Why the Government is Wrong to Expose Stray Pets to Lab Testing

10/06/2012 21:54 BST | Updated 10/08/2012 10:12 BST


It is not clear what Chris Magee's point is about my piece about stray or feral domestic animals.

These are the undisputed facts. At present, the Home Office says it does not allow the use of strays. When the new European law comes into effect in the UK in January next year, the Home Office will allow the use of strays. It could maintain its present ban but has decided not to.

The Home Office will allow the use of strays where it deems there is 'an essential need for studies concerning the health and welfare of the animals or serious threats to the environment or to human or animal health' - very broad words - and the scientific view is that strays have to be used. The last requirement is an important limitation, certainly, but the Home Office clearly contemplates that there could be circumstances in which it would grant a licence - otherwise, why not maintain the current ban? A stray could well be someone's lost pet.

The Home Office may say that the power would only be used exceptionally. The problem is that it regulates animal experiments in conditions of great secrecy, and hates the spotlight shining on what it does. The public would probably never know that it had granted licences for strays, or where they came from. Mr Magee, I notice, is silent on our call for greater transparency. He wants the public to write to MPs about animal research - but how can they when they are denied information about what goes on?

Mr Magee also says that anti-vivisection organisations such as the BUAV focus on the interests of individual animals, rather than of people and animals generally. In one sense he is right - although his discussion of "individual animals" rather masks the reality that nearly 4 million are used in experiments in the UK alone every year, and well over 100 million worldwide. We believe that it is wrong to cause pain to animals in laboratories for the benefit not of themselves but of others (whether humans or other animals).

Mr Magee argues for an utilitarian approach. It is justified, he says, to cause suffering to particular animals because a greater amount of suffering - to others - will thereby be avoided. (This assumes that animal experiments represent reliable science - as to which there are more and more serious questions - but let us put that to one side). He talks about net overall benefits. Sad for the individual animals who must suffer, but they are doing their bit to make the world a better place.

Utilitarianism is often a perfectly respectable guide to ethical behaviour. But is Mr Magee really an utilitarian when it comes to medical research? I doubt it. If he is, he would, if he was being consistent, also support experimenting on individual people, without their consent and when it was not for their own benefit but for the benefit of others (a philosophy for which there are very nasty precedents). Human beings would unquestionably be a much better model for human diseases than animals. Mr Magee thinks it is ok to experiment on individual animals, without their consent, to develop veterinary drugs, for the benefit of other animals (the utilitarian approach). Would he, therefore, support experimenting on individual people, without their consent, to develop human medicines, for the benefit of other people (also the utilitarian approach)? If not, why not?

Those opposed to animal experiments argue strongly against both animal and human experiments. We are consistent in our ethics. Those in support of animal experiments, by contrast, are inconsistent. I wonder if the inconsistency has even occurred to Mr Magee. Can he really not see the difference between a visit to the dentist and what is done to animals in laboratories? Dental treatment, however unpleasant, is for the patient's benefit, and he or she consents to it. Animals in laboratories neither consent nor benefit. In the case of former pets in particular, their use in experiments would be a betrayal of the trust that they had learned to place in humans.

The truth is that human beings experiment on non-human animals not because it is justifiable under accepted ethical norms but because we can and we want to, for our perceived benefit. Might is right is not an attractive ethical guide for the 21st century. The Government, supported by organisations like Understanding Animal Research, now wants society to regress even further into the Dark Ages by being allowed to experiment on stray cats and dogs.

Humankind can do a lot better than this, surely.