The animal rights folks have sicced a bunny rabbit on Al Gore. A seven-foot-tall critter with floppy ears, fluffy tail and all. And he's trailing the vice president all around the country, from New Hampshire to Iowa to California.
The overgrown bunny and its sponsors, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, are hopping mad at Gore because he backs the Environmental Protection Agency's use of animals in its chemical testing program. PETA asserts that the program "will kill millions of birds, fish, rabbits and other animals in useless and painful experiments."
And PETA's four-month attack on Gore is not limited to protests by its spokesbunny. It also is airing television commercials, featuring the actress-cum-animal rights activist Bea Arthur ("Maude," "Golden Girls"), in which the veep is basically accused of advocating animal genocide.
But Gore is not callously sending animals to the slaughter, as PETA suggests. He simply has endorsed an EPA program in which high production volume (HPV) chemicals produced in quantities of more than 1 million pounds a year are subject to testing to ensure public safety.
Actually, the EPA program is a response to a 1997 report by the Environmental Defense Fund, which asserted that there was a lack of publicly available test data for HPV chemicals (to ascertain the relative risk to human health as well as threat to the environment).
Gore took up the cause of the environmental group, issuing a challenge to the chemical industry to commit to stepped-up testing for the 2,700 or so HPV chemicals. And the chemical industry accepted the challenge, much to its credit, agreeing to speed the pace of testing, at a cost to the industry of more than $700 million over six years.
The vice president was pleased. The environmentalists were pleased. But the animal rights folks were decidedly displeased. Because they are absolutely opposed to animal testing under any circumstance whatsoever.
Indeed, one need only consider some of the remarks of animal rights leaders to see just how extreme they are.
Like Ingrid Newkirk, PETA co-founder and current president, who once declared: "Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses." Or Alex Pacheco, PETA's other co-founder, who once commented: "We feel that animals have the same rights as retarded children."
It so happens that animal testing over which PETA is giving the vice president so much grief has been the key to virtually every medical breakthrough of the past century.
The polio vaccine was developed by use of monkeys and, yes, rabbits in the laboratory. Chemotherapy was refined with tests on mice and rats. Heart-bypass surgery was achieved through experimentation with dogs. The discovery of insulin resulted from research on dogs, pigs and cows.
And the advocacy group, Americans for Medical Progress, identifies an ancillary benefit to animal research that the radicals at PETA conveniently ignore.
It has yielded medical treatments that have saved the lives of millions upon millions of cats and dogs and other assorted animals that otherwise would have died from anthrax, distemper, canine parvovirus, feline leukemia, rabies and more than 200 other diseases that are now preventable.
Meanwhile, animal research remains the key to developing future cures or treatments for such human infirmities as AIDS, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries.
And if the animal rights folks dispute this, if they say that computer simulations or other non-animal testing can yield the same medical innovations as animal research, they ought to consider the 1998 Nobel Prize in medicine. It went to three American scientists, Drs. Robert Furchgott, Louis Ignarro and Ferid Murad, for their research into the effects of nitric oxide in the body. Their basic research, involving tests on mice, rabbits and other animals, has enabled other scientists to explore new treatments for heart disease, cancer, impotence and stroke.
Of course, this matters not to the animal rights extremists at PETA. Newkirk, for one, has gone so far as to say that if animal experimentation could yield a cure for, say, AIDS, "we'd be against it." So die, AIDS patients, die.
Vice President Gore has nothing to fear by taking on the animal rights extremists at PETA. Let them air their commercials. Let their seven-foot spokesbunny follow him around the country.
If the American people are fully informed about animal testing, its importance in promoting medical innovation, ensuring public safety and protecting the environment, the reasonable-minded majority will side with the veep. (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn. Joseph Perkins is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.)