Michelle Thew recently wrote a piece for The Huffington Post on the use of stray or feral animals in medical research labs. Unfortunately, the article was missing vital information that may change the way that readers understand the issue.
Ms Thew was referring to a Home Office consultation response document relating to EU Directive 2010/63/EU, which is set to raise animal welfare standards across Europe.
Ms Thew's thesis was this - the Directive would also mean that stray animals such as lost pets could be caught, with no attempt to return them to their owners, before being poisoned, electrocuted or forced to swim in laboratories.
Whilst it is true that stray animals could be used in research, in the field or in the lab, this is not the whole truth. The document actually reads:
"Article 11 prohibits the use of stray and feral animals of domestic species except in essential studies relating to the health and welfare of the animals, or serious threats to the environment or to human or animal health. There must also be a scientific justification that the purpose of the procedure can be achieved only by the use of a stray or a feral animal."
Page 17, Consultation on options for transposition of European Directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used for scientific Purposes. Summary report and Government response, May 2012.
The use of stray or feral cats would, then, be either to treat diseases in that species, or the very highly unlikely situation of a 'serious' threat to humans, animals or the environment that could only possibly be studied in stray animals. It would otherwise be illegal.
It is not possible to know what the nature of the threat could be, so the government has not ruled anything out. However, animals like humans are vulnerable to outbreaks of diseases such as rabies, or environmental changes that have a profound effect on their chances of survival. In the case of a disease, the 'use' could be the testing of a vaccine, perhaps by pill or injection rather than the gratuitous electrocution of a beloved family pet. It might equally be the study of feline HIV in feral cat populations, which is unlikely to involve taking them for a swim.
Researchers proposing a vaccine or treatment would have to prove that testing the vaccine on a stray or feral cat, rather than via another technique or animal (including laboratory-bred cats), was literally the only way to proceed, in order to get a licence from the Home Office that allowed them to do the work. They cannot simply grab animals off the street. In doing this research, they would be attempting to protect Europe's cat population from the spread of a deadly disease.
Animal welfare groups such as the BUAV often do good work, rightfully exposing breaches of the law and helping to refine policy around, for instance, conflicts of interest. Unfortunately, some of them have also convinced themselves there are alternatives to animal research, when this viewpoint is both scientifically bogus and a self-defeating argument: It is already illegal to use animals if there is a proven alternative. Although work continues apace to find alternatives and reduce the numbers of animals used, we are not there yet. If there are genuinely alternatives, available now, all protesters have to do is produce them and a grateful scientific community will be legally compelled to use them.
The article also exposes other examples of rhetorical tricks that anti-vivisection groups can use to make their case. These include neglecting to mention the key safeguards of the legislation, exaggerating the probability of stray animals ever being used, examining only the costs of animal research rather than the net benefits to animal welfare, building a 'straw man' argument using the definition of 'severe procedures', concealing government safeguards outside of the legislation, listing experimental techniques that are highly unlikely to be used, divorcing research techniques from the purpose of the procedure and making a false claim to moral authority when animal research is key to both human and animal welfare.
There is also a tendency for anti-vivisection lobbyists to resort to emotive language when describing research, which can be easy to do when describing any medical procedure. Even a visit to the dentist can be made to sound pretty hair-raising if you use enough colourful allusions and ghoulish imagery. If you then omit the reason you were there in the first place it begins to sound like an outrageous assault, rather than an entirely necessary procedure.
It is absurd to claim that the researchers who create the drugs found at the vet's clinic are opposed to animal welfare. They may instead be making a decision to sacrifice one animal's welfare for that of many, but this, surely, saves more animals from suffering and premature death.
In contrast, anti-vivisection lobbyists champion not animal welfare but "an" animal's welfare, advocating the rights and welfare of individual animals, but not the majority of animals or animals as a whole. To call it "Animal Libertarianism" is taking it a bit far, but it is a type of 19th century individualism which has found itself advocating individual welfare over the welfare of the community or wider species. As with every set of rights, there is a conflict at some point between the rights of the individual and the welfare of others. By wholly backing the individual, they find themselves ignoring the greater needs of a larger population.
Animal research is a tough topic to discuss, a task made harder by breathless but groundless anti-vivisection narratives that mislead the public over various aspects of the issue. Whilst not doubting that anti-vivisection organisations are well-intentioned, it is time for them to consider how, if their beliefs regarding alternatives happen to be misconceived, this affects their moral position.
In an echo of Mark Henderson's Geek Manifesto, we too call for the public, and particularly scientists, to write to their MPs, asking them to stand up for human and animal welfare by supporting the scientific community and animal research, and at very least reassess some of the claims and concerns of lobbyists like Michelle Thew in the light of their tendency to mislead.