IT IS not good news for anyone that a report by the Animal
Welfare and Ethical Review Body at Imperial College, London, has
found that procedures employed to supervise the welfare of animals
that have been used in research experiments is "not fit for
The inquiry came after an undercover investigation by
anti-vivisectionists at the college's labs, which claimed that
adequate pain-control was not being used, unsupervised researchers
with little experience were carrying out invasive surgery on
animals, and a guillotine was used to carry out live
The review body did not explore these accusations, and, indeed,
its report praised the commitment of the staff at Imperial who were
responsible for the day-to-day care of animals. But the experts did
examine the general systems employed at the college, and criticised
an "us-and-them" culture, which divided animal-care staff and
scientists, who failed to work together efficiently. Reforms were
needed, they said.
The number of animal "procedures" carried out in the UK rose by
eight per cent last year, according to Home Office figures,
although this number includes the birth of offspring to genetically
modified mice and fish. Even when these animals reproduce
naturally, each birth has to be registered as a new
Britain has the strictest rules in the world on animal
experiments. The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 says that
they can be performed only where there is a clear potential benefit
to people, to animals, or to the environment, and when there is no
means of obtaining these benefits without using animals. Any good
to humans must clearly outweigh the harm to animals. Home Office
inspectors visit labs about 12 times a year.
Much of the work previously done through animal experiments can
now be done with individual molecules and cells in culture.
Computational modelling, analyses of databases, and non-invasive
brain-imaging techniques can give answers, too. But there are some
crucial areas where experiments are essential.
More than 120,000 people suffer from Parkinson's disease today
in the UK. Inducing the disease in a few hundred marmosets over the
past decade has dramatically improved the treatment of the disease.
Parkinson's in marmosets does not progress fatally, as it does in
human beings, but it offers the opportunity to study the early
stages of its development, which is when mechanisms can be designed
to prevent it. The criterion of proportionality thus seems amply
Scientists studying spinal-cord injuries and deafness,
similarly, need animal experiments to study what prevents human
beings from recovering from these conditions.
Despite the loud voices of campaigners, the vast majority of the
British public take a pragmatic attitude to the balance between
cost and benefit in these matters. This is perhaps unsurprising.
Although we are a nation of pet-lovers, well over 90 per cent of
the population eats meat. Just as we are happy to breed animals for
food, so we are content, too, to see them bred for experiments that
improve human health.
Polls consistently suggest that 60 per cent of the population is
happy for any experiments to be done on animals. The proportion
animal experiments, subject to the kind of conditions now in
place, is routinely more than 90 per cent. This is essentially an
instrumentalist argument; but proportionality gives it a moral
underpinning. Yet, if such consensus is to be maintained, it is
vital that no unnecessary suffering is inflicted. Scientists at
places like Imperial College cannot let their standards slip.