Recently on this page {June 4}, the renowned heart specialist Dr. Michael DeBakey raised serious questions about the value of legislation I have introduced (H.R. 778) to prohibit federal funding for research using animals acquired from shelters. While I have the greatest respect for Dr. DeBakey and his singular accomplishments in the field of biomedical research, many of his arguments had little or no relation to my bill, and a response is warranted.

The doctor discusses at length the amazing strides that have been made through the use of laboratory animals for controlled studies. This is irrefutable. But it is important to point out that this bill is not intended to prevent or slow such research.

I am not part of the anti-vivisectionist movement, and my voting record demonstrates my commitment to biomedical research. While I strongly believe that humans bear certain responsibilities with regard to the treatment of animals, Dr. DeBakey's implication that my priorities (and those of more than 80 cosponsors of the legislation) put animal rights before the welfare of AIDS victims, cancer sufferers and sick children is misguided.

To understand H.R. 778, it is necessary to distinguish between purpose-bred and random-source animals. Purpose-bred animals are those raised in colonies for utilization in laboratory research. Random-source animals derive from a variety of backgrounds. Some come from litters of cats or dogs that have bred repeatedly, some are obtained through newspaper advertisements and some come from shelters.

H.R. 778 would prevent the use only of those animals taken from shelters. The majority of random-source animals would not be affected.

There are several valid reasons to distinguish between shelter animals and other random-source animals. Most importantly, the majority of shelter animals are former pets. It is rarely an easy decision for a pet owner to surrender an animal to a community animal shelter, but most do so in the hope that the animal will be adopted.

The alternative, of course, is rapid and humane euthanasia. Given the choice between this option and an unknown future for the animal as the subject of laboratory research, most pet owners would, I feel, choose the former. Indeed, it is conceivable that pet owners may reject the option of taking animals to shelters if they believe their pets could wind up in a research laboratory. And if public confidence in the shelter system erodes, local communities could find themselves with a harder-to-manage problem of animal control.

Dr. DeBakey also argues that purpose-bred animals cost more than random-source animals, and that H.R. 778 would therefore make research prohibitively expensive. This is a fallacy. Most random-source animals could still be used for federally funded research under my bill.

Furthermore, the National Institutes of Health, whose funding sources for biomedical research would be affected by the bill, has found that the cost differential is minimal in any case. An NIH study found that because random-source animals must be quarantined and conditioned to the laboratory, the most important factor in cost is the "stamina and vitality" of the research animals.

In 1973 NIH published a study advocating the use of purpose-bred animals over random-source animals. The study found that purpose-bred animals are preferable for research because they are of known age, genetic background and temperament. It added that purpose-bred animals died less often of common diseases than random-source animals, and that they were more easily used to assemble base-line reference data.

Today, NIH no longer uses shelter animals for its in-house research. The executive director of the NIH Interagency Research Animal Committee recently explained, "Intramurally, NIH . . . acquires any purchase dogs, cats and primates from USDA-registered and -approved dealers. None of these dealers acquire animals from pounds or shelters; they come from both purpose-bred colonies and from a few dealers who buy animals from rural areas (farm dogs and cats)."

Dr. DeBakey also makes a poignant plea for continued biomedical research to solve the great medical mysteries of our day. I agree wholeheartedly. It is instructive that former senator Paul Tsongas, whose political career was cut short by health problems that could have proved fatal without the benefits of biomedical research, has been outspoken in his support of H.R. 778.

Tsongas is firm in his conviction that shelter animals are neither needed nor desirable in research labs. "If I thought this bill would interfere with life-saving research, I would be the first to oppose it," he told me recently.

Eleven states and four foreign countries have taken the step of banning pound seizures for laboratory research. Both the World Health Organization and the Council of Europe strongly recommend against the use of shelter animals.

Many of us, including Dr. DeBakey, wrestle morally and emotionally with the question of the relative rights of humans and animals. Since lifesaving research must go on, it is important that we reach a compromise on this dilemma. Once the biomedical research community accepts the fact that shelter animals do not belong in research laboratories, we will be on the way to reaching an important middle ground between those who would not alter animal research policy at all and those who would end research on animals altogether. The writer is a Democratic representative from New York.