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The use of animals for scientific experiments is still commonplace in Australia, but just how effective or necessary is it? By Elfy Scott.

Animals sacrificed in the name of science

Hazel slips on a pair of thick black ski gloves before we approach the cage. It’s not so much a health precaution, I’m told, as it is for the comfort of the eight-month-old mouse inside. 

Charlie looks and behaves much like any other albino mouse. If not for the small piece of ear skin that was apparently lost while being transported from his previous home with 42 other male mice, there is no other evidence to indicate where Charlie originally came from and the rather remarkable transition this small creature has undergone.

Until February this year, Charlie was a laboratory mouse used for the purpose of scientific research. But unlike the approximately six million research animals used in Australia every year, he was rehomed by a small Sydney-based volunteer group known as the Research Animal Rehoming Service (RARS). 

Hazel, a high-school teacher and animal rights activist, ardently believes that the use of animals in scientific research is both outdated and cruel. “I can see why people think it’s necessary, but I personally don’t agree with it…” she says. “I don’t think it’s justified to harm another being for our benefit, and the overriding thing with me is that it just doesn’t work.”

Hazel shares these beliefs with Emma Hurst, the founder and curator of RARS, who formed the organisation with the intention of giving healthy animals from research facilities a chance at life as a companion animal. 

Of course, rehoming animals that were raised for the express purpose of scientific research is not without its complications. Charlie abhors the touch of human skin due to lack of socialisation so, for now, the ski gloves are a prerequisite for handling him. 

Since establishing the groundwork for RARS last year, Hurst has managed to rehome a small number of guinea pigs and mice from two research facilities in New South Wales. But there are strict legal obligations that accompany this kind of work: Emma is not allowed to disclose the names of the research facilities, where they are located, or what sort of testing procedures these animals have undergone. 

Generally, people accept the ethical trade-off involved in trading animals’ lives to further human scientific knowledge. Our compassion for other people commonly outweighs our concern for “lesser” species, so when we perceive that science is sacrificing animals in order to markedly protect or improve human lives we are generally satisfied that this is ethical behaviour. 

However, this ethical satisfaction is necessarily contingent on concepts that can otherwise be defined as the three R’s of animal research. In 1959, British academics Russell and Burch published The Principles of Humane Experimental Techniques, in which they defined these three R’s: the replacement of animals with non-animal methods where possible, the reduction of numbers used with smarter techniques, and the refinement of practice to minimise suffering. These principles dictate the use of animals in scientific research internationally.

They are ultimately emphasised within the policies and guidelines created by the Australian Animal Research Review Panel, as well as within state legislation. However, opponents of animal research are quick to argue that not enough is being done to ensure that these principles are being instituted. 

Millions used

The sheer number of animals used in research in Australia every year is astounding in itself. In 2012, more than 3.5 million animals were used across NSW, Victoria and Tasmania, according to Humane Research Australia. The national estimate was put at 6.5 million. Animal research traverses the scientific disciplines and, while testing for the cosmetics industry does not take place on Australian soil, animals are used across multiple scientific disciplines, with the larger portion of animals used in biomedical research. Among those numbers are mice, rats, rabbits, cats, dogs, cattle and primates. And while most of these animals are sourced from commercial breeders for the specific purpose of scientific research, it is still legal to source cats and dogs from pounds for research and to import primates. 

Greens senator Lee Rhiannon introduced a bill into the senate in 2012 to ban the live importation of primates for experimentation, but during the last election it dropped off the list of bills awaiting debate. The Greens are now working closely with Humane Research Australia to reintroduce it amid rumours live marmosets were imported from France last year. 

While all animal research conducted in Australia must be approved by an ethics committee, it is argued that the voices of people with interests in the animal welfare sector are seldom heard by those on boards. I spoke with an animal rights activist who works between the ethics committees for a biomedical research facility on Sydney’s north shore and for one of Sydney’s universities. As an individual embroiled in animal rights, he claims that the other members of the committee largely eschew him. “There is part of me that wonders if I’m just helping prop up a broken, ailing system.” He reports that a steamrolling of his concerns very often leads to a committee stamp of approval on egregious and unwarranted exercises, such as trauma training for doctors, of which he does not necessarily approve on moral grounds. 

Animal welfare groups are concerned that the “publish or perish” mentality of universities often drives PhD students to engage in research concerned with such extraordinarily niche topics that they fail to contribute meaningfully to the broader field of science and yet waste hundreds of animal lives in the process. 

Dr Andrew Knight has become one of the fiercest opponents to animal research internationally, citing both practical and ethical pitfalls. Along with one of his classmates, Knight became the first student in Western Australia to qualify as a veterinary surgeon without killing animals by establishing an alternative surgical training program that included the sterilisation of pound dogs. The program was subsequently adopted by Sydney University. 

In 2011, Knight published The Costs and Benefits of Animal Experiments, in which he reviewed more than 500 pieces of biomedical research in scientific publications and asserted that the physiological disparities between humans and other animals render a vast proportion of the research ineffectual for use in human medicine. Knight stresses instead that researchers using animal testing methods “are greatly over-inflating claims about the possible benefits of their research in order to compete for funding” and that, when this research is closely inspected, “it’s clear that the vast majority of basic animal research never produces any tangible benefits”.

Knight advocates for the funding and development of alternative methods and claims that while the Australian government “pays lip-service to the idea”, not enough is being done to encourage the replacement of animal research with non-animal methods. Knight says the numbers of research animals used could be greatly reduced by encouraging private chemical companies to make existing data about chemical compounds available in the public domain, broader use of computer modelling systems, cell cultures, cDNA microarrays for genetic testing, and increased safety in human clinical trials using micro-dosing. 

While the contribution of animal research to the development of remarkable scientific advances such as penicillin, vaccinations, anaesthetics, organ transplants and insulin cannot be denied, Knight believes it is no longer the way forward. In order to facilitate change, he says “we need to speak in the language of scientists” and that clinical scrutiny and examination of the empirical data will lead researchers to stop relying on animal models.

There is tendency for animal rights and welfare groups to demonise bodies of researchers that participate in animal research – although the effectiveness of this is questionable. After all, scientists who dedicate themselves to the progression of human medicine can hardly be accused of being devoid of compassion. In order to incite a cultural change in the scientific community, gaps must naturally be bridged between those dedicated to welfare and those dedicated to research. 

Enter Medical Advances Without Animals. MAWA is based in Canberra and believes that an open dialogue with researchers to develop and institute more widespread use of alternative methods is better both for animal welfare as well as scientific advancement. MAWA is not a lobbying group and does not campaign. It was established to encourage change from within the system, providing funding in the form of scholarships, research and development grants for researchers who refrain from using animals or animal-derived products, as well as paying for open sourcing of publications. The organisation is constantly in communication with scientists and has established relationships with multiple Australian universities for this purpose. 

Research alternatives remain expensive, largely inaccessible and very much on the periphery of scientific culture, however. For the moment, Emma Hurst and the Research Animal Rehoming Service will persevere and save lives wherever possible, by forming relationships with more research institutions to rehouse research animals. RARS is hoping these agreements expand into the rehoming of larger animals, such as dogs and cats. It’s not much, but both Hazel and Emma are confident that simply alerting researchers to the possibility of rehoming the animals is itself beneficial, as it forces scientists to increasingly consider the value of each life used. It is possible that animals such as Charlie – simply by living – will make scientists more inclined to seek out ethical alternatives.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2015 as "Animal sacrifice". Subscribe here.

Elfy Scott
is a Sydney-based freelance writer and journalist.