The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the University of Georgia to stop all research deemed nonessential. This includes much of the research conducted on animals. Troublingly, UGA is in the yellow threat level of its researcher pandemic service reduction plan, which calls for researchers to “cull animals not needed.”
Thankfully, David Lee, vice president for research at UGA, said that no research animals have been euthanized so far. Even so, the situation poses some clear morality issues.
I accept research on animals as a necessary evil because animal testing enables researchers to try to significantly improve human life and health. Animals should not be subject to any form of cruelty. Moreover, the euthanasia of animals because of human error is unethical. Because they are being used for research, the animals are dependent on humans. For this relationship to work, researchers have to do what they can to keep the animals healthy.
That is not an uncommon position. A 2015 Gallup poll found that 62% of Americans say animals can be used to benefit humans but still deserve some protections. Another 32% said animals deserve to have the same rights as people, up from the 25% who said the same thing in 2008. Only 3% said animals do not need much protection.
This situation, however, reveals a major ethical flaw in testing on animals. The animals are dependent on humans to provide care, but the COVID-19 pandemic might keep researchers from their labs. Though the situation seems to have stabilized for the time being, a possible second wave might force researchers to once again make difficult decisions. That is why researchers need to prepare now.
Animals are not expendable. Though they are not human, they still deserve to be treated with dignity. Killing animals we decide are not needed is inhumane.
UGA researchers should look for solutions to protect their animals in case the situation worsens. Though they have avoided euthanizing any animals so far, a second wave of the coronavirus later in the year could force researchers to stop working on their projects once again. There must be a plan to keep the animals safe and cared for while researchers are away.
To do this, labs could give animals to animal shelters where possible to humanely reduce the burden on staff. In addition, labs could keep a few people on staff whose job it is to give animals necessary care. Labs may need to limit the supplies they use for the animals, so they will have to be strategic in how they allocate resources. That might mean one or two people are responsible for taking care of all the animals on any given day.
Though everyone has had to make adjustments, the coronavirus should not be an excuse for animal cruelty. Unfortunately, the pandemic has exposed the risks research animals face daily. Researchers need to take this opportunity to evaluate how they treat the animals they use for testing and find ways to ensure they will be cared for in case of an emergency.