Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde MRCVS

In reply to a Freedom of Information request, the Royal Veterinary College, which calls itself “the largest and longest-established vet school in the English-speaking world”, has recently made public its part in vivisection. During 2014, for instance, it conducted “procedures” on 9,589 animals. All the cats (57) and nearly all the dogs (80 out of 82) involved in these procedures were companion animals, and the research was (as far as I can understand) a quite proper extension of the treatment being provided for them by RVC vets – “clinical” research, in short. These companion animals were returned home afterwards. That leaves about 9,450 animals, including pigs, rabbits, sheep, and domestic fowl. These ones were used and killed afterwards in the normal prodigal way of experimental laboratories. Much of this research was “basic” research into physiology and pathology, aimed not at devising or testing therapies, but at producing the sort of general knowledge which, so the RVC claims, “underpins both veterinary and human medicine”. A large part of the “applied” research was specifically directed towards human medicine.

The RVC states, in its defence, that it “shares society’s desire to minimise the use of animal experimentation and increase the use of scientifically validated alternative methods that reduce, refine or replace the use of animal models.” So this organisation – dedicated, one would suppose, to the health and welfare of animals – thinks it reasonable to have to reassure us that it’s not less concerned about their suffering than the rest of the community is. And unfortunately we do indeed need such reassurance. For this is an organisation signed up to the vivisectors’ new PR collective, the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. And it isn’t just doing its own research on animals, but has a Contract Research Unit which is keen to provide “a range of services for both animal and human health-related companies, ranging from small biotechnology to large pharmaceutical as well as pet nutrition companies.” Vivisection for hire, in fact.

Nothing so new about that, of course. Some of the most notorious names in contract research of this kind – Huntingdon Life Sciences, for instance, and Wickham Laboratories – were set up by vets. And even veterinary training, the RVC’s core business, has its own tradition of betrayal. In fact it was the shocking revelation of what was being done to horses at the Alfort veterinary school near Paris which inspired the earliest anti-vivisection campaigns in the 1860s. This same Alfort establishment, incidentally, prides itself these days on possessing a campus “dotted with several monuments and statues that remind visitors of figures who have worked for the betterment of humanity”. And that of course reflects the thinking about animals at such places. The grand project is to do humanity good, each animal species being dedicated (by nature, God, evolution, custom? We aren’t told) to serve that project in its special way, with help or, if necessary, coercion from the vets. Indeed, the very concept of species seems to have been re-modelled to suit this convenient taxonomy of involuntary service, for we’re told that the RVC’s contract service will provide biomedical data, or whatever other information is wanted, on “cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, poultry, companion animals and laboratory species”. A dog, it’s clear from RVC practice and policy statement, may fall into either of the latter two categories: ‘species’, then, is not a scientific term here, but a commercial term (‘Who paid for this dog?’).

Meanwhile there is at least one vet retained by every laboratory whose job it is to supervise the welfare of the animals: that is, the “Named Vet” required by the 1986 Act. One might think of him or her in police procedural terms, as the ‘nice’ vet. There certainly was such a nice vet in Oxford University’s laboratories, until recently. An interview which she gave to Nature in 2006 was headed ‘Caught in the Middle’. The ‘middle’ she meant was that between two opposing parties, the researchers and the anti-vivisectionists. However, it’s clear that she was more problematically caught between two opposing obligations, the one as an employee co-operating in the work of a research laboratory, and the other as someone who promises at graduation to put the interests of the animals “ABOVE” (the capitals are there in the graduating declaration) those of clients and employers. That Sarah Wolfensohn really did take this latter obligation seriously no doubt had its part in her abrupt departure and replacement by a Biomedical Services department, headed by an in-comer from – of all ominous places – Huntingdon Life Sciences. Sarah Wolfensohn is now Professor of Animal Welfare at the University of Surrey.

It’s quite possible, incidentally, for a Named Vet to be also an experimental scientist, and so to be supervising, as a vet registered under the Veterinary Surgeon’s Act, his or her own work as a scientist licensed under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act. I don’t know quite who or what’s in the middle of that crazed situation, but it can be taken as an image of the veterinary profession in general, ambivalently serving and exploiting its patients.

One of James Herriot’s books of stories about veterinary practice was titled If Only They Could Talk. But the wish should really be ‘if only they could pay’, because the vet’s essential dilemma is always that the commissioning and paying is done by someone other than the patient, someone who therefore decides what constitutes being well enough in the particular case. Thus a recent issue of the British Veterinary Association’s journal, Veterinary Record (February 2016, vol.178 (6), p.141), has a report on an apparently new pathology observed in broiler chickens, a condition named – with wretchedly evocative force – ‘wooden breast’. In case you wondered why it mattered, the second sentence establishes the context: “This condition is reported to cause significant economic losses because it causes rejection from human consumption.” The cover of the journal illustrates the point with a photograph of a crowded broiler shed. This scene, we suppose, is what the vet must help to make profitable. So ‘being well enough’, in the broiler case, means being alive and eatable six or seven weeks after birth.

It’s a puzzle to know what the Record’s readers, most of whom are likely to be in small-animal practice looking after the health of animals hardly less comfortably placed in life than themselves, think about such a chaos of values. Perhaps they have simply become inured to it, but of course there are vets who do actively object, and who even take a lead in animal advocacy (VERO’s André Menache is one such). The good news now is that the profession as a whole means to follow their example. That cover photograph on the Veterinary Record may not after all be intended as an uncritical illustration of the status quo, but rather as a challenge or query, for the editorial in that same issue announces that the profession’s guiding associations, the BVA and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (not to be confused with the RVC), are determined that the role of the vet in animal welfare shall change for the better. There’s a welcome and portentous revision going on, which I hope to say more about next time.


Notes and references:

The Royal Veterinary College’s FOI responses can be seen at http://www.animalaid.org.uk/rvc/ .

Sarah Wolfensohn’s interview appeared in Nature, vol.444, 14 December 2006, p.811. Other references and quotations are from the relevant web-sites.

The cartoon is by Mark Stafford, with thanks to Animal Aid.



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