after a photo by Brian Gunn/IAAPEA – International Association Against Painful Experiments On Animals -



At Easter time images of bunnies abound. They are familiar, endearing fixtures of Spring – the chocolate bunnies we eat the heads off first, the working bunnies cavorting through weeks of seasonal advertisements, the real rabbits that appear in pet store windows and soon after are abandoned by families not up to caring for them. To us, bunnies are super cute.

To science they are yet another expedient. It's usually difficult to get precise numbers on experimental animals in general, or for specific species used. This British site is informative on the subject - According to the American Anti-Vivisection Society, U. S. labs use over 200,000 rabbits as experimental subjects per year, and that's down from over a half million rabbits in 1987. Understandably, the record-keeping efforts of regulators and industry do not prioritize providing detailed head counts to a questioning public.

Many of these rabbits are used in commercial testing – cosmetics, foods, cleaning products, etc. And many go to biomedical and pharmaceutical testing. A variety of good animal-free alternatives exist to cover a broad swath of industry's product toxicity/irritant study needs; nevertheless rabbits remain a staple of commercial testing. In medical research, rabbits are used for production of anti-bodies, and there is currently no animal-free alternative for that. They're also commonly used in research relating to cancer, cardiovascular disease and cystic fibrosis, and these are applications for which alternatives do exist and are continuing to be developed. Many rational science minds challenge the reliability of animal-derived test data used for developing drugs for humans. There are both ethical and logical reasons for lab rabbit use to be drastically reduced, but the ongoing efforts to alter business as usual in America have not yet eliminated a miserable lab life and death for hundreds of thousands of rabbits annually.

Why rabbits? They are docile, non-aggressive, cheap to house and feed, and famously quick breeders. Their legal classification as small animals eliminates a bothersome and costly level of regulation that applies to larger species used in labs, further endearing them to pragmatic, dollar-conscious researchers. And, sadly for the rabbits, their vast expanse of ear surface tissue seems particularly irresistible to people who design lab work.

A notorious test to which untold legions of rabbits have been subjected since the 1940s is the Draize eye irritant experience. Rabbits have no tear ducts and this makes their eyes great places to observe and measure the effects of chemicals put there. This requires the rabbits' restraint in some type of a stock (an example is depicted in my drawing). The Draize test is being phased out, largely due to consumers' proactive stand against it. Sometimes this progress has been prematurely celebrated, though, because cosmetic and other firms yielding to customer's outrage in the U.S. and E.U. have simply outsourced their animal testing to other countries where animal cruelty in labs is easy to hide.

If you are willing to face the science activity being conducted on a daily basis in the name of providing you, Consumer, with a huge range of commercial and medical products, then google something like 'images for rabbits in laboratory testing' and spend some real time examining those photos, and the reactions they generate in you. You can also check out the site of IAAPEA – International Association Against Painful Experiments On Animals, which is the source of the photo I used for my drawing of rabbits in stocks.

Rabbits are social, do best in groups, need a considerable amount of space in which to move normally, are sensitive to light and sound, need to burrow and scratch. They are most often confined in metal cages which do not permit many of their important natural behaviors, or worse, they are held in stocks from the neck down in a particularly extreme form of captivity. Lab photos showing rows of rabbit heads staring out from such restraints are chilling. While there, substances may be injected or dropped into the animals' eyes or flesh, skin may be scraped, probes may be inserted anally, etc. Data is collected, observations are made, and they are fed enough to remain alive and yielding some amount of desired information. Then, eventually, they become science trash. There's a good reason why the bunny is the universal symbol for 'cruelty free' products in the marketplace. Consciously try not to buy products that don't display this logo.

A 2012 article in The Scientist magazine reported on the recent development of a 'grimace scale' used to measure pain in rabbits. Inflicting pain via tattooing the ear without anaesthesia provoked certain observable reactions in the animals, such as whisker twitching, and these reactions were given a numerical value. All this to somehow provide a scientific system that supposedly quantifies pain. To many of us, that whole idea has a clearly oxymoronic component, but it's certainly the direction science is going in.

This is an interesting concept. Animal experiments have been conducted since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. Descartes declared in the 1600s that animals do not have consciousness, suggesting the core of an important debate that never really took off. For a very long time men of science seem to have inferred from Descarte's truism that animals do not feel pain, and this is how they were consistently taught for another three hundred years, during which time the potential for lucratively exploiting captive animals in a range of academic and industrial labs took off exponentially. Anti-vivisection societies in Britain and America eventually formed, and a lengthening list of reputable scientists and philosophers have continued to make the case for compassion and for better, animal-free research methodologies (i.e. better science). But only in the last few decades has there been a substantive shift in science to admit the possibility that animal experimentation may indeed produce actual suffering and pain, along with the intended scientific data. What may be obvious to the casual, sentient human observer, is not obvious to science – nothing is, until it's quantified, at the very least. Hence, the interest in incrementally measuring pain with such things as a 'grimace scale'.

Similar grimace scale development has already been done with mice, and a researcher quoted in the article in The Scientist says there is a big interest in grimace scales nowadays. So other species should be on the lookout for this type of pain scale testing coming their way. Heads up, macaques.

On the one hand this seems absurd, especially to those of us who have real life experience with superfluous pain. But this is some of the make-work aspect of today's commercial, 'hard' science, being cultivated in a kind of lame, shotgun marriage to social science, and it's generating significant income so that pretty much ensures this trend will continue. The sad thing is, rabbits and other animals undergoing the grimace scale development experience are actually better off than many others being treated far worse in their stocks and cages and pens. Here's the article:

You may not need to be convinced that animals feel pain. But it's interesting to see the kind of discussion this question generates among the folks who de facto monopolize intellectual pursuits. They're looking at it all quite differently than laypeople. Are they looking at it correctly?

We live in a world where PETA is still effectively marginalized as being too extreme in its defense of animals, while the public at large chooses to ignore the vast array of animal suffering that holds up our every day consumption patterns. Most of us still feel perfectly at ease bonding over bacon lust. We don't generally struggle with images of factory farming miseries, or rabbit torture, when we order at the drive-through, shop for a better wrinkle cream, or survey the luxury angora goodies in the glut of winter catalogs. (Kudos to Lands End and other retailers that stopped selling angora products once PETA made them aware of the rabbit cruelty involved - We're not even close to seriously considering whether or not animals feel pain, because practically speaking we don't care. I'm referring to our society, and not to the individual here and there who does give a damn. We're happiest when we can claim ignorance of the whole subject; life runs much smoother minus that particular thought/emotion challenge. Even though we know that accidentally stepping on Spot's tail makes him yelp, we haven't really visited the question of animals and pain until we've examined the part we ourselves play in it with our dollars and choices and habits, every single day.

As a society we're stalled on all that, but meanwhile science has been busily mapping out the territory of pain. Wikipedia is one mightily flawed, biased and over-relied-upon resource, but its overview on this subject is useful to the interested layperson. Here is its entry for 'Pain In Animals'

By the time that Easter bunny parade comes around again next Spring, maybe we could all be a little more savvy about what it really means to be a rabbit in the post-modern world. It's not cute.