The Blog

The BUAV Responds to Animal Research Apologists

If, as is often the case, the suffering is great or the hoped-for benefits are trivial or the science is questionable, but no rules are broken, the position is more, not less, worrying, since it shows how weak the licensing system is.

The piece by Kirk Leech (A Reply to the BUAV, posted on 7th October) contains the now familiar diatribe by animal research apologists against the BUAV and its undercover investigations, which have been so successful in exposing the brutal reality about animal experiments. Mr Leech understands the damage which the investigations do to the credibility of animal researchers who claim, absurdly, that animals in laboratories do not really suffer and that their work is indispensable.

Readers need to understand how the industry conflates two issues: the extent of the suffering and whether rules have been broken. They are quite separate. If, as is often the case, the suffering is great or the hoped-for benefits are trivial or the science is questionable, but no rules are broken, the position is more, not less, worrying, since it shows how weak the licensing system is.

Mr Leech focuses on three recent BUAV investigations.

First, that at the prestigious Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics (MPI) in Germany carrying out neuroscience research on macaques. The seven-month investigation found monkeys confined in cages, a world away from their natural habitat - many of the animals originated from breeding-centres in Mauritius and Asia with stressful transportation to centres in Europe and then onward transmission to MPI: sometimes single-housing, leading to stereotypical behaviour (indicative of severe stress); highly invasive brain surgery, from which recovery was sometimes anticipated to take at least 14 days; no overnight monitoring after the surgery, in a way which would be inconceivable with human patients; an inadequate analgesia regime, including deliberate giving of below-strength analgesia to prevent interference with head wounds; brutal 'training' methods which included water-depriving macaques for days on end (such that they are driven to drinking their own urine); sometimes dragging monkeys by their neck from their cages (caught on MPI's own footage): locking monkeys in a chair and immobilising their heads for hours at a time, five days a week, month after month and forcing them to do thousands of repetitive tests for small juice rewards.

Crucially, the MPI has not disputed any of this. The evidence was subjected to rigorous examination by Stern TV, a leading German broadcaster. Stern drew attention to the stark contrast between MPI's claims and images on its website - the claims included that the animals do not suffer (an utterly bizarre claim), that water deprivation is 'brief' (in fact, up to six days), that the animals are not stressed and so forth - and the reality. MPI's assertion, in licence applications, that the macaques voluntarily co-operate with the experiments is absurd.

Yes, as Mr Leech says the MPI called in a leading primate researcher, who apparently commended the institute on its welfare standards. Is anyone surprised that a primate researcher should support his colleagues? He reported in just a few days and only verbally, according to MPI. MPI has promised some changes - a full-time manager with veterinary qualifications will be recruited, the availability of staff to supervise the primates overnight night following surgery and dispensing with the cruel use of poles during the 'training' of monkeys. These are wholly inadequate measures but they do at least represent acknowledgment that care was not of the requisite standard previously.

The licensing authority is currently investigating MPI. But even if it largely exonerates the institute of breaking the law - and itself for its licensing decisions - that will not alter the reality for the poor animals.

The pattern has been the same following the BUAV's investigations at Imperial College London (Imperial) and MSD Animal Health (MSD).

So, for example, Imperial, on receipt of the BUAV's comprehensive report, did not dispute that: animals were routinely left unattended overnight immediately after highly invasive surgery; mice had to be killed because of the distressed state in which they were found one morning (staff comment caught on tape: 'we would have been screwed if [the Home Office] saw those mice'); procedures were classified only as 'moderate' even though significant deaths were anticipated; rats were decapitated by guillotine; both kidneys were removed from rats who were left with just one transplanted kidney; and other animals were forced to undergo painful abdominal surgery. And so much more.

The Home Office, the licensing authority, acknowledges that the culture of care at Imperial, which carries out over 130,000 experiments a year on animals, was poor, and both the inquiry set up by the Imperial College (Brown Report) and the Government's own advisory body, the Animals in Science Committee (ASC), were scathing in their criticism. The ASC said that Imperial breached its licence and concluded: 'The regime at [Imperial] clearly fell short of the standard required by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986', with a 'a systematic pattern of infringements ...' Some licensees 'were unfamiliar with and had poor working knowledge of the conditions attached to their licences'. The establishment licence-holder, the Registrar, subsequently stepped down at the Home Office's request.

The Home Office has said that, in its opinion, the researchers for the most part kept within the law. We strongly disagree, and will be pursuing this - animals at Imperial were, for example, often left to suffer even more than already allowed by the licences. One should remember that the Home Office was also investigating its own performance as regulator - no one should be surprised that it has defended its own licensing and inspection decisions. But the point is that the law allows horrific things to be done to animals on a routine basis, and the public needs to know this.

Similarly, MSD did not, when given the opportunity of doing so, challenge the BUAV's findings that (for example): tests were carried out on extremely young animals, including puppies as young as four weeks and kittens eight weeks; rabbits, calves and kittens were allowed to suffer the full extent of serious and deadly diseases; there was no overnight cover (we believe that deaths and additional suffering could have been avoided had there been); and puppies and their mothers were routinely killed when no longer of any use to the company, with no re-homing policy.

The really disturbing thing, once again, is that the Home Office should say that all this is perfectly legal.

The BUAV has built up a worldwide reputation for painstakingly thorough, professionally-conducted, accurate undercover investigations, unsurpassed in this or any other area of campaigning. Perhaps that is why Mr Leech and his friends attack with such venom. But they cannot change the facts. Of course footage is edited. Footage of undercover investigations always is - no one is going to watch months of film. The important point is that the footage we publish fairly reflects the reality.

And note Mr Leech's extravagant claims of benefit from animal research. He says: 'Research at the Max Planck Institute has improved the lives of millions of people through advances in the ability to diagnose patients with brain injuries stroke and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's, a disease that is estimated to affect 6.3 million people worldwide and 1.2 million people in Europe'. It is easy to make an unsubstantiated claim like that but it is hotly contested. The BUAV believes that continued ethical research involving human patients and volunteers is much more likely to lead to improvements in neuroscience imaging. The extensive use of monkeys in brain research has been singularly unsuccessful in advancing the search for cures for Parkinson's disease, stroke and Alzheimer's disease.

The BUAV will continue to conduct undercover investigations while they are necessary. Animal researchers talk the talk about being more open about their work but the reality is very different. Our long experience is that research establishments and Home Office officials will find any reason to resist freedom of information requests (Newcastle University spent an astonishing £250,000 doing so). A number of universities, including QMUL and Bristol, now claim that they do not even know how many animal experiments they carry out each year or for what purpose - such that they do not have to give the BUAV the information. How, one wonders, can they work out what staff to employ and equipment to purchase?

We welcome an open, informed debate about what is done to animals in laboratories up and down the country and for what purpose, and whether the research is scientifically reliable. Sadly, the same cannot be said of many in the animal research industry.

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