Rational or Irrational: the testing of chemicals on rats

Sasha Paterson

Have you ever wandered aimlessly into a pet store? Looked at the fish and thought they would be a lovely addition to any house but then, being honest with yourself that you would never clean the tank? Tried to avoid the puppies, recalling every awful fact you know about puppy farms before going up to the glass and consciously naming each one and rationalising why a border collie would be a great idea in your suburban yard? And then hauling yourself out of the shop before you end up with the responsibility of a living breathing thing? Only a few weeks ago, I accidentally missed that last step and am now the owner of two living and breathing and gorgeous rats.
Rats are mammals with nervous systems similar to our own. It's no secret that they feel pain, fear, loneliness, and joy just as we do. They become emotionally attached to each other, live in families, and easily bond with human guardians. Not only do rats express empathy when another rat or a human they know is in distress, they also exhibit altruism, putting themselves in harm's way rather than allowing another living being to suffer.

Animals are a controversial topic when it comes to their role in science. However, the facts around testing on rats are as confronting and distressing as they are simply unfair. Laboratories that use rats are exempted from the minimal protections provided under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). When used in cosmetic tests, rats are often subjected to skin and eye irritation tests where chemicals are rubbed on shaved skin or dripped into the eyes without any pain relief. Additionally, 92% of experimental drugs that are safe and effective in animals fail in human clinical trials because they are too dangerous or don't work. So why does this treatment continue when it has an extremely high rate of failing on humans regardless?
Other animals such as cats and dogs are treated with basic animal rights, rats and other lab animals however are treated to chemical testing without the same legislative protection. While experimenters who use guinea pigs must provide them with pain relief and must at least show that they have looked for modern alternatives to the use of animals, experimenters don't even have to count the rats they kill. Why do their lives and suffering garner so little respect compared to other animals?

While there is a substantial amount of facts and evidence on negative chemical testing on rats, there is also positive feedback on animal testing. A 2011 poll of nearly 1,000 biomedical scientists conducted by the science journal Nature found that more than 90% "agreed that the use of animals in research is essential." Furthermore, in 1997, researchers Joseph and Charles Vacanti grew a human "ear" seeded from implanted cow cartilage cells on the back of a living mouse to explore the possibility of fabricating body parts for plastic and reconstructive surgery.

So while rats are often stereotypically known as pests that live under the house, they are also rodents with human-like emotional characteristics (that make great pets, as I have recently discovered). Is it rational or irrational that they are not protected from chemical testing under law?

Please find below some of the research material used and more information on this topic:

Please note any views or opinions presented in this piece are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Rotaract Club of Brisbane Rivercity or Rotary International and its subsidiaries.