Medicine and Monkeys: Controversy, Progress, and Finding a Balance

Zoe Strothkamp

The history of animal research is strewn with scandal. Stories of cruelty and science-fiction type experiments have, over the years, grabbed the public’s attention. Photos of cats with metal apparatus strapped to their head and electrodes drilled into their brains—to test brainwave activity—show up in people’s mailboxes as donation requests to the animal rights group PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The sad stories of dogs bred to have muscular dystrophy and live short lives, getting perpetually weaker and weaker until their hearts cannot pump blood and they die on chain-link floors among dozens of other dying dogs—those stories, too, startle people long enough to condemn animal research. For anyone that has owned a pet, the thought of voluntarily subjecting an animal to injury, experimentation, or illness pulls at the heartstrings and elicits cries against the cruelty of the research industry. However, in some cases, it is justified. 

What often goes unnoticed—as the press like the sensational, gory stories—are the advances in medicine and our daily reliance on the products of animal research. Anyone who has diabetes owes their insulin—and life—to the 1920s research on dogs that resulted in the discovery of insulin and a Nobel Prize for the scientists. We owe our use of the first antibiotic, penicillin, to animal research as well. The drug, while first discovered in 1928, needed to be refined and tested before use in humans; in 1940, experimentation on mice, rats, and cats proved that penicillin was nontoxic and cured pathogenic infections. It is likely that nearly everyone has relied on it since, and it has saved countless human lives. 

Our survival and safety, whether from ear infections or deadly diseases like diabetes, is, in many cases due to animal research. The vaccines we receive as kids to protect us from Hepatitis B and other pathogens passed through rounds of development in animal testing. We may not like the idea of experimentation on animals, yet we rely on it day to day. It’s an essential part of medicine, health, and society. 

How can these two narratives—the one of animal rights groups declaring the inhumanity of all animal research and the one of hospitals and research centers affirming the necessity of it for human health—be reconciled? And what about research on some of our closest relatives—primates? Where does that fit into this controversial ethical debate?

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Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC), part of Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), is one of seven National Primate Research Centers in the United States that uses monkeys as models for medical research. Supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), ONPRC’s mandate is to “help people across generations live longer, healthier lives through scientific breakthroughs.” Located on a large campus in Hillsboro, Oregon, the Center began breeding in the early 1960s after the original group of rhesus macaques was donated by Brown University. Subsequent donations of various species of monkeys have increased the Center’s population to around five thousand nonhuman primates (NHPs) today. Rhesus macaques make up the majority, but there are also Japanese and cynomolgus macaques as well as small numbers of baboons and squirrel monkeys.  

These monkeys enable the Center to “perform basic research to understand mechanisms of biological conditions and diseases” with an “emphasis on translational research—to encourage development of the most advanced ideas into clinical testing.” Yet ONPRC also strives, according to their website, to provide “humane and compassionate animal care” while relying on “scientific integrity, a commitment to innovative research, and ultimately a fundamental respect for life” in their testing and follow a strict set of guidelines with internal and external oversight. The Center is governed by the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW) and is required to follow the rules established for the care of laboratory animals. The Animal Welfare Act, through the USDA, also regulates primate centers and their research. Surprise visits from the USDA at least twice a year ensure that the Center constantly adheres to guidelines and provides quality care for the animals. In addition, the ONPRC is also accredited (and has been for forty-five years) by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC), a voluntary program that promotes even higher standards than the governmental requirements.

Internally, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) must completely approve all experimentation. All research must first have a peer-reviewed grant with justification for the number of monkeys and species involved. After peer-review, the IACUC—made up of veterinarians, scientists, non-scientific institutional staff, and at least one member of the general public—makes sure that “every single thing that happens to an animal is done with great care and appropriate analgesia, just like humans. So in surgery, we use anesthesia, and if an animal gets sick we give them drugs. We want to prevent any suffering for the animal. So the animal is subjected to procedures, but they are always compensated with drugs so they won’t hurt.” 

Adhering to these regulations and restrictions has allowed ONPRC to become a major hotspot for groundbreaking medical research. The Center has six divisions: Cardiometabolic Health, Comparative Medicine, Genetics, Neuroscience, Pathobiology & Immunology, and Reproductive & Developmental Sciences. With such a wide variety of experimental disciplines, ONPRC is involved in research ranging from diabetes and cardiovascular disease to brain disorders, from human viral pathogens including HIV to reproductive and fertility issues. Currently there are approximately fifty independent principal investigators doing research in illnesses and ailments that are major areas of human suffering. With such a broad scope of research, animal care, and management, the staff and leaders of ONPRC have a massive job on their hands. 

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Nancy Haigwood, the director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center, greets me with a quick smile that reaches the corners of her eyes, and I am immediately at ease. She is shorter than me but seems taller due to her quiet air of confidence and knowledge. Her clothing is an eclectic, pleasing mix of colors—navy shirt and pants, purple cardigan, turquoise necklace, blue-rimmed glasses—that compliment her brown-gold hair styled in a pixie cut. Just looking at Haigwood, you might not imagine that she has dedicated her entire life to groundbreaking HIV research or that she leads one of only seven National Primate Research Centers. But as soon as she speaks with that perceptive, sophisticated tone, you can tell she has led quite a life so far. 

Haigwood grew up in Bangkok, Thailand while her father worked with the Thai Marine Corps, and it was there that she discovered her passion. She watched diseases like cholera—for which there was no vaccination at the time—tear through nearby families, and every time “a certain proportion of the population would die from these terrible diseases.” 

“‘So,’ I thought ‘this is what I want to work on,’” Haigwood tells me with a small, wry chuckle. “I got hooked when I was about 13 or so and I’ve stayed interested in infectious diseases all along.” 

Haigwood majored in zoology as an undergrad, studied gene expression and molecular biology in graduate school, and completed her postdoctoral fellowship in virology at Johns Hopkins University. From there, she began working in the biotech industry for Chiron Corporation (Novartis), at the same time as the discovery of HIV in the 1980s.,, “From the mid-eighties on, that’s all I’ve worked on really.” Haigwood’s dedication glows through in the small uplifting of one side of her mouth, the faint lines evident of decades of hard work in vaccine research for this devastating disease. 

The first cases in the HIV/AIDS epidemic were reported in June of 1981 as severe immune deficiency, leading to rare diseases such as Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) and Kaposi’s sarcoma. Six months later, at the end of 1981, 331 people had been diagnosed and 130 were already dead. In 1982, the CDC coined the term “AIDS,” standing for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, but the cause for the disease was still unknown. In 1983 the French (and later the National Cancer Institute in 1984) discovered the retrovirus that was responsible for AIDS, transmitted through blood, sexual contact, and breastfeeding., The epidemic continued to grow; in 1985, 8,406 cases were reported—an eighty-four percent increase from the previous year and more than the previous three years combined. It upended lives, tore through communities, and caused national and global panic. People were optimistic, however. The hope was that within two years a vaccine would be developed. 

“We all thought, ‘Oh, we can make a vaccine for HIV. It will be easy—because we had just made a vaccine for Hepatitis B and it worked beautifully and still does work really well,’” Haigwood says with a slight shake of her head. “We actually really did think—we had a lot of hubris. We were—we were crazy. It turns out the virus was far trickier than we imagined.” 

Although managing the disease is now possible, we still do not have a vaccine. But we are closer to finding one through decades of research conducted by people like Haigwood who were hooked at the start of the epidemic, deeply connected to the disease that was killing half of all diagnosed. 

“People were dying. People I knew, people I had just met would donate blood and they’d come over to visit us at Chiron—they were interested to know what we were doing—and then we would find out they had passed away. It was a very terrible time in the epidemic for HIV.” 

Animal research—what Haigwood was doing and continues today—is critical for developing an HIV vaccine. Using animals as models is extremely useful for diseases that have no cures, and “you don’t want to do high-risk experiments in humans.” They are the best way to learn about the disease and test concepts. “How do we get infected, how long is the virus shed, can a second animal become infected, how close do they have to be?” lists Haigwood. “We can do these experiments in animals now that are harder to do in people. Can an animal be reinfected? In what conditions? What kind of immunity did they have? All those kinds of things.” 

At ONPRC, the HIV research that Haigwood and her team are doing is just one aspect of her job. Haigwood has the daunting task of making sure all of the parts of the center—the different divisions, the veterinarians, the facilities at OHSU, the principal investigators, to name a few—talk to each other. “It’s a lot about communication,” she says—and then, as I’m having difficulty imagining leading even a single branch, Haigwood laughs and exclaims “It’s an extremely interesting job!.” Her enthusiasm for the work she does is obvious, and it only glows brighter when I ask about some of the past and current research that the Center is involved in. 

ONPRC, as Haigwood explains to me, began mainly as a place for studying reproductive biology, and in that field they have had some of their most significant breakthroughs. A procedure called oncofertility was developed here and is now practiced in human clinics. Primate researchers discovered a way of saving gonadal tissues and freezing them before a chemotherapy or radiation cancer treatment, and then reattaching them later. “Literally the same tissue—your tissue—can go back into you and you could potentially have a child,” Haigwood says with a glimmer of excitement in her eyes. “What we’ve been able to do is show that you can do this to monkeys—take tissue and freeze it and implant it back on the animal’s leg or arm and it can make oocytes. And those oocytes can be fertilized.” For women undergoing treatments that damage DNA, this procedure eliminates that risk and gives them the opportunity to have children without the threat of developmental consequences. The Center also discovered that giving vitamin C supplements to a pregnant mother who is unable to stop smoking prevents low birth-weight babies, protecting the child from possible complications or death. “That was done here and then it was tested in a clinical trial, they published it, and now it’s commonly done. So, that’s a cool thing,” Haigwood says with a proud smile before telling me about her strongest interest: HIV. 

“We have a very exciting potential HIV vaccine,” she explains. Based on a recombinant viral vector from a type of herpesvirus, it was discovered that it is possible to generate “incredibly powerful T cell responses.” T cells are a type of white blood cell that cannot stop a viral infection, but is able to kill infected cells. The potential vaccine, developed by OHSU physician and researcher Louis Picker, produces a vigorous T cell response at the same time as the patient is exposed to the virus, so that the infection is not prevented but stopped before it can grow. “And that’s what they did. Animals got infected but then they snuffed out the infection. Unfortunately only half of them did that, so it’s not a perfect vaccine, but it’s really big progress.” For a disease that has had few vaccine breakthroughs in forty years, this research at ONPRC is a huge step forward in saving lives. 

“We just do a lot of cool stuff all the time,” Haigwood says in response to my impressed exclamations, and it is easy to tell how deeply she cares about the groundbreaking, life-saving research that ONPRC does. 

But animal research, despite its unarguable benefits, is a highly-debated issue. Experimentation on animals often raises eyebrows—or picket signs—and the ethical questions involved are difficult to answer. 

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Animal experimentation has been done for centuries, with the first recorded instances done by Greek scientists Aristotle and Erasistratus in the second and fourth centuries BCE. As human medicine has evolved over the years, research on animals has evolved right alongside it. Germ theory was demonstrated by Louis Pasteur in the 1880s by giving anthrax to sheep. Insulin, transgenic mammals, and cloning are all examples of scientific and medical breakthroughs that resulted from experimentation on animals from sheep to dogs.,, 

Just as research has grown, so has the ethical debate surrounding it. As early as the 17th century arguments exploded over the topic, with people contesting its morality and the belief that the benefit to humans outweighed the harm done to the animals. In contrast, French physician Claude Bernard countered by declaring that “the science of life is a superb and dazzlingly lighted hall which may be reached only by passing through a long and ghastly kitchen.” Although animal research is now a well-established industry, and despite federal regulations on testing standards, the topic is still inflammatory. 

Humane Society International (HSI), solidly anti-animal testing, argues that “All procedures, even those classified as “mild,” have the potential to cause the animals physical as well as psychological distress and suffering.” In 2018, the USDA found that the United States involved 780,070 animals in research, not including those kept in facilities but not experimented on. However, HSI reports that this figure is a severe underestimate because purpose-bred rats, mice and birds—as well as fish, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates—are not factored into the numbers due to not being covered by the Animal Welfare Act., Furthermore, they argue that besides being cruel and distressing to the animals, this type of research does not accurately reflect human reactions or diseases. Instead, they promote a switch to human-based research. Animal experiments, apparently, are a thing of the past, unnecessary due to today’s revolutionary cellular and molecular technology. 

PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, protests even more strongly against animal experimentation. As soon as their website loads, the page is full of articles and headlines exposing cruel research, expounding in detail the lives of laboratory animals. Their statement reads “Animals are not ours to experiment on, eat, wear, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way.” It is a valid argument: why should a dog’s, mouse’s, or monkey’s life be worth less than a person’s, and what gives us the right to do things to them we would not do to ourselves? The graphic stories and exposés work—PETA has been successful in stopping inhumane experiments done at various research facilities around the United States, such as the Texas A&M breeding of dogs with muscular dystrophy. Because animal research can be cruel. Millions of animals die every year in testing facilities, sometimes for unjustifiable reasons. Animal rights activists have a strong basis for their argument. 

On the other hand, PETA and other animal rights groups are highly radical. Besides calling for cessation of animal research, PETA advocates for everyone to stop eating meat. It is a noble cause, and in a perfect world would likely be ideal, but it is extreme, as well as unattainable. In their donation-raising efforts, they appeal to people’s pathos with graphic images of animal experimentation, with metal wired into their brains or mascara in their eyes—images that are often years old, reused from decades ago, things that “don’t happen anymore” according to Heather Sidener, DVM, the head of the clinical medicine unit at ONPRC. They neglect to mention the benefits that animal research has had on increasing human quality of life, or the steps taken to improve the lives of the animals in research. 

With the increased regulation and standardization of animal research, testing is only allowed when absolutely necessary. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) supports attempts to develop alternative testing methods than animals, but does concede that it can be necessary, though research in animals should only be done “only when there are no alternatives and [it] is likely to produce new and substantive information that will benefit human and animal health.” Stanford Medicine argues that there has yet to be discovered a substitute for “the complex functions of a living, breathing, whole-organ system with pulmonary and circulatory structures like those in humans” and until that happens, animals are the best option, with their similar genetic makeup, susceptibility to the same diseases as humans, and shorter life cycles. Furthermore, U.S. law—the Nuremberg Code—necessitates animal trials before approval of drugs for human clinical testing., 

Respecting the ethics of animal research is an important consideration for ONPRC. Primates, especially, are more complicated and controversial since they have long been known to be deeply intelligent and highly emotional, and are so similar to humans. However, that is exactly why they are so valuable for medicine. Mice and rodents can only go so far—their reproductive and nervous systems, for example, are actually quite different than those of humans, and as a result, “there are places in research where you really need a primate to make a comparative evaluation.” 

“We only use monkeys when we have to. We don’t use a monkey if a mouse can give us the answer, we don’t use a mouse if a tissue culture can give us the answer,” Haigwood explains seriously. “I don’t want to do an animal experiment. I do an animal experiment because it’s the right way to get the answer in the fastest possible way and I know I’ll be treating that animal in a good way.” 

Advocates for animal research see the benefits—despite the costs—of animal research. Primates, in particular, raise a fine line because of their sentience, intelligence, and similarities to people, but they are necessary for improving human lives. The key is adhering to the rules and standards and providing the best quality of life as possible for the animals. 

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ONPRC is not without its own controversy. A scattering of injuries or deaths of animals over the past few years have incited the ire of groups like PETA and Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN). In March of 2019, Michael Budkie (director of SAEN) asserted that “‘OHSU has violated the Animal Welfare Act more than other major primate laboratories in the last 18 months.” The previous October, PETA asked the federal government to stop OHSU from doing research on animals (a request that was not granted). The USDA inspection earlier in March 2019 issued no citations against ONPRC, and the USDA stated that “‘OHSU continually monitors and evaluates new methods and technology as alternatives to animal studies in our programs and is committed to adopting these techniques as soon as their effectiveness is demonstrated.” 

In January, 2019, SAEN filed a complaint with the USDA after a primate died at ONPRC, as well as some other potential problems or infractions. These issues, however, had already been resolved months or years before when they first were discovered. The monkey in question died after a federal inspection found that a monkey had been “‘constrained by PVC pipes of a resting perch” in its enclosure. It was treated by a vet immediately, and responded at first, but then “‘developed neurological signs’” and was subsequently euthanized. In response to the death, ONPRC examined all perches and put in protection against potential future issues. 

When questioned about these incidents, Haigwood replies by describing how it is a similar situation to what happens in human medicine in hospitals. “Not everything is perfect, medicine is not like a computer program. It’s biology, and things happen and people die. And animals do die too,” she explains. In contrast, medical mistakes are the third leading cause of human death in the United States. Just like in any activity, or any medical treatment, accidents can happen. “Occasionally a monkey, in the process of doing these—we call them roundups from our corrals—can get hurt. We had one die because it got scared and ran into a door. You know, everyone feels devastated when something like that happens.” It is important to acknowledge that Haigwood and ONPRC report any incidents and analyze what happened in order to prevent future accidents, constantly asking what needs to change to become better. “What you will find is we won’t make the same mistake twice,” Haigwood states solidly. 

None of these complaints by these animal rights groups have resulted in federal actions against ONPRC, but they can turn public opinion. In an attempt to educate, ONPRC does give tours to the public to demonstrate the truth of what happens at the center, and it is much different than what one might expect of an animal research facility. 

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After the sit-down part of my interview with Haigwood is over, we head over to the lab where Haigwood does her HIV research, passing along paths edged with bushes and trees. The campus is large and green, likely providing a quiet, peaceful respite for the researchers after hours of lab work. Through the doors and up some stairs, we reach Haigwood’s office where she works when engaged in her research. Two stickers are plastered to the door: “Wag More Bark Less” and “Vaccines Cause Adults.” They are apt indicators for the things she has dedicated her life’s work towards: animals and vaccines. The window in Haigwood’s lab office—where she spends her non-administrative time—looks out onto the facilities of the primate center. Silver-grey metal buildings gleam in the sunlight, spreading below and lined by tall fir trees. 

I’m led on a brief tour through Haigwood’s lab, located down a short hallway and through a door from the office. It is a typical biochemistry lab, and I recognize a few machines but most are unfamiliar. The room seems almost alive with the hum of instruments, soft clicks and beeps echoing and bouncing off of windows and walls. Surrounded by such advanced science, it’s not difficult to imagine researchers in goggles and gloves here, wielding pipettes and pencils in the battle against HIV. 

We work backwards from the lab, heading now to the animals whose blood and DNA is crucial for this research. Haigwood guides me to an open area of land with a few silver buildings. Outside one are three enclosures (there are three on the other side of the building too, she tells me) circular in shape with walls made from chain-link material and cone-shaped metal roofs. The closest we can get is about twenty to thirty feet from them, stopped by some yellow CAUTION tape preventing visitors from moving too close. The reason is soon obvious: monkeys. 

Inside the three visible enclosures are monkeys. They are rhesus macaques, the most common species here at the primate center. These buildings, as Haigwood tells me, each contain ten or so females and one to two males, a group called a harem where breeding occurs. If there are two males in a single enclosure, one is usually vasectomized so that it is obvious which male’s genes are passed down to the babies. And there are babies. As I look closer, a young, smaller monkey I had not noticed clinging to his mother’s stomach slides off of her and perches nearby. An older looking juvenile swings excitedly across the chain-link walls, tail and arms reaching gracefully yet with stunning speed from handhold to handhold. I’m not close enough to see the monkeys clearly, but even from far away I’m infused with a strange energy being so near to these incredible animals, and I can only imagine how interesting it must be to work closely with them. They seem so alive in their actions, from the leaping play of the young ones to the mothers reaching with a gentle hand to briefly comb through their baby’s fur. 

The enclosures are large and tall, allowing for this freedom of movement. A variety of wooden logs and planks suspended at various heights allow for perches, and long swaths of blue cloth draped from one side to the other provide a hammock-like climbing apparatus. The bottom few feet of the wall is solid so I can’t see the floor of the enclosure, but I imagine there are yet more perches and toys to amuse the monkeys. They seem, from what I can tell, to be active, healthy, and happy—a far cry from the cramped enclosures and depressing living conditions of research animals promoted by animal rights groups like PETA. 

A huge amount of care and attention goes into tending to these monkeys. Head of the clinical medicine unit Dr. Heather Sidener outlines in our phone interview the two major areas that the vets at the Center cover: “We’re responsible for the preventative health care program”—physical exams once or twice a year, lab work based on their age so that we can catch diseases early, dental evaluations and cleanings or extractions, ultrasound or x-ray imaging as needed—“as well as caring for them reactively. Animals get sick just like people get sick.” In monkeys, as she tells me, diarrhea and some in-fighting amongst the groups are the most common ailments, and treatments are tailored to the individual monkeys. An elaborate behavior team of a behaviorist and ten to thirteen technicians are constantly reporting and collecting information about how the monkeys are interacting with each other. The vets and thirteen certified veterinary technicians also take care of the animals currently involved in experiments. For example, in the monkeys infected with SIV in HIV research, some of them show signs “just like people show signs.” The veterinarians have an important job here to provide care for the animals involved in the research, as well as make decisions about when to interfere and provide treatment or, if necessary, euthanasia. “My job is to make sure that the research done involving animals treats those animals humanely and takes into account both the animal’s welfare and the goals of the science … to thread that needle in a humane, ethical way. And then simply to provide the care that those animals need so they can be happy and healthy as much as possible,” Sidener says. This elaborate care for these monkeys helps to make sure they still have high quality of life despite experimentation, and the caliber of the services provided definitely rivals some human healthcare. Rhesus monkeys usually only make it to age seven or eight in the wild, but can live up to forty years at ONPRC, similarly to how domesticated pets survive much longer than their feral relatives.

The researchers and vets also enjoy interacting with the monkeys. “Monkeys have a lot of personality and understanding … we develop relationships just like with any animal that you encounter on a regular basis, you know,” Sidener explains. She fell in love working with them at a previous job in Seattle, with their vibrant personalities and the feeling that she was doing valuable work. “Monkeys are cool, man!” Sidener exclaims and I can hear her smile through the phone. “Everybody wants to work with monkeys!.” 

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Unfortunately, public opinion does not often line up with the opinions of those involved in animal research. The ethics are still questionable to many people who do not realize the impact experimentation on animals, and primates especially, has had—and will have—on human medicine and their own personal quality of life. Sidener’s husband is a Type I diabetic, and he “is alive because of research that was done in animals that helped develop insulin, and he has a much better quality of life today than he would even thirty years ago … directly because of primate research.” The view that much of the public has of what animal research is and how it is governed is, according to Sidener, outdated and wrong, a strawman argument used without proper understanding. Most people fail to realize how much we rely on the results of animal research, that the drugs we inject for diabetes, or the chemotherapy given for cancer, or the vaccines for deadly diseases all come from experimentation on animals—and primates. We are alive, and our families are alive, in part for this reason. 

The consequences of animal research cannot be ignored. Its history is full of cruelty and condemnation, of blood and metal and needles. Helpless animals treated to a life of suffering for potential gains in human medical understanding. But it has improved, and the animals involved—especially primates—are given lives that may not be what they would have in the wild, but they are cared for to a standard that should be acceptable. Because the benefits are sky-high. “Having a monkey get SIV, it’s obviously not going to be as happy of a monkey as a monkey that doesn’t have SIV,” Sidener states passionately. “But if that monkey can help develop antibodies, that means that some momma doesn’t have to watch her baby die of HIV because she nursed it before she knew she had that disease…and oh my gosh, wouldn’t we be in a better place in this world?” 

As Sidener explains, in a perfect planet we would not need animal research. All human afflictions would be fully understood, fully treatable. People would live long, past a century, without developing Alzheimers or other neurodegenerative diseases. Maybe we would even live forever. Children would not die of genetic heart issues, mothers from breast cancer, men from high blood pressure. Without any medical issues besides the most mundane, animals would not be needed for experimentation. 

Will we ever reach this utopia? No, not in this lifetime, or your children’s, or grandchildren’s. Likely never. There will always be more we do not know, new genetic mutations, novel viruses that sweep across continents and blot out lives by the thousands. Humans are a vulnerable species. But through animal research, we come ever-closer to reaching this. In just the past few centuries, decades, this experimentation has raised standards of health far beyond what they once were. As long as it is regulated, as long as the animals are treated as valuable, it will continue to do just that—save lives. 

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