Retired lab animal veterinarian Larry Carbone (author of the highly regarded book “What Animals Want”) recently wrote a provocative article in Nature Special Reports in which he estimates that more than 111 million mice and rats (more than 99% of all lab animals) are used annually in U.S. biomedical research. Animal Grantmakers member Sue Leary was asked to comment on Carbone’s estimate in an article in Science.

“It concerns probably the most vexing problem with the Animal Welfare Act: the deliberate exclusions, in this case, of mice and rats,” said Sue. “As a result, there are no published numbers on how many are used, but everyone acknowledges that they are the most used animals in science.”

There may be no one more qualified to speak about Carbone’s estimate than Sue, president and chief executive officer of the Alternatives Research and Development Foundation (ARDF). ARDF funds and promotes the development, validation and adoption of non-animal methods in biomedical research, product testing and development, and classroom laboratories.

Sue was born and raised in Philadelphia, where she still lives and works. She has always loved animals, but revealed that she wasn’t allowed to have a dog as a young girl because, according to her mother, “They will break your heart!” Intrigued, but overruled, Sue contented herself with fish as pets.

The “no dog” rule only lasted until Sue was around 11, when her teenage sister brought a puppy home one day. “My sister must have been wise to the fact that our mom was actually a softie,” continued Sue, who confirmed her family matriarch caved-in quickly when asked if they could keep the dog. “I think it went down something like this: ‘NO! … No! … no … nnn … Oh, what should we name him?’”

Sue’s love of her first dog didn’t diminish her love for other pets; she soon brought home a pair of mice and cared for the guinea pigs at her school. She would often voice the refrain from Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who: “A person’s a person no matter how small.” Although she didn’t know it at the time, Sue’s early appreciation of all animals big and small would be a foreshadowing of her future.

Sue attended Penn State, earning her bachelor’s degree in biology. Her initial intent was to become a veterinarian, but she quickly realized that what really fascinated her about animals was who they are. Inspired by Jane Goodall, she made the decision to focus her studies on animal behavior. “My coursework spanned multiple departments and colleges,” she said. “I was in some classes with the fish and game guys, and others with psych majors.” As an undergraduate, Sue also became a vegetarian and started a women’s center.

After graduating, Sue did an animal behavior study on Ossabaw Island, a barrier island off the coast of Georgia. Although she was there to observe the behavior of wild turkeys, the only feathers she ruffled were of the humans who lured some wild pigs into a trap that she decided to open one day. Fortunately for Sue, she was allowed to finish her research, and she hoped that the pigs learned to avoid the traps. The experience, which included living in a treehouse for 10 weeks, allowed Sue to tap into her own “feral” side and lit the flame that would fuel her future activism.

Back on the mainland, Sue decided not to pursue a Ph.D. in animal behavior. Instead, she went back to Philly and got a job working at a national hotline talking to people about solar energy. In 1977, Sue went to the “Star Lake Conference” in the Poconos, which was her first animal rights conference. She came home, sat her parents down, and told them, “I know what I want to do. I want to work on animal rights!” Her father’s response, Sue recalled with amusement, was, “Oh, that’s too bad. You’ll be banging your head against a wall for the rest of your life.”

Sue soon became active in Philadelphia Vegetarians. “It was great fun,” she said. “We went to fairs and talked to people about vegetarianism. We sold books like Peter Singer's Animal Liberation and canned veggie hot dogs.” She also helped form the Pennsylvania Animal Rights Coalition, which protested such activities as head injury experiments on baboons taking place at the University of Pennsylvania. “We were fairly well organized,” she added, partially crediting the taste of politics she received at the women’s center during her college years.

The coalition worked in cooperation with Henry Spira's campaign against the LD50 test, and Spira leveraged their presence in Philadelphia to successfully apply pressure on pharmaceutical giant Smith Kline, which had its headquarters there. Sue also recalls attending an early PETA meeting in Washington, D.C. and speaking at a rally there. “It was an exciting time – it felt like the beginning of a movement. Many of us were applying lessons learned in the peace and women’s movements to effectively bring about change.”

After a brief hiatus from animal activism, during which time Sue worked in services and advocacy for human justice causes, she was asked to join the Board of Managers of the American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS) in 1991. Established in 1883, AAVS is the first non-profit animal advocacy and educational organization in the U.S. dedicated to ending experimentation on animals.

In 1993, AAVS formed ARDF and, in 1995, Sue became president of both organizations. In 2004, she went back to school to earn a master’s in non-profit management from The New School, a university in Manhattan.

Almost 25 years later, Sue still wears both AAVS and ARDF leadership hats. “As a girl, I loved science and I loved animals, and this really is a culmination of my passions,” said Sue. “And I thoroughly enjoy being in my position in the organizations because I get to interact with all kinds of people – it’s so interesting.”

Sue stated that she is honored every day to be able to engage with brilliant scientists who are advancing innovations that will benefit people and animals. According to her, one of ARDF’s real successes is that it actually fulfills its aim to fund and promote alternative methods to replace animals in science. “It’s not a given,” Sue explained. “It takes care and attention to detail, but we have managed to consistently and constructively connect with the science community and animal protection allies. Becoming a trusted partner and generous resource for positive change maximizes our impact.”

“In terms of milestones, I am very proud that ARDF led a historic challenge, suing the USDA to cover birds, rats and mice under the Animal Welfare Act,” stated Sue. “We actually reached a settlement with the agency in 2000, in which they committed to launch a regulatory process. Unfortunately, opponents to the agreement persuaded members of Congress to prevent the settlement from being fulfilled. That wasn’t good, of course, but we generated tremendous support from both scientists and animal protection groups in a real moment of unity. That was a unique success.”

Currently, ARDF is working on a new program called the Alternatives in Research (AiR) Challenge. “It hopes to bring some fresh air and apply some of the innovative methods from the testing world to biomedical research, where a paradigm shift to human-centered research is overdue,” Sue explained. “Animal ‘models’ are very odd, actually – artificially coaxing some symptoms or conditions of disease and then trying to treat them. Our program has already made some grants and now we are crafting a big ‘prize’ phase. Our aims are both to support good science and draw attention to new approaches to biomedical research.”

When she’s not at work, Sue loves to be at home with husband, Rob Cardillo, and her dogs Rosie and Romeo. Although Sue said that Philadelphia has become a plant-based paradise in recent years, she still enjoys cooking fine vegetarian cuisine (she even taught vegetarian cooking classes “back in the day”). She also enjoys traveling, but usually gets her travel “fix” via work (during non-pandemic times).

“I do want to say that I think Animal Grantmakers is a remarkable group of people and an important organization, and I am grateful that ARDF has been able to participate over the years,” Sue said in conclusion. “I thank Andrew Rowan for encouraging us to join. I’ve learned so much, and I hope that members feel free to call on me if they want to know more about animal research issues and alternatives.”

ARDF and (AAVS) issued a joint statement on Carbone’s recent paper, inviting scientists to stand with them to get mice and rats back into the Animal Welfare Act.