowery, a director of the tax-funded National Institutes of Health, largest research institution in the world, testified before Congress that the house pet "is not a good or desirable research animal." Today, thousands of physicians and scientists agree with him.

In 1980, the Humane Society of the United States polled 2,200 shelters nationwide, asking "Do you believe that release of animals for research undermines effective animal control programs and pet owner confidence in your shelter?" Ninety-three percent of those responding answered affirmatively.

In 1981, with a backdrop of growing opposition, the Board of Supervisors reluctantly held its one and only public hearing on the pet sales contract. When it became obvious to the several hundred citizens there in opposition that the county intended to continue the contract, their frustration burst into an angry verbal donnybrook. The contract was renewed.

The Board of Supervisors continued to accommodate UCSD and the "research" performed there on random pound animals whose genetic and health histories were unknown, even though many serious researchers considered the use of these animals bad science.

Ironically, the pound seizure controversy is not a pro- or anti-research issue at all. It addresses only the source of the animals--shelter pets--and the undermining of a public shelter system that depends on people's trust for its very survival.

Many people instinctively feel, and rightly, that humane shelters must not act as warehouses for research laboratories.

If shelters are not seen by the public as safe havens for pets rather than a stop on the way to the lab, unwanted and stray pets will be abandoned to the streets, thereby increasing the already staggering pet overpopulation. UCSD does not have to worry about the added cost of rounding up those stray animals, however. The Board of Supervisors sends the tab to us taxpayers.

Today it is clear that the county is swimming upstream on the pet seizure issue. Fifty-four of California's 58 counties ban it, as do 14 states and thousands of municipalities across the land.

After S.T.O.P., or Stop Taking Our Pets, was formed in 1987, we soon found that we would be unable to influence the county. We directed our efforts at the cities that contract with the county for animal control services.

We found much opposition to pound seizure in the city councils and resentment at having to participate in the county's side contract with UCSD, whether they liked it or not.

This year, during the current contract renewal hearings, the county Animal Control Department is openly threatening contract cities with loss of service should they enact ordinances prohibiting pet sales to UCSD. (There were about 530 last year.) Why is the county willing to jeopardize $2.1 million in annual revenues from city animal-control contracts to preserve a $38,000 yearly agreement with UCSD?

So far, the threats have been effective. The cities have nowhere else to go for this essential service and can't afford to start their own programs. But sooner or later a city will refuse to be intimidated.

It remains to be seen whether the Board of Supervisors can legally withdraw a state-mandated service when it does not get its way. The Del Mar City Council is scheduled to debate the issue tomorrow night. UCSD and other pound seizure champions like to say that shelter animals "will die anyway," so why not use them?

Take a good, long look at your beloved pet. It's no different from one on the pound's "research row." Which would you choose for him or her--painless euthanasia or the stress, pain and unknown of the researcher's table? And there is pain. In some research, pain measurement is the experiment.

I'm sure you made the humane choice. Now write the Board of Supervisors.

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