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Government guilty of downplaying animal suffering

THE GOVERNMENT was found guilty last month of turning a blind eye to substantial suffering of animals in Home Office licensed experiments and consequently misleading the public over the extent of animal suffering in UK laboratories.

High Court Judge Mitting ruled that the Home Secretary acted unlawfully in licensing invasive brain experiments on Marmosets at Cambridge University as ‘moderate’ rather than ‘substantial’ suffering.

Judge Mitting’s ruling that the Government unlawfully licenses experiments follows a Judicial Review hearing at the High Court in London at the end of July. It was brought by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection based on extensive video and documentary evidence it collected during a ten-month undercover investigation of a Cambridge University neuroscience primate lab during 2000/2001.

On three other issues relating to the standard of post-operative care the animals received and two other technical points the judge found in favour of the government. The government has been granted leave to appeal against the first judgment, but the BUAV was refused leave to appeal against the other three.

Some of the experiments involved removing the tops of the animals’ heads to induce strokes. The BUAV argues that the wrong legal test was applied to these experiments and they should have been given the ‘substantial’ rather than ‘moderate’ suffering label.

The government said the severity ratings are a relative scale and this category is kept for more invasive procedures. Procedures which ‘may lead to a major departure from the animals’ usual state of health and well-being’ must be categorised as ‘substantial’, according to the guidelines.
Despite his ruling, the judge said it was clear that Cambridge operated a ‘well-managed facility’ that showed an exemplary standard of care for experimental animals, which are being used to research new treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and stroke.

At present, animal research licences are granted according to the level of suffering that is anticipated before any work begins, and not on the basis of what actually happens during experiments. Scientists are currently working on ways of reporting animal work retrospectively.
The Judgment should mean a greater number of licenses will not be granted, as correctly categorised ‘substantial’ procedures will not pass the key cost (to the animal): benefit (to research) test. It is also likely to mean that the percentage of licences categorised as ‘substantial’ will be perhaps considerably higher, and therefore offer the public a more accurate picture of the extent of animal suffering that goes on in UK Government licensed experiments.
The Government’s lawyers attempted to argue that the death of an animal is not an ‘adverse effect’ when considering the cost to an animal before it licenses an experiment.

‘We have proven that the Government misleads the public and Parliament about the severity of animal experiments licensed in the UK,’ said BUAV chief executive Michelle Thew.

‘It is actually a really significant point that goes to the heart of animal experiments into the UK.’
She said that because the severity rating feeds into a cost/benefit ratio about whether the experiment is worth conducting, the ruling could have ramifications for research. ‘It could mean a greater number of licences will actually not be granted,’ she added.

‘The government can no longer pretend it has the strictest regulation of animal experiments in the world. This case demonstrates it has ridden roughshod over the public’s trust in this matter.
‘Now we hope taxpayers - the vast majority of who are opposed to animal suffering in laboratories - will be given more accurate information about the animal experiments they fund.’
The BUAV was awarded a rare costs protection order by Mr Justice Bean last year to enable it to bring this case in the public interest after the Home Office projected its defence costs would amount to up to £150,000.

The Home Office is in the process of reviewing the procedures for categorising animal suffering in experiments.

A spokesman for the Home Office said: ‘The Home Office is obviously disappointed not to have successfully defended all of the grounds of claim and has been granted leave to appeal against the decisions in the instances where the judge had found in favour of the BUAV.

‘The Home Office believes it has been rigorous in applying the strict criteria of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 with a view to making proper provision for the protection of animals used for experimental and other scientific purposes.

Other agencies welcomed the ruling, which is being seen as a moral victory for the anti-vivisection movement. Vicky Robinson, chief executive of the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction Animals in Research, said: ‘This case has raised important issues about the regulation of research using animals in the UK. It is often said that this country has the tightest regulations in the world, but today’s verdict suggests there is still scope for review.

‘In particular, it is essential that the definitions used to classify the suffering of animals are reconsidered and there already initiatives underway which should address this. But beyond regulation, all researchers have a personal responsibility to ensure that the actual harms caused to the animals are outweighed by the benefits of the research and that any suffering is kept to the absolute minimum.’

Professor Dominic Wells of Imperial College, London, who is leading a pilot project on retrospective reporting of suffering, said: ‘Currently animal experiments are reported at the start of a procedure which does not actually report what the animal experiences.

‘We have been working on a scheme for retrospectively reporting what actually happens to experimental animals. Interestingly our initial analysis shows that most experimental animals only experience very mild or no pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm.

‘A change in the system for reporting animal experiments, from the current system which records how many animals were subject to what sort of procedure to a system of retrospective reporting of what the animal experiences in the experiment, would better inform the public about animal experiments and could help to refine or educe such experiments.

‘Earlier this year we reported our progress in developing a system for retrospectively reporting animal experiments. This system would more accurately record what experimental animals actually experience.’

* 76% of the British public think the Government should, as a matter of principle, prohibit experiments on any live animals which cause pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm in a TNS national opinion poll commissioned by the BUAV in 2003.

The number of experiments categorised as ‘substantial’ suffering has remained static at two percent in the Government’s annual statistics since classification data was made available in 1998. The High Court ruling should mean that figure reflects the true nature of the severity of suffering routinely caused to animals in UK labs.