As a physician, I am keenly aware of the significant contribution that animal research has made to our ability to manage disease. People who use insulin, who have been vaccinated against smallpox and polio, who wear pacemakers and who have been treated with antibiotics are among the millions who have benefited from animal research.
I am also familiar with the arguments of so-called "animal rights activists" who seek to end medical research using animals on the grounds that no human life is worth the loss of an animal life. The agenda of animal rights groups should not be confused with animal welfare. The research community constantly works to maintain humane and ethical practices.
Some members of the animal rights movement have focused their attention on the sale of pound animals for use in research, which is possible in San Diego through a contract between the county and the research institution.
Recently, these activists have increased their lobbying efforts to ban the sale of unclaimed pound animals to the UC San Diego School of Medicine for research studies. Those of us who own pets might be moved by the emotional arguments of the activists, until we understand the situation.
One real problem that comes to light during these discussions is the number of stray and abandoned animals that inundate the county's Animal Control Department each year. Of 24,070 dogs received by the county pound during a recent 12-month period, 13,313 were destroyed by the pound and 530 were sold to UCSD for approved research studies.
The animals purchased by UCSD have been held at the pound for retrieval or adoption for 72 hours. After this waiting period, when they would normally be killed, the animals suitable for research are held for an additional five working days before they are sold to UCSD.
Animals with collars or any other markings of ownership are not released, and if the animal has been brought in by an owner or concerned citizen, it is not released for research without that person's signed consent.
In more than 80% of the UCSD studies involving pound animals, dogs are heavily anesthetized throughout the procedure, and, at the end of the experiment, are given a lethal dose of anesthesia. For the small percentage involved in long-range studies, primarily studies of heart and lung disease, the animals receive post-operative care similar to the care given our human patients. Every step is taken to ensure that the animals have a prompt and pain-free recovery from surgery.
All of our animal studies follow strict guidelines and are monitored by a veterinary staff dedicated to upholding standards for humane treatment of animals. Furthermore, UCSD is routinely inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the county Animal Control Department, the county Animal Control Advisory Committee and UCSD's own Animal Care and Use Committee, which includes community members.
Among the activists are individuals who say they support animal research, but are against using animals from the pound. They advocate the use of animals purchased from breeders instead.
I fail to see the logic or morality in specifically breeding an animal for research to replace an animal that would be destroyed at the pound. In this trade-off, two lives are lost instead of one, and the death of the pound animal is truly wasted.
Critics have also made the absolutely false claim that pound animals are not good research subjects. On the contrary, countless drugs and medical procedures commonly used today were developed in research involving pound dogs. The scientists who changed the lives of people with diabetes developed insulin in experiments with abandoned strays. They were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery. The cost of research would be driven up dramatically if we were forced to replace pound animals with more expensive animals raised by breeders, but economics is not the real issue here.
The issue is simply this: As a society, we have determined that it is appropriate to use animals in humane, carefully monitored research that improves our ability to treat disease in animals as well as humans. Is it not then appropriate to use animals that are among the millions destroyed nationwide each year as unwanted strays?
We are all concerned with saving lives, but to prohibit the use of a pound animal in research will not save the animal's life. However, using the animal in research may bring us closer to improving the lives of others.