Posted on September 1, 2011
In the service of our curiosity or our self-interest, we imprison, cut, burn, blind or poison millions of animals in experiments. In the United States, the suffering of a small fraction of these animals is regulated by the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), passed in 1966. Later amendments established additional standards meant to reduce pain and distress suffered by the animals covered by AWA. As part of the process set up for the enforcement of these amendments, research facilities are required to report the number and the species of animals used in their experiments, whether the animals suffered pain and distress and whether pain-relieving drugs were administered. The most recent year for which USDA has made its data available is 2009.
As self-reported by the research facilities, a total of 979,772 animals covered by AWA were used in experiments in fiscal year 2009 (this number does not include animals held in the facilities but not yet used in experiments). The following pie chart shows the distribution of these animals by species/category. Rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters make up most of these animals (rats and mice used in research are not covered by the AWA).
Now, what about their pain? The following bar graph depicts the percentage of these animals that were self-reported by the facilities as having been used in experiments that involved pain and distress. For reasons I do not know, pigs and sheep are most likely to be used in experiments that involve pain (over 57% of farm animals used in experiments are pigs and over 13% are sheep). Over 75% of pigs and over 65% of sheep are used in experiments that involve pain. Guinea pigs and hamsters fare worse; they are most likely to be used in experiments in which the pain and distress caused to them is not alleviated by anesthetic or pain-relieving drugs.
among animals used in 2009
- Transportation, Sale and Handling of Certain Animals (Animal Welfare Act). United States Code, 2009 edition, Title 7, Chapter 54. (link, accessed January 1, 2013)
- USDA, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Annual Report: Animal Usage by Fiscal Year (2009). February 2011. (link, accessed January 1, 2013)
The fact that these are self-reported figures makes these the lower bounds rather than the actual numbers. For example, we can say that at least 40.4% of the primates used in experiments were used in those that caused pain and distress. But, we cannot be sure if it was only 40.4%. After all, an obesity researcher who imprisons monkeys for decades in caloric restriction experiments is not likely to report that he is causing pain and distress. The agony of lifelong loneliness and confinement in a steel cage, unfortunately, does not quite count as pain and suffering in our minds prejudiced against other species.
Further, no grain of salt is large enough to take with the claim that most pain caused by experiments is actually relieved by drugs. How many of us would be willing to trade places with this monkey in this video if we were promised pain-relieving drugs? And, how about the monkey mentioned in this video who wakes up but a second dose of anesthesia is not given? Would a research facility report this monkey's case under "with pain, with drugs" or "with pain, no drugs"? The self-reported numbers in this blog post are useful to know but, sadly, it is doubtful that they tell us the full story.