At present, animal experiments are conducted in most countries for a wide range of purposes, from testing the effects of toilet cleaner to trying to simulate cancer in humans. In recent years, some countries have made certain types of animal test illegal: for instance, it is no longer legal to test shampoo in the European Union by forcing it into the eyes of rabbits. However, by and large most animal testing is legal if a Government licence is issued for it.
This has not reflected public opinion for a long time. Before the adoption in 2010 of the EU Directive (2010/63/EU) on animal experiments, YouGov surveyed 7000 people across Europe and found that 79% agreed that "the new law should prohibit all experiments on animals which do not relate to serious or life-threatening human conditions" and 84% agreed "the new law should prohibit all experiments causing severe pain or suffering to any animal". Similarly, a 2015 Gallup survey in the USA found that 67% were concerned about how animals were treated and 44% thought that even medical testing on animals was morally wrong.
When it comes to research not linked to medical conditions, committed support is negligible: the IPSOS-MORI study conducted each year for the UK Government's Department of Business, Innovation and Skills shows just 8% of respondents strongly agreed that "I can accept animal experimentation for testing chemicals that could harm people", and only 8% strongly endorsed this sort of test for possible harm to wildlife and the environment. Even this limited pool of supporters is shrinking: the US Gallup figure shows a 9% shift to opposition over the last decade, while the British IPSOS-MORI series shows overall support for the use of animals in medical research down by 13% over 12 years, and opposition to any kind of animal experiment in the UK has risen through the same period to 32%.
This trend was an important reason for the British animal research industry's PR offensive promising greater transparency. As Cruelty Free International has pointed out, this has not extended to allowing publication by the Home Office of relevant documents (experiment licences) that explain what is actually done to animals and why, but rather a small handful of laboratories have allowed reporters to look at their facilities during tightly-controlled visits.
And yet, despite this, the trend towards opposition to animal experiments is continuing. Moreover, opposition is rising even in countries not traditionally associated with animal welfare, such as Korea and Brazil, where Cruelty Free International has found a ready audience in the national Parliaments for phasing out animal testing for cosmetics in particular
Why? There seem to be three reasons:
Animal experiments are used for what?
Campaigners are so familiar with the subject that we are often surprised that many people believe that animal experiments are only done for medical purposes. The idea that animals might suffer in order to produce a new brand of toilet cleaner or paint strikes many as astonishing and quite shocking. Testing of chemicals on animals is so standard that few in industry realise how much it is eroding support for animal experiments in general.
Beyond the routine tests driven by legislation, the frivolous and yet cruel nature of some experiments will discomfort most serious scientists. To take one example of the procedures done in a recent UK experiment into whether being hungry made male rats more sexually active:
Female rats had their ovaries removed before being injected with chemicals that forced them to become sexually receptive. Male rats had a tube implanted into their brains to allow the researchers to inject drugs directly into their brains. The male rats were then deprived of food and injected with drugs to make them 'horny'. They were then placed in a cage with a receptive female so the researchers could count how many times they had sex. The males were killed at the end of the experiment.
No reputable scientist would surely want to be publicly associated with this type of work, which seems driven by nothing more than idle curiosity - yet it remains apparently legal, and numerous university experiments like this are also curiosity-driven rather than focused on any particular treatment.
The rise of alternatives
Forty years ago, opposition to animal experiments was mainly based on the ethical argument: that it was wrong to cause suffering to animals in order to try to acquire knowledge that would actually not benefit them. However, the rapid advance of alternatives and recognition that animals do not make good surrogates for people has led to the situation that non-animal testing simulates the human body as well or better than testing on animals. Where this happens, many countries in principle require that only the non-animal method is used, but in practice animal experiments may continue though inertia: people trained in one method may be reluctant to change to a new and better one, and the discovery of a better alternative is not always followed promptly by its adoption in practice. Public opinion is profoundly unsympathetic to causing suffering where that is the only reason.
Where are the cures?
Finally, the public is gradually becoming aware that the promises of the research industry are not yielding the promised results. Industry claims tend to hark back to the discovery of polio vaccine in 1952, but as research has intensified in recent years and more and more variants of animals are 'created' by genetic modification to try to simulate humans, the cures for cancer, Alzheimer's and other human diseases have remained frustratingly elusive. Derek Hill, Professor of Medical Imaging Science at UCL, observes, "The drug development world is littered with [Alzheimer's] drugs that seemed to work on transgenic mice but don't work in people"
If animal tests are used in areas that the public don't support, increasingly superseded by more modern techniques and widely recognised as ineffective, it's understandable that opposition is growing. To be fair, nobody actually likes inflicting suffering on animals. And yet, millions of experiments are still conducted every year, driven more by tradition and inertia than by regulatory requirements, or a real expectation of miraculous cures. Public sympathy is melting away, and in the coming years we are likely to see legislators increasingly limiting the research carried out on animals by excluding the most unpopular types, from cosmetic testing to household product testing to experiments inflicting severe suffering.
Change starts slowly in any well-established industry, but the foundations of support for animal experiments are crumbling. For the animals enduring this suffering, change is coming at last.