Almost everything we know about biology we’ve learned from observing animals as biological systems. We keep them in cages, study their behavior, and, in many cases, analyze their tissues after they die. But animal research is a fraught topic within the scientific community and in the public sphere. Those who support animal research to solve problems affecting both human and animal health hold a variety of complicated, often strong beliefs. Supporters may diverge on how much and what kinds of animal research should be allowed—meaning what amount of oversight, regulation, and restriction should be involved, as well as what animals, experiments, and procedures are appropriate for certain questions. Many people who do support animal research to some extent may still have moral qualms.
On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, some people and organizations are fundamentally opposed to animal research for any reason, under any circumstance. These organizations have historically led to direct harm, as well as serious threats of harm, against the people who do research on animals. “Scientists that work with animals have targets on their backs,” says Science editor David Grimm, who often covers animal research.
These very real threats have created an environment in which many animal researchers are reluctant to publicly share details about their work. This not only makes it difficult for journalists to cover stories that involve animal research but also ensures that extreme viewpoints are overrepresented in the media and in public discourse. Altogether, the situation deprives the public of opportunities to understand the nuances of biomedical research and contextualize science that affects their lives.
Reporting on this thorny subject requires journalistic rigor and compassion, sensitivity toward sources, and emphasis on the larger goals behind the research. But the extra effort will pay off in making your stories on animal research more nuanced and compelling.
Acknowledging a Complicated History
Nearly all biomedical advances are products of animal research. Without animal testing, including in nonhuman primates, we wouldn’t have deep brain stimulation treatments for Parkinson’s disease or vaccines against COVID-19. But research that aims to advance human health sometimes involves harming or killing animals.
In the U.S., the federal government began regulating animal welfare in the 1960s—millennia after animal testing was first documented. In 1966, Congress passed the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act, the first federal law regulating animal research by setting requirements for veterinary care and living conditions for certain lab animals. The law names dogs, cats, nonhuman primates, guinea pigs, hamsters, and rabbits, but excludes rats, mice, and birds, which comprise 95 percent of nonhuman research animals that are counted in such statistics (which often exclude some widely used invertebrates such as fruit flies).* The Public Health Service (PHS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC), as well as institution-specific self-regulatory bodies, cover animal-use protocols and research-animal breeding and testing.
Despite strict regulations governing the handling of animals used in research, some organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), White Coat Waste, and the Animal Justice Project, continue to oppose animal research as a whole.
It’s important for researchers to be frank and transparent about delicate matters such as euthanasia, because the truth is almost always less sensational than the messaging from anti-animal-research groups.
Anti-animal-research campaigns have taken many forms. While some organizations focus their efforts on outreach, government advocacy, and direct care for animals, others traffic in misinformation and sometimes even vandalism, harassment, or violence. Many of these groups often dominate the public narrative despite frequently promoting false and unproven claims. PETA has equated animal research with issues like human trafficking and rape, and some groups, such as White Coat Waste, claim that government-funded animal research is a waste of taxpayer money. In one of several similar attacks in the late 2000s, animal rights extremists targeted animal researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, protesting outside their homes, sending death threats, and firebombing the car of neurobiologist David Jentsch, whose research on drug addiction at UCLA involved vervet monkeys. (Acts of violence in the name of animal rights are relatively uncommon, and other groups advocate for animal rights in more measured ways. For example, the Humane Society of the United States, the largest animal rights organization in the U.S., directs most of its efforts into political action and direct care for animals.)
In part because of the unethical approaches some activist groups have taken, researchers and institutions engaged in animal research tend to be wary of talking publicly about their work. “There are people who don’t want to speak at all about their science,” says Michele Basso, director of the Washington National Primate Research Center in Seattle. “They hide it, frankly, because they’re scared.”
This creates a catch-22: Many animal researchers are afraid to speak openly about their research, in part because they don’t think the public will understand; but no one will understand until they speak openly. “It’s understandable that the public feels like institutions are hiding something,” says Amanda Dettmer, senior editor at Speaking of Research, an animal-research advocacy organization. But, she says, “it’s also understandable that research institutions are once bitten, twice shy.”
Research-advocacy organizations like Americans for Medical Progress (AMP) and Understanding Animal Research encourage scientists to be proactively transparent about their work and push back against misinformation. Jim Newman, communications director at AMP, explains, “If you do this hard work to educate the public, then, even in difficult times, it’s easier for them to understand what you do and why.” After being attacked, UCLA’s Jentsch became a vocal pro-research advocate, realizing that “being open was the antidote to the harassment I was receiving.”
The public information officers (PIOs) I spoke with also emphasize to researchers that being up-front and presenting information about animal research in a neutral, accurate way is in everyone’s interest. It’s important for researchers to be frank and transparent about delicate matters such as euthanasia, they say, because the truth is almost always less sensational than the messaging from anti-animal-research groups.
Build Trust and Encourage Openness
Despite such pushes for transparency, many researchers are still wary of reporters. And even when individuals are willing to talk, institutions may put barriers between researchers and the media. While visiting Reading University’s Center for Dairy Research, Richard Sprenger, a video producer for The Guardian, caught a researcher evading the truth on camera. When Sprenger asked to see any fistulated cows, which have permanent holes in their bellies to grant access to their stomach contents, the researcher redirected the conversation, saying that fistulation was “not of relevance to what we do today.” Moments later, they walked past several fistulated cows. During the interview, Sprenger later learned that a departmental superior had instructed the researcher to keep the animals under wraps, contradicting what their public relations officer said in their initial planning conversations.
When Mother Jones reporter Jackie Mogensen contacted monkey researchers for a story on the U.S. macaque shortage, “The most common response I got from people was no response,” she recalls. Be aware that you might encounter hesitancy, and try to build trust with potential sources to help them feel comfortable sharing. (In contrast to many scientists and institutions, who are often tight-lipped about animal research conducted on their campuses, anti-animal-research organizations like PETA are eager to talk with reporters. “Animal-welfare groups will talk your ear off,” says Science senior reporter Meredith Wadman.)
If you are quoting opposing groups, explain to your sources that the claims you are including are substantiated by your reporting, to give them the opportunity to respond to criticism.
Outlining your questions can reassure your sources that you’re not planning an ambush, says Dettmer. Although you should not share the unpublished copy of your story with them, you can review their claims and the context they appear in, together, during the fact-checking process. If you are quoting opposing groups, explain to your sources that the claims you are including are substantiated by your reporting, to give them the opportunity to respond to criticism.
While most established scientists understand the risk of backlash that comes with press, earlier-career researchers may not, warns freelance writer Elizabeth Preston. “I am often more aware that there might be a negative reaction from readers than they are,” she says.
To make sure no one is caught off guard, Grimm advises being frank from the beginning, explaining to sources that you’re speaking on the record, that their name will appear in print, and that you’ll discuss their research, then give them space to voice any concerns.
If sources are still reluctant, Wadman suggests offering to talk off the record. After talking, you can point to anything that feels especially apt, and ask for specific permission to quote them. Even if they decline, she says, “You’re building a relationship of trust that can lead to more-open communication down the line.” Once you build trust, you may find that scientists are usually happy to talk about their science and its potential impact, says Wadman, even when they’re initially reluctant to speak.
Some people may never be comfortable being interviewed, and that’s okay, says Wendy Jarrett, chief executive of Understanding Animal Research, a research advocacy nonprofit in the U.K. “You should never force anyone to do any communication that they don’t want to do.” That said, if your story concerns a legal or ethical violation, you have a journalistic obligation to report the truth, even if the researchers involved refuse interviews.
Remind Readers of the Big Picture
When writing about animal research, it’s always important to let readers know why the research is being done. Reporters should never discuss translational breakthroughs such as mRNA vaccines or gene therapy without highlighting the animal-driven science that informed it, advises Cindy Buckmaster, scientific advisor at the genotyping company Transnetyx and host of the animal-research podcast GetReal! Otherwise, she says, “we allow people to live in a fantasy world where these things fall from the sky, and they can pretend animals weren’t involved.”
Many groups opposed to animal research promote the misconception that animal testing is unnecessary for biomedical advancement.
In your story, be clear about why such research was deemed necessary. Many groups opposed to animal research promote the misconception that animal testing is unnecessary for biomedical advancement, and that computer simulations, cell cultures, and human testing are enough. Be prepared to explain why this isn’t the case, Buckmaster says. Depending on the scope of your story, Mogensen recommends asking what, if any, alternatives to animal testing exist for a particular research group, and why they aren’t being used. Ask how using lab animals will uniquely enable them to answer their research questions, and what the limitations of their approach are.
If you’re reporting on a specific allegation of animal-welfare violations, your conversation should be more pointed. If an animal rights group brings you a story about an animal-research facility, ask the facility for their side of the story, Jarrett says. “Good journalists take time to see whether accusations hold up.” You should also try to get information from the regulatory agencies that oversee animal research, like the USDA or the facility’s local Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC)—they can confirm whether allegations were unfounded or warrant investigation.
Public USDA inspection reports are a good resource for investigating animal-welfare violations. Since the reports are independent from either the animal rights or research-advocacy side, Wadman says, “There’s no agenda there.” If USDA citations surface, AMP executive director Paula Clifford suggests asking what changes the facility has made since then, and what steps they’re taking to meet animal-welfare standards moving forward. Beyond USDA inspection reports, research institutions often have their own oversight committees and accreditation programs that run periodic internal inspections.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Hard Questions
For stories primarily focused on the product of animal research, like a vaccine, you won’t need to dive into nitty-gritty details. But when your story focuses on animal research itself, like Grimm’s 2018 Science article on the public relations battle between animal researchers and anti-animal-research activists, you may need to ask questions about the reasons for harming or killing animals, how it’s done, or how it feels to have that responsibility.
It can be hard to venture into such heavy territory, but for some stories about research ethics, it’s worth it. “Kill is a hard word for people to use,” says Jentsch. “But it’s something people are really focused on, because what they hear from animal rights activists is ‘kill, kill, kill.’ It’s an important question: What is it like, and why do you do it?”
Many animal researchers wrestle with the moral implications of their work and feel conflicted about their use of animals, even if they believe the potential value of their research justifies the cost and know that there are few alternatives.
Journalists owe it to their readers to describe animal research in as much detail as is relevant, to communicate what’s involved and why it’s done, Grimm agrees. “We can’t gloss over that sometimes this research is unpleasant.” In these conversations, keep an open mind and anticipate readers’ questions and concerns. For example, you might ask a scientist why they are using an invasive method over a less invasive one, or why an experiment requires an animal’s death.
It’s also important to create space for researchers to be authentic about their emotional experience, Sprenger advises. Doing so gives your readers a completer and more nuanced picture of the humans behind the science. “It’s easy to empathize with someone when they give you a sense of the humanity behind their scientific veil.”
Many animal researchers wrestle with the moral implications of their work and feel conflicted about their use of animals, even if they believe the potential value of their research justifies the cost and know that there are few alternatives. Buckmaster says that after 25 years, navigating these emotions hasn’t gotten easier. Basso echoes the same idea. “I don’t know any scientist that it doesn’t bother,” she says. “The day it stops bothering me is the day I quit.”
To minimize tension during interviews, Sprenger says, it can help to clarify some issues ahead of time. If you’re planning to visit an animal facility in person, for example, you can negotiate boundaries beforehand, either with researchers or with the institution’s PIO. It may be helpful to include both the researcher and the PIO in these initial conversations, if possible—miscommunications can arise when boundaries discussed with media officers are not effectively passed along to the interviewee. Ask if any areas will be off-limits to journalists (and why) and if there are any topics they feel uncomfortable speaking about.
Evaluate Claims Carefully
Although scientists overwhelmingly agree that some research using animals is necessary for medical progress, there is still debate within the community about the ethics of animal research. And in any individual case, weighing specific claims and getting to the truth can be difficult. While reporting a Science story on animal-welfare violations at research organization Envigo’s beagle research facility, Wadman asked their publicist to provide examples supporting their claim that beagle research was integral for the development of pacemakers, as well as research on Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. She asked them to direct her to some specific papers backing these statements—and they couldn’t. “They were just blowing smoke,” she says. “It’s important to check out these kinds of claims, because people will inflate the value of certain research.”
To avoid either sugarcoating or catastrophizing while writing your story, remain neutral in your choice of words.
When reporting on a study involving animal testing, speaking to the research team is usually sufficient in helping you discern whether there is a story worth pursuing.* But if you are contacted by an anti-animal-research group, how do you decide whether there’s a story there, and how do you investigate the claim? If your story concerns an animal-welfare controversy, you should strive to speak to a variety of sources with relevant expertise and to report the truth as objectively as possible. Bias, Grimm warns, happens when journalists are “spoon-fed a story and don’t do their homework in contacting the other side.”
To avoid either sugarcoating or catastrophizing while writing your story, remain neutral in your choice of words. Avoid heated terms used by the animal rights activists (such as murder) and euphemisms used by scientists (such as sacrifice). Clifford suggests using “terms people might hear in a veterinary office,” like euthanize or surgeon (instead of vivisector).
Depending on the story, it may or may not be appropriate to go into detail about how a study was conducted; a single-study news brief, for instance, may not require a detailed description of technical methods, whether animals were involved or not. But Wadman notes that when such details are important to the story and serve readers, it’s important not to gloss over them, even if they may be uncomfortable. As Mogensen puts it, “Discomfort is part of the story.”
By talking to a range of sources, critically evaluating claims, and synthesizing what you learn, you can tell a complex animal-research story with accuracy and tact. There will not always be cut-and-dried answers. “Follow your instincts as a compassionate human,” Mogensen says.
* Clarification 10/18/22: Due to an editorial error, an earlier version of this story contained a truncated sentence, which made it unclear that the question at hand pertained to a reporter’s decision about whether a story is worth pursuing.
* Correction 10/20/22: An earlier version of this story overlooked the fact that a widely cited statistic about animal species used in research does not include some invertebrate species.
Celia Ford is a sixth-year PhD candidate in the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, where she studies how our brains make sense of the world and how we update our expectations when the world changes. A TON early-career fellow supported by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Celia writes for the Berkeley Science Review and makes podcasts with NeuroCinema. In a past life, she was a drive-time alt-rock DJ at 95.5 WBRU FM. In a parallel universe, she is a pole dance instructor, bass guitarist, and devoted cat parent. You can follow her on Twitter @cogcelia.