Vegans and Vivisection

Vegans and Vivisection

By | 2013-02-11T17:44:07+00:00 February 11th, 2013|Tags: , , , |27 Comments

Way back in time, when my husband was working on his PhD at Michigan State University, I thought I might get a PhD, too. I applied, was accepted, and enrolled.

One of the things that presented a little barrier for me right from the start, though, was that my advisor wanted me to begin my doctoral career with a “small animal research project” just to get a quick publication and a little bit of research experience. It was a conversation that took place just after I had adopted a shelter kitten who turned out to have feline distemper and appeared to be dying.  I was distraught as I tried to explain to my advisor why I wasn’t going to do a “small animal research project,” all the while sobbing about my kitten. I still remember the look on this poor professor’s face as she tried to figure out how to deal with this crazy new student.

Anyway, I changed advisors (a big relief to both of us, I think), completed all my course work including four (four!) excruciating semesters of statistics—and then took a leave of absence to teach nutrition to dietetics students. Then, my husband successfully defended his PhD dissertation and got a job at the National Cancer Institute in Washington, DC. We moved, I got another job that I really liked, and I never finished my doctorate.

That was as close to vivisection as I’ve ever come. Not only have I never done it, but I also will not promote it.  And I’m always a little surprised when I see other vegans doing so–using animal research to discredit meat or milk, or some other dietary factor, and to support vegan diets. Certainly, animal research can be effective in this regard; these studies are fast and cheap, and they allow types of research that can’t “ethically” be done in humans.

But while these studies come across my computer screen almost daily, I have no problem giving them a pass. For one thing, animal research is always the weakest of all evidence. Animals are different from humans in important ways. And feeding isolated compounds to animals doesn’t tell you much about what happens when you feed actual food to humans.

But just as importantly, as a vegan, I don’t promote animal-use. And, citing animal studies as evidence for anything translates to an endorsement of animal research. Citing it in support of vegan diets suggests that it’s okay to exploit one group of animals in order to protect another.

Something similar happens when vegans single out particular animal foods as being especially harmful. Several weeks ago, I received an email newsletter from an animal rights group highlighting a study on red meat and lung cancer. It linked directly to the study abstract which concluded that “A high intake of red meat may increase the risk of lung cancer by about 35%, while a high intake of poultry decreases the risk by about 10%.”

That’s hardly a vegan message. And since most people already view chicken meat as healthier than red meat, it probably only serves to perpetuate existing beliefs about poultry consumption, while encouraging a behavior that leads to more suffering.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, in his famous 1963 letter from the Birmingham Jail wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

He wasn’t talking about animals, of course, but it’s an observation that works well for animal advocacy.  Vegans advocate for all animals. And even when we want to advocate for other things–like human health–we shouldn’t do it by endorsing a system that tortures mice, and rats, and monkeys and dogs and cats. And we shouldn’t do it with messages that can have the unintentional consequences of encouraging people to eat one type of animal while avoiding another.



  1. Rhys February 11, 2013 at 6:50 pm - Reply

    “But just as importantly, as a vegan, I don’t promote animal-use. And, citing animal studies as evidence for anything translates to an endorsement of animal research. Citing it in support of vegan diets suggests that it’s okay to exploit one group of animals in order to protect another.”

    Vegans who cite these studies aren’t necessarily clamoring for more animal studies in order to prove that veganism is the healthiest diet; they’re pointing to studies that have already been conducted. Unless vegans citing animal studies in conversations, facebook statuses and blog entries somehow increases the demand for additional animal studies, citing these animal studies is freegan. It’s like eating meat out of a dumpster — it may not look like a vegan thing to do, but it also isn’t contributing to animal suffering.

    • Ginny Messina February 12, 2013 at 8:46 am - Reply

      But, I’m suggesting that it does increase demand for animal research, because it positions this research as useful and important. And because animals are generally viewed as having very little value, anything that promotes the “they are here for us to use” ideal, helps to support the status quo.

      • Rhys February 12, 2013 at 3:31 pm - Reply

        Would you say that it’s harmful to animals for vegans to purchase and/or promote The China Study, since T. Colin Campbell relied on animal tests for some of his research?

        • Ginny Messina February 12, 2013 at 6:08 pm - Reply

          I don’t know that it’s harmful to purchase the book, but I wouldn’t ever cite those studies.

  2. Katherine February 11, 2013 at 9:43 pm - Reply

    I’ve followed this blog for a while now, but this is my first time commenting. A little background on me: I’m an undergraduate at a research university majoring in chemistry and biology. I want to do research in biochemistry/chemical biology, specifically toxicology or pharmacology. I’ve been working in a lab since my freshman year on a research project. While my project does not involve animal research, there are others in my lab who do work with animal models. Personally, I have never worked with any organism larger than C. elegans (a nematode, or very small worm) and have not seen the animal facilities at my university. I became vegan over 3 years ago for ethical/moral reasons.

    I see pros and cons to using animal models. Obviously, although there are safeguards in place to try to minimize unnecessary suffering (e.g., animals being left in their own waste or starving), there is no doubt in my mind that the animals used are not living in good conditions. In addition, the research protocols can inflict harm on the animals. For example, I work in a toxicology-focused lab, so a lot of the research consists of giving the animals either known carcinogens or a placebo. I feel sad when I see images of a mouse with huge tumors growing from administration of a carcinogen, and there is no doubt that an animal in that condition is suffering. As Ginny mentioned in her article, many diseases are not well modeled in animals, so animal models are not always strong evidence.

    However, I am very interested in drug development, which inevitably leads to animal testing. Currently, I am working on synthesizing a molecule that we believe may be useful against HIV or cancer. If/when we successfully synthesize the molecule, we will characterize it and carry out in vitro (enzymes and the molecule in a test tube) and in vivo (treating E. coli bacteria with the molecule) studies. If these show that the molecule has the desired activity, then that’s great, but no one would ever think of putting a molecule that has only been given to bacteria to a human. Before any human clinical trials, a drug candidate must go through animal trials to show that it isn’t, say, converted into something toxic by the liver.

    Is there a better way to make sure that drug candidates work and aren’t toxic? I don’t know. I know that the current system isn’t perfect, as some drugs have gotten through animal models only to cause deaths in human clinical trials (e.g., fialuridine). However, there needs to be some way to see how drugs act in complex living biological systems before we give them to humans. According to the FDA, the only good way to do this appears to be animal testing. And I have to consider how the lives of research animals weigh against the lives of humans who may benefit from a drug. I’m still early in my career, and I haven’t yet figured out my feelings entirely on this question.

    I know my story and situation are only tangentially related to what Ginny was discussing about animal research used in support of vegan diets. I agree with Ginny that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to use research using animal models to justify a vegan diet. However, I wanted to bring this up, partly to illustrate the moral dilemma that vegans in research face and partly to show that animal research is not always the clear evil. Thank you, Ginny, for your insightful views on ethics and vegan nutrition.

    • Ginny Messina February 12, 2013 at 8:48 am - Reply

      Katherine, this certainly gets into a much more difficult area. I feel confident about the idea that we don’t need animal research in order to understand nutritional needs of humans–and therefore, there is never any reason for this research.

      Whether we can develop lifesaving drugs for humans without animal research is something I don’t know, because it’s well outside my area of expertise. Certainly, there is an effort to develop non-animal models for drug testing, and also lots of questions about how well these drugs can actually be tested in animals. I hope others who know much more about this than I do will chime in!

    • The Vegan Scientist February 12, 2013 at 5:25 pm - Reply

      Hi Katherine,

      I just want to post this link, since it is related to the discussion.

      “Johns Hopkins University
      Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing

      We believe the best science is humane science. Our programs seek to provide a better, safer, more humane future for people and animals.”

    • Kezia February 13, 2013 at 4:44 pm - Reply

      Hi Katherine, I appreciate the issues you’ve raised. My only real background on this subject is that I am the mommy of two beagles who were formerly “animal models” — aka lab animals. Today they are healthy happy doggies.

      I perhaps have less faith in the FDA than you do. I would rather say that despite the fact animal testing is not very predictive or effective, the FDA does not yet allow any alternatives. In the course of rescuing animals from laboratories, I’ve interacted with numerous people in the industry who have told me they don’t test on animals because it’s effective, they do it because it’s the law.

      There is a growing number of scientists who ardently oppose animal testing on scientific – not ethical – grounds. After all, 92 of 100 drugs fail in human clinical trials. Even those that pass, well, to MDs working hands-on with patients, what happens in the lab is not all that relevant. If a drug kills even a tiny number of people, they’ll stop using it, regardless of how long the drug was studied in the laboratory and what animal data those tests yielded.

      You might be interested in the work of Ray Greek, an MD who formerly conducted animal research as well as human clinical studies. Dr. Greek is among the best known who oppose animal testing as predictive. However even those in the scientific community who oppose predictive research may still feel that there are other valid reasons to use animals, like surgery practice – so I’ll part ways with them there!

      I don’t envy your task – deciding how to weigh animal lives against human lives. Since I’m no longer on the fence, I can easily say I don’t want another nonhuman life to suffer on my behalf. Forcing another to suffer is a pretty clear evil to me.

    • Gary February 27, 2013 at 10:11 am - Reply

      I recommend reading all of Dr. C. Ray Greek’s books on animal models. He points out the inherent extrapolation problems with them, the immense errors and setback’s they’ve caused, and more reliable alternatives. He delves deeply into drug development. The divergence in results among species in this area is often dramatic. Further extrapolation inaccuracies may caused by delivery mechanism and various artifact errors. New technologies and methods for testing efficacy and side effects, such as gene arrays, microdosing, genomics, are dazzling. I’d start with “Sacred Cows and Golden Geese,” an overview written for a lay person, and work up to “Animal Models in Light of Evolution,” which is highly technical.

  3. Sayward February 11, 2013 at 11:05 pm - Reply

    Wow, this is an amazing post. I’ve seen this a lot – maybe even guilty of it myself – and never really thought much of it. You’ve definitely made a great case and helped me to make a [simple] connection I’d just never made before. Really awesome post.

    Personally, I did participate in quite a bit of animal research back when I was getting my biology degree. It haunts me. I know I’ll write about it some day, I need to get it out of me. You’re lucky you knew better.

    • Ginny Messina February 12, 2013 at 8:50 am - Reply

      Sayward, I ate meat for the first 30 years of my life, so am certainly haunted by that!

  4. Emily February 12, 2013 at 8:32 am - Reply

    I wonder about your opinion on the use of animals in veterinary studies. I am a vegan studying veterinary medicine, and I struggle regularly with my feelings about using animals to train vets and advance medicine. I feel like I have to put my ethics on hold for a few years while I learn how to decrease animal suffering through a temporary increase of animal suffering as a novice makes beginner mistakes. It’s a complicated issue.

    • Ginny Messina February 12, 2013 at 8:57 am - Reply

      Emily, as I noted above in reply to Katherine’s comment, this is indeed a complicated issue. For starters, though, here are some ideas from the USDA on alternatives.

      (And it’s so great that you’re going to be a vegan vet!)

  5. Anna February 12, 2013 at 3:02 pm - Reply

    I don’t use animal research to talk about the benefits of a vegan diet, but I do write a lot about science, medicine, etc., which often entails talking about animal studies. For instance, in writing about the history of the birth control pill, animal testing inevitably comes up, and I wonder if it sounds as if I’m endorsing it. But I suppose there is a difference between talking about how animals have been used in research and using the results of that research to promote a vegan diet.

    I remember reading “Animal Liberation” some years back and being surprised that Peter Singer endorsed vivisection, with qualifications. As a utilitarian, he claimed that animal research was justified when its benefits to humans outweighed the harms to other animals. The problem with that, of course, is that when we’re engaged in basic scientific research we can’t know in advance that our animal testing will definitely lead to medical breakthroughs that will significantly lessen human suffering.

  6. Jan February 12, 2013 at 4:43 pm - Reply

    Greetings! I loved your article and am about to read the comments.

    I share your pain. In my first year of U. in a particular program, I was in a lab where we had to oxygen-deprive lab rats. There was nothing to be gained in this for humans – it had been done many times. And that wee little girl mammal, I felt terrible for her. I never went to another lab (and managed to pass the course.)

    Some 20 years later we had “pet” rats – companion animals really. “Little” and “Tiny” – and they were so smart, and our daughter’s best friends. I will never forget these girls. At the same time, I felt sorry they had been born at all. Tiny accidentally hung herself; and Little had to be humanely euthanized because of a massive tumour.

    I have to be an anti-vivisectionist, because I think the ratio of useful to unuseful info is highly unfavorable to anyone.

    Blessings still abound. / jan

  7. Jodie February 12, 2013 at 4:44 pm - Reply

    I was doing a lit search today about naltrexone and self injurious behavior in adolescents of the human variety (there’s not a lot). One of the studies I came across was about Rhesus Macaques using this medicine- with a grand total of 4 Macaques. I only read the abstract, but the conclusion was about it being suggested that this could be an effective treatment… in Macaques. Seriously? What was the point of that?

    It made me very sad.

    • Jodie February 12, 2013 at 4:52 pm - Reply

      I should clarify on my comment that the medication I referred to in my comment is already an FDA-approved medication in use to treat another condition. There was no need to establish safety and tolerability in any species (and of course it was a study looking to extrapolate for use in humans, not that there’s a big problem with self-injury in the Macaques population).

  8. The Vegan Scientist February 12, 2013 at 5:53 pm - Reply

    I never cite animal studies as a case for or against veganism, not just b/c animals are poor models, but also because the testing conditions, environment and lack of genetic variation have little use to “free living” humans.

    For example, the rat study about HFCS vs sucrose led to added weight gain in rats required the rats to eat the human equivalent of 3000Cal/day of HFCS for 6 months.

    Who does that?

    It was also gender dependent. Females on the HFCS regimen lost weight.

    Researchers often use genetically similar animals, yet it is in humans’ genetic diversity that really matters when it comes to establishing guidelines; it has to work for 99% of the population.

    It is the very fact of isolating variables that make it useless to humans who do not live in such controlled conditions.

    Genetic diversity is a really important factor that is overlooked when translating animal studies to humans. We are now just beginning to use the human genome to understand differences in drug metabolism, and response to various foods and medications.

    My favorite example is the group of Italians that have a super HDL that cleans out their arteries. Five weeks on this human super HDL removed more plaque than five years on the Ornish diet.

    Another example is if you are middle eastern and have one of the most common mutations:

    An animal study on Fava Beans and the prevention of Parkinson’s disease won’t help you much if you have a GP6 deficiency, but maybe a brazilnut will since it increases your plasma levels of glutathione peroxidase.

  9. Luis Tovar February 12, 2013 at 9:38 pm - Reply

    Closing some animal testing laboratories yields new laboratories on future, or more work for other laboratories. Focus on vegan education eliminates demand for vivisection and testing on nonhumans. Indeed, with vegan education all animal exploitation goes away.

  10. Carlo February 13, 2013 at 1:21 am - Reply

    I agree with the post, but then I have to ask… why did you choose to quote research on animals in your Dietitian’s Guide?

    With a quick search I found page 211 and page 266, but I also remember other instances (I read the printed edition):

    • Ginny Messina February 13, 2013 at 4:57 pm - Reply

      Carlo, I know I didn’t reference animal studies in sections of that book that I wrote. But yes, I know those studies are referenced in the book.

  11. Bertrand Russell February 14, 2013 at 8:37 am - Reply

    As always, Thank You, Ginny. Sometimes, it is so hard to stay focused on the animals, when we want to defend our veganism at every opportunity….

  12. Ian February 14, 2013 at 11:03 am - Reply

    Hi Ginny, a good and provocative post. It comes down in the end to whether you suppose that might=right or instead believe that all sentient beings are entitled to as much integrity in our dealings with them as possible. I obviously believe the latter.
    In our everyday lives there are many ordinary activities that involve inadvertent or very hard to avoid harm to living beings – breathing, walking and other transport, agriculture, building, etc. Although we should try to minimize harm, some harm is unavoidable if we are to live.
    Then there is harm done to animals in self-defence – whether to immediate threat, or to protect food crops, or to prevent disease and its spread. We will have very different opinions about how to go about this, but both of these categories of harm relate to our interaction with other animals in the world/wild/nature.
    It seems to me that using other animals for research crosses a clear and morally important border. We are now longer negotiating a complex relationship with other living beings in a complex world, but taking them out from their environment, or causing them to be conceived and born in captivity, in order that we may use them in ways often appallingly harmful and almost always fatal to them.
    In captive research animals become instruments for human use and cease to have any acknowledgement as conscious, sentient, subjects of a life.
    I have seen no argument that even begins to justify doing this.
    We can easily imagine a more powerful being than us arriving on this planet, perhaps with sensory and intellectual powers that we lack. They would certainly be able to use us in the way that we use other animals. Would this be just? And if not, would this be for any reason that cannot be applied to other animals with regard to our abuse of them?

    I have lived long enough to have had people close to me die. Of cancer and old age; with varying degrees of mental and physical infirmity. I work as a hospital nurse and have for many years. I have seen physical and mental suffering that continues to break my heart. I am also of an age when I am beginning to confront the reality that I too will become weaker and be vulnerable to alzheimers, dementia, parkinsons disease and the whole range of other illnesses that old age makes common. I know that some of the conditions that particularly terrify me are currently being worked on intensively using animal models, that I am still young enough that I may benefit if breakthroughs are made soon. And yet I still cannot regard using other animals for this research as morally justifiable, however tempting our fear and fascination make it and however feasible our greater power makes it.
    Defenders of animal experimentation often try to portray those of us who oppose it as hating humans, or loving other animals more than humans; it is neither. Rather it is a love for all life and a belief that one cannot inflict captivity, pain and death on another sentient being simply because one has the power to.
    Finally, although the comments above appear very definite, I do accept the complexity and difficulty of this subject. Standing too solidly on any particular position would be hubristic.

  13. unethical_vegan March 13, 2013 at 1:39 pm - Reply

    Ginny, If you were to discover that you suffer from CML would you forgo using Gleevec or its derivatives? (Gleevec was discovered via decades of intensive animal-based research in rodent models.)

    I should note that as a biomedical researcher I can provide a nearly unlimited supply of examples of life-saving medical treatments that came about due to animal-based research. I personally view biomedicine as something akin to the cat food conundrum. The use of animals and animal products in medicine is not necessarily frivolous and in some cases can be essential to survival. To provide some context, we kill more animals unnecessarily to grow (organic) vegetables in a few years than the sum total of all animals that have died via vivisection

  14. don March 25, 2013 at 8:15 pm - Reply

    This whole idea that animal torture which is euphemistically called science and research, by and of itself has been indispensable in curing ANY let alone a vast field of non human created illness is absurd. As if testing of drugs could; not take place without animals?

    Absurd, of course it can and it should under the correct protocols and safety procedures. This pro torture position under the veneer of the god “science” is a mythology for the naive and ignorant. f immense mythological proportions. Not to mention, the vast majorities of human health problems are self created and due to DIET and environmental exposure for which no animal studies are needed to prove.

    Animal torture experiments with the veneer of the holy god of “science” to support the atrocities are the realm of the intellectually lazy and sociopaths.

    • unethical_vegan March 27, 2013 at 5:11 pm - Reply

      “This whole idea that animal torture which is euphemistically called science and research, by and of itself has been indispensable in curing ANY let alone a vast field of non human created illness is absurd. As if testing of drugs could; not take place without animals?”

      With all due respect you are completely mistaken:

      Daley, GQ, Van Etten, RA, Baltimore, D. Induction of chronic myelogenous leukemia in mice by the P210bcr/abl gene of the Philadelphia chromosome. Science 1990. 247:824-830.

      Kelliher, MA, McLaughlin, J, Witte, ON, Rosenberg, N. Induction of a chronic myelogenous leukemia-like syndrome in mice with v-abl and BCR/ABL. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1990. 87:6649-6653.

      Lugo, TG, Pendergast, AM, Muller, AJ, Witte, ON. Tyrosine kinase activity and transformation potency of bcr-abl oncogene products. Science 1990. 247:1079-1082.

      Buchdunger, E, et al. Selective inhibition of the platelet-derived growth factor signal transduction pathway by a protein-tyrosine kinase inhibitor of the 2-phenylaminopyrimidine class. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1995. 92:2558-2562.

      Druker, BJ, et al. Effects of a selective inhibitor of the ABL tyrosine kinase on the growth of BCR-ABL positive cells. Nat Med 1996. 2:561-566.

      Deininger, MW, Goldman, JM, Lydon, N, Melo, JV. The tyrosine kinase inhibitor CGP57148B selectively inhibits the growth of BCR-ABL-positive cells. Blood 1997. 90:3691-3698.

      Druker, BJ, et al. Clinical efficacy and safety of an Abl specific tyrosine kinase inhibitor as targeted therapy for chronic myelogenous leukemia. Blood 1999. 94:368a.

  15. CT January 27, 2017 at 6:28 pm - Reply

    Hello Ginny! I recently graduated with a bachelor’s of science in cell & molecular biology and am now interested in a career in food & nutritional sciences or microbiology. I became vegan around the age of 21, about 1 year ago. Prior to that, I was performing undergraduate research using the nematode C. elegans as a model organism, which I now understand could be unethical. Do you consider research on parasitic nematodes, for example designing biocontrol products against them, unethical? (I ask, because I am now looking for lab positions to gain research experience prior to applying for grad school and got an offer for a lab technician internship that partly involves this subject).

    Going forward, I am still exploring the possible career options available to me. As mentioned above, I am very interested in food and nutrition and have looked into careers such as dietician/nutritionist, food technology, writing/blogging and food/nutrition research. Right now it’s just hard for me to pinpoint one area that I would fit great in. Don’t know if you can give me some suggestions. It’s likely something I have to think through my heart and decide for myself.

    I also enjoy taking vegan food photos, cooking and making recipes, some of which I post to a free blog that I just very recently created. I may purchase hosting/domain for it and set it apart from many other blogs by including more info about the nutritional properties of certain ingredients. I can send you the link to the site if you’d like.

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