Will a Ban on Small Animal Imports Harm Britain's Scientific Progress?

White lab mouse
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A small white mouse scampers along the front edge of several glass-fronted cubes. They line an expansive wall, holes in a beehive — laboratory-style. Just beyond the glass, the mouse's red eyes dart, and his pink nose twitches in an excited rodent pantomime that we all know and love. (Some of us, anyway.)

Little does he know that he’s the subject of an experiment for which he’ll eventually be sacrificed in the name of science, progress and humanity — the last one writ largest of all.

Faced with this reality, most animal lovers like us take one of two tacts:

1. We decide that we cannot abide the sacrifice of one animal species for the benefit of another — namely ours — leaving us morally obligated to defend any creature that might be used in such a manner.

2. We take a more pragmatic stance, accepting that animals of certain species can and should be utilized for the benefit of humankind, as long as they are treated in accordance with progressive animal welfare standards.

Britain Bans Transatlantic Travel for Lab Mice

Let’s head back to Algernon, scuttling about his well appointed cage in a laboratory somewhere.

If this scenario represents one of many increasingly besieged laboratories in the U.K., don’t expect this mouse to be one of the high-end, hard-to-get, transgenic mice used so often in Alzheimer's, cancer and diabetes research, among other impressively prevalent diseases.

Why, you ask? According to a recent USA Today article, a blockade restricting the importation of these animals into Great Britain is now well underway.

“Following campaigns by animal rights groups, several ferry companies and airlines, including British Airways, now refuse to carry mice, rats and rabbits intended for laboratory testing . . . ."

More than 3 million animals are used in British lab experiments each year — about 15,000 of them are imported. Less than 1 percent of the animals used in U.K. labs come from overseas, but scientists say that those particular animals, which are often genetically modified to model human diseases, are the most important.

Impact on the Medical Research Community

It’s an impressive bit of work that the U.K. animal rights organizations have accomplished. I salute them on their tenacity, tactical prowess and ultimate success.

But is it the right thing to do? Should they have a right to impose their morality on those of us who love animals but accept that humans come first?

To be sure, there’s no clear line that we can draw on this issue. After all, we’re talking about a morally fraught subject that trades in distinctions not only between humans and mice, but that delves into those that include species as diverse as the lowly fruit fly and our closest relative, the chimpanzee.

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