What Is the Difference Between Animal Rights and Welfare?
The assertion that animals do not have rights does not mean that researchers are free to use them without appropriate concern. Animals are living things; they have evolved with us on this planet; they can feel pain and distress—and because of our kinship with living things, animals have a value above and beyond anything that is not living. This value finds concrete expression in the concern scientists feel for the animals they use and in the laws and regulations that govern that use.
Researchers who study animals have a number of obligations toward those animals and toward society. They have an obligation to minimize the pain and distress of laboratory animals. They have an obligation to see that animals are used for productive and meaningful goals. And they have an obligation to provide society with an accounting of how they use animals.
A number of groups have been working for many years to safeguard and promote these obligations. These groups are committed to the welfare of animals, as distinct from the concept of animal rights, and they have made a significant contribution to the well-being of research animals. They agree that animal research has benefited and will continue to benefit human and animal health; they want to ensure that research animals are treated as humanely as possible and are used only for important studies.
This position is one with which animal researchers not only agree but actively promote. It is also, according to polls, the position held by a large majority of the American public.28
Scientists have known since early in this century that rabbits and other research animals fed cholesterol-rich diets develop atherosclerosis —a buildup of cholesterol and other substances that narrows the arteries and can lead to chest pain, heart attacks, or strokes. Further animal research, confirmed by human experience, has shown that low-cholesterol diets and exercise can partially reverse this buildup, while stress and high-blood pressure can contribute to the disease.
These animal experiments laid the groundwork for a brilliant series of investigations into the molecular mechanisms of the disease. Researchers began by concentrating on a genetic defect that causes a disease known as familial hypercholesterolemia. About one in 500 people around the world has a single copy of a defective gene that causes their cholesterol levels to be above normal; many of these individuals suffer heart attacks in their thirties and forties. About one in a million people has two copies of the defective gene, leading to extremely high cholesterol levels; these individuals usually suffer from heart disease while they are still children.
Experiments in animals and tissue cultures showed that the genetic defect is related to a receptor molecule on the surfaces of cells. This receptor binds cholesterol in the bloodstream so that it can be absorbed into the cell and metabolized. People with single copies of the defective gene have reduced numbers of functioning receptors, so that their cholesterol rises to dangerous levels. People with two copies of the defective gene have no functioning receptors at all.
Knowledge of this receptor mechanism has led to experimental work with compounds that boost the numbers of receptors on cells. Research is also being conducted on transgenic mice—mice into which foreign genes have been inserted—to understand the kinds of genetic defects that lead to defective receptors. It may well be that genetic factors influence the effectiveness of the receptors at clearing cholesterol from the blood and therefore influence a person's chance of suffering from heart disease.