Peering through the bars of laboratory cages

02 November 2006

We need greater information about animal experiments, argues John Austin Baker


ANIMAL RIGHTS extremists are angry people. They must be, if they have convinced themselves that intimidating families, trying to destroy people’s jobs, and slandering their personal behaviour are morally justified ways of serving the animal or any other cause.

They are mistaken, of course. Such actions are not only wrong, but stupid. Many of the public already assume that animal enthusiasts are cranks; these methods simply make them out to be dangerous cranks, and fill sensible campaigners with dismay. Truth and justice can never be served by injustice and violence, but only by hard facts and rational argument, steadily and persistently presented.

We all know a good deal nowadays about many forms of animal abuse, for instance in the intensive food industry. There is plenty here to make us angry, though protesters have tended not to focus on these issues.

On the particular problem of the use of animals in scientific procedures, the picture is mixed. There are more facts than people generally suppose; on the other hand, we are told less than we would like.

Every year the Home Office publishes a report called Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals, giving detailed figures on what types of tests have been carried out and how many, what animals were used, how many tests were mildly distressing, how many severe, and so on.

We are also told how the law was enforced, how many inspectors there were, how many vists they carried out, what percentage of these were unannounced, how many projects were found to be at fault, and what action was taken — the answer to this last question is "virtually none".

Under the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, often claimed to be the most humane in the world, each programme of experiments involving the use of living animals, or the person managing the programme, has to have a licence. To get a licence, you have to be properly trained and qualified. With such a licence, you are responsible for the welfare of animals in your care. The number of animals used must be kept to a minimum, procedures must be refined to reduce suffering, and, where possible, non-animal procedures must be used instead.

The heart of the Act is the requirement that the likely adverse effect on animals must be weighed against the benefit — to humans, other animals or the environment — likely to accrue from the work. Many people would see this as a sound ethical approach, but it is meaningless.

Most scientific experiments of any kind produce no benefit, for the simple reason that they are only testing reasonable guesses. The real question is: how do you weigh one creature’s certain suffering against a theoretically possible benefit to another? The answer, if we are honest, is that, if the "other" is human, that side will win. The really interesting question would be: how many procedures have been considered but dropped because the adverse effect on the animals would be too severe?

EVEN 87 pages of report do not tell us what actually goes on. In the public mind, "animal experiments" mean "testing medications for human illnesses". In 2002, out of 2.6 million animals used, only 24 per cent were for this purpose, while 31 per cent were for "fundamental biological research". This largely involves the introduction of DNA from one animal into an unrelated animal. These "transgenic" procedures accounted for 710,000 animals.

Other "fundamental research" required interference with the brain, procedures deliberately causing psychological stress, and physical injury to mimic human injury — all three being noted by the Home Office as of "particular interest".

Some procedures seem to have had nothing to do with advancing knowledge, but seem simply to have been prodigally wasteful of animals. Why were 57,000 animals (including 440 beagles) needed to test the toxicity of agricultural chemicals? Why were 70,000 animals used for something called "quality control"? Even when it is medication that is tested, in many cases humans do not react in the same way as animals.

The Home Office also classifies projects by the severity of distress in the animals. Most procedures are rated "mild" or "moderate", but it is unclear what these terms mean, and what value should be attached to such classifications (particularly when a note adds that there can be no definite rules about how severity is determined).

Until we get concrete reports from independent observers, not just tables of figures and general scientific terms, we shall never know how far the extremists’ anger (as distinct from their illegal actions) is justified.

IN 2003, a House of Lords Select Committee called for greater openness about the use of animals, and more development of alternatives. On openness, nothing has been done. On alternatives, the government is now setting up a national Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research.

I hope that this is a real step forward. But the centre will work within the Medical Research Council, which is committed more to improving standards of animal use than to seeking alternatives. The funding, too, is derisory, raising the annual budget for this work from £330,000 to £660,000. This will not go very far in serious scientific research.

Because this is a complex and technical field, we should be grateful to those qualified professional organisations that are committed to steady replacement of animals in research by better methods, and an ultimate end to their use altogether.

The Rt Revd John Austin Baker is President of the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals. The organisation Fund Replacement for Animals in Medical Experiments (FRAME) can be contacted on 0115 958 4740;

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