The BUAV (British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection) published an exposé this weekend on what they call ‘the terrible plight of animals’’ at Imperial College London. A member of the group spent seven months working as a technician at the University’s animal facility, secretly recording the researchers and rodents in their day-to-day lives. The 10 minute long film is uncomfortable to watch, even as someone who believes that vivisection is necessary. But this is not because the BUAV’s spy managed to uncover routine torture, as they would have you believe. It’s because, if there were alternatives, no one would choose to put animals through surgery and euthanasia in a captive environment. Unfortunately, what this piece of propaganda neglects to mention is that the research being carried out is vital. There are no alternatives.
What really got me incensed about the film they released, and the publicity it received, is the way in which lies are mixed in with the truth in order to deceive the general public about what exactly goes on in an animal research laboratory. To take just one example, the film shows a cage of bald mice, and implies that they are hairless due to neglect. In fact, these mice are hairless because they harbour a genetic mutation in a gene which causes them to lose their hair, along with their thymus. The thymus is an important immune gland, and so these mice are immunocompromised. This makes them ideal for studies involving organ transplantation, for example, as their immune system will not reject foreign bodies. Kept in the right conditions, these mice are not in any discomfort, or neglected. They’re just bald.
This leads to the one important point that this exposé does make – that there is a need for more transparency in animal research. It is easy for activist groups to tell people that research is mindlessly cruel and frequently useless when there is no one there to argue with them. In particular, the BUAV complains that scientists conduct their research behind a blanket of secrecy, endorsed by the government. But it is animal rights activists themselves that have driven the research underground.
In recent times, scientists working on animal research and employees of the companies who supply the animals have been subject to a campaign of abuse and harrassment from extreme activists. At Harlan laboratories in Oxfordshire, which breeds rodents for research, activists hurl abuse at employees coming and going to and from work. If an employee is identified they are named as a paedophile on the internet. In other cases, scientists have been subject to firebombing attacks and to activists flyering their neighbourhood with leaflets claiming that they are rapists. There was one report of a researcher being set upon by an activist mob wielding pickaxes. Is it any wonder that these threats and violence from fringe animal rights groups have left many scientists feeling that they must keep silent about their work, to ensure the safety of themselves and their families? Who wants to try and start an informed debate with a group that is more likely to attempt to harm your loved ones than to fight back with reasoned arguments?
In 2005, the law was changed so that acts that targeted animal researchers in this way were classed as terrorism. Since then, although the abuse at Harlan continues, the number of violent attacks by animal rights terrorists has decreased overall. So, maybe now is the time for scientists to start talking openly about why they feel that the work they do is important. If they don’t, how can the public be expected to make an informed decision on their beliefs about animal rights?
On that note, here’s why I think animal research in the UK is both moral and essential.
Firstly, it’s important to stress that despite what the BUAV implies, the UK has some of the strictest rules on animal experimentation in the world. The rules are set by vets working at the Home Office, and aim to ensure that treatment of animals used in experiments is humane and proportional to the benefit of the work. Take note, activists – set by vets. Not researchers, not big pharma, but professionals whose job it is to care for animals.
Unless there is a specific exemption, for example in some cancer studies, animals are euthanised at the first sign of pain. Researchers must show that they are following a code known as the three Rs. This code states that the number of animals used must be Reduced to the minimum possible, that the experiments must be Refined to ensure that the animals experience the least possible discomfort, and that, where possible, animal models must be Replaced with an alternative system. Finally, researchers must demonstrate that the experiments they are carrying out are likely to be sufficiently important to permit the use of any animals. The Home Office is responsible for granting permission for experiments to be carried out; they can, and do, refuse if there are not good grounds for using animals instead of other methods. They can also take away permission at any time if they find evidence of neglect, and conduct random spot checks on all animal researchers to look for such evidence.
Secondly, while it’s certainly true that some of the experiments taking place at Imperial look unpleasant, it’s important to consider why the research is being done. What are the experiments investigating? And what is the real impact on the rodents? Here are just a couple of examples of procedures which the BUAV has termed a ‘catalogue of misery’ that are vital for good medical research.
1/ Gavaging. This involves making a rat or mouse swallow a long tube in order to put drugs into their stomach. This is often done in place of intraperitoneal injection, in which the drug being tested is injected into the body cavity. This may be, for example, because the drug needs to be taken orally, or because the liquid injected would irritate the body cavity. Animals are not anaesthetised for this procedure, because the vets at the Home Office have deemed that it would be more stressful to sedate the animal than to perform the gavage unsedated. A recent study has confirmed that it does not cause any signs of stress, or any other side effects. Gavaging is often used to give drugs being tested in cancer treatment studies.
2/ Craniotomy. This involves a short surgery in which a piece of skull is replaced by a window, allowing researchers to visualise the neurons in the brain over time. It sounds invasive, and looks horrid, but craniotomy is actually an easy procedure. Rats with cranial windows don’t show signs of being in pain after recovery from the operation. Craniotomy is also used in humans who have brain injury, or who need brain implants, such as in Parkinson’s disease, although of course the skull itself is put back in place rather than a window. In fact, human craniotomies have even been performed under local anaesthesia when necessary. This type of experiment is vital to allow researchers to study neurobiology over time in the brain. It also allows reduction of the number of animals used – an important part of granting permission for any experiment. This is because, rather than killing a rat at each timepoint the scientist needs to study, they can analyse the brain through the window then leave the rat until the next time point. Cranial windows are being used to try and understand and find cures for many diseases, including depression, stroke, migraine, and cancers such as glioblastoma.
The thing about these types of research, particularly drug testing, is that they simply cannot be done any other way. While cell cultures are great for finding potential drugs, they cannot be used to predict how a living organism will respond. Only testing in an animal with similar physiology to humans, such as a rat or mouse, can indicate whether humans might be receptive to a particular drug. It is illegal to test a drug on humans that has not passed stringent tests in animals, because there is no other way of determining whether it is safe. In the end, it is a matter of whether you believe that a human life has more value than that of an animal. Simply put, without animal research, many more people would die of curable diseases.
In order to dispel the myth that they are callous, cold hearted, sadistic animal torturers once and for all, scientists need to begin to speak more openly about the experiments they are carrying out. The animal rights groups pretend that they are bastions of truth and morality, holding up animal research so that everyone can see how barbaric it really is. If that were true, they would not be afraid to stand up and debate with scientists in an open forum, using facts and statistics rather than threats and emotional blackmail. If scientists are allowed to speak about their research without fear of reprisal, they will. And everyone will be better informed for it.
Elsewhere on the web… the BBC has a surprisingly in-depth page covering the basic pros and cons of animals research which is a worthwhile read if you are still making up your mind, or if you want to get into the nitty gritty of medical ethics.