Animal rights fanatics are the real health hazard

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Animal rights fanatics are health hazard.

Ellie Tesher, TORONTO STAR COLUMNIST
 
BIO-TERRORISM is driving the anthrax scare, whatever its source. Yet animal rights extremists — those who would interfere with scientific research to combat such deadly diseases — are winning their campaign.

That's because, as I noted last Thursday, Bill C-15, which will change laws on animals, elevate their status and make it easier to sue scientists, is close to final approval.

The public has been falsely led to believe these militants are only concerned with animal welfare; it's non-extreme animal lovers who are in this category. Greater protections against animal cruelty are an undisputed part of the new bill, with harsher penalties for abusers. But the part that is contentious — and needs urgent attention in the face of germ warfare — is language that opens the door to lawsuits and lack of legal safeguards for research to benefit humankind.

Microbiologist Sally Galsworthy of the University of Western Ontario says, "We need to go into high gear right away" on further research. The immediate need is for rapid production of a safe vaccine for smallpox, a fearsomely lethal weapon, which, unlike anthrax, is highly contagious, capable of infecting a vast population.

There is no cure for smallpox; vaccination for the disease ended 30 years ago (when it was presumed the disease had been eradicated) so it's unlikely anyone retains much immunity. Moreover, the previous type of vaccine is problematic for people with immune systems weakened by cancer, HIV or other illnesses.

Galsworthy says it's only through testing on an appropriate animal model that scientists can determine how a treatment drug or vaccine will work in humans, how it is distributed throughout the body and how it's excreted. For example, with one-third of the world infected with tuberculosis and some strains highly resistant to today's antibiotics, more research is needed. The TB organism hides inside cells long-term, so a new drug has to be animal-tested for human safety to determine its effects if it stays in the body up to six months.

The reason people can survive anthrax infection, Galsworthy notes, is that drugs used to treat it successfully, such as ciprofloxine and tetracycline, could never have been proven safe for human use without animal laboratory studies. Yet animal rights fanatics have the ultimate aim of preventing all use of animals in scientific study. Their propagandists claim that non-animal testing with computers is faster and cheaper.

"They are speaking out of ignorance," says Bessie Borwein, Western's special adviser on research. "We cannot make any single living cell in a lab, let alone an integrated body that would simulate the reaction in humans. Computers are in wide use in research but they do not substitute for a living body."

Research already moves away from animals as soon as possible — that is, when there's enough data to analyze the results.

University of Toronto scientist Jack Kraicer says that radio immunoassays, or measurements done in test tubes, are used wherever possible. "We only use animals when essential, when there's no other way. We use the fewest possible and the lowest species possible." Ninety per cent of lab testing is with mice, rats, fish and, less frequently, birds.

Meanwhile, many of the extremist groups have ample funds to unleash lawsuits. According to Americans for Medical Progress, which monitors animal rights militants, the 1998 annual budget, taken from available tax returns, of just two of these U.S. groups, are: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), $14,543,860; Animal Legal Defense Fund: $2,363,019.

The aims of the extremists' movement are neither subtle nor new. Their activities include break-ins, destruction of property, fire-bombings and letters booby-trapped with razor blades. Their public statements have pushed toward "personhood" for animals — and all that implies — for at least 15 years.

Consider the philosophy of PETA expressed in The Star by its director in 1986, "... there is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They're all mammals." Through the 1990s, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and PETA in the U.S., among others, harassed scientists and launched lawsuits against research facilities that diverted money meant for scientific progress to lawyers fighting the cases.

A 1999 article by a director of the Animal Alliance of Canada states: "The proposed changes to the Criminal Code would usher in a new way of viewing the animals we share this planet with. Not as property, but as beings in their own right..."

Says Galsworthy, who sees Bill C-15 as "dangerous" to scientific research, "I have no idea why Justice Minister Anne McLellan wouldn't have recognized this."

Neither do I. But it's time she and the standing committee currently studying the bill listened to more informed advice.


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Ellie Tesher's column appears on Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at etesher@thestar.ca
 

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