Guinea pigs are more than pets. Lots of them spend their lives as laboratory animals in animal testing.
Consequently, the name guinea pig for our nonhuman friend additionally refers to — as Merriam-Webster explains — “a subject of research, experimentation, or testing.” A subject is either human or nonhuman. While most people opt against being human guinea pigs, laboratory animals do not have this choice.
Our language clearly distinguishes between humans and animals — thus ignoring that we ourselves are animals. We further distinguish between pets and laboratory animals. Pets are animals we spoil. Laboratory animals, in contrast, function as research models for us humans. Laboratory guinea pigs, rats, monkeys, dogs, mice, cats, and many more experience gene manipulation, chemicals, and artificially induced diseases. Scientists claim to treat them as humanely as possible. But is that even possible? After all, laboratory animals, too, feel pain, fear, and sadness.
This is where ethics come into play. The term derives from Greek ethos, meaning moral character, custom, habitual disposition, and deals with questions of responsible and fair behavior in a specific situation. Especially during this desperate search for a COVID-19 vaccine, ethical decisions are anything but easy. Both nonprofit organizations Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (U.S.) and Doctors Against Animal Experiments (Germany) clearly demand an end to animal testing.
They reason that animal models inaccurately resemble humans, thus wasting time and money, while bringing laboratory animals unnecessary agony. Animal testing almost prevented the approval of penicillin and still has not provided effective treatment for SARS and MERS*, both caused by coronaviruses, like COVID-19. These organizations stress that human cell-based research is needed in order to study these viruses.
How would you, dear Reader, decide? Does our craving for a normal, comfortable lifestyle really justify the ethical cost of causing nonhuman guinea pigs such agony?
* Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) emerged in China in 2002, became a pandemic, and then just disappeared, while Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has spread to several other countries since then.