When rats have rights

Posted: Mar 01, 2001 12:00 AM
In an era during which political activists only want to speak on issues that make them look like nice people -- save the whales, don't cut old Redwood trees -- few are eager to push for policies that facilitate medical research with lab animals. Nice people don't want to experiment on Minny Mouse. Nice people want to tell researchers to be kind to lab rats and mice. Nice people stand up for their furry friends in the lab. They don't think about the nice, but sick, human beings who are helped by animal research. Thinking about people gets in the way. This makes it all the more startling that an institution of higher learning, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has risked playing the villain in order to facilitate life-saving medical research. ""If you have a child with cystic fibrosis, or juvenile diabetes, if you have a parent with Alzheimer's, this is your fight.'' Hopkins' General Counsel Estelle Fishbein explained. Add Parkinson's, Lou Gehrig's disease, AIDS and breast cancer. Johns Hopkins has gone to court to try to stop a court settlement reached by former President Clinton's Department of Agriculture and animal rights activists. That agreement sweeps lab rats, mice and birds under the protection of the Animal Welfare Act. The animal rights people like to argue that they only want to ensure that rats and mice are treated well. Don't believe it. ""The one thing that is really consistent in their behavior, is they never tell the whole story,'' Fishbein says. ""They never tell the truth. The truth is, regulations and standards for the humane compassionate care have been in place for years and years and years. And they never inform the public about that. They make it appear that there are no standards.'' Besides, common sense should tell you that sickly and mistreated rodents don't make for good research. Scientists looking for a cure for disease are less likely to find it with animals who are malnourished or living in filth. It's not as if anyone is advocating mistreating research mice and rats -- although I personally wouldn't mind if they kill all the pigeons they can find. In the name of medical science. Hopkins sees the paperwork required by the Animal Welfare Act as a research killer. It is one thing to require labs to keep census data on laboratory cats and dogs, as the act requires, but mice are a different animal. They can produce litters every 21 days and live for only two or three years. Hopkins has 42,000 mice, 3,000 rats and 300 birds. The university is investing in a facility that will allow it to keep up to 140,000 rodents, many of them ""transgenic mice'' that model the symptoms of human diseases. Imagine the unholy task of cataloging that many rodents. It's not 101 Dalmatians. What a waste of time and energy. A federal appropriations bill stalled the change until October, but if the Bush administration does not reverse course, bureaucrats will soon be pushing to make sure that the little critters are living large -- which already is in researchers' interest -- while more than 90 percent of the rats and mice bred in the United States are bred as pet food. The settlement is the result of a lawsuit filed by a college student who complained that she was ""personally, aesthetically, emotionally and profoundly disturbed'' -- I'll agree with that -- seeing ""rats that were suffering and subject to deplorable living conditions.'' If true, those living conditions were still better than a snake's stomach. Watching a rat become breakfast probably doesn't aid the digestion, personally, aesthetically or emotionally. Frankie Trull, president of the Washington-based National Association for Biomedical Research, hopes the Bush administration will kill the negotiated settlement. That would spare taxpayers the expense of the Hopkins' lawsuit, as well as the $18,000 the government agreed to pay the rat-huggers' attorneys. Most important, if the administration drops the settlement, re searchers will embark on new projects without fear of silly regulations slowing them down. They'll be able to save lives sooner. So let nice people stand up for their furry friends. Let them feel righteous. Just so long as you know that they do so at the expense of healing sick children and ailing adults.