The Humane Society of the United States estimates that approximately 25 million animals are used each year for research, testing and education in the U.S.
Yet, researchers, veterinarians and technicians at the University of Tennessee and institutions across the U.S. are changing the face of animal research, asserting the legality and necessity of animal research.
Patricia Coan, director of the Office of Laboratory Animal Care and the attending veterinarian for UT, has contributed to the education of veterinarian students and the regulation of animal care at the university for seven years.
"We have a lot of laws and regulations that we follow to use animals in research and teaching," Coan said.
The Animal Welfare Act of 1966 was the first law to address the regulation of animal care in research.
Overseen by the United States Federal Department of Agriculture, USDA officials pay annual, unannounced visits to the university, verifying that acceptable standards for animal treatment and care are being upheld.
Despite comprising more than 90 percent of animals currently contributing to lifesaving research, mice, rats and birds are not covered by the 1966 act. However, all animals are protected by National Institute of Health guidelines in the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
In addition to the USDA and the Public Health Service, the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation for Laboratory Animal Care, or AAALAC, Intl., assesses an institution's care of laboratory animals with more depth than the USDA inspections.
A voluntary group of professionals, the AAALAC site visitors review every aspect of the research program involving animals, determining whether institutions meet stringent requirements for full accreditation.
Research institutions typically request this peer review process every three years to ensure the highest quality care for animals.
"We don't want animals to have pain and distress," Coan said. "We want happy animals; we want healthy animals."
The entirety of UT's animal care and use program is accredited by AAALAC.
"Even the air they breathe is regulated," said Dr. Cindy Buckmaster, vice president of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science.
Buckmaster works with several research advocacy organizations to educate the public about animal-based research.
According to Buckmaster, more than half of Americans do not support animal research. Justin Goodman, director of PETA's Laboratory Investigations Department, is one such American.
"Experimenting on animals is never ethical or necessary," Goodman said. "Any experiment, no matter how painful, trivial or duplicative, is allowed by law in the U.S. as long as the right paperwork is filled out.
"... In addition to being cruel, experimenting on animals is also incredibly ineffective."
But Buckmaster challenges this claim, citing the extensive documentation needed to conduct any research.
Submitted to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, these documents must disclose how the animals will be used, why the research is necessary and why no alternative to animal research is available. Composed of both university affiliated and non-affiliated members, submission and review by IACUC is a requirement at all institutions using vertebrate animals.
"Animals have contributed to every single major biomedical discovery," Buckmaster said. "Everywhere you turn you see someone living with diabetes, people who have survived cancer and war veterans who are able to spend the rest of their lives with their families.
"This is all the evidence one needs regarding the effectiveness of animal-based research."
In fact, Coan's first encounter with animal research yielded miraculous studies that eventually led to the development of the popular breast cancer medication Tamoxifen. Coan also noted the use of animal research in the discovery of the polio vaccine.
"Every vaccine, every antibiotic, pain relievers, Tylenol — almost any drug that you take started with an IACUC protocol on paper and animal models," Coan said.
Dissenting public opinion and mass misinformation, Buckmaster believes, distracts from the remarkable service these animals provide for society.
"These animals bring us hope: hope for cures, hope for all of our loved ones, including our pets," Buckmaster said. "Our animals are amazing and the public is ignoring their contributions to their well-being, and that is ungrateful."
The nobility of animal caretakers in biomedical research goes similarly unnoticed, Buckmaster said.
"They possess a remarkably selfless love," she said. "You haven't met anybody who loves animals like these people who devote themselves physically and emotionally to our animals, because they love them and the people and animals who will benefit from their contributions. ... They are heroes, not villains."
The Walters Life Science Laboratory at UT currently houses rabbits, mice, hamsters and frogs. These animals support research in four different departments: microbiology, psychology, ecology and evolutionary biology, and biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology.
Research now conducted at Walters Life Science Laboratory concerns sodium chloride exchange across cell membranes, circadian rhythm studies, malaria research, yeast and herpes studies and flu research.
The most recent citation the university received from the USDA occurred in February 2013 for a dog whose teeth needed to be cleaned.