Small Animals Terrorized in Government-Sponsored Labs—Take Action

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It's the stuff of horror movies: The victim is pursued, trapped, and tormented—and driven to nightmarish levels of fear. These scenes play out over and over again in the taxpayer-funded laboratories of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Maryland, where untold numbers of mice and rats are used in pathologically cruel psychology experiments designed to induce or measure extreme fear, panic, despair, terror, trauma, and a sense of helplessness in the animals. There's no rescue and no happy ending in store for them.

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mouse standing in front of NIH
This “mouse” stood in front of the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., to urge the agency to stop conducting cruel and useless depression tests on mice and other animals.

Here are just a few of the twisted things that animals held captive in these laboratories are subjected to:

Never before seen video taken by government experimenters!

Footshock Test
The experimental practice of electrically shocking animals began in the early 20th century and was popularized by Martin Seligman and Steven Maier, who, in the 1960s, administered painful and unpredictable electric shocks to dogs. The animals became so anxious and depressed that, eventually, they didn't even try to escape when shocked. Seligman and Maier termed this condition "learned helplessness," and a mob of experimenters lined up to perform similar experiments on a veritable Noah's ark of animals. (Seligman's sick experiments also inspired the psychologists who devised the CIA's now-disgraced human-torture program.)

From this, they developed the "footshock test," in which an animal is locked inside a chamber with an electrified grid floor. The experimenters deliver electric shocks at unpredictable intervals to the animal's feet, causing stress and possibly pain—and making the animal anxious, depressed, and overcome with a sense of helplessness. At NIMH, experimenters subject mice and rats to the footshock test—exposing them to acute electric shocks that cause them to jump and scramble around the chamber, often colliding with walls. Some of them freeze, too terrified to move a muscle after being shocked.

Forced Swim Test
At NIMH, experimenters drop mice in inescapable containers filled with water for the forced swim test. The panicked animals swim—their small hind feet kicking frantically—desperate to keep their heads above water. They circle the beaker, push against the sides, and try to climb up the walls of the container, looking for an escape. In their fear, the animals may defecate or cry out. As the minutes wear on, they begin to tire and the possibility of drowning feels all too real. This goes on for 11 minutes, during which the panicked mice swim to keep from drowning.

In a move that speaks to the cruelty of the forced swim test, an official declaration issued by a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' medical facility classified this kind of experiment with a "Category E" designation, the most severe type, because it's so unrelentingly "psychologically painful," according to the government hospital.

Rodent used in forced swim test

Tail Suspension Test
In the tail suspension test, experimenters at NIMH suspend mice upside down and tape their sensitive tails to a horizontal bar. The animals struggle to right themselves, feeling distressed by their awkward position and lack of control. Trying their hardest, they attempt to pull their bodies up, holding on for dear life to the tape affixed to their tails—only to drop back down again and resume their exertion. The test continues for six minutes, during which the mice struggle in fear and anxiety and the experimenters watch—apparently without any compassion.

Cruel and Worthless
In addition to being horrifyingly cruel and unethical, these tests are bad science. The forced swim and tail suspension tests are used to evaluate drugs for antidepressant properties—based on the assumption that when an animal stops swimming or struggling, he or she is depressed and on the belief that animals who've been given antidepressants will swim or struggle longer. But the data simply don't back up these assumptions.

The footshock test is thought to mimic human life stressors. But the stresses experienced by humans—including financial struggles, job dissatisfaction, and familial problems—don't involve the physical stress that being electrically shocked does. Certainly, humans suffering from depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder typically don't manifest these conditions as a result of receiving electrical shocks to their feet.

No less than the head of NIMH has openly admitted that these cruel animal tests are worthless for learning about human depression—yet, incredibly, his agency continues to use them.

These tests do nothing more than terrify animals and delay the development of new, effective treatments for humans. Indeed, a groundbreaking NIMH-funded study recently found many "failures in the use of [the] mouse for preclinical studies" because of the "cumulative effect of so many differences [between mice and humans] in the cellular patterning of genes." Please tell NIMH to stop wasting millions of taxpayer dollars tormenting vulnerable animals and to end its use of the forced swim, tail suspension, and footshock tests.

Note: Putting your subject line and letter into your own words will help draw attention to your e-mail.

A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D.
National Institute of Mental Health

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