Lab Animals Essay

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I n vertebrate a nd ver tebrate animals are vivisected for a wide range of laboratory research, testing, and teaching purposes. Vertebrates, however, serve as the primary experimental lab subjects for toxicity testing, as well as for pure and applied research by universities, corporate pharmaceutical testing labs, governmental health agencies, and the military. The number of vertebrates used annually as laboratory animals is estimated at approximately 100 million. Mice and rats are the most frequently used lab animals, but any animal may be bred, captured from the wild, or procured from pounds and specialized dealers for use in experimentation. While most lab animals are purposely bred, previously many wild animals were used in laboratories and this resulted in the depopulation of some species. For instance, population estimates for Indian rhesus macaques neared 10 million monkeys in the 1930s but, after a vivisection trade erupted for the animal due to its use in producing a polio vaccine and other experiments, their number was reduced to fewer than 200,000 by the late 1970s and India was forced to enact conservationist protections.

Vivisection of nonhuman animals has a long history dating back to early Greek manuscripts from the 5th century B.C.E. The Roman physician Galen first conducted experiments on dogs, monkeys, and pigs during the 2nd century C.E., utilizing vivisection to test biomedical hypotheses and study biological anatomical structures. Experimental surgery on animals in the context of modern science dates back to the work of Vesalius in the 17th century, but it was not until the 19th century that modern lab experimentation on animals became truly systematic and widespread through the work of scientists such as Claude Bernard, Louis Pasteur, and Robert Koch. Bernard, who is regarded as the founder of modern experimental medicine, held that laboratory experimentation on animals was essential for biomedical advances and he disparaged clinically based studies made by practicing physicians. By the late 1800s, scientists such as Pasteur and Koch made highly popularized advances in immunology and microbiology based on their own lab animal studies.

Anesthetics for animal experimentations were unknown until well into the 1800s and are not always used on animals even today. As a result, vivisected animals have often suffered greatly from experiments and therefore there has always been controversy surrounding the practice. During the19th century, a strong anti-vivisection movement arose alongside animal research and its legacy currently lives on in animal welfare and rights organizations, humane societies, and more radical animal liberation groups. Largely because of their political action, laws governing the code and conduct of animal research now exist, but activists continue to argue that they are frequently not enforced and need to be broadened.

Alternatives to animal tests such as in vitro testing of cell and tissue cultures, epidemiology, and computer modeling exist; but many researchers insist that while they are useful, lab animal studies are also required to effectively monitor the thousands of drugs and tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals now on the market.

Researchers are promoting new forms of animal experimentation such as genetic modification of animals and xenotransplantation as necessary for achieving a new age of scientific breakthroughs. Many fear that these experiments unethically threaten society and the environment and should be regulated as a precaution. Yet, some genetic experiments on animals could result in improved animal and environmental welfare. For instance, Australian scientists have attempted to produce genetically modified sheep that would be resistant to flies and parasites. If successful, the inhumane act of mulesing sheep-surgically removing strips of skin from near the tail-and the heavy use of pesticides by the sheep industry would become unnecessary in the future. Therefore, while alternatives to laboratory animal science exist and should be increasingly utilized, some forms of lab animal experimentation could lead to environmental and societal improvements.


  1. Pietro Croce, Vivisection or Science?: An Investigation into Testing Drugs and Safeguarding Health (Zed Books, 2000);
  2. Anita Guerrini, Experimenting with Humans and Animals: From Galen to Animal Rights (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003);
  3. Hugh LaFollette and Niall Shanks, Brute Science: Dilemmas of Animal Experimentation (Routledge, 1996).

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