Did you know that fish feel pain? That they are social beings? That rabbits can feel joy, but also stress? That male mice sing to their mates? Today, it is no longer necessary to prove that non-human animals are also capable of feeling pain, whether physical or emotional. However, it is not uncommon for their distress to be ignored. This is also true when they are used in laboratories: their suffering is very often, if not all the time, trivialized.
Each year, more than 100 million animals are killed across the world in laboratories for biology lessons, medical training, curiosity-driven experimentation, and chemical, drug, food, and cosmetics testing. Rabbits, cats, hamsters, dogs, birds, primates, fish, all are deprived of their freedom for sometimes painful experiments, which can have long term effects, such as anxiety, distress, weight loss, sleep loss, watery eyes, and of course death.
Even worse, this suffering generated is sometimes unnecessary. A study published by Marcel Leist and his colleagues in Alternatives to Animal Experimentation: ALTEX reminds us that 9 out of 10 drugs fail in clinical trials because it is not possible to predict how they will behave in humans based on animal studies: penicillin kills guinea pigs but is inactive in rabbits. Morphine, which is a tranquilizer for humans, stimulates goats, cats and horses. And aspirin kills cats and causes deformities in other animals. Many scientists have already expressed concern about the inadequacy of data collected in animal experiments to predict human toxicity. Yet, animal data is still a reference; this contributes to an underestimation of the success of alternative methods.
Image : What and how much animals are used for animal testing around the world. Source : https://science.rspca.org.uk/sciencegroup/researchanimals?utm_source=PR&utm_medium=Referral&utm_campaign=AdviceAnimalsInScience&utm_content=AnimalsInScience
However, methods that do not exploit non-human animals do exist! In 1959, two scientists, Russel and Burch from the University College London, published an article which became the scientific reference in terms of alternatives to animal experimentation: The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique. In this article, they emphasized the three R's rule, still used today: Reduction, Refinement, Replacement.
The first step, Reduction, is to use fewer animals in experiments. There are many possibilities, and a study published by Michael F.W. Festing and his colleagues in Alternatives to Laboratory Animals already suggest doing quality research. Having a clear and precise objective, using statistics to interpret results rather than using a very large number of animals, and using animals of various sizes and weights rather than letting those that are out of range die in the experiment are all possible solutions. But it is also possible to reduce the number of animals prior to experimentation, by limiting their production for research, and by promoting cryopreservation if there is a need to preserve a line. Of course, appropriate training for researchers would allow them to be aware of all possible alternatives.
If it is not possible to reduce the number of animals used without distorting the scientific data, or if the number is already reduced to the maximum, then it is a matter of refining the experimentation, i.e., reducing or eliminating the animal's discomfort and anguish, by improving the conditions of transport, breeding and housing, by using non-invasive methods, and by giving them adequate care before and after the experiment.
Finally, of course, the most ethical solution is to completely replace animal testing. Dr. Chantra Eskes gives a recent definition of this replacement method, which is in fact to accelerate the development and use of models and tools to address scientific questions without using animals. But methods already exist: experiments can be done on cultured cells, or on human volunteers, or animals can be replaced by surrogate models. It is also always possible to improve cooperation between industrial sectors, which would make it possible to share data from experiments rather than repeat them and thus use more animals. The scientific method itself could be reviewed, in order to integrate new disciplines into the experiments. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) also lists alternative methods, such as studies on human patient simulators, or methods based on human tissue.
Thus, there are many ways to limit suffering, but merely limiting it is not necessarily ethical, especially since animals have been shown to be sentient beings in the same way as us.
Today, all experts agree that there is still a lot of work to be done, although there is an evolution. Quite an evolution, considering that in 1959, an experiment performed on an anesthetized animal was considered an alternative method! However, the animals are not at the end of their troubles, and some breaches of these rules are sometimes observed: painful experiments without anaesthesia, or anaesthesia that makes the animals blind or makes them lose their eyes... This is why many associations continue to raise public awareness of the suffering, with the help of evidence, or videos like this short film made by Humane Society International, released on April 16. And then, as Leist et al say in their articles, "the goal is worth the effort"!
Leist, Marcel, et al. "Consensus report on the future of animal-free systemic toxicity testing." Alternatives to Animal Experimentation: ALTEX 31.3 (2014): 341-356.
Festing, Michael FW, et al. "Reducing the use of laboratory animals in biomedical research: problems and possible solutions: the report and recommendations of ECVAM workshop 29." Alternatives to Laboratory Animals 26.3 (1998): 283-301.
Eskes, Chantra. "The usefulness of integrated strategy approaches in replacing animal experimentation." Annali dell'Istituto superiore di sanita 55.4 (2019): 400-404.
Russell, William Moy Stratton, and Rex Leonard Burch. “The principles of humane experimental technique”. Methuen, 1959.