The Many and the One

The Home Office has now published statistics for the animal research done in Great Britain during 2017 (not the UK, because Northern Ireland publishes its own modest contribution to the scene separately).

Very little has changed since 2016 for these statistics to record (see the chart below), but there’s a notable innovation in the look of them. There are now three or four distinct colours, instead of the old black, white, and grey; the former tables and columns have been supplemented with graphs of zig-zagging lines in tonic blues; helpful comment and explanation appear in tinted text-boxes. In short the document has been designed to engage and even impress the reader, rather than merely to provide, with implicit apology, unwelcome information. This suggests the influence, perhaps even the direct advice, of Understanding Animal Research and its PR project, the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. And UAR’s director, Wendy Jarrett, makes a comment on the statistics which reflects this new way of seeing them: not as a regretted cost, certainly not as a “necessary evil” (when was that phrase last used?), but as an index of achievement:

Animal research continues to play a vital part in the development of modern treatments and medicines. While the numbers of procedures may vary from year to year, we should be proud of the important contribution that the UK makes to scientific and medical advancement worldwide.

Here, anyway, is VERO’s summary of the numbers and species, alongside those of 2016, with some comments to follow:

 Species  Number used in 2016  Number used in 2017
 Mice   2,866,435    2,781,685
 Fish   535,819    514,059
 Rats   249,389    241,544
 Domestic fowl   139,860    125,280
 Sheep    48,095    47,499
 Guinea Pigs    26,186    22,560
 Horses    8,948    10,600
 Rabbits    15,431    10,362
 Dogs    4,932    2,496
 Non-human primates    3,569    2,215
 Other species    38,059    31,073
 Total:    3,936,723    3,789,373

Direction of travel:

For the second year in a row, there has been a welcome fall in the total number of animals used, this time a fall of slightly less than 4%. Nothing can be deduced from this; as the Home Office puts it “any clear trend for recent years is as yet difficult to determine.” However, there is a very clear trend for the century so far: a rise of nearly 45% since 2001’s 2.62 million. Nor is the prospect good. If the UK were to leave the European Union without making terms to remain a partner in REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of Chemicals – a bad enough system already), it might have to create its own testing regime, duplicating what is done collaboratively in the rest of the EU. Or rather, it apparently would have to. A government minister truculently told a House of Lords committee  earlier this month, when asked about this possible secession from REACH, “if that required animal testing, that would require animal testing.”

The term ‘procedure’:

Viewing the Home Office’s annual pageantry of numbers, so eloquent of orderly record-keeping and nothing if not factual, the dazzled reader must keep in mind that the basic unit, the regulated ‘procedure’, is itself an unknown quantity. A helpful hint to this effect is provided in one of those text-boxes, where ‘procedures’ in the plural is defined in the singular, a confusion of number which characterizes all official documents when dealing with this point, for very good reason. More plainly indicative, a GM animal, whose bringing into life rightly constitutes a procedure, may be required to do nothing ‘regulated’ again, or may be involved in years of experimentation: either way the history will count as one procedure.

Or those horses: you’ll notice that they’re one of the few species in greater demand this last year. Mainly, it seems, they’re made to yield blood products for use in medical diagnosis and other scientific analysis. What: just the once each? Of course not: it’s really their career, and that would be the right term for what is asked of all these animals. Some animals may eventually retire, as perhaps the horses do: much more commonly, the end of their part in the project coincides with the end of their life. (This is something which the statistics ought to record, but in fact they say nothing about death.) Either way, the term ‘procedure’, with its suggestion of a single experience, is a misleading fiction, and therefore so are all these numbers.

Classifying the pain:

Actually the statistics do say something about death. Being found dead in your cage after a ‘procedure’ is one of the indicators for a ‘severe’ classification, we’re told. Others include needing help to eat and drink (to survive, in short). It may be that the statistics for each of the four main levels of suffering – sub-threshold, mild, moderate, severe – really are informative. They seem to change very little from year to year (the Home Office notices this), but I don’t know what that implies.

About 5% of procedures (not including GM breeding) are said to have imposed ‘severe’ suffering on the animals involved (95,025 of them) during 2017. So-called ‘regulatory testing’ (tests required by law in the EU or the UK, or beyond) takes a disproportionately high part in this category. Of its 505,000 or so procedures, 10% or more were considered severe. That’s no surprise, since this class of work includes toxicity-testing (195,000 procedures), and the Home Office statistics show that for this purpose the LD50 and LC50 tests – identifying the Lethal Dose or Lethal Concentration that kills half the animals – are still in use.

Numbers and individuals:

How much does anyone really learn from these numbers? No doubt they provide a rough knowledge of the scale of animal research, and which species and which purposes are tending upward and which down. But it is rough knowledge. Not just the basic term ‘procedure’ is opaque: the classifications of research are uninformative. Thus, one cat, of the 198 cats dealt with in 2017 (190 in 2016), suffered pain in the category ‘severe’. The purpose of the research in question was ‘animal diseases and disorders’. That’s all that there’s space to tell us. And how dependable even that much is may be deduced from the ‘Revisions’ to previous years’ statistics attached at the end. Here we find, for instance, that 5,930 sheep and 1700 horses which had appeared under ‘protection of the environment’ (itself a sinister enough category) were in fact engaged in ‘routine production – blood products’. It’s not so much that a mistake has been made – easily enough done in the stress of all this bureaucracy. More sobering is how little an outsider can make of the difference.

Animal protection groups quite reasonably tend to call the annual statistics ‘shocking’. I would say instead ‘stupefying’. Seeing these great phalanxes of animals moved around in their graphs, columns, tables, and other formations simply dulls the imagination. In fact, to re-iterate other posts in this blog (and the whole annual performance is after all a wretched re-iteration), these statistics are a variety of euphemism. Certainly they’re much better than secrecy, but they take the mind off the subject of individual suffering, which is the one thing that matters. Just occasionally, in the smaller numbers, momentary illuminations are offered as to what we’re really seeing: that one cat, for instance, needing help to eat or drink, suffering pains which “a person would find difficult to tolerate” (Home Office guidance on the ‘severe’ category), or perhaps being found mercifully dead in the cage.

By way of final re-iteration, I shall re-append the picture of the Oxford University OU primatemacaque monkey: suggested caption, ‘Waiting for the End’.


Notes and references:

The Home Office’s publication, Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals, Great Britain 2017 can be read here:

I should add that a much more informative annual account of animal research is provided in the Non-Technical Summaries (i.e. of proposed research), also published by the Home Office. There is more about the NTS in the VERO blog here:

Wendy Jarrett’s comment, and Understanding Animal Research’s response in general, can be read on their web-site here:

The government minister who spoke to the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee was Therese Coffey MP, at a session on 18 July of this year.

The complete Home Office guidance to ‘severity’ is provided in Advisory notes on recording and reporting the actual severity of regulated procedures, 2014, especially pp.12-13.



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