WASHINGTON (AP) _ Thousands of animal rights activists including celebrities Christopher Reeve and Grace Slick rallied in the nation’s capital Sunday seeking to promote the humane treatment of animals in the wild, on farms and in research laboratories.
Many marchers advocated an end to the use of animals in medical research, a goal that top health officials say is misguided and could end advances in medical research.
U.S. Capitol Police estimated 24,000 people attended a rally on the steps of the Capitol following the one-mile march down Pennsylvania Avenue under sunny skies. But organizers claimed more than 50,000 people from around the country showed up.
″Darling, this is so dazzling for me - it’s breathtaking,″ said actress Gretchen Wyler as she gazed at the sea of people outside the domed Capitol. Wyler, who has starred on Broadway and in television shows, has been active in the animal movement for 22 years.
Marchers chanted ″Animal Rights - Now.″ Many carried banners and placards with pictures and slogans saying things such as ″Animals Are Not for Wearing,″ ″Fur Is Dead,″ and ″Animals Have Rights, Too.″ Some even brought their dogs.
Organizers said ″March for the Animals″ - the first event of its kind - was a milestone in a movement they said was once viewed as outside the mainstream. The march attracted celebrities such as Reeve, the ″Superman″ of the movies; Slick, once the leader singer of the Jefferson Starship group; and ″Days of Our Lives″ TV actress Peggy McCay.
″I’m for all angles of animal rights,″ Slick said.
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., head of the informal Congressional Friends of Animals group, said he opposes the ″unnecessary, duplicative and cruel use of animals in medical and other areas.″
″There is no question we are making progress″ in popularizing animal rights, said Tom Regan, a professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University, and author of a book, ″The Case for Animal Rights.″
Regan, a vegetarian, describes the animal rights as a ″lifestyle movement.″
The event attracted animal supporters from all sides of the spectrum, said Peter Linck of the National Alliance for Animal Legislation. They ranged from those to wanted the protection of species such as elephants to those seeking to end medical testing on animals.
Many were seeking changes in the way animals are raised for slaughter as well as the banning of fur clothes.
″We stand together,″ Linck said, describing the march’s purpose as being to ″unify the humane movement″ and ″alleviate animal exploitation.″
Health officials are particularly sensitive about efforts to end animal testing, a move they say could be disastrous for medical science.
Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan has criticized animal rights advocates who use violence and intimidation to block testing of animals. ″They are on the wrong side of morality,″ he said last week.
Sullivan said some of the greatest advances in medicine, such as the cure for polio, never would have been achieved had animals not been used in tests.
Dr. Frederick Goodwin, head of the U.S. Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, said in an interview Sunday that animals provide the ″critical lynch pin between the petri dish and people.″
Many of the animals rights activists don’t fully understand the choices that must be made in medicine, he said. If tests on animals were eliminated, critical research into cures for diseases such as AIDS would stop, he said.
Goodwin said only one-fourth of medical research involves animals, and the majority are rodents such as mice and rats.
Sullivan said medical researchers treated their animals humanely - a view that activists disputed.
Ingrid Newkirk, national director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said health officials have tried to gloss over ″all the exposes of terrible cruelties, fraud and unnecessary use of animals (in research.)″
Health officials said the number of unwanted animals euthanized each year greatly exceeds the number of animals used in research.
Barbara Huffman of Freemont, Wis., president of the American Veal Association, said she was angry about allegations that veal producers are cruel to animals. Activists claim the calves are chained and force-fed drug- laden food before their slaughter at age four months.
″We are producing a safe and plentiful food supply,″ she said. ″We provide the best care for our animals that we can.″
There are a number of bills pending in Congress that deal with the animal rights issue. Among the measures are one designed to protect animals in testing of cosmetics, another that would prohibit the confinement of veal calves in small crates and another that would end hunting and trapping on wildlife refuges.
A separate bill would impose jail terms on activists who attack farms or research labs.
Among the other groups participating in the march were the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the U.S. Humane Society and the Doris Day Animal League.