A kids’ show explores the contentious issue of using animals to test drugs or conduct research. What they had to say offer a valuable insight into why the issue is so volatile even for adults.

Some issues that stir controversy even among fair-minded people are what I characterize as “settled opinion.” Like the legal term settled law, such issues are well-defined, the partisan positions are well-known and most people are comfortably hunkered down on one side of the other.

Vegetarianism is a classic example. Socially, most of us behave with maturity when a family member announces, “I’m a vegetarian.” Nobody freaks out at the thought of providing a vegetarian option at a dinner party and although the subject still arouses passions on both sides, few people expect or bother to change anyone’s opinion on the subject.

We can argue all we want, but the reality is that the 10 percent or so of the population that embraces (or claims to embrace) a vegetarian diet are, for the most part, either liked or disliked on the basis of personality and character, rather than their dietary choices.

Other issues impacting animal agriculture, however, are far from settled, again using that term in its legal sense. An example is the question of using animals for medical research, scientific study and product safety testing — which, I would argue, represents a continuum of opinion on a scale of “most acceptable” to “least acceptable.”

Ask a teen or tween-ager what they think about vegetarian diet, and you’ll generally get a positive response. But with a few exceptions, it’s typically more of a ho-hum matter these days: Some kids go veggie, others don’t. Fact is, most of that demographic has more pressing issues on their minds.

Not true with the use of animals in research though. That issue stirs passion, debate and controversy, I suspect, because there are genuine controversies involved, issues that are far from settled, even among intelligent and principled people with great expertise in the medical and scientific professions.

A great example was portrayed in “Animal Rights . . . Or Wrong?” a recent episode on Nick News, a kids’ show on the Nickelodeon cable channel. The segment opened with the story of a Raleigh, N.C., girl named Lyvia, a nine-year tomboy, as her father Brian described her, who related in clinical detail how she collapsed back in first grade and was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a disease in which the bone marrow stops functioning. Despite her age, she offered a world-wise perspective on her situation.

“I needed treatment for my disease, and I’m so thankful to the animals they used to test the treatment,” she told the interviewer. “If I didn’t have that, I would have passed away.”

The show then continued with a series of comments from kids, obviously well-chosen but very revealing:

  • “We have to do animal testing to save the lives of humans.”
  • “It’s wrong. We aren’t giant rats.
  • “Using animals [for testing] is heartless; they can’t speak up for themselves.”
  • I think the benefits to the human race outweigh what the animals need.”
  • “If we don’t use animals, how are we supposed to test drugs?”
  • “These [researchers] are hurting animals. They abuse them until they die.”

Across the spectrum of opinion

It’s expected that young people will hold black-and-white views on the subject of animal research, as they do with many issues that adults understand are far more nuanced. But in my very unscientific sampling of friends, colleagues and family members, I encountered a very similar set of opinions to what these 10-year-olds were saying: Even well-educated adults tended to either support animal research with few reservations, or else they condemned it with virtually no exceptions.

That’s because the issue exists across a lengthy spectrum, with potentially life-saving experiments in surgery or pharmaceutical therapy generally given strong support, while squirting cosmetics into the eyes of rabbits to measure toxicity receiving widespread condemnation.

Even the Nick News show took several minutes to offer competing views from physicians as to whether computer modeling can replace animal testing to validate various medical therapies. Valid arguments were offered by both experts, and although I personally side with the idea that before any surgeon cuts me open, I want to be assured that he or she has practiced the procedure multiple times on dogs or cats or pigs.

People aren’t giant rats, and I don’t wish to be a human guinea pig when it comes to major surgery.

Although the show ended with the classic “We’ll have to leave it there” summation, Lyvia, the girl who was the beneficiary of animal research offered her own powerful conclusion.

“I needed treatment, or else I would have died,” she noted, “but I know that it’s a treatment, not a cure.”

In other words, her struggle to stay healthy will continue for many years to come.

As I suspect will the debate over using animals as research subjects.

To review the Nick News segment, log onto www.nick.com/videos/clip/nick-news-149-full-episode.html

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.