It has become fashionable in the animal experiments industry to say that they want greater transparency. After decades of saying as little as possible and hoping that public concern would just go away, researchers have publicly stated that they would like to engage with the public. A recent BBC documentary featured a guided visit to a laboratory. Schools are now being invited to visit selected laboratories on selected days, no doubt as carefully orchestrated PR (they will not be shown real animal suffering).
This would be welcome if it were actually genuine. If we had an open discussion of what is done to animals and why, we could have a mature debate on what the public is willing to accept. But we don't.
Under British law, it is a criminal offence for the Government to disclose anything about an animal experiment without the permission of the researcher. Would you like to see the project licence for the recent experiments involving kittens and puppies uncovered by the BUAV at MSD Animal Health released into the public domain to find out more about what happened to the animals and why? Shockingly, such information is not allowed to be released. If the Home Secretary told you what that licence which was approved by her Department said, she would indeed be committing a criminal offence.
If an institution receives government funding, then in principle it is liable to disclose some details through Freedom of Information requests. In practice, researchers often fight tooth and nail to prevent disclosure, with Newcastle University recently spending over £250,000 in an ultimately doomed attempt to prevent release of information on primate experiments. Far from encouraging more transparency, universities and the industry lobby group Understanding Animal Research have lobbied the House of Commons Justice Committee to make even this access to information impossible.
Does it matter? Well, the public outcry that has followed the revelations uncovered by the recent BUAV investigation at MSD Animal Health, and reported in the Sunday Express, suggests strongly that yes, it does matter. The key concerns raised by the BUAV that have been so shocking include:
• Distressing tests carried out on very young animals, including puppies as young as 4 weeks and kittens as young as 8 weeks. Some of the animals, including rabbits, calves and kittens, were allowed to suffer the full extent of the symptoms of serious and even deadly diseases.
• Poor out of hours monitoring of animals: very little overnight staff cover and totally inadequate cover on weekends and public holidays, with predictable consequences for welfare.
• The routine killing of puppies from 5 weeks of age and kittens less than 6 months old: During our 8 month investigation, 92 beagle puppies, 10 adult nursing female beagles, at least 15 kittens and an unknown number of rabbits, calves and chickens were killed at the facility.
• Puppies were separated from their mothers at a very young age, some puppies were just over 4 weeks; this is in contravention of numerous welfare guidelines (1).
• The killing of healthy female adult beagles: the females were pregnant when delivered to the laboratory. Within minutes of their puppies being taken away from them for tests and they no longer served a purpose, they were routinely killed.
• Lack of effort to find homes for those adult and puppy beagles who were no longer required or whose bodies were not required for dissection. Instead they were usually killed. There is strong support for homing beagles animals from laboratories where possible (2).
These types of experiment go well beyond what the sanitised "transparency" exercises of the industry show, and well beyond what most people would accept. Yet, without an undercover investigation, none of this would have come to light. There are fewer than 20 full-time Government inspectors "supervising" an industry with over 4 million experiments a year.
Regardless of what you feel about the rights and wrongs of animal experiments, do you not agree that it would be reasonable to disclose what is happening, so that we could have a serious discussion? Standard Freedom of Information Act protection means that anonymity would be guaranteed and genuine commercial confidentiality respected. We do not need to know that a licence was awarded to a particular researcher. But unless we know what is done and why it is done, and whether non-animal methods could be used, the vaunted transparency agenda will remain fraudulent.
1: Veterinarians and animal welfare specialists recommend that puppies are not homed (i.e. permanently taken from their mothers) until between 7 and 12 weeks of age. The Kennel Club advises: 'Make sure your puppy is old enough to leave its mother - at least 8 weeks old'.
The UK BVA/AWF/FRAME/RSPCA/UFAW Joint Working Group on Refinement states: 'Experience within the Working Group suggests that the most appropriate time to separate puppies from the bitch is when they are 6-8 weeks old. Whilst the exact time will be dependent on the individual bitch and litter, it is more common to wean at 8 than 6 weeks.' They then recommend, 'Puppies should not be separated from the bitch until 6-8 weeks of age.'
2: In 2000, LASA (the Laboratory Animal Science Association) convened a workshop to discuss what to do with post-experimental or surplus beagles from laboratories. They concluded that 'the overwhelming view was that this could be successful and that such animals could very effectively integrate into a new home outside the laboratory'. As a consequence they issued guidance in 2004 on how to go about the process of rehoming.