Animals at the service of science
29 Sep 2017 by Nev Haynes
In the movie “The Planet of the Apes” (2001), the plot begins at a space station from which ships manned by chimpanzees are sent to exploration missions that can be dangerous to humans. The spectators begin to take affection to the friendly Pericles, when they send him to one of those missions that will end up being catastrophic. What a cruel race, ours!
Maybe not that cruel. The image of a group of apes, so genetically close to us, caged and sent to a more than likely death may seem terrible and aberrant to us, but it is, with nuances, necessary and inevitable. In Spain alone, 300 monkeys were sacrificed last year, small monkeys that do not enjoy the privilege of the great apes, with which only we experiment to treat diseases that endanger their own species or ours, as is the case of the virus of the Ebola.
Leaving aside science fiction stories, the dog Laika was sent to certain death when they launched her into space aboard the Sputnik 2 spacecraft, 60 years ago. Her death was a necessary step to test the conditions that a cosmonaut like Yuri Gagarin would have to endure in space. All for science.
Just as Leonardo Da Vinci put his art and talent at the service of Lorenzo the Magnificent, head of the Medici house and lord of Florence, science and technology throughout history have been put at the service of the art of the war, which allocates huge sums of money to research. Nowadays dolphins are trained for dangerous submarine missions, as in the past, dogs equipped with explosive backpacks were trained to blow up tanks or messenger pigeons were sent across enemy lines.
Animals have saved countless human lives. The canaries who stopped singing when intoxicated in the coal mines helped to avoid explosions caused by the toilet and feared firedam, saving the lives of the suffered miners. The trained dogs used to rescue racing earthquake victims against the clock. Let’s not forget the frogs that all the students have had to dissect in biology class. Not surprisingly, the term “guinea pig” has been coined to denote beta-testers, or those who carry the risk of something going wrong when experiments are done, whether scientific or not.
Many animals have also been subjected to cruel entertainment, exposure and disclosure. It is not necessary to go back to the times of the Roman Empire, where animals were captured and hunted to entertain the common people. The circuses of the last century, of which there are still vestiges such as the famous Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, have been the object of much criticism by the animal defending associations, which see in the performances made with elephants, bears and horses trained a humiliating and unnatural practice. In “Greystoke, the Legend of Tarzan” (1984), a young Christopher Lambert releases his adoptive father, an old and crippled primate, captured, tortured and about to be dissected by the curators of the London Natural History Museum, in Victorian times. Zoos around the world have evolved, improving those poor living conditions of the animals they have kept in captivity since the time of the Enlightenment.
In ancient times and until not long ago, when human cadavers were scarce, human anatomy classes became more graphic dissecting the body of a pig, very similar in size and proportions to the human body. Even pigs are raised to donate organs and aortic valves in cardiac surgery, as well as to produce heparin, an anticoagulant. In the same way, the side effects of drugs, drugs, vaccines, food, make-up, etc. have been tested in animals. The pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries are not immune from being accused by animalists, since they are using animals to perform all kinds of tests with them. But what else could they do to avoid harm to humans?
Nowadays other methods less aggressive and harmful to the animal kingdom begin to be used. These methods include in vitro tests with cultured human tissues or mathematical and chemical computer simulations with virtual organs. Its proponents claim that animal testing is less reliable and much more expensive than tests using the latter techniques. But it seems that these are mermaid songs. Let us listen to the scientists’ voice.
In Spain alone, in 2016 the laboratories experimented with about 800,000 animals, 85% of them being mice and rats. This leaves us 120,000 rabbits, dogs, cats, horses, donkeys and pigs, among other species. Fortunately for all of them, the figures are progressively decreasing, far from the 2.7 million slaughtered in 2009. Although the most radical animalists categorically reject any use or sacrifice of animals for scientific purposes, and even threaten the physical integrity of researchers or laboratories, the 40,000 scientists who make up the Confederation of Scientific Societies of Spain defend its use, without which any progress in medicine or pharmacology, both human and veterinary, would be inconceivable.
The first vaccines were obtained inoculating virus in cows, goats, sheep and horses. Insulin, vital for people with diabetes, was discovered experimenting with dogs. The vaccine against human papillomavirus, responsible for uterine cancer, was discovered with rabbits and dogs. An experimental vaccine against Ebola has been effectively tested on primates, which are also victims of this lethal virus in Nature. Yes, animals also benefit from these scientific discoveries. Medical advances against diseases as serious as paralysis by spinal cord injury, Alzheimer’s or cancer would be inconceivable without the tests performed with animals. Let us not forget also the victims of rare diseases, whose only exit is the experimentation with remedies in animals. Before you try them on humans, much better try these drugs on mice, don´t you agree?
If, together with the benefits derived from these practices, we compare the number of animals slaughtered by science with the number of animals we slaughter for our consumption (and the rodents raised in farms are not part of the Mediterranean diet), animalistic theses do not come out well at all. The number of cattle, poultry and rabbits slaughtered for human consumption in Spain in 2016 reached 876,000. In addition, in our country also 137,000 dogs and cats were abandoned in 2016, of which about 10% (about 14,000) were sacrificed.
It is clear that humans benefit from animals, although we cannot reify them and do with them whatever we want. Animals have their rights, and thus the laws begin to contemplate, granting rights to “nonhuman people,” as is the case of Sandra, a famous female Orangutan that resides in the zoo of Buenos Aires. Sandra is one of the great primates that the inhabitants of Borneo call “men of the forest”. If you ever observe a gorilla, a chimpanzee or an orangutan in the zoo and you are fortunate enough to make “eye contact” with any of them, you will see that there is a “human” part in them as much as there is of primates in us. These magnificent animals enjoy abstract thinking and have feelings. They are intelligent and fully aware of their existence. It seems that we are not the only sapiens of the homo genus.
Let’s look back and reflect. Evolution and science have made it possible for the human race to survive and prevail over millennia over other species on the planet. We must respect Mother Nature, who has given us an opportunity, and also trust in the scientific community, at the service of Humanity. We, as the dominant species, are solely responsible for the management and exploitation of the mineral, plant and animal resources that surround us. But these animals with which we share our world and those we take advantage of cannot defend their rights in the courts. Therefore we must be intelligent in our use of them and sensitive enough to know that it is not good to abuse our dominant position, or Nature will return the blow, sooner or later. As Pericles (the Greek, not the space chimp) said: “Time is the wisest counselor.”