Nonhuman animals are used in laboratories for a number of purposes. Examples of animal experimentation include product testing, use of animals as research models and as educational tools. Within each of these categories, there are also many different purposes for which they are used. For instance, some are used as tools for military or biomedical research; some to test cosmetics and household cleaning products, and some are used in class dissection to teach teenagers the anatomy of frogs or to have a subject for a PhD dissertation.
The number of animals used in animal experimentation is certainly smaller than that of those used in others such as animal farming or the fishing industry.1 Yet it has been estimated to be well above 100 million animals who are used every year.2
The ways in which these animals can be harmed in experimental procedures, also known as vivisection,3 vary. In almost all cases they are very significant and the majority of them end with the death of the animals.
There’s an important difference today between the consideration that is afforded to the potential and actual subjects used in experiments, depending on whether they are human or nonhuman animals. Few people today would condone experimenting on human beings in harmful ways, and in fact, indicative of this, such research is strongly restricted by law, when it isn’t just prohibited outright. When experimentation on humans is permitted it is always in a context of the individuals involved consenting to it, for whatever personal benefit that serves as an incentive for them. For nonhuman animals, this is not the case.
This is not because of any belief that experimentation on humans could not bring about important knowledge (in fact, it seems obvious that this practice would uncover far more useful and relevant knowledge than any experimentation on nonhuman animals ever can). Rather, the reason for this double standard is that nonhuman animals are not morally taken into account because the strong arguments against speciesism are not considered.
In the following sections the most important areas in which nonhuman animals are used in laboratories or classrooms, as well as the research methods that don’t use them, are addressed:
Animals used for experimentation
Animals are made to suffer and are killed to test the impact that chemicals can have in the environment. Some of the most important environmentalist organizations have been lobbying for this practice and have often been successful despite the opposition of animal defenders.
While animal testing of new cosmetics and household products is now illegal in places such as the European Union and India, it’s still being carried out in the U.S. and other places, where many animals are blinded, caused extreme pain and killed.
The use of animals to test new weaponry, bullets and warfare chemicals, as well as the effects of burns and poison for military purposes, remains mainly hidden today, but many animals die in terrible ways because of it.
Animals of a variety of species are harmed for numerous purposes in biomedical research because the non-animal methodologies aren’t implemented. Those animals are harmed in many ways that most people ignore.
When new materials are developed, they are often tested by using methods such as cell or tissue cultures, or computational models. However, materials are also commonly tested on animals who are killed afterwards.
Animals used in education
Dissecting animals and using them in other ways has been common practice in the U.S. and some other countries in primary and especially secondary education for many years. This means killing a huge number of animals and educating new generations in the idea that it’s acceptable to harm animals for our benefit.
In the science departments of many different universities, research, teaching and training are successfully carried out without using animals as laboratory tools. However, animals are still subjected to all kind of procedures in many other places.
Towards a future without animals harmed in laboratories
Defenders of animal experimentation often claim that there is no choice but to harm animals lest scientific progress be stopped, but this is not so. There are many non-harmful methods available today.
Despite the fact that many other companies do not experiment on sentient animals, there are still companies that choose to continue carrying out animal tests out of a lack of will to implement new methods.
Fortunately, although many companies today choose not to harm animals in product development, quality and safety isn’t affected in the least.
1 Every year tens of billions are killed in slaughterhouses and trillions are fished and killed in fish factories. For estimations regarding this see: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2013) “Livestock primary”, FAOSTAT [accessed on 24 January 2013]; Mood, A. & B. P. (2010) “Estimating the number of fish caught in global fishing each year”, Fishcount.org.uk [accessed on 18 October 2010]; Mood, A. & Brooke, P. (2012) “Estimating the number of farmed fish killed in global aquaculture each year”, Fishcount.org.uk [accessed on 18 January 2013].
2 See Taylor, K.; Gordon, N.; Langley, G. & Higgins, W. (2008) “Estimates for worldwide laboratory animal use in 2005”, Alternatives to Laboratory Animals, 36, pp. 327-342 [accessed on 11 April 2013].
3 Although the term “vivisection” literally means “cutting a living animal,” this word has broadened its meaning in common language to denote any kind of laboratory invasive use of an animal. Defenders of animal experimentation prefer not to use it due to its negative connotations. Opponents of it claim that there shouldn’t be a problem with using this term given the meaning it already has in common language. They argue that its rejection is due to an intention to use language that is not explicit about how animals are used in this field.