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Massive Drownings Exemplify the Commoditization of Animals for Science

One year after Superstorm Sandy slammed into the Northeast, few will ever forget the devastation it wreaked upon the region. But one event in particular has remained unmarked and unnoticed by most.

When floodwaters breached the banks of Manhattan’s East River on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, an estimated 10,000 animals in the Smilow Research Center at NYU Medical Center were drowned in the basement laboratories while confined in their cages.

While this event is disturbing enough on its own, it is part of an even more disturbing trend. Since 2001, an estimated 60,000 animals have drowned while trapped in basement laboratories that were overcome by floodwaters.

In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison flooded the basement laboratories at the University of Texas, resulting in more than 4,700 animals drowning.  The same storm impacted Baylor University in Waco, Texas, engulfing as many as 30,000 animals in its basement lab.

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, 8,000 animals drowned in the laboratories of Louisiana State University, also located in the facility’s basement. Thousands more perished in the labs at Tulane University in New Orleans, also a result of Katrina.

Though the vast majority of these animals have been mice and rats, casualties have included monkeys, dogs, rabbits, and sheep. And while mice and rats are too often regarded as being less worthy of life, there is much evidence to support that they are every bit as intelligent and sentient as their mammalian counterparts.  Among other compelling findings, research demonstrates that mice and rats exhibit empathy when confronted with a fellow being’s suffering and possess “mirror neurons” known to be a neurological substrate for this emotion.

This ongoing loss of monumental numbers of animals is not only tragic, but preventable. The Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), under the National Institutes of Health, can institute a policy requiring federally funded research facilities to house animals on higher elevations. This would be an important first step.

Without preventive action, the tragic drownings of animals in labs are likely to recur. Climate changes have resulted in increasingly destructive storms, causing unprecedented flooding and surges. A report issued by the World Bank in August 2013 on global climate change identified the top 20 cities around the world most likely to encounter significant flooding as sea levels rise. Five of those cities are in the U.S., including Miami, the New York region, New Orleans, Tampa, and Boston, all areas with universities and hospitals housing tens of thousands of animals in labs.

One of the main reasons that labs are housing such mass quantities of animals is a result of genetic engineering, which results in the killing of “undesirable” results. For every acceptable organism generated, defined as one who expresses the proper genetic qualities, dozens of animals will be destroyed. Little wonder that there is almost no regard for the fate of millions of animals, generated factory style in the modern lab.

This crisis in our research system was acknowledged head-on by Dr. Elias Zerhouni, former director of the National Institutes of Health, when he addressed the NIH on June 4, 2013: “We have moved away from studying human disease in humans. ….With the ability to knock in or knock out any gene in a mouse—which can’t sue us—researchers have over-relied on animal data. The problem is that it hasn’t worked, and it’s time we stopped dancing around the problem. We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.”

Those new methods already exist and are growing daily, but a multi-billion dollar industry that profits from dealing in animals is impeding change and keeping animals trapped in labs where they are regarded as little more than lab equipment. And like the other devices in the lab, they get left behind when the floodwaters come, to perish as if their suffering and their lives do not matter. And sadly, until society takes notice, they don’t.

Take action by following this link to pressure OLAW, to prohibit the housing of animals in basement laboratories in flood-prone areas.