Public attitudes toward the use of animals in research and classroom experiments have evolved in recent years, as have the alternatives available to instructors and scholars. That's why we were pleased to see the University of Colorado at Boulder recently decide to review its use of frogs, mice and rats in undergraduate labs to see if the practice is really necessary.

Unlike People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), however, we won't prejudge what the verdict should be.

PETA filed a complaint with the university last fall, insisting the use of lab animals was cruel. Then again, PETA seems to believe all experiments with animals are cruel and unnecessary and would impose a ban on them, even those conducted to find cures for horrific diseases.

By contrast, we believe the ethics of using animals in experiments depends, in part, on an experiment's design and purpose, as well as the alternatives available and the animals involved.

It is far more difficult to envision an experiment that justifies the use of chimpanzees, for example, than mice.

But back to those undergraduate labs. CU spokesman Bronson Hilliard tells us there are eight undergraduate courses, ranging from biology to psychology, whose instructors believe students are best served by having live animals at their disposal. So the university's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee has been tasked with taking a closer look at those claims.

It may be that the committee -- composed of faculty and others well-versed in the ethics of experiments -- decides against recommending a phase-out of animal use. But it's also possible that the panel will conclude that instructors in some or all of those courses could achieve the same goals through other means, such as computer simulations.

If that's the case, animals could be dropped from those undergraduate labs as early as next spring semester.

Of course, that would hardly mean CU had banned animal experiments. Animals would still be used in some research, and not just in Boulder.

Last year, for example, PETA filed protests against the treatment of animals in experiments at CU's Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. As we noted at the time, however, there seem to be no good substitutes for some medical research -- on such diseases as Alzheimer's, for example, as well as severe neuromuscular conditions afflicting children.

And we think potential relief for the many victims of such afflictions justifies continued testing with animals -- under the strict controls imposed by the federal government.

Just because the use of animals in one area no longer makes practical or ethical sense doesn't mean it makes no sense in all other areas, too.

--The Denver Post, July 2