Most Americans give ample evidence of their love and concern for animals. Urban families lavish affection on household pets; rural families give great care to their farm animals. And there is appreciation for animals in the wild.
Since the late 1970s this concern has also manifested itself in much greater public support for animals, their welfare and rights.
Several new organizations have sprung up which take a relatively extreme position - demanding a cessation in laboratory experimentation on animals. ''Animal rights'' is the phrase most such organizations emphasize. Toward this end some have even practiced civil disobedience.
In addition, there have been major increases in membership of traditional animal-welfare organizations long in the forefront of efforts to aid animals, including laboratory animals. Both at national and state levels, these groups and their members have been pressing for new laws to make the treatment of animals more humane, primarily in laboratories.
In recent years they have had some successes. Nationally, the Animal Welfare Act passed in the 1960s required laboratories to keep animals in humane conditions, although it said little about actual experiments. Restrictions now exist on the import and ownership of some exotic animals. And several states forbid research facilities from experimenting on animals left at shelters, on grounds that one-time pets should not be so used.
Enormous numbers of animals are used for laboratory experiments, with the best estimates put at about 60 million a year - an unconscionable total in itself. More remains to be done to aid those so used.
Passage of a relatively mild bill now in Congress would help. It is aimed at ending painful experiments when that is judged possible, and ameliorating discomfort in other cases. It would require experimenters to certify that they had considered other methods of experimentation before settling on the testing on live animals. It would insist that every institution that uses laboratory animals appoint a committee to review all laboratory experiments twice a year.
The proposal would also establish a clearinghouse for experiments so that researchers could learn more easily about previous tests, in order to prevent duplication.
The bill would not, however, end laboratory use of animals, or the use of painful experimentation if that were deemed necessary.
Some people who have inspected laboratories say that, contrary to the reassurances of researchers, much unnecessary suffering does occur in experiments, including those in prestigious institutions. Employees disturbed at inhumane treatment generally do not report the treatment to authorities, out of concern that they might lose their jobs.
One other measure before Congress should be noted: It would aid animals in a very different situation. That is a proposal to outlaw steel-jaw traps used for catching fur-bearing animals or predators in the wild. The proposal, similar to laws in several dozen countries, would permit animals to be caught in less painful traps.
Strong opposition exists to both bills. The animal experimentation proposal, in particular, is stalled: Last year it was once thought to be on the verge of passage. Opponents express concern that animal-welfare advocates have as a hidden agenda the banning of all experimentation on laboratory animals.
Although some of the newer animal-rights groups take that position, most other organizations do not. Instead they seek the use of other kinds of experiments if possible, with laboratory use of animals a last result, if such experimentation is adjudged necessary at all.
Certainly the ultimate aim should be to arrive at a point where animal experimentation is no longer thought necessary. A humane society must work toward the goal of protecting the health and happiness of all of God's creatures.