Most of us find it uncomfortable to think about a defenseless animal imprisoned inside a laboratory cage and used in invasive and ultimately lethal experiments. We hope that laws will protect the animal and that the experimenters will take all measures to minimize the animal’s pain and distress.

But here’s the truth: There is only one law in the United States — the Animal Welfare Act — that provides protection for animals in laboratories. According to multiple federal audits, even this law, which deals mainly with caging and husbandry issues, is not being adequately enforced. Worse, the animals’ last line of defense — oversight committees at laboratories, called “institutional animal care and use committees,” or IACUCs — are failing at their jobs.

Established in 1985, IACUCs are responsible for ensuring that experimenters search for alternatives to the use of animals and consider alternatives to painful procedures; that discomfort, distress and pain inflicted on the animals are avoided or minimized; and that experiments are not being unnecessarily duplicated. In essence, IACUCs must ensure that the “3 R’s” of animal experimentation — reduction of numbers of animals used, refinement of procedures to minimize or avoid pain, and replacement of animals with non-animal models — have been considered.

Twenty-four years after Congress mandated that these committees protect animals, animal experimenters and IACUCs are still failing to implement the 3 R’s. In September 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General published a scathing audit report describing a climate in which laboratories view fines for violations as a “cost of conducting business.” The report documents these committees’ failure to ensure that animals receive adequate veterinary care and to prevent unnecessary or repetitive experiments. An astounding 29 percent — nearly a third — of oversight committees don’t even make sure that experimenters have looked for alternatives to painful procedures on animals, as they’re required to do.

IACUCs appear to be little more than rubber-stamping committees, approving the cruelest and most meaningless studies. At Yale University, the IACUC permitted psychiatry professor Marina Picciotto to measure despair in mice by forcing them to swim in pools of water with no resting platform or by hanging them from their tails. For each group of mice, despair was measured by how little they were still willing to struggle to save themselves.

In another study, Picciotto bored holes into rats’ skulls, injected chemicals directly into their brains, and then decapitated the animals and froze their heads. In a study on learned helplessness, she exposed mice to 360 inescapable shocks. And in yet another experiment, Picciotto deprived monkeys of fluids and then gave them Kool-Aid mixed with liquid nicotine as their sole source of fluid. The amount of nicotine ingested by one monkey reached the equivalent of smoking 17 packs of cigarettes per day. Picciotto conducted this experiment in order to determine how long people should wait after ingesting nicotine before having brain imaging performed — despite the fact that researchers went on to take brain images of human smokers in another experiment, which could have provided information without caging and drugging monkeys.

Members of IACUCs should be carefully selected and properly trained to understand their responsibilities under the law and to understand all facets of the 3 R’s. If they don’t perform their responsibilities as they are mandated, they should be held accountable by government agencies and compliance officers at their universities and removed from their positions. Laziness and ignorance have been tolerated for far too long.

Alka Chandna is the laboratory oversight specialist at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.