If you met me, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I might be an animal-rights activist. With my anti-capitalist views, vegetarianism and armpit hair, it might be easy to imagine me pouring blood over a real-fur enthusiast or hijacking a science laboratory. While many of my opinions ARE firmly far-left, animal experimentation in medical research is a topic I feel uncomfortable protesting about.
I have just graduated with a biomedical science degree from Cardiff University and can’t help feeling a little defensive about the institution where I spent a happy four years. Over the last few days, the school from which I graduated has faced much controversy from the mainstream media. Even famous comedians, such as Ricky Gervais, have come forward to register their disgust about a research project that occurred in 2010. Cardiff has been condemned by the majority who have come across the story for conducting experiments deemed “cruel and unnecessary” in which newborn kittens’ were raised in total darkness and their eyes sewn up in order to further scientists’ understanding of the mechanisms behind lazy eye.
Gervais told The Mirror, “I am appalled that kittens are being deprived of sight by having their eyelids sewn shut. I thought sickening experiments like these were a thing of the past.”
Much as I do love cats, it seems a lot of the newspapers have been focussing on the emotive and forgetting to mention what actually occurred in the experiments, or why they were necessary.
The Cardiff scientists were investigating the mechanisms behind amblyopia (lazy eye). Lazy eye affects 2-4% of children and occurs where one eye has deteriorated in its ability to process detail. Lazy eye is relatively easy to treat in kids up until about the age of 8 using eye patches. After this age however, the brain increasingly prefers images from one eye and the condition becomes incurable. Once this has occurred, the condition leads to extremely poor vision and frequently, blindness in the affected eye. Severe amblyopia also comes with a significant risk factor for blindness occurring in the good eye.
The results from the research, carried out to elucidate how the brain functions in relation to vision in both eyes, were published in the European Journal of Neuroscience. The experiments featured 31 cats to differing degrees of “sensory experience and deprivation.” One group of kittens were raised (from the moment they were born) in total darkness for up to 12 weeks. A separate group were raised normally but had surgery under anaesthetic to suture an eyelid (monocular deprivation). Optical imagery was captured and this involved opening the skull and placing a camera in the cats’ brains.
Ok, so that doesn’t sound massively pleasant. However, Cardiff’s defence press statement in response to the accusations commented on why it was essential that cats were used for the study instead of other animals.
Cardiff University stated, “Cats had to be used for this study because – apart from primates – they are the only mammals with frontally positioned eyes and therefore the only animals to develop severe amblyopia similar to humans under similar circumstances.”
I’m pretty sure primate research is illegal in this country, and therefore cats were the only available option.
Cardiff also responded to claims that the procedure used was unnecessary given recent advancements in laboratory technology.
“Claims that this research can be replaced with CT scans or computer models are simply not true. The University will always use alternative technology where it exists and only uses animals when absolutely necessary.”
While I’ve never been involved in animal testing directly (and wouldn’t want to be), I have worked briefly for a pharmaceutical company. While I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience of working for “evil” big pharma, the animals I saw were not treated inhumanely. I do know how hard it is for experiments to be approved by the Home Office unless they comply with strict regulations on animal welfare. While animal testing is certainly not a pleasant subject area, the animals are given the best life possible in the situation. The people I met who worked in the animal units were highly-skilled and generally massive animal lovers themselves, treating their subjects with kindness and respect. I am therefore surprised that this experiment has been deemed unacceptable and cruel, if it managed to meet the Home Office’s standards.
Additionally, if the experiments were truly unacceptable, surely the blame lies with the Home Office and not the university? It seems to me that the only reason this project has been picked up on is because kittens were the animals used. I imagine a lot of people would be surprised about the sort of animals that many medical products they use have been tested on: fluffy dogs, fluffy rabbits, fluffy guinea pigs… When the emphasis is on fluffy and cute, rather than the typical lab rat, it tends to change people’s opinions rather sharply.
Unfortunately, it’s usually company policy to put down the animals after the tests have been completed – something that I still have a real problem with. Why can’t the animals be rehoused afterwards?
It is funny how hypocritical we are as a nation when it comes to testing on animals. I think at least that the majority of us would now disagree with cosmetic testing. A point Lush should perhaps have considered before their shop-window female abuse publicity stunt (absent of trigger-warning). See: http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2012/04/not_so_lush . However, it is a completely different story when it comes to medical testing. People who are appalled at these sorts of experiments tend to forget that while these animals no doubt undergo pain and suffering, they likely lead better lives and far more humane deaths than the billions of livestock that are slaughtered to provide us with food. How eating meat can be deemed more necessary than medicine in a world where a plant-based diet can be more than satisfactory is surely a bit ridiculous.
Without the use of lab animals, modern medicine would be unthinkable. While humans and animals are obviously very different, and human subjects will always be required for phase 1 clinical trials, animals research is still a very necessary part of the medical research process. However, the Home Office will only approve the experiments if it animal use is absolutely necessary. Until a reasonable, reliable replacement is found or a major law change occurs to allow humans to be guinea pigs against their will at all stages of drug development, the necessary evil of animal testing (even on the cute ones) will remain. If you find yourself morally outraged, consider giving up meat.