In a recent article by The Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn gets some bad press. Really bad. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a noted advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., published a report this month that highlighted Penn as having the most (by far) repeat, nonsevere and severe violations of the Animal Welfare Act within the Ivy League through its treatment of animals used for research at the University. Obviously, this is not something we want to write home to mom about.
The comment thread on the online version of the article stands as a testament to the mixed thoughts and emotions on animal testing at Penn. However, there should be little disagreement on the primary issue of concern: the University is failing to abide by national and Penn-specific research policies. Dead puppies under grates and gerbils dead from dehydration do not indicate to me that those particular Penn research facilities were properly managed. Furthermore, I question what other failings of policy-enforcement remain undetected in those labs. These are not the kinds of questions we want journal review committees to be asking when we submit our research for publication.
To be quite blunt, this issue has nothing to do with animal rights, and the policies of the Animal Welfare Act could not be further from animal rights activism. The AWA was enacted in 1966 under the premise that civilized nations use established protocols to minimize the exposure of research animals to unbearable conditions. Even then, only about 10 percent of all research animals are covered by the AWA since mice, rats, birds and reptiles are not covered.
It is ironic that Penn was not only a violator of the AWA but the worst violator within the Ivies. Three reasons in particular stand out to me that make our situation so ironic: 1) Penn President Amy Gutmann chairs the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, 2) Gutmann edited and wrote an introduction for a book, The Lives of Animals, which remains a classic for academic thought on animal-related issues and 3) Penn’s master of Bioethics program, department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy and Center for Bioethics are world-renowned. In light of these amazing assets to the University, we have somehow, despite the enormous odds, risen to the top of one ranking no one wanted.
For transparency’s sake, I should disclose that I founded the Penn Vegan Society, so I clearly have a bias. However, I would like to address one issue of concern raised in the comments on the article: there are a wide variety of reasons for which someone would choose to be vegan, and simply being vegan does not imply hindered capacity at intellectual thought or syllogism. To the contrary, vegans have reached this worldview through rigorous intellectual thought and syllogism. To allege that concern over animals is academically unjustifiable would be to allege that entire fields (bioethics, ethics, philosophy, etc.) of Ph.D.-bearing professors and Nobel Laureates are also unjustifiable considering animals’ issues are primary topics in these fields.
I should also disclose that I have worked for almost a year as a researcher in the department of Biochemistry and Biophysics in the Perelman School of Medicine, and I do not tolerate arguments that those of us in science do not or should not care about the ethics of our research techniques. Such comments are fallacious and anti-intellectual. It is only as a research institution with an eye toward progress that we can truly benefit from unconventional perspectives like those of PCRM in this case. As the discussion surrounding the University’s animal protocols unfolds, I hope that Penn students and scholars alike open their ears and minds to modes of analysis different from their own.
If I could leave just one quote to resonate in the minds of my audience to summarize these issues — one quote at both the beginning and end of all discussions surrounding animal well-being — then I would conclude with renowned English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, on the topic of treatment of animals:
“The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
President, Penn Vegan Society
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