Three staff members from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) authored a “Brief Report” titled “Trends in Animal Use at US Research Facilities” in the current issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics (subscription only), which has attracted attention from some scientific and other media. In short, a PETA “study” has found the use of vertebrate research animals by 21 of the top 25 institutions funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has increased approximately 73% over a 15-year period (1997-2012), driven primarily by increases in the use of mice.
While a significant increase in research mice would not be surprising during this timeframe as genetically-modified rodent models were developed and research opportunities proliferated, PETA’s method for gauging the increase is questionable. Using assurance documents filed by NIH grantees every 4 to 5 years, obtained by PETA under FOIA, the authors constructed an animal use “average” and “total” by species based on average daily inventory estimates provided during three time periods (1997-2003, 2000-2008 and 2008-2012). In a written response to the study provided to Science (subscription required), NIH’s Office of Extramural Research cautioned that using the inventory data to track animal numbers is “inappropriate” because the data don’t show usage, but are only a “snapshot” that NIH uses to make sure institutions have adequate veterinary care. Moreover, more than 1000 institutions have assurances to use animals and including only the 25 largest could be misleading, especially because some provide mice to other institutions.
In any event, it’s not possible to evaluate PETA’s averages without raw data and knowing whether they made accurate assumptions and categorizations. Also, there are obvious errors in the paper, such as citing an inflated number of USDA-covered species used for 2010 (later corrected by USDA). Some assertions are made without evidence and in other cases references listed do not support the statements made by authors. PETA calls the increase “staggering,” despite noting in their journal paper that the “sizeable growth” in animal use due to genetically modified (GM) mice has previously been reported.
Speaking of Research posted an excellent response on the subject, Animal Research Successes Spur Growth in Science…but PeTA Can only Complain. Some of the media outlets that have covered this story include CBS News, NBC News, the Chronicle for Higher Education, BuzzFeed and Yahoo Health.