Why should a gang of rabbits die in agony to test the 100 or so new cosmetics that are introduced every week to the Western World?

"Oh," said the reporter I asked this question of (an esteemed colleague), "that's a good one. You'll get a lot of letters on that one."

The truth is that the wanton and casual torture of animals is not especially pleasant for normal folk to think of, so if the subject ever arises it is much nicer to deflect the question than to answer it.

Instead of saying, "there is no good reason for the rabbits to suffer hell for a goddamn hair spray," it is nicer to think of the columnist sitting on his tail praying for a lot of letters. In an exactly similar way it is nicer to say of some figures conspicuous in the humane movement that "he's sort of weird, isn't he?" than to hear him.

The commonest response is this:

"It's too bad the rabbits are in strait-jackets, and I don't deny they feel pain when their eyes are propped open and irritating chemicals dropped in until they go blind or mad or dead or all three. Still, you have to weigh that against the gains in human health and safety from dangerous new products." t

You do indeed have to weigh it, which brings us to our subject today.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby, a leading figure of humane forces in England, came to town to talk to the Tail Waggers Club at the Cosmos Club's auditorium.

"People don't want to know," he observed.

With space cadets like Barbara timm floating about over civilized heads and a batch of political candidates escaped from Miss Maud's Kindergarten, you may well conclude thre are more pressing outrages than blind rabbits.

But humaneness is like shaving and throwing a little water on your face in the morning: you do it even if your own world is falling apart (assuming you shave, of course; it would not apply to beared men or to women, but the point is, you do not ignore the claims of civilazation even in times of grief).

Houghton (how-tun) said he has little use now (for he is almost 82) with mere tears for battered puppies. He crises for organization, for lobbying, for legislative action. And in England he has got it.

All political parties there have planks for animal welfare and in that realm parties are required to follow up their formal platforms with action.

Laboratories using animals have long been "regulated" but now this means more than the mere granting or witholding of licenses. It means control, in such matters as anesthesia, to prevent useless suffering, and humane killing once the animal is fully ruined.

Vast numbers of animals are used in heartless experiments that have-nothing whatever to do with what is loosely called "science," unless you think of old bags running cosmetic companies as Einstein.

But Houghton is not awed by Science either:

"Scientists have an odd desire to be judged only by scientific results, and they greatly fear being judged on ethical or moral grounds. But if, as they continually claim, the work they are doing benefits mankind, why should they object to an examination of their methods?"

The truth is that an advanced degree in chemistry or biology or any other science does not insure a responsible or good citizen (this is me, not Houghton, pointing out that elementary fact). Scientists are no more exempt than the rest of us from sadism, callousness, neurosis, paranoia and general sloth.

If their labors on behalf of society require suffering by animals, there is no reason whatever they should not be accountable and required to justify that suffering with arguments sufficiently good to persuade a jury of ordinary American men and women.

Americans, despite our numerous flaws and lapses from grace, are by and large unwilling to see animals tortured.

In 1973 it was reported the Army was going to use 400 beagles in a fairly routine test of poison gas. The House Armed Services Committee is said to have received more mail on the subject than on any other topic since Truman fired MacArthur.

In "Animal Liberation," the author, Peter Singer, relies on estimates that in one year, 1973, the following numbers of animals were used in experiments in the United States:

195,000 dogs; 66,000 cats; 42,000 mondeys; 447,000 rabbits; 454,000 hamsters; 409,00 guinea pigs; 48,000 "wild animals."

This incredible total does not include any animals used by government agencies nor any animals used by outfits that do not cross state lines nor any animals used in secondary schools, and of course it does not include any of the mice.

The Labratory Animal Breeders Association, according to Singer, estimated 97 million rodents used in the U.S. in 1970. A Rutgers survey in 1971 estimated 85,000 monkeys, 500,000 dogs, 200,000 cats, a million and a half birds, 17 million frogs, etc., were used in labs each year, for a total of 63 million creatures. Not counting fruit flies.

I asked Houghton what alternatives there are to such things as dropping chemicals in the eyes of strait-jacketed rabbits.

"For one thing, microscopic examination of one or a few rabbits," he said. There is also the matter that there is little or no relationship to human safety and the dosing of animals with massive amounts of chemicals to see how much is required before half of them die.

Thalidomide -- one of the little gifts of the pill industry -- resulted in some deformed children. Yet it had been elaborately tested on animals.

Leaving aside the question whether "medicines" are as valuable as their manufactures and distributors believe they are, it is worth recalling that thalidomide was, after all, merely a sleeping pill and one can hardly make a case that such things have much to do with serious medicine.

But even if they do, there is no good reason that great numbers of animals should suffer needlessly in any society that prides itself on decency.

In fairness it should be added that animals have not been tortured more than humans, over the centuries (and certainly including our own). For every instance you can name in which an animal was stuffed in a box and tortured for no better reason than to see what will happen, you can adduce examples of similar torture of humans.

Still, humans in the nature of things may expect to suffer the condition of humanity -- brutality from other humans -- whenever they are not wise enough or strong enough or thoughtful enough to safeguard themselves. Or simply cannot.

But animals, in the nature of things, ought not be subject to human tortures merely because the human species has superior sadism to, say, leopards.

Humane groups in Washington have complained the proposed dog-racing projects involve much cruelty to animals, arguing dogs are readily shot and rabbits are painfully torn apart in their training.

Surely this objection could be got over if the track promoters agreed to have the animals supervised by a committee appointed by the Animal Rescue League or a combination of humane associations?

But, again, some people wish to think only of the millions they think will pour into the coffers of the local government. There is no guarantee, needless to say, that a little kitty of $35 million will not attract governors of the less fastidious sort. If people vote for gambling, including the dog racing, perhaps we shall be treated, eventually, to some more of those splendid long trials of public officials, and I admit they are among the chief circuses of our time.

I notice Christine and Roger Stevens (she is a major friend of endangered species of whale, among other charms) are about to have a party in which guests will wear costumes reflecting their view of the species most endangered.

I don't guess it would do to go in the disguise of a human heart.