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28 February 2008

An issue that polarises

Humans must carefully consider how we interact with any animal, in the wild, on farms, in laboratori

By Barney Reed

The use of animals in research and testing is a controversial issue that arouses strong feelings in many people. The moral acceptability of using animals in experiments – whether in medical or veterinary research, to test the safety of chemicals such as pesticides, or simply to acquire scientific knowledge – is therefore heavily debated.

It is widely acknowledged, including within the law that regulates animal experiments in the UK, that animals are sentient and can have negative experiences, including those of fear and pain. This makes their potential for suffering and their use in experiments a matter of serious concern for the RSPCA. It is also unsurprising that, whilst appalled by the unacceptable activities of extremists, large sectors of the public consistently express their unease regarding this use of animals.

Many people have strong and legitimate concerns about the necessity and justification for animal use and the amount of suffering that animals can experience. They also want reassurance that adequate efforts are made to replace or avoid animal use, or else to improve the lives of animals for as long as they are still used. As most research is done directly or indirectly with public money and in the public’s name, these concerns cannot and should not be dismissed.

In the past, the media has largely featured the views of those at each end of the wide spectrum of opinion. This is unfortunate and has helped polarise the issue, leading people to believe they must side either with ‘those in lab coats or those in balaclavas’.

In reality, the use of animals in experiments is not a “single issue” and there are many genuine ethical dilemmas. The experiences of animals can differ greatly from one project to the next, from relatively mild discomfort to substantial pain, suffering or distress. The purpose, potential value and applicability of the research also vary widely, as do people’s views about the ethical acceptability of using animals in each case. For all these reasons, it is just not possible to make sweeping statements about the amount of suffering caused by experiments, or about the benefits of animal use.

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The RSPCA understands this and adopts a constructive, practical approach to the issue, encouraging open dialogue between individuals and organisations across the spectrum of views. The usual outcome is overwhelming support for the principle that animal use should be replaced or avoided wherever possible, that animal suffering and numbers should be reduced, and welfare improved.

The highly respected Nuffield Council on Bioethics reached such a conclusion when its working party on animal research, representing a broad range of perspectives, agreed that “a world in which the important benefits of research could be achieved without causing pain, suffering, distress, lasting harm or death to animals involved must be the ultimate goal”.

Of course, there are ethical and animal welfare concerns relating to other areas of animal use, such as intensive farming. However, the RSPCA believes that all animals matter, and concern for animal welfare should transcend the situation into which an animal is born. Whilst numbers alone cannot reflect the level and nature of animal suffering, it is worth noting that the use of laboratory animals has been steadily increasing over recent years in a number of countries, including the UK.

Ultimately, humans have a responsibility to carefully consider how we interact with any animal, whether they are wild, on farms, in laboratories or in our homes, in order to reduce the impact of our activities. If we wish to live in a progressive and humane society, it is essential that government, industry and the scientific community are fully committed towards ending the suffering of laboratory animals and replacing the use of animals in experiments.

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