- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

In a piece of engineering almost certain to cheese off animal-rights activists, researchers reported recently they had created a pack of remote-controlled robo-rats.
Specifically, the Brooklyn-based scientists successfully set a set of electrodes into the brains of five animals, which allowed them to be steered through indoor obstacle courses and complex outdoors terrain via what could be described as an out-of-box Skinner experience. One electrode simulated a touch to the rat's right-side whiskers and another to the left, stimulating the rat to turn at the behest of the "driver." Jolts of positive reinforcement were provided by the last electrode, which was implanted in the rat's pleasure center.
Those cues came from a backpack, which also contained a videocamera that supplied a rat's-eye view of the surroundings and a radio receiver set up to receive signals from a laptop computer from more than a quarter of a mile away.
So what good is a remote-controlled rat pack? Cueing Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis-style croons is probably beyond the capacity of most scientists who couldn't carry a tune to gain a grant themselves. While remote-controlled rats arguably have more intelligence than many actors, don't look for them on television any time soon, other than perhaps subliminal appearances in political commercials.
The robo-rat researchers suggested they might be useful for search and rescue operations in urban disaster areas. That's certainly possible, given their ability to scurry into small spaces. They might also be useful as land-mine detectors.
Such an idea seems rather ratty at first. After all, rats, like all other creatures cute and furry, are supposed to have feelings. And there's little doubt they do. Certainly they are capable of feeling the sort of pain that can result from scurrying around minefields or serving as laboratory test subjects.
So should humans be deliberately inflicting such painful stimuli on, what are by human standards, almost completely defenseless creatures? The animal rights lobby certainly doesn't think so. One such group, the aptly initialed Compassion Over Killing (COK) which recently set up an information booth on the National Mall, maintains, "Animals are not mere commodities to be used by humans but rather our moral equals who have the right to live free of abuse and exploitation."
That rabid line of thought continues to be popularized by Peter Singer, the founder of the animal rights movement and currently a professor of bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. This distinguished ethicist does not distinguish between the value of humans and animals because he cannot distinguish any specific characteristics that distinguish humans from animals.
Yet even if Mr. Singer maintains that appeals to human dignity are specious and speciesist, there is bright line of worth between Homo sapiens and the species surrounding it. It's a values judgment that's critical for disease research. In a position paper titled, "Mighty Mice: Genetically Tweaked to Save Human Lives," the Foundation for Biomedical Research noted that the use of genetically modified mice has led to advances in the understanding of a number of diseases including diabetes, cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer's disease and various cancers.
In fact, a whole new doctor's kit could come out of such mouse testing, given that cancers are ultimately genetic diseases, and that the human genome and the mouse genome have both been decoded. As the mighty mice paper pointed out, "Virtually all human genes have mouse equivalents and studying how the genes work in mice is often the most effective way of discovering the gene's role in human health and disease."
Animal rights proponents suggest that realistic computer simulations make such animal testing unnecessary, but silicon systems simply cannot yet account for all the complex variables involved in living tissue. For the sake of the humans who might be helped, new medicines must at some point be tested out on animals, whether monkeys or mice.
Of course, most of us already live the proper perspective on animal ethics without thinking about it too much. After bringing home work in a leather briefcase and enjoying a steak dinner, we walk the dog, feed the cat and yes, occasionally set a mousetrap. Robo-rats won't be too worried.

Charles Rousseaux is an editor for the Commentary pages and an editorial writer at The Washington Times.


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