Ashlee Piper is a sustainability journalist, TV personality, and author of the upcoming book on stylish, sustainable living, Give a Shit (2018, Running Press).
I had my first introduction to animal testing 25 years ago, when I was 11 years old. Caked to the floor of my local grocery store with muddy boot prints was a flyer depicting the reality of what so many of us reduce in our minds to “oh, it’s just lathering an animal up with shampoo” – rabbits with giant gashes in their heads, restrained rats ingesting lethal formulas through feeding tubes, guinea pigs with blinding scars from repeated eye irritation tests. It was impactful and unbelievably horrifying.
“Today, most people haven’t seen those kinds of photographs, so they assume [animal testing is] ancient history,” says Troy Seidle, director of the research and toxicology department at the Humane Society International. That's far from the reality, though, and while the conversation around animal testing is certainly being had today, it usually pivots to China and its mandatory testing stance.
And yes, companies compromising their values to sell in a China is disappointing, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that animal testing is still alive and well in the United States. While 38+ global economies, including the E.U., Israel, and India have banned cosmetics testing, we have not. An estimated 500,000 mice, rats, guinea pigs, and rabbits suffer and die from cosmetics animal testing each year in the U.S. alone (a stat that doesn’t include the millions of animals used for biomedical, pharmaceutical, and military research).
Compound those jarring figures with the fact that zero regulatory bodies actually require animal tests for cosmetics in the U.S., and it’s enough to have you shaking your fists and screaming "why?!" into the void. The answer? Just the usual hypnotic cocktail of money, business, and political influence, of course.
The White House's Real Rodent Problem
It’s no big newsflash that in less than a year, the Trump administration has rolled back protections for animals and their ecosystems — from being the only country to not participate in the Paris Climate Accord all the way to lifting (and hastily halting) the ban on elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe and Zambia.
This careless tone in regard to animal welfare was really set in February, when just weeks into Trump's presidency, the USDA intentionally deleted inspection reports related to the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) from its website. These reports detailed findings and violations of 9,000+ facilities, from pet stores to animal breeders to — you guessed it — laboratories. The USDA has re-released some information in response to public outcry, but unless you have the wherewithal and time to submit a FOIA, the most egregious violations (like abuse and neglect of lab animals) will go largely unknown to the public. According to the Associated Press, a spokeswoman for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service declined to say if the removal was temporary or permanent in the Trump administration.
But what constitutes "abuse and neglect" is already murky in a world where common experiments include irritation tests (rubbing chemicals into animals’ eyes and skin to measure and determine irritation), toxicity tests (force-feeding substances to animals to establish whether said ingredients cause cancer and other illnesses), and lethal dose tests (controversial but still practiced, involving forced dosing with the express purpose of causing death). These tests are conducted while animals are usually restrained, fully conscious, and without painkillers. At the end of a trial, animals are killed without pain relief (if they don’t die through the tests first), usually by having their necks broken, asphyxiation, or decapitation. This isn’t a Game of Thrones episode; this is the reality of animal testing in the U.S. today that’s purposely kept hush-hush.
Pay To Play
Unsurprisingly, the Trump campaign has received tremendous monetary support from some of the biggest, most unapologetic animal testers in the biz. Dow Chemical — which recently requested that the Administration turn a blind eye to a report finding pesticides damaging to thousands of critically threatened or endangered species — donated $1 million to help underwrite Trump's inaugural festivities. Dow Chemical's Director of Public Affairs told the Associated Press that the suggestion that the donation was intended to help influence regulatory decisions is "completely off the mark." (It's worth nothing that Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris, a personal friend of Trump's, also heads a White House manufacturing working group). Still, money contributed to inaugural funds is often done in an effort to curry favor with the elected official and those who have power over regulatory agencies, like the FDA, Jessica A. Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, recently told us. It's easy to see how one could argue the connection.
Following suit, biomedical giants like Pfizer and Amgen, and tobacco goliath Altria, all of which use animals for biomedical and toxicity testing, also donated millions to fill Trump’s coffers. While their interests aren’t solely or even chiefly relegated to keeping animal testing around, these companies know that once animal testing for cosmetics is banned or further regulated, animal exploitation for biomedical purposes is next.
But for an administration largely led by greed, money might ultimately be the answer that alleviates animal suffering — at least according to experts who frame vivisection as reckless government spending. “Most animal experimentation in the U.S. is funded by our taxes," says Anthony Bellotti, President and Founder of White Coat Waste Project, a watchdog group focused on exposing and ending $15 billion in federal spending on animal experiments. "Cutting wasteful government spending that hurts animals, like the 'maximum pain' heart attack experiments on puppies at the Department of Veterans Affairs, transcends partisan politics."
What makes the prevalence of cosmetics animal testing especially mind-blowing is not only that it’s not required by law by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, but that it’s flat out ineffective. From a biomedical perspective, more than 95% of new drugs fail in humans after passing preclinical in vitro and animal tests, with 25 clinical trial failures in the first quarter of 2017 alone. Animals are not bio-identical to humans, which is partly why we don’t hit up the veterinarian when we feel sick, and it's high time cosmetics and personal care giants start taking measures to utilize more foolproof alternatives.
The Future Is Getting Brighter
The problem can feel overwhelming, but the solutions are inspiring. Pioneering scientific advancements, poised to render animal exploitation an obsolete leviathan of the past, are already going into effect. A few weeks ago, everyone’s favorite bath bomb purveyor, Lush, held its annual Lush Prize Gala in London, which awards monetary grants (nearly $2M since 2012) to scientists and researchers developing promising, sophisticated, affordably replicable alternatives to animal tests around the world.
Among the honorees were The Lewis Bioprinting Team at Harvard University, which creates organ-specific human tissues on microchips, a technology currently being utilized to replace animals in drug safety testing, and Dr. Su-Hyon Lee of Biosolution Co. Ltd., whose work reconstructing human tissues through 3D culturing is already substituting corneal and skin tests conducted on rabbits in South Korea. These are just two of the projects spotlighted by the Prize that mean fewer suffering animals, serious cost-savings, and more reliable efficacy data.
And because the fight to end animal testing requires a multifaceted strategy, the Lush Prize also awards individuals and organizations doing exemplary work in the fields of public awareness (like Te Protejo, an NGO started by some badass women in Chile to bring cruelty-free cosmetics to the masses), training (like the Human Toxicology Project Consortium, a coalition that creates, educates, and trains stakeholders of all types on non-animal science), and lobbying.
The lobbying category winners — a collective of The Humane Society Legislative Fund, Humane Society of the United States, and Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine all championed by Senator Cory Booker — effectively lobbied to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act to include a requirement to preferentially use and report on implementation of non-animal methods. This is serious progress because it means the Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces the Act, will be advocating for animal-free tests for chemicals used in all sorts of products, beyond just cosmetics. It’s also smart political maneuvering in an administration where legislation attempting to ban animal testing outright has stalled.
What You Can Do Now
When it comes to putting your money where your ethics are, keep in mind that marketing lingo around animal testing on packaging is relatively unregulated in the U.S., so companies can claim almost anything to instill false confidence. You’re probably hip to looking out for the Leaping Bunny and PETA Bunny symbols on your products, but you can take this a step further by looking for the Certified Vegan symbol (which ensures a product is both cruelty-free and vegan), too. Keep the heat on brands to stay transparent about their ethical credentials, pay attention to company acquisitions (things can get complicated when a corporation that does test on animals buys a cruelty-free one), and avoid companies who opt to enter the $30B Chinese cosmetics market, thereby forfeiting their commitment to cruelty-free.
Politically-speaking, the best way to effect change is to find organizations embodying your animal protection values — and then support the hell out of them. National Anti-Vivisection Society, HSUS, White Coat Waste Project, and PCRM are all doing important work on behalf of lab animals. More the march on Washington type? The Humane Cosmetics Act (H.R. 2790) was just reintroduced into Congress in June. Track its progress and support the co-sponsors by calling and posting on social media to keep the fire lit. If this year has taught us anything, it's that our collective voice is stronger than ever — but we have to use it.