Near the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock sacrifices himself to save the USS Enterprise and the ship’s crew. The decision is logical, Spock explains, because:

Spock: the needs of the many outweigh . . .

Kirk: the needs of the few . . .

Spock: or the one.

A similar balancing act often is a justification for using animals as research subjects and the resulting advances in human and veterinary medicine are undeniable. There are persuasive arguments both for and against such research, and the ethical and moral dilemma of research using animals is a topic for another time. A recent comment on The Horse’s popular Facebook page raised a different issue, however. Does research that involves inducing a serious medical condition in otherwise healthy horses and then euthanizing the horses for necropsy to evaluate the efficacy of treatments violate state animal cruelty laws?

It’s an interesting argument. It turns out that there is very little legal precedent.

The only prosecution of a medical researcher for violation of state animal protection laws that I could find took place in Maryland during the early 1980s. Dr. Edward Taub was in charge of animal research at a Silver Spring laboratory operated by the Institute for Behavioral Research. The lab was funded in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health; the United States Department of Agriculture was responsible for ensuring compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.

Dr. Taub’s research involved evaluating methods for training a stroke victim to reuse an affected limb, clearly a worthwhile goal. "This was accomplished," the Maryland Court of Appeals said, "by surgically abolishing all sensation in the limb of a monkey; thereafter, experiments could be performed to retrain that limb."

An undercover investigator provided information about the research to the State’s Attorney, who subsequently filed a 17-count charge against Dr. Taub for violation of Maryland’s animal cruelty statute. (The investigator reportedly was Alex Pacheco, a co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.) A district court jury found Dr. Taub guilty on six counts of failing to provide necessary veterinary care to the monkeys; only one count of failure to provide necessary veterinary care was upheld on appeal to circuit court. The actual research procedures themselves apparently were not the basis for the convictions.

The Maryland Court of Appeals eventually dismissed the charges entirely, again without considering the nature of the experimental research procedures. Instead, the court noted that Dr. Taub’s research was funded by a federal agency, overseen by the USDA, and subject to the federal Animal Welfare Act. It was clear, the court concluded, that the Maryland legislature did not intend such research to be covered by state law. The court also concluded that "the legislature recognized that there are certain normal human activities to which the infliction of pain to an animal is purely incidental and unavoidable."

One aftermath of Taub v. Maryland was passage of a research exception to the animal cruelty statute by the Maryland legislature. Most other states have similar exceptions for scientific research, which makes prosecution of researchers for alleged animal cruelty almost impossible, at least under state law.  In effect, such exemptions mean that legislatures have balanced the benefit and the cost of using animals as research subjects and concluded that research, by definition, is not animal cruelty.

The number of animals used in scientific research every year is staggering, almost a million in the 2009 fiscal year. This total is far from accurate, though, and reflects only required reporting to the USDA. The figure includes neither birds nor rats and mice bred for research because those species are not considered "animals" under the Animal Welfare Act definition. There is no way to know how many horses are used for research because horses do not have a separate category in the USDA report.

Do the benefits of research justify an across-the-board exemption from state animal cruelty laws?