Remembering the Millions in the Global Lab

This coming Sunday, April 24th, will be World Day for Animals in Laboratories. It’s the first time since the Covid pandemic began that the anniversary can be properly observed with a collective event. The venue will be Cambridge, whose university was second only to the giant Crick Institute as a user of lab animals at the last national count in 2020. The 177,219 animals that Cambridge University used included 84 sheep, 16 pigs, and 41 non-human primates (nearly three times Oxford’s number). Those primates – rhesus macaques and marmosets – were (and others still are) being used in the study of human psychiatric conditions, including anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

wdail-2022

Here on the right are details of the Cambridge event.

The previous WDAIL event, in 2019, was at Oxford. I was among those who spoke on that occasion, and I post a transcript of my speech here – not because it was anything so great in itself, but because I tried to make it a concise summary of the moral and spiritual meaning of the World Day, and I don’t have anything much to add to it now. I began by quoting an estimate of the total of animals used annually across the world. That total, 118 million, referred to the year 2012. A more recent calculation, for the year 2015, suggests that the total of animals killed in laboratories may then have been 192.1 million. So the matter has not become any less urgent.

Speech given at Oxpens Meadow, Oxford, 27 April 2019:

We can’t know how many animals it is that we’re remembering today in all the world’s laboratories. A calculation made back in 2014 suggested 118 million. No doubt it’s far more now, and anyway that was only the vertebrates, the animals we choose to count: the mice, birds, fishes, cats, dogs, monkeys. It’s a big enough list, but many other sorts of animal are slaves to science, unregistered animals, species whose names we may hardly recognise. But there is this one thing that we do know about all of them, the thing they all do have in common: they were all born with the will to live and to flourish in their own ways, just as we were in ours.

It’s what that ancient Sanskrit teaching means when it says ‘Tat twam asi’, “Where you see life, that is you.” Well, that’s a spiritual way of putting the matter, no doubt, but it’s a plain fact also, and the great scientist Charles Darwin presented it as such in the mid-nineteenth century, when he showed that all life is one great multifarious will to flourish. In the mid-nineteenth century! Therefore the whole filthy modern history of vivisection, beginning as it did in Europe at about that same time, has been carried on in full awareness of that fact.

“All life is one”. That’s how it was stated by the man whose birthday on 24th April is commemorated by this World Day for Animals in Laboratories: Hugh Dowding. And I would like to say something about that most remarkable man: Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, the man who directed the RAF’s Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain in 1940, the man who is therefore to be credited with preventing the defeat and invasion of this country at that time.

Here was a man answerable for the fate of countless humans at a critical moment in human history, answerable in particular for the young fighter pilots who risked dreadful injury or death in the sky. And it was known that he did feel very great care and concern for the welfare of these men. After all, one of them was his own son.

So did he therefore come out of that war believing that there was a special sanctity in our human life, some special entitlement, that obliged all the other animals to serve our interests? No, on the contrary. He expressly objected to the use of animals in defence research, at Porton Down and at Harwell. Not just was it cruel and futile; he thought it actually promoted war. This is what he said:

failure to recognise our responsibilities towards the animal kingdom is the cause of many of the calamities which now beset the nations of the world. Nearly all of us have a deep-rooted wish for peace—peace on earth; but we shall never attain to true peace until we recognise the place of animals in the scheme of things and treat them accordingly.

He said that in the House of Lords, because he had been made Baron Dowding in 1943. And he used his time in the House of Lords again and again to present the case for animals: animals in circuses, in slaughterhouses, on farms, but especially animals in laboratories.

And probably the House of Lords has never before or since heard such plain-speaking on that subject. He began one debate by saying, The process of preparing this Motion has been a most painful one to me, because it has compelled me to read of many cases of revolting and sickening cruelty.” And he went on to describe some of those cases to their lordships: cats at the Royal Naval Laboratory made to breathe 100% oxygen until they convulsed and died; monkeys at the Lister Institute infected with rabies; the joining together of rats as Siamese twins. That last experiment was being carried out at Oxford University, where Dowding was astonished by what he called “the callous attitude of the people . . . and also the absolute uselessness of some of the experiments.”

Well, no doubt things have changed. Perhaps there are fewer ‘useless’ experiments nowadays, here at least. But it was never Dowding’s aim to make animal research more strictly useful. Here’s what he said about that:

I want to make clear at the outset my own personal position. It is this: that even should it be conclusively proved that human beings benefit directly from the suffering of animals, its infliction would nevertheless be unethical and wrong.

Yes, “Unethical and wrong”. And not because we’re animal-lovers. We may or may not love animals: so very much the better if we do, but it’s beside the point. What we know is that they are life as we are life, they value their part in life as we value ours, and they have as much right to it as we have to ours. That’s what it means to say all life is one. We know it to be a factual truth. Science itself has told us so. Well, let science practise what it teaches and give our fellow-creatures their own lives back!

Notes and references:

The 2019 WDAIL event at Oxford was described and pictured in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/05/03/wdail-2019/

The estimate of animals used in global science during 2015 was published in the journal Alternatives to Laboratory Animals in 2019, and can be viewed online here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0261192919899853

Five Hundred and Sixty Seven to Be Taken Daily

Oxford University has now published statistics for the ‘procedures’ conducted upon animals in its research laboratories during 2021. The total count was 207,192. Of these, 95% were procedures on mice, though also in use were rats (1,188) and ‘other rodents’ (159), non-human primates (13), guinea pigs (55), birds (unspecified, but presumably domestic fowl, 7), many fish, a few ferrets, and one frog. The total is up by about a quarter on the 2020 number (169,511). That was a year when Covid-19 impeded laboratory activity, but that same difficulty continued throughout 2021, so that this latest total too must be supposed artificially low. For all the talk in university publicity about the 3Rs (replacement, reduction, refinement), the numbers of animals being used has remained pretty steady for several years, after a notable jolt upwards in 2014 (the 2011 figure was 156,215).

These latest statistics are posted in the University’s ‘News and Events’ web-pages, where they are said to show “numbers of animals that completed procedures”. The phrase “completed procedures” is a collectible euphemism, with its suggestion of animals moving purposefully forward in their training, rather as students and researchers do, but it means, of course, ‘completed their lives’ or rather had their lives completed for them. In fact all these numbers are tiny obituaries.

Then there is the term ’procedure’ itself, frequently complained about in this blog. It’s the Home Office’s basic unit for computations (rather than animals themselves, as implied in Oxford’s introductory wording), but it has no standard value. It is defined by the Home Office as “An act of commission, deliberate omission or permission applied to, or having any effect on, an animal”, which must by law be recorded when that effect is such as to cause the animal “a level of pain, suffering or distress equivalent to or greater than the introduction of a hypodermic needle.” It’s true that the severity of the pain caused by a procedure is roughly measured in the statistics, as demanded by the Home Office and shown in these from Oxford: thus, it may be ‘mild’ (the seven birds), ‘moderate’ (ten of the primates) or ‘severe’ (two of the primates, the one frog, and 1,877 others). But to call it ‘an act’ is quite wrong; it’s a course of action, possibly brief, possibly extended over the whole of a research project – and the standard research project lasts five years.

Even apart from this essential obscurity, how little one really learns from these numbers! No context is offered for them: they are simply inserted annually into the appropriate space in an otherwise unchanging text: ‘News and Events’ is a strange misnomer for these ossified animal research pages. Yes, there are several ‘research case studies’, but these too have been unchanged for some years. Elsewhere (in the university’s Gazette) the Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee, which supervises the whole vivisection enterprise, publishes an annual report, but even this is mostly repetition year by year. It’s an extended account of the impressive bureaucracy of management systems, training courses, and other constants of the modern laboratory scene, but it rarely strays into particulars, and never lingers there. Thus, in last year’s report,

We have had non-compliances that resulted in a focus by the Home Office. This focus has resulted in close monitoring and an action plan initially commissioned by the Establishment Licence Holder that has been extended as part of the overall review of animal related activity.

That’s all that was said, properly muffled in university-office prose, about something which must in fact have been a significant lapse or series of lapses.

What’s patently needed is a brief commentary by a senior scientist, perhaps by the Head of the Biomedical Services Division, saying what the annual numbers imply, what changes in types or methods of research they reflect or conceal, or even that there has been no change of any sort. Failing that illumination, a table showing what all these animals were being used for would be of some help. The annual Home Office statistics, collecting together all the institutional returns, do indeed show this: for example, what aspects of physiology, or disease, or behaviour, were being studied, and whether for basic knowledge or for therapeutic purpose. Therefore the university must have its own annual numbers already prepared in this way.

That single frog – conspicuously real as it seems in the upside-down way of statistics (the smaller the number, the more convincing the contents), conspicuous also as suffering in the ‘severe’ category – may be taken as an example. What sort of research uses this one frog? It appears to be the last of a tradition, for there were 322 frogs in the university’s 2015 research, 226 the next year, then 155, then 89, and none in 2019 or 2020. Are we to welcome this as an instance of successful replacement of animals in research, with one last savage experiment, or is it simply that other species are now being preferred to the frogs?

Xenopus laevis (African clawed frog) isolated on white

There may be a simpler explanation. This variety of frog, of the genus Xenopus (we aren’t told what species), is commonly used in developmental biology, the science of growth in health and disease. It is therefore most studied as eggs and embryos – in other words, too early in its life-cycle to enjoy the protection of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act or be counted for Home Office purposes. Certainly there’s no obvious decline in such research; a European Xenopus Resource Centre is located in Portsmouth, and a recent journal article promoting such research speaks breezily of “the international Xenopus community”. For some reason, then, this Oxford Xenopus may just have outgrown its anonymity and accordingly had to be counted. At any rate, this one individual probably represents a fully-exploited population of frogs, labouring for science at Oxford beneath the Home Office radar. But that’s just speculation, of course.

In the past, this blog has noted mis-statements in the university’s animal research pages (and had them corrected). I’ve deduced from those errors that the scientists themselves neither compose nor even read the pages. They should be doing both, so that the knowledge published there could be up to date and usefully informative to outsiders.

Notes and references:

Oxford University’s latest statistics appear some way down the page here: https://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

The Home Office’s definition of ‘procedure’ is taken from its Guidance on the Operation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, HMSO, 2014, pp. 7 & 10.

The Oxford University Gazette is quoted from the issue of 17 February 2021, Supplement (2), p.267, online at file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/University%20of%20Oxford%20Gazette%202020-2021%20-%20Vol%20151%20(redacted).pdf

The illustration shows Xenopus laevis, or African clawed frog, which is probably the species being used in Oxford laboratories. Outside Africa, it is regarded as an ‘invasive species’, much like Homo sapiens, to whom it also has some physiological similarities which favour it for research purposes. Illustration credit: Shuttlecock, at yourgenome.org, a site which also gives more details about this frog’s utility in research.