Information Possibly Outdated
The information presented on this page was originally released on March 13, 2008. It may not be outdated, but please search our site for more current information. If you plan to quote or reference this information in a publication, please check with the Extension specialist or author before proceeding.
MSU veterinarian helped push animal welfare effort
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Scientists have known for decades that animals are good stand-ins for humans in research, and one Mississippi State University veterinarian was on the front lines of the fight to protect the welfare of laboratory animals.
Dr. John Harkness retired in 2005 from his position as laboratory animal veterinarian at MSU. He began his career in the early 1970s, just seven years after federal legislation mandated the kind of care laboratory animals must receive.
“As animals became more and more incorporated into biomedical research, there was an increased concern expressed by a significant part of the population against this use of animals,” Harkness said.
He said the American public awoke to the issue and became very concerned with animal welfare in the 1960s, marking an important transition.
“During the time of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the amount of mail coming to Congress regarding animal welfare was second only to the mail about the Vietnam War,” Harkness said. “Congress was just deluged with public concern about how animals were being treated in research.”
Major media, such as Life and Parade magazines, published widely read and emotionally charged articles on the subject. Harkness said the American public quickly polarized on the issue and were divided by strongly held opinions and insufficient communication.
This pressure from what became the animal rights movement resulted in a federal law and other guidelines being passed in 1963 and 1966 that specified the care that must be given to certain laboratory animals.
“The government made sure, as far as it could, that the animals must by federal law be treated humanely,” Harkness said. “They also ensured that taxpayer money being used for teaching and research by public institutions be spent on research that is worthy and that is likely to produce valid research. Part of the way to do that is to make sure scientists have healthy animal models to work with.”
The first Animal Welfare Act, enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was passed in 1966 and has been amended several times.
Harkness entered the field in 1973 as a resident in lab animal medicine at the University of Missouri. At that time, laboratory animal veterinarians often found themselves in adversarial positions with university researchers and administrators and with animal rights advocates, and Harkness was no exception.
“My impression is that the facilities where I worked and that I knew about in many places were deplorable, and there was little concern for the welfare of animals,” Harkness said. “They thought their research was perfectly fine, and they weren't about to be told by a laboratory animal veterinarian that they were going to have to change.”
But change did happen, and Harkness said both the care of laboratory animals and the research that resulted from their use are better for it.
Harkness accepted a similar position at Pennsylvania State University in 1977 where he worked for a president who embraced the federal animal welfare laws and policies and the changes they meant to the research program at that university.
“The president said we will obey these laws, and anybody who doesn't like it can leave. About two-thirds of those researchers using animals quit animal research or left the university,” Harkness said.
But Penn State held firm, and Harkness praised its foresight in enforcing in the early days the improved laboratory animal research laws.
In 1984 Harkness came to MSU as the university's first laboratory animal veterinarian.
“The university was and remained quite receptive and kind to me,” he said.
When Harkness' career began, there were about 80 million animals used in medical research every year, including a lot of dogs, cats, guinea pigs and monkeys. Now there are only 18 million used annually, and 85 percent or more of those are mice and rats.
Upon Harkness' retirement, Dr. Lucy Senter assumed the position of MSU laboratory animal resources director and university veterinarian.
“I equate Dr. Harkness to a pioneer who goes into unknown territory and perseveres, and as a result of that dedication and perseverance, the world is changed,” Senter said.
She said his dedication to animal welfare helped raise MSU's standards of quality animal care to the level it is today. The animal research conducted at MSU is not just research to improve human health, but also to improve animal health.
“We have so many veterinarians who all want to do the very best they can to ensure that the animals are cared for correctly,” Senter said. “Our awareness of rules and regulations continues to improve, and I think we will continue to deliver quality animal care to our animals used in research and teaching.”
Contact: Dr. Lucy Senter, (662) 325-0632