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Rats Like Tickling: Why Is the Animal Welfare Act So Lame?

New research shows the benefits of tickling, pigs display empathy, and much more

Yesterday was one of those days when a lot of very interesting news continually popped up in my inbox. The first thing to arrive was an announcement about a research paper by Sylvie Cloutier, Kimberly L. Wahl, Jaak Panksepp, and Ruth C. Newberry called "Playful handling of laboratory rats is more beneficial when applied before than after routine injections" in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Next was an essay informing the world that pigs display empathy, and then I was informed about a special issue of the journal Behavioural Processes called "New Directions in Canine Behavior" (all of the essays can be downloaded free of charge) that is devoted to the behavior of dogs and our special relationship with these amazing beings. All of these publications deserve close attention as they provide gobs of information about recent research. They're a free goldmine of detailed research, a rare occurrence these days. 

"When will we stop killing them in research?" asked a six-year-old

The one essay that caught my eye and made me reflect about the ways in which animals are used and abused is the first about the beneficial aspects of playfully handling laboratory rats, called "hand play." A few years ago, when I was talking to a group of youngsters as part of Jane Goodall's global Roots & Shoots program, a six-year-old, after hearing that mice and rats display empathy, asked me, "When will we stop killing them in research?" I was stunned and did a double take, thinking that perhaps I had misheard her voice and that her teacher had actually asked me this daunting and most disturbing question.

I was wrong, and I couldn't answer this youngster's question because I, too, remain incredulous that detailed scientific research published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals that could and should be used to protect other animals from invasive and abusive research -- often causing intentional and interminable pain, suffering, and death -- is thoroughly ignored by those responsible for updating legislation to protect animals. I'm thrilled that tickling helps rats endure ensuing pain, but why does invasive research that causes pain continue? I couldn't think of a good answer for the young girl, who kept asking the question over and over again. It turns out her favorite animal was a rat, Molly, with whom she shared her home. 

Why are reliable scientific data dismissed as if they didn't exist when developing legislation to protect animals?

We know that rats and numerous other animals experience positive emotions and also that they experience deep and enduring pain. They also apparently suffer the pains of (at least) other members of their species. So, why are rodents (and other sentient animals including birds, fish, reptiles, and invertebrates about whom rapidly accumulating data show just how emotional they can be) not protected by the United States Federal Animal Welfare Act? I've written about this situation before, noting that animals are not really better off now than they were years ago (see for example, "Animal welfare and the federal Animal Welfare Act: Are animals really better off?"). In this essay I concluded, "So, are tens of millions of animals better off than they were years ago? No. So, why is the NIH congratulating themselves about improvements in animal welfare—patting themselves on the back, job well done—when they support the use of tens of millions of sentient beings in invasive research?" Sadly and regrettably, this still is the case—reliable scientific data are simply dismissed as if they didn't exist. The lack of knowledge translation is appalling. 

How do you explain to a youngster that rats aren't really animals?

Indeed, tens of millions of rodents are used in all sorts of invasive research yet the United State's Federal Animal Welfare Act does not consider these empathic mammals to be animals. It's really depressing to note that about 99 percent of the animals used in research are not protected by federal legislation and are routinely subjected to horrific abuse. Here is a quote from the federal register: "We are amending the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations to reflect an amendment to the Act's definition of the term animal. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 amended the definition of animal to specifically exclude birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research" (Vol. 69, no. 108, 4 June 2004).

How in the world do you explain to a youngster (or anyone else, for that matter) that these animals are not animals? It strains credibility that those writing the AWA can so easily get away with such rubbish.

A new journal on the horizon

I also want to inform you about a forthcoming journal called "Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling." Its mission statement reads as follows: "Advancing animal welfare is a core aim of the journal, so we will not publish studies that harm animal subjects. Where animals are studied, we encourage authors to use rewards as positive motivators, and not punishment or deprivation." Amen. Perhaps the best way to get researchers to stop harming animals who they know suffer is to refuse to publish their research. 

So, "When will we stop killing them in research?" I have no idea. Shame on the people who write legislation to protect other animals and who openly ignore the latest scientific data that should be used to protect animals from invasive research. How they get away with this practice is beyond my comprehension. But, they do, and will continue to do so, until people openly call attention to the bloody side of science that can easily be avoided if scientific data are used to amend and to develop legislation to protect other animals from unnecessary pain, suffering, and death. 

The free teaser image can be seen here.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also)Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also)Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also)and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistenceThe Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published. (

Note: As part of a project, a high school student sent me the questions below. They surely need open and frank debate because they are not going to go away if they're conveniently ignored. 

Do we need more invasive research on animal emotions?

Would you favor a moratorium on invasive research on animal emotions?

Do you think researchers are working hard enough to get the latest scientific information on animal emotions and behaviour incorporated into legislation to protect research (and other) animals (for example, what we now know about pain, joy, and empathy in various rodents and depression/PTSD in many different species)?

Should we only do or allow research that enriches the lives of the animals involved? What would this look like?