I differ strongly with those who argue that environmentalism should embrace the animal rights agenda, but extensive discussions here suggest that this story may be of more than passing interest. This account of how the AR program to stop animal testing may have gone badly awry may also help explain some of the reasons why environmentalism should try to maintain a respectful distance from other causes, however virtuous or pressing they may seem.

Few rules and fewer protesters draw animal testing to China,” by Jehangir S. Pocha (originally in the Boston Globe), discusses Bridge Pharmaceuticals, a San Francisco-based company that is outsourcing animal testing to China, where — as a recent article in Forbes (also written by Pocha) described it — “scientists are cheap, lap animals are plentiful and animal-rights protestors are kept at bay, muzzled by an authoritarian state.”

Bridge CEO Glenn Rice said the company’s Beijing facilities were designed to meet U.S. standards on animal care, and it anticipates receiving USDA certification by year-end. He was clear, moreover, about the main reason why moving testing to China makes economic sense:

This is a country with a large number of canines and primates…. Animal testing also does not have the political issues that it does in the US or Europe or even India, where there are religious issues as well.

“Big pharma” companies such as Eli Lilly, Novartis, Pfizer, and Roche have already started or plan new research and development centers in China. Earlier this month, PETA issued queries and stockholder suits to Eli Lilly and Pfizer, demanding they justify their decisions to outsource animal testing to countries with no or poor animal welfare standards. PETA has also written a letter to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez asking him to take steps to ensure that China “enforces basic animal welfare laws in its animal-testing laboratories.”

(Hey, good luck with that! I’m sure the Chinese authorities will get serious about this once they realize PETA has taken the scary step of sending Sec. of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez a formal letter.)

Pressure on big pharma may not do much to address the problem. According to Pocha …

… real growth is likely to come from midsized companies who outsource their animal testing or preclinical trials to companies like Bridge which can offer them prices that are about half those charged by US competitors. By 2008, that could double the size of the preclinical outsourcing industry, which was worth $2 billion last year.

China was already a tough place to be an animal. Now this. I’m willing to credit Rice when he says Bridge’s Beijing operation will adhere to at least minimal U.S. standards, but there should be no illusions about the dozens (soon, hundreds) of Chinese-owned and -operated facilities that already have or are about to get involved in this business.

More than anything else, this story is a sad but overdue lesson in the tragic law of unintended consequences.

There was probably a moment when it might have been possible for people who care about the treatment of animals to agree on a compromise position that addressed the welfare and interests of animals used for testing. But PETA and other organizations basically gave us the choice of supporting their impractical and impossible goal of bringing a complete end to animal testing or — see their Stop Animal Tests! website — being the enemy.

In a sense, PETA has succeeded. Animal testing may indeed effectively cease both in the U.S. and Europe, but at the cost of pushing the entire animal testing industry to a country where the few animal-welfare regulations in place are almost never enforced, and a society where public support for even minimal animal-welfare rights is almost completely lacking. Great work, guys.