Open and respectful dialogue on the use of animals in research is essential

by Joan Rachlin JD, MPH, Executive Director

A violent new video game from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is the latest entry in the polarizing, emotion-laden debate surrounding animal research. The game, Cage Fight, allows players to assume the role of one of three famous mixed martial arts fighters as they attempt to free animals and take on researchers in a university lab, military installation, and pharmaceutical company lab.

The game first opens in a lab at fictitious River City University, where players see a grisly scene that includes blood splattered walls, animals in woefully undersized cages, and a cleaver-wielding scientist. The accompanying text, which is displayed across the bottom of the screen, reads, “Science Lab – Cruelty to Animals in Progress.” Accompanying this brutal backdrop is equally offensive dialogue:

Professor Podesta: You’re not allowed in here. You can’t see this!
Jake: Too late—I’ve recorded you torturing that cat!
Professor Podesta: But I have to publish studies in order to keep my job and the easiest way is to lock up animals and cripple them.
Jake: You won’t have a job when people see the truth.
Professor Podesta: I’ll treat you to the same fate as this cat before I let you share that video! Off with your head!

From there, players progress by kicking and punching the researchers they encounter, despite the game’s obligatory disclaimer that it is illegal to do so in real life. The freeing of the animals, however, remains an optional endeavor. In a press release, PETA director of marketing innovations, Joel Bartlett, noted that “Cage Fight doesn’t just show you how animals suffer in laboratories—it gives you the chance to combat cruel animal experimenters, both in the game and in real life.”

As the quote above suggests, the connection to real life that the “game” establishes is far from tenuous: From the very first screen players are encouraged to take action. They are reminded that they can and should mount a legal “assault against animal experimentation in real life… by taking action on PETA’s action alerts.” In fact, on the very same page that hosts Cage Fight, players are told that “animals abused in laboratories in real life need [their] help,” and they are asked to send email the National Institutes of Health to put a stop to research being conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In this context, referring to Cage Fight as simply a game seems unfair. Cage Fight sends a dangerous message to those who play it regarding how one should respond when disagreements arise on complicated issues, while contravening PETA’s representation that it “maintains a creed of nonviolence and does not advocate actions in which anyone, human or nonhuman, is injured.”

The promotion of violence as a tool in handling disagreements is particularly disheartening, and seems hypocritical coming from an organization that cries foul when they have concerns about the manner in which lab animals are treated. We can only infer that PETA feels no shame in bringing the force of its activism to bear when they allege—rightly or wrongly—that animals experience pain or suffering in a given setting, but that it’s perfectly fine to create a videogame that encourages the infliction of pain or suffering on researchers, with only the disclaimer referred to above as a half-hearted hedge. Videos such as Cage Fight are violent and advocate injury to humans, so where is PETA’s integrity in saying one thing but doing another?

PRIM&R has always ardently supported an open and respectful dialogue on the use of animals in research at its annual Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) Conferences. Toward that end we have encouraged participation from representatives of PETA, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Humane Society of the United States, and several other animal rights organizations over the years. I am among the many PRIM&R proponents of this effort to create a diverse and inclusive forum, believing that constructive, honest, and temperate exchanges among parties holding disparate views is among the best ways to erase distrust and help promote understanding.

Unfortunately, there is nothing about Cage Fight that is constructive, honest, or temperate. This latest entry from PETA reflects their blatantly inaccurate vision of animal research. They fail to see animal researchers as anything other than sinister, secretive, and cruel. By selecting a medium that encourages participation by children and others in real life action, PETA does not walk its talk about “[maintaining] a creed of nonviolence,” but rather manipulates players into thinking about only one very distorted side of an issue.

I believe both the research and the animal rights communities have a moral responsibility to encourage and participate in a fact-based dialogue, so that individuals can make their own informed decisions regarding animal research. The public is entitled to a clear and accurate understanding of the value of animal research to human and animal health, how that research is conducted, and the multiple layers of regulations that are in place to ensure the responsible care and use of laboratory animals. Young audiences to whom Cage Fight is directed are especially owed a clear, balanced, and accurate statement of the how and why animal research is conducted, as they are impressionable and can thus more easily fall prey to distortions.

The research and animal care and use communities must transform this latest assault on truth into an opportunity to educate the public about the facts. (A great resource for thoughtful, responsible, and reliable animal research information can be found on Speaking of Research’s blog.) I’ve heard it said that many people prefer a simple lie to the complicated truth, but the truth in this area is not so complicated. It does, though, require that you—members of the research and animal care communities—redouble your efforts to share what it is you do, how you do it, and why it matters.