If you object to a practice, should you stand on the outside and protest, or get in the middle of it and make sure it's at least done better? Surely it depends what the chances are of making a difference by protesting, and what good you could do on the inside.
I used to have an immediately negative reaction to the whole concept of a lab veterinarian. I suspect that much of what goes on in animal labs shouldn't be going on at all. So lab veterinarians always struck me as partners in crime. What were they doing in there, instead of taking care of animals who are valued for their own sake--like cats and dogs?
I completely changed my mind as a result of reading Larry Carbone's very informative and moving book What Animals Want: Expertise and Advocacy in Laboratory Animal Welfare Policy. This is a must read for anyone who wants to understand what goes on in US animal labs and what the Animal Welfare Act does (and doesn't do) for animals.
We find out in the first paragraph that Larry Carbone doesn't eat meat, a tidbit I found reassuring. It conveys (in less than 10 words) that he takes it seriously that we have obligations to animals. He never takes a stand for or against animal research (at one point he says we might not have a right to do it, but we "need" to). His position is rather that animal research is going to be done for the foreseeable future; so animals in labs need good caretakers and advocates; and who is better poised to be a good caretaker and advocate than a lab veterinarian?
It's very hard get "behind the scenes" in an animal lab. If you let PETA be your escort, you will see one thing. If you let Americans for Medical Progress be your guide, you'll see another. (Watch this PETA video and then this pro-research video, and feel your head spin.) Carbone reveals that the truth is not the white wash we get from defenders of animal research. All is not completely well, and the Animal Welfare Act does not give animals all the protection they need. But the images of torture we get from animal rights organizations aren't representative either.
This is a book that will tell you how Animal Care Committees (IACUCs) really work--and whether they are anything at all like Human Subject Review Boards (the answer is no). What about the 80,000,000 rats and mice a year that aren't covered by the Animal Welfare Act (amazingly enough)? Are they being treated much worse than covered species (like hamsters and guinea pigs)? What happens when a lab flunks an inspection--for example, if the dog cages are too small? How much pain is inflicted on lab animals? How are they "sacrificed" when an experiment is through? This is a book that answers many of the questions that will occur to you if you spend some time reading and thinking about animal research.
But what about conscientious participation? Right or wrong? I would say: right. Animal research will be done whether Carbone participates or not. It would be unconscionable for all concerned people to look to the very, very far future, concentrating their efforts on bringing animal research to an end. Today's animals have to have their caretakers and advocates. It's interesting to learn, as well, that insiders have some power to reduce the number of animals used. Part of a lab vet's job is to serve on the animal care committees that must approve research proposals before they are sent to funding agencies. Though these committees almost invariably approve of research (so they are by no means "ethics commitees"--see chapter 8), they can recommend using fewer animals. They also have the power to shape the proposal in order to reduce pain and suffering. It's all to the good for there to be caring veterinarians serving on these committees.
It's also true that lab veterinarians are poised to be whistleblowers, should it be impossible to solve problems on the inside. Yet I imagine it must be a terribly difficult decision when to resort to that solution. Once a whistleblower, never again a lab vet--or so I would assume. The whistleblower becomes a protester on the outside, instead of a conscientious participator.
No doubt there also need to be protestors like that. Peter Singer talks about some of them in the very thorough and disturbing chapter on research in Animal Liberation--another "must read" for someone trying to get a full picture of animal research.
I should say--as long as I'm commenting on books--an animal research bookshelf should also include The Animal Research War (Michael Conn and James Parker). The chapters on what it's like to be targeted by animal rights protestors are very worth reading. As for the rest, the authors are admirably restrained about the word "terrorism," but I do think they white wash animal research. They try to reassure the public that lab animals are adequately protected under US law. I think anyone who reads Singer and Carbone will find that extremely doubtful.