A “horrendous catalogue of staff neglect” in British laboratories has been revealed in a government report detailing cases of cannibalism, drowning and starvation among animals being tested.
Cases of neglect and unauthorised procedures are detailed in the Home Office Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU) annual report for 2015, which also reveals 55 cases of non-compliance by testing centres across Britain.
The disturbing report has prompted renewed calls for the Home Office to impose stricter penalties on those guilty of negligence.
But a spokesperson for the Home Office said that “robust action” is taken in cases of non-compliance, describing the current regulatory system as “rigorous” and one that “keeps suffering to a minimum”.
Eight shocking live animal testing disasters revealed in the Home Office report
During an experiment where animals’ food was restricted, ten mice in one cage ate each other due to starvation, the report found.
It was later established that the animals had not been fed for up to four days, despite the personal licensee, who was responsible for the animals, saying otherwise.
The deaths are recorded as having occurred due to the licensee’s lack of organisation and attention to detail.
The licensee was issued with a letter of written reprimand and required to undergo further training.
Four mice were found dead in a water-logged cage as a result of a malfunctioning humidifier leaking from the ceiling.
The animal technician repeatedly missed checking their cage, and the dead mice were not found until four days after the leak occurred.
The report states: “The incident indicated that the animal technician had not carried out their duties as required, and under different circumstances more diligent checking could have prevented suffering.”
The establishment licence holder was sent a letter of reprimand and changes to working practices were introduced.
3. Rats found alive in clinical waste bins
Two rats were found alive in a clinical waste bin three hours after they were meant to have been humanely killed by the personal licence holder.
Upon discovery, the two rats were immediately killed and death was confirmed by exsanguination.
The establishment licence holder took disciplinary action against the licensee and requested the revocation of their licence.
The licensee was issued with a letter of written reprimand.
An animal care technician discovered three cages without food and five dead mice.
The absence of food and, in one other cage, the likely absence of water, was “considered to have been significant aggravating factors in the death of all of the five mice”, the report said.
The establishment said the incident occurred as a consequence of staff oversight resulting from pressures of work caused by acute staff shortages, coupled with changes in the systems for managing the cages.
The establishment licence holder was issued with a letter of written reprimand and additional staff were employed.
5. Unauthorised procedures
A researcher induced heart attacks in 28 pigs under surgery, even though the experiment had not been specifically authorised in their licence.
Letters of reprimand were issued and an order to retrain on how to fill in a licence was issued.
Another example of unauthorised procedures being undertaken involved a researcher placing stents into the hearts of rabbits without a licence to do so.
The establishment instituted new controls and checks and letters of written reprimand were sent to the establishment licence holder and to the project licence holder. Extra training was also required.
6. ‘Pain and distress’
A mouse who should have been anaesthetised “undoubtedly suffered pain and distress” when an ear biopsy was carried out and the animal’s tail tip was removed with a scalpel.
“The mouse reacted immediately, scrabbling, with audible squeaks,” the report states.
The establishment’s training system database was updated and the personal licence holder voluntarily requested revocation of their personal licence, which was done, the report said.
A procedure was applied to 20 mice that was not authorised by the project licence protocol.
The animals were culled on discovery of the incident, “so no scientific outputs were gained and the mice were effectively wasted”, the report states.
The two personal licence holders involved were each sent a letter of written reprimand.
A mouse was found dead after being exposed to a dose of radiation higher than that authorised in the project licence.
Prior to the incident the project licence holder had submitted a request to the establishment’s local Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body to amend the licence to increase the dose of irradiation given, prior to the formal submission of the application to the Home Office.
The licensee assumed that the application had been accepted and carried out the experiment regardless, the report said.
The project licence holder and personal licence holder were sent a letter of written reprimand.
Michelle Thew, CEO of Cruelty Free International, said: “This horrendous catalogue of staff neglect in UK laboratories reveals a harrowing picture of the gruesome treatment of animals forced to suffer in experiments.
“It is despicable that those responsible for this neglect are almost always given only written reprimands or are simply instructed to undertake minor training.
“The Home Office is clearly failing to hand out severe enough consequences for incidents of carelessness and neglect of animals, and we urge them to impose stricter penalties with immediate effect.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has one of the most comprehensive animal welfare systems in the world and we are completely committed to the proper regulation of the use of animals in scientific research, which plays a vital role in improving the lives of people and animals.
“Our legislation provides a rigorous regulatory system that ensures animal research and testing is carried out only where no practicable alternative exists and under controls which keep suffering to a minimum.
“We take robust action on cases of non-compliance.”
In 2015 there was a 7% rise in the number of experiments conducted on animals in the UK, which anti-vivisection campaigners said made a “mockery” of the government’s pledge to the ‘3Rs’ - replace, reduce and refine the use of animals in scientific research.
The Home Office said that before a licence is granted the ‘3Rs’ are evaluated by inspectors.
Once the “harms, benefits and likelihood of delivery have been fully explored by an inspector... a judgement (is) made as to whether the likely harms are justified by the likely benefits”, the Home Office said.
The most common basic research procedures carried out in 2015 targeted the nervous system and the immune system.
The most common translational/applied research areas in 2015 were procedures involving human cancer, human infectious disorders and human nervous and mental disorders.
More than 4.07 million animals were used for the first time during 2015. In 2014, 3.8 million animals were used.
The number of completed animal experiments rose from 3.87 million in 2014 to 4.14 million the following year.
Mice were the most common species used in experiments in 2015, with 3.04 million procedures being completed using the small rodent.
A further 561,424 procedures were carried out on fish, 268,522 on rats, 14,155 on rabbits, 4,555 on dogs, and 3,612 involved monkeys.
More than 2 million animals - mainly mice and zebrafish - were used to create and breed genetically altered animals.
The RSPCA said last year that animals “deserve better”, adding: “Much more could be done in practice to challenge animal use, reduce suffering and improve welfare.”
The organisation criticised the “slow” pace of some researchers to replace animals in experiments.