Animal Rights: Scientists' Billboards Ask Whether You'd Save a Child or a Lab Rat

PHOTO: New biomedical research billboard
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Medical researchers, long pilloried by animal rights activists as heartless torturers of helpless creatures, are fighting back with a provocative billboard campaign that features a white rat and a smiling little girl.

"Who would you rather see live?" the billboard asks.

That billboard has appeared in Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Chicago and Baltimore, and will soon debut in Madison, Wis. -- all cities with major medical or primate research centers. They were put up by the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Biomedical Research, a non-profit educational organization funded by universities, hospitals, advocacy groups, pharmaceutical companies, and biotech firms with a stake in animal research. The foundation, like its sister lobbying organization, the National Association of Biomedical Research, supports "humane and responsible use of animals in research."

The campaign, which cost $125,000 to $150,000, aims to push back against animal-rights activists' high-profile attempts to shut down animal experimentation, particularly neuroscience studies on primates, said Frankie Trull, the foundation's president and founder.

The foundation, which has tracked public attitudes about animal research since its creation in 1981, found "a surprisingly concerning drop in public support" for animal research from the 1990s, when it was over 70 percent, to 54 percent in 2008, Trull said.

Scientists Say Activists Attacked Them

From 2006 through 2008, militant activists from the Animal Liberation Front, the Animal Liberation Brigade and the UCLA Primate Freedom Project attacked and intimidated UCLA researchers with firebombs, online death threats and packages containing poisoned razors. UCLA sought and won restraining orders against them.

One of their targets, Dario L. Ringach, a neuroscientist at UCLA, has described how his young children slept as masked activists pounded on the doors and windows of his home. He ultimately gave up working with animals, but he says, "The human cost of not doing the research is unacceptable. Can anyone imagine not having a polio vaccine today?"

His Web page contains links to organizations founded by like-minded investigators, including Speaking of Research, which on April 4 described a new tactic, by the anti-vivisection group Negotiation is Over, "targeting university students who plan to enter the health sciences field." The group claimed success in steering a Florida Atlantic University science student away from a research career.

Billboard in Seattle. Designers say splitting the word "rather" between "rat" and "her" was intentional.

"Intimidating, harassing, threatening or justifying the assassination of students and faculty engaged in biomedical research to achieve a political or social goal is a form of terrorism that has no place in our democratic society," Ringach wrote in an email to ABC News on Wednesday.

Animal Rights Activists Attacked Researchers at UCLA

Waning public support for animal research prompted the Foundation for Biomedical Research in 2009 to establish ResearchSaves, designed to tell Americans that animal research led to the development of antibiotics, vaccines, surgery and diagnostic tools, said spokeswoman Liz Hodge. With only about "five seconds to capture people's attention," the new billboards encourage people "to think, even for a minute, about why animal research is necessary."

Animal Rights Activists Say Billboard Campaign Premise is False, Misleading

It's not necessary, countered Dallas cardiologist Dr. John Pippin, an advisor to the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine, which opposes animal research. Pippin said the billboards perpetuate an unproven premise that animals are essential to advancing human health. He said 90 percent of drugs that worked on animals failed in human trials.

"The use of animals to test drugs and to study human diseases has been shown over decades to be a failed paradigm," he said. "To the extent we have methods already that can replace those, we should use them. To the extent that we don't, we should develop them post-haste to replace those methods."

Pippin suggested stem cell research, genetics, and the emerging field of epigenetics, which identifies factors that turn on or silence particular genes, could replace animal studies. But, "there are so many careers and so many institutions that are founded on the animal research paradigm that there is not a great willingness to switch."

Pippin said he spoke as a scientist and dog lover who rose through the scientific ranks while conducting studies on dogs, funded by the American Heart Association. In 1987, he said, he became uneasy about using canine test subjects to understand coronary artery disease and unstable angina in people. "The ethics of it was compelling to me because I always had dogs at home." He abandoned animal studies for human studies.

Pippin expressed concern that extremists divert public attention from reasoned arguments against animal research and for alternatives like stem cell research, which he said "could replace animal testing if we would only focus on it."

UCLA's Ringach said the billboard campaign recognizes researchers' ethical dilemma. "Indeed, the vast majority of scientists and physicians do not see any other way of making substantial progress in some areas of research without the use of animals… The simple message of the billboard challenges the public to ponder the position of animal rights activists who believe our moral consideration for the life of a rat and a human ought to be exactly the same."

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