A few animal rights-related events have been making the rounds on the social media circuit recently. Firstly, Pamela Anderson notoriously refused the “Ice Bucket Challenge” on the grounds that the ALS association had funded research carried out on animals. Regardless, the ALS foundation had already received more than $41 million in donations to put towards developing treatments for the debilitating Motor Neurone Disease (MND). I guess they didn’t really need Pamela’s $5 donation, but nevertheless she did succeed in causing quite a bit of a stir.
Around the same time Sam Simon, co-creator of The Simpsons, was out buying himself a chinchilla breeding facility in California. For a mere $50,000 Simon saved more than 400 of the furry critters, which were being kept in sub-standard conditions, likely to end up worn as part of a furry hood in this years autumn/winter collection.
Both social-media trending events by these American stars were initiated by the charity People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who have a long history of using celebrity role models to support their numerous animal rights campaigns. Some medical professionals have supported Pamela’s outburst, saying that the animal models used to study MND aren’t properly adapted to the specifically human disease. Whilst this may, or may not, be the case I think it’s important to make a distinction between the two types of animal ethics. The mistreatment of the chinchillas in the breeding farm has now been exposed, but let’s not go mixing this up with that of laboratory animals - it’s just not quite the same kettle of fish.
For the time being, the European Union (EU) functions under the idea that the use of animals for scientific research is necessary, but alternatives should be developed and used where possible. In 2010, the European Parliament released a directive that covers the ethical use of animals in scientific research. This Europe-wide legislation outlined the need to prevent animal suffering, limit the number of animals required for scientific purposes and eventually phase out the use of animals entirely by using and developing alternative methods (an eventuality that is probably still a long way off). This is where the 3 R’s come in: “Reduction, Replacement and Refinement”, all of which are aimed at reducing animal testing, replacing animals with alternatives and constantly refining techniques to make them more efficient for the sake of the animals used.
Images courtesy of Wisława Szymborska and Charles Clegg (Flickr).
Animal Testing vs Animal Torturing
Laboratory animals in the EU are used under a strict set of guidelines and, using the suffering at the chinchilla farm as a reference, below are several examples of how these rules are implemented in science. You may agree with Pamela’s point of view that the use of animals for scientific purposes under any circumstances is wrong. However, the goal here is to demonstrate the difference between scientists consciously attempting to make the best ethical decisions when using animals and simply allowing animals to suffer the way the chinchillas did:
Media reports described that the chinchillas saved by Sam Simon were housed in cages that were too small and unkempt. The EU directive clearly states that sufficient animal housing facilities should be used and regular checks will be made to verify adherence to standard regulations. Nobody is allowed to keep animals in unacceptable conditions. The EU directive also supports the use of environmental enhancements. In the case of rodents this includes small houses, cotton balls, and a range of objects that provide them with more stimulating surroundings – something that has been shown to greatly improve the lifestyle of the animals.
The chinchillas were raised to be sold as pets. However, the owner of the farm was quoted as saying that if “it didn’t work out”, the animals were put down and sold on for their fur. The EU directive stipulates that an experimental procedure carried out on laboratory animals must be approved by a committee of experts. The role of this committee is to determine whether the procedure is ethically acceptable: this includes the treatment of the animal and why the study will be carried out. There has to be a damn good reason to do those tests on those particular animals and also no viable alternative. This also generally means that if the animals are raised for one purpose, they can’t just be used for something totally unrelated and certainly not for an unapproved protocol.
Ear-to-toe electrocution was being used to sacrifice the chinchillas, a method which has been dubbed “unacceptable” by veterinaries. Unfortunately, at one moment or another, whether a laboratory animal has been submitted to specific tests or not, the experimenters may have to terminate its life - referred to as either “sacrifice” or “euthanasia”. The two main reasons for sacrifice are to study the animal further or to prevent suffering. For each species, there are approved, humane sacrifice procedures where the animals don’t suffer or suffer very little. The directive does also present the possibility that animals be put back into the wild – although this is only under very specific circumstances. Additionally, the EU directive infers that experiments should maximise on the information that can be obtained from one individual animal to reduce the total number of animals sacrificed. In practise this could mean that, even if you’re studying mice brains, you should also be removing as many other possible body parts from the animal after sacrifice. This may appear barbaric, but the idea behind it is to maximise the organs that either you or some other scientist on the other side of the world may be able to use. Therefore saving the need to unnecessarily sacrifice even more animals in the future.
Overall, it is clear that there was a great amount of suffering on the part of the chinchillas. With little veterinary care, the owner, using wire and brandy as an anaesthetic, amputated broken limbs herself. The use of animals in science is supervised by specialised veterinaries, whose goal is to ensure the well being of the animals. But also, any scientist carrying out surgical procedures has to be licensed to do so with specific training that must be regularly updated. My personal opinion of the most important aspect mentioned in the EU directive for reducing animal suffering is this necessity for competence, training and supervision of people working with and testing on animals. Scientists working with animals do so under strict rules, and rightly so. This may seem logical, but it clearly wasn’t the case for the elderly owner of the chinchilla farm. The EU directive specifically mentions the correct training and supervision of people working with animals in science. All the better because whilst ignorance may be bliss, it certainly isn’t for the animals they are trying to protect.
The owners of the chinchilla farm weren’t submitting the animals to scientific testing, but they quite clearly weren’t looking after the animals properly – something that is tightly regulated in science. Animals used in science are protected by ethical boundaries – not to mention the fact that scientists are also living creatures with feelings (not barbaric monsters chasing mice around laboratories with pickaxes!).
As much as the people at PETA and those who share their mentality would rather put an end to use of animals in science altogether, it’s currently not the case. The EU directive may not please those particular people, however it is taking matters seriously by evaluating animal experimentation procedures on a case-by-case basis, and pushing scientists to find alternatives. Potentially, sometime in the not-so distant future, animal testing for scientific research will become obsolete. The EU rules are preparing the terrain for that possibility, whilst protecting the animals used in the meantime.