Why focus on these animals? Well, worldwide trends have shown that they are the most abused in the name of science. The general statistics are as follows:
Rodents = 87%!!!
67% = Mice
18% = Rats
2% = Others
Rabbits = extensively used in the past.
The “Others” are represented by hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, chinchillas and other rodents who really form a minority.
If we consider that around 3,000,000 animals are used in the UK alone, the rodent fraction translates to a whopping 2.5 million animals used each year. What about the rest of the world?
Some Common Uses of these Animals
- Mice LD50 for cosmetic Botox
- Mice Most genetically modified
- Rats Toxicology studies
- Rats Academic papers/teaching
- Gerbils Stroke research, epilepsy
- Hamsters Dental caries research
- Hamsters Cancer research
- Guinea pigs Vaccine testing
- Rabbits Immunology
- Rabbits Pyrogens, Draiz
The Common Rationale for using these Animals:
- Easily housed
- Reproduce fast – a rat can give birth every 28 days! A hamster’s pregnancy lasts for only 16 days!
- Short lifespan – rats live up to three years. Mice and hamsters live for between 18 months and two years”
- Cost effective
- Social reasons – less public objection, and less public sympathy.
And yet, they feel pain and suffering no less than the larger animals people always focus on. They are no less important than the cats, dogs and primates that people always seem to find sympathy for.
Let us take a closer look at these animals and look at their behaviour, and get to know them better. Now, by way of explanation, ethology is the scientific study of animal behaviour in the natural environment. So, when one wants do study animal behaviour, one lets the animal roam around in a state of unrestricted freedom, and observes carefully what the animals are getting up to. So, ethology is considered to be a science.
These rabbits and rodents are sentient beings. This means that they have the capacity to feel. They are capable of feeling pain and suffering. In addition, they can feel mourning and loss. When a few of them have formed a close bond, when one of that small group dies or is taken away, there are clear signs of depression amongst those who remain. They don’t eat, lie listlessly, and sniff around for the deceased one. All of these animals, rodents and rabbits, are capable of showing affection to other members of the group, and to human beings as well.
Altruism is the capacity to show compassion, and science has revealed that this is the case. Most stories are anecdotal, however this compassionate behaviour has been seen over and over again.
In Hans Ruesch’s Slaughter of the Innocent, he mentions two incidences where rats have been seen to demonstrate this altruism:
“When rats discover poisoned food morsels, they cover them with their faeces, to warn other less perceptive members of the community.”
“A British miner once saw two large rats proceeding slowly along a roadside, each holding one end of a straw in its mouth. The miner clubbed one of them to death. To his surprise, the other rat didn’t move, so the miner bent down to observe it more closely. It was blind and was being led by the other.”
Father mice, and father Siberian hamsters will go to great lengths to retrieve the young if they have strayed from the nest. Sometimes, they put their own lives in danger.
Astra and Michaela were two very old, frail and unrelated rats in my study group. They formed an extremely close bond, and would look after each other. For instance, they would bring food to each other, and try and rearrange the bedding that they slept in. When Astra died, Michaela lost the will to live herself and died within two weeks.
Rabbits assist other species. It has been well documented that rabbits will try and assist an injured bird.
Most of these animals are highly gregarious and have communal living arrangements. An exception to this rule is the Syrian Hamster who must live alone and does not tolerate company. Those who live communally form peaceful, functional societies, which ensure equal opportunities between the sexes. General law and order is observed where the elders are respected and the young nurtured. This is especially true of rats who where the subjects of a massive study undertaken by Lore and Flannelly, and published in Scientific American in 1977.
Rodents and rabbits are highly intelligent. They have a large capacity for learning, and are capable of complex problem solving. They have a high need for mental stimulation, and do not like to be neglected or left in barren living quarters. They are very active animals. If you have ever kept mice, you will see just how busy they can be. A Syrian hamster will run for about 10 kilometres in one night on his/her search for food.
Communication forms an important part of their social structure. Most of the time, they communicate in ultrasound. These are sounds which our human ears cannot hear. It is said that ultrasonic communication is an evolutionary adaptation to prevent these small and vulnerable animals from being detected by predators. In his behavioural studies on rats, Professor Jaak Panksepp, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology, and Professor of Psychiatry at the Bowling Green State University of Ohio, USA, discovered that rats emit ultrasound (sounds not heard by human ears) during play that is the equivalent of human laughter. They also emit these sounds whenever they are played with by humans. Professor Panksepp said: “Our work shows that rats are highly emotional creatures, with some basic feelings similar to our own. Few people realise how emotionally sophisticated these little guys are. The scientific world has vastly underestimated their emotional capacities. . . things that you can only see once you have become friendly with them.”
Other studies by Holy and Guo at Washington University in St. Louis, USA have revealed that male mice sing songs to female mice in order to woo them or to attract them. This is very similar to human men singing love songs to their lady friends!
Play and grooming forms an integral part of the daily routine. It is seen to be a method of communication and grooming reinforces the bond between animals.
These animals are fastidiously clean. In the wild, and if kept in captivity, they will have distinctly separate nest and ablution areas, and areas in which food is stored. They spend a large amount of time grooming themselves and each other. This accomplishes two things at the same time – bonding and cleaning. They like to have clean nest materials, and rapidly push out any dirty or soiled nesting. They will avoid excrement.
Their Biology and how it Differs from Ours
Physiological differences are important. It would appear that their immune system is far more sophisticated than ours. Very often rats live in sewers because they cannot find anyplace else to live that is away from predators. Their immune system has to be very good to cope with such an environment.
Rabbits and rodents do not have a menstrual cycle. They have an oestrus cycle. When we humans are not impregnated, our uterine lining comes away in the process of menstruation. This does not occur in these animals. If they are not impregnated, they simply resorb the uterine lining – a very conservative process. And yet, rodents have been used to test human female contraceptive and other drugs. No wonder we get such bad side effects!
Obesity in these animals is extremely rare. The vivisectionists make them obese by genetically engineering them, or feeding them huge amounts of unnatural foodstuffs, mostly fat and carbohydrate. Or they make them obese by manipulating their metabolisms. If obesity is not natural in these animals and is artificially induced, how can they be ideal models on which to study this condition which is so problematic in humans?
Rats and mice naturally produce protein and ketones in their urine. If this was seen in humans, it would be highly indicative of pathology. Most likely of renal damage and diabetes mellitus type one respectively!
It is also important to understand a bit about the pharmacology and biochemistry of these animals. Pharmacology is the way in which drugs are dealt with by the body. Biochemistry is the natural functioning of all the chemical reactions in the body.
Penicillin was discovered by Fleming and later purified by Florey. Florey had to test this new drug, and so he chose rats and mice. In these animals it proved to be OK. Had he have tested it on hamsters or guinea pigs, it would never have been marketed. It is lethal in hamsters and guinea pigs. Now here we have four rodents. In two it is OK, and yet it kills the other two. Note the vast differences in such a closely related group of animals. Not even the rat and mice studies on penicillin could predict the idiosyncratic reactions in humans where some people can tolerate the drug and yet others are highly allergic to it and it can kill them!
All mammalian livers produce a substance called glutathione. Now, humans use this glutathione in cases of crisis such as when they have taken a huge drug overdose – a drug such as paracetamol. Rodents use this glutathione all the time.
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that has been used in over 6000 foodstuffs throughout the world. It was passed by the authorities as being safe for human consumption. It has not at all been linked with any form of cancer in humans. However, in rats, it causes lymphomas and lymphoid leukaemias.
Aspirin is safe in humans and does not cause birth defects. However, right across the spectrum of rodents, it causes birth defects.
Cortisone is safe in rodents, yet in humans it causes cleft palate in the baby if used in the first trimester of pregnancy.
Let us go into pathology briefly. This is the study of disease. Humans and animals differ greatly in the diseases they get. Their diseases are not our diseases and vice versa. For instance, humans get Parkinsonism. This does not occur in rodents or rabbits at all. These vivisectionists have to induce it in them. They cut a hole through the skull, and get into the brain of the animal and damage it either chemically or physically. The animal gets a quasi-Parkinsonism that is in no way like the natural Parkinsonism seen in humans. And, these vivisectionists expect to learn something about the human condition. It does not make sense.
Cancer is virtually unheard of in these animals unless they are old or their immune systems have broken down. And, their cancers are not our cancers. But they are very often the animals of choice in whom to study cancer. They have human cancers implanted onto or into their bodies. Once the human cancer is implanted it loses a lot of the characteristics it would normally have if left on a human.
Leading causes of natural death between humans and animals are vastly different. In humans the leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer and stroke. Now, in a hamster, for example, the leading causes of natural death are nephrosis, wet tail and amyloidosis.
These animals have been manipulated to suit science. Nowadays you can get rodent and rabbit strains. So, for instance, you don’t just get rats, you get the Fisher rat, the Sprague-Dawley rat, the Wistar rat, the Long-Evans rat, the obese rat, the diabetic rat, and the list goes on. The pharmaceutical industries are cashing in on this, because just by using a specific strain of animal, they can get any result they want, and thus get their drug onto the market. These animals have been tailor-made to maximize profit.
The mouse is the most genetically modified animal on the planet. These mice may look like mice, may sleep like mice, may eat like mice, may function like mice, but genetically they are no longer mice. They have had human genes spliced into their own DNA so that they can simulate or mimic human disease. But these mice will never be able to give an accurate representation of the human condition. They are mice, and humans are humans, and their innate biology is vastly different from humans!
Science has created “unnatural” animals.
So, finally, where does this leave us?
Well, the answer is very simple:
The similarities – these animals are emotionally and behaviourally so like us that they deserve to be left alone in peace!
The differences – we have seen that biologically they are vastly different form us which leaves us with the conclusion that to use them is research represents extremely unsafe and bad science.
In this 21st Century, we should aim primarily to make this a better world for all concerned by the application of sound science, with compassion.
Primum non nocere…
Author : Colleen McDuling, B.Sc(Med.Hons), MSc(Med.Sc.), Animal Behaviourist
Scientific Representative of the South African Rat Fan Club.