Animal Rights

The Science of Andrew Rowan and the HSUS. Part I

| by Dr Ray Greek

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is one of the largest animal protection organizations in the world. According to their IRS Form 990, they received over $130 million in contributions and grants in 2010. Andrew Rowan, PhD, received his doctorate in biochemistry from Oxford and has been active in animal welfare for decades. He is currently the chief scientific officer of the HSUS and the chief executive officer of the Humane Society International. Dr Rowan was formerly the chair of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) at Tufts. He has received many awards and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. More information about Dr Rowan can be found here. Let me make the next point very clear: Dr Rowan is very smart and very well educated as are the members of the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) for the HSUS. Please keep that in mind when reading these essays.

Dr Rowan recently delivered a lecture on the use of animals in research and testing at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The video is available here. I first met Dr Rowan when I was on the SAC for the HSUS in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He is very polished and speaks with a British / South African accent. He fit in well with the administration at the HSUS, which at the time included David Wiebers, MD, neurologist at the Mayo Clinic, then-chairman of the SAC and later chairman of the board of HSUS. Wiebers first attracted my attention when, during a break at a SAC meeting I asked him why in his opinion animal use in research continued (a question I frequently ask in order to judge where people are really coming from). Wiebers replied, shaking his head from side to side: “Gosh darn, they [the researchers] just don’t have any choice.” He actually said that. Other pearls I picked up at various SAC meetings included being told by the then-CEO that HSUS did not want to lead on animal protection issues but rather that they wanted to follow closely behind public opinion so as not to endanger donations. Donations were the first and last concern at HSUS and no decision was made that anyone thought would adversely effect donations. Dr Rowan voiced complete support for such positions. I, on the other hand, did not last long on the SAC.

HSUS and Dr Rowan have always emphasized “dialog as opposed to confrontation,” and Dr Rowan stressed this during his lecture. He also stressed: “Respect opinions of others” and  “informed common ground.” Dr Rowan’s actions have supported his words. In 1999, he sent the following email to pro animal experimentation listserv regarding some comments by an associate of his at HSUS, Jonathan Balcombe.

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Subject: Re: [COMPMED] HSUS, Balcombe and Pittsburgh

Date:  Fri, 5 Feb 1999 02:00:52 -0400

From: Andrew Rowan <[email protected]>

To: [email protected]

I was out of the office when the Pittsburgh story was posted by Tony

Mazzaschi and have been having some difficulty with my email since I got back so, for various reasons, I did not respond earlier.  I am also not sure that I saw all the responses to the original posting (because of my email problems) but would like to clarify some of the issues.

Jonathan Balcombe's attendance at the Pittsburgh animal rights three-day event was a matter of discussion in the Animal Research Issues section of the HSUS when we discovered just how "activist" the event was going to be. There was some concern that his attendance might send the wrong message to the research community just as we are extending the hand of dialogue on our Pain and Distress initiative.   However, I felt that we, as the HSUS, have some duty to provide speakers at events when invited and requested to do so.  I do not believe that we should snub animal activists, especially those in educational institutions.   The key is that we should deliver the SAME message whether we are talking to animal rights activists or to research advocates.   In this regard, I have established a set of three base-line positions that I want our animal research staff to repeat at public events.  These positions are as follows:

  • The HSUS recognizes that biomedical research, including research on animals, has led to the development of new knowledge and to improved human and animal health;
  • The HSUS recognizes that those responsible for using and caring for research animals are as concerned about animal welfare as we are;
  • The HSUS, like most scientists, looks forward to the day when we will no longer use animals in research that causes pain and distress to the animals.

Jonathan Balcombe tells me that, in his hour-long interview with the student reporter (the "quote" came from the interview, not his talk), he repeated the above (if not in my precise words) and that she took only the last segment and used it in her story.   Frankly, my own experience with student reporters has not been particularly positive.   They usually get both the facts and the context wrong at some level or other.

I want to re-emphasize that those of our staff who go out and speak on these issues are expected to stay "on message" no matter what the group. There is, I understand, widespread sentiment among the research community that the HSUS says one thing to animal activists and another to research groups.   We are trying to change that perception, which is not always easy given that people (including reporters) tend to hear what they want to (or expect to) hear.   If the HSUS is perceived as a closet antivivisection group (whatever that might mean?), people expect to hear us say we want to see an end to the use of animals in research and then repeat it with an "I told you so!" tone.   However, it is perhaps pertinent to note that Dr Colin Blakemore, the Waynflete Professor of Physiology at Oxford University, noted neuroscientist, recent President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and victim of many ALF attacks on his home and person, stated at last year's PRIM&R meeting that he also longed for the day when we would no longer have to use animals in research.

I do not know whether this makes him a closet antivivisectionist but I have based our third premise (above) on conversations with him and with many other researchers over the years.

As an aside, the HSUS is currently involved in an initiative that would develop a consensus position on research chimpanzee retirement that interested researchers, zoo professionals and animal protection groups would all endorse.   We have a meeting tomorrow that will explore consensus positions and possible political action to generate funds for the establishment and running of retirement facilities.   I am pleased to say that five of six of the major research chimpanzee institutions are coming to the meeting.

We do, indeed, live in interesting times!

Andrew Rowan

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The above is not unique. Chris Mondics, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted Dr Rowan on July 14, 2002, as stating: “It is probably not possible to [halt testing on animals] without harmful affects on humans.” (page A15 of the City-D edition.) Dr Rowan wrote the following in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 55, Issue 35, Page A27, May 8, 2009: "No scientist wants to use an animal in research that causes it harm (or none have ever admitted as such when challenged in public) . . . I suspect that attempts by research institutions to avoid or even prevent debate on animal research are due to a deep-seated (that is, largely hidden and ignored) sense of guilt that comes with the practice of intentionally causing suffering and death to a sentient being, even though the ultimate end might be noble — advancing biomedical knowledge and health." (Emphasis added.)

It appears that Dr Rowan’s idea of respect and common ground is complete capitulation in areas of objective scientific facts. Along the same lines, in his lecture, Dr Rowan also lauded the Boyd group in the UK, heralding them as an example of what cooperation can accomplish. I spoke at a meeting of the Boyd Group in the early 2000s. The entire group disagreed with me on the following points.

1. I stated that animal models of polio has misled researchers and that the researchers themselves acknowledged this.

2. I stated that thalidomide would still have been marketed even if more animal species had been tested.

3. I stated that animal models could not predict human responses to drugs and disease because we, and they, are evolved complex systems.

4. I stated that Fleming’s use of the rabbit as a model for humans delayed the introduction of penicillin for over a decade.

There were many more disagreements but the above should be sufficient to make my point. My above positions are solid facts supported by the best science we currently have and by historical records in the form of published papers in the scientific literature. The interesting fact about the above is that the entire Boyd group agreed that none of the above points were true. There was not a divide between scientists that purport to be experts on the use of animals in research and others. There was not a divide between those who use animals and those that oppose such use. There was complete agreement in the room that the above points were wrong. This is the example Dr Rowan thinks should be emulated.

As part of the “lets all get along regardless of the truth” attitude of Dr Rowan, he stressed many times that the number of animals used in research in the US is decreasing. His numbers appeared to be based on references from the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research (ILAR)—a group representing animal experimenters. He kept emphasizing that the trends for animal use have leveled out or are going down. He stated that he believes that the US is only using 20-25 million animals per year. The only reliable and verifiable numbers Dr Rowan presented, the number of nonhuman primates (NHPs) being used in research, showed that the numbers are actually increasing. Dr Rowan also stated that as science uses new technologies the numbers would decrease further.

Compare Dr Rowan’s position with the following. A 2000 report prepared by the US Department of Agriculture's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service concluded that if birds, rats, and mice were added to the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), if these animals had to be counted in labs that use them, the total be over 500,000,000. (The current AWA does not mandate that rats, birds, and mice be counted as “animals” used in research. All agree that these animals amount to around 95-99% of all animals used.) Granted not every single rat and mouse would be used in labs, some would no doubt be sold as pets or whatever, but there is no comparison between the number of rodents sold as pets, and all other uses, versus the number used in labs. Lab use consumes the vast, vast majority.

Even Madhusree Mukerjee, former editor of Scientific American, writing in the August 2004 issue acknowledged that the number of genetically modified mice in research was around 100,000,000: "In truth, animal welfare legislation and public concern are both more focused on pain than on death itself. Philosophically, the "cost" of death hinges on the worth of an animal's life. Anyone who has tried to stomp on a cockroach will have gained the impression that even such a lowly creature cherishes life. But how does one measure this value? The question has become critical with a recent explosion in the numbers of transgenic mice--close to 100 million are consumed a year in American labs alone." (Mukerjee 2004)

Given these two sources, I do not see how any serious and honest person can report that the number of animals used in laboratories in the US is decreasing. Yet, Dr Rowan wants you to believe that the vivisection community, that we should feel sorry for by the way because they are forced to do unpleasant thing to save our lives, uses a mere 20 million animals annually in the US.

Dr Rowan also emphasized the small percentage of grant money that NIH funds for animal-based research. The source for this claim was not obvious and the only objective source I have ever found was a 1985 publication by NIH and other government agencies. Their numbers were more along the lines that >50% of money from NIH went to research on animals that most today consider sentient. (Committee on Models for Biomedical Research Board on Basic Biology 1985) (For more see our article: Is the use of sentient animals in basic research justifiable?)

Dr Rowan’s positions are consistent with his time as chair of the IACUC. IACUCs are not there for the reason many assume. Carbone, a veterinarian and organizer and member of one of the first IACUCs stated in his book: " Few people realize that virtually nothing is prohibited by the Animal Welfare Act, so long as it can be justified to the animal care and use committees. Nor do IACUCs, by and large, function by rejecting animal protocols when the ethical costs are too high. Unlike granting and funding agencies where money is a limited resource, IACUCs have no limit on the number of protocols they can approve. They can approve all or none, but as Russow points out, their general operating philosophy is roughly: Given that this project is going to be done, is it being carried out as humanely as possible (Russow 1998)? This is especially true if a project has been favorably peer-reviewed by a competitive granting agency such as the NIH. Given this as their starting point, how does one assess the effectiveness of IACUCs? First, we recognize that rejection of protocols is not what IACUCs do, and so measuring their rate of rejection would be virtually meaningless. (Carbone 2004) p183-4

In the next essay, I will focus more clearly on the science of Dr Rowan and HSUS. Their position can be summed as: “Society must wait until we have predictive technologies and models before we give up animal models.”

References

Carbone, Larry. 2004. What Animals Want: Expertise and Advocacy in Laboratory Animal Welfare Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Committee on Models for Biomedical Research Board on Basic Biology. 1985. Committee on Models for Biomedical Research. Board on Basic Biology. Commission on Life Science. National Research Council. Models for Biomedical Research: A New Perspective. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Mukerjee, Madhusree. 2004. Book Review of Speaking for the Animals Scientific American August:96-7.