WDAIL 2019

On Saturday 27 April, Oxford was the venue for the main gathering in the U.K. to mark World Day for Animals in Laboratories (strictly April 24th). And Oxford certainly is a suitable place in which to remember all those animals. Not only are more animal lives being worked through here than in any other British university; Oxford is, besides (as we find among the various boasts on its web-site), “ranked top in the world for medicine”. It may therefore be regarded as setting an example of big spending in animals to all the rest of the world.

The gathering point for the rally was a fine open field at Oxpens on the western side of the city, adjacent to the railway line and a cut of the River Thames. Oxpens was once a working-class suburb; long since demolished as such, it’s now a miscellaneous and unpretentious area of offices and recreations, including an ice rink. As the place-name suggests, there was until recently a market for the buying and selling of cattle where, WDAIL banneron Saturday, impassioned speeches were being made on behalf of their (and our) fellow-creatures. Then, the march set out from Oxpens to make the case for animals visible and audible through the main streets of Oxford, stopping outside the Biomedical Sciences Building to hear, among other speakers, Mel Broughton, hitherto silenced on this subject for ten years by imprisonment and probation. Those years have evidently done nothing to qualify his thinking or his fervour.

This event, the WDAIL, last came to Oxford in 2013, and it’s natural to wonder what changes there have been since then.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the University’s commitment to animal research. The number of ‘procedures’ recorded at Oxford in 2013 was 189,460; the number for 2018 was 219,551, an increase of about 15%. No doubt there was a general increase in scientific activity over the same period, and I don’t know whether animal research has been growing disproportionately or not. In fact the University is growing in all material directions more rapidly now than at any time in its history. Growing ethically also? The question may arouse laughter, either as comically naïve or as meaningless. It should be asked, all the same, and the animals will certainly be somewhere in the answer.

Still speaking of the University’s expansion: even here at unacademic Oxpens, far from the colleges, the shadow of their ambition has fallen. The whole area, either bought up by Nuffield College or forming part of its original endowment, is to be re-developed. Reading the prospectus for the grandiose scheme, we discover that this modestly useful district is “perhaps the most extraordinary undeveloped area of any historic city in the UK. And those who have noticed that the University’s architectural scruples deteriorate with distance from the collegiate centre of town can happily be reassured. Oxpens is to become “a new vibrant community” (now I remember, the WDAIL rally also was vibrant, but presumably not in the sense, if any, intended here). The design will show “innovation, imagination and vision”, and the result will be one which “adds value . . . to the built environment in our world-class city.”

I quote from this dreary tract of planner’s jargon, ending with that cock-a-doodle brag about Oxford, because it’s signed off by the Warden of Nuffield College, a distinguished academic. I’m sure he didn’t write it; probably he didn’t even like to read it. This sort of publicity is a discipline in itself which does not, we must assume, engage the professional ethics or interest of the academics who commission and pay for it. Its particular relevance here is that publicity like this constitutes one of the most notable changes in the animal-research scene since the WDAIL in 2013. The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research had just been initiated then, and seemed little more than a pompous and clumsy name. Since then a nationwide fog of words has been generated by this PR project, very much in the “world-class city” style, often making it impossible to know whether what one descries through it is real or illusory.

Certainly some increase in real public knowledge has come out of the Concordat. For instance, in 2013 Oxford University was willing to disclose only that there were about 16,000 animals in the new laboratory at any one time, but since there was no indication of the rate at which those animals were used up and replaced by others, that was a nearly meaningless number. The more revealing numbers had to be fished out bit by bit with Freedom of Information requests. Nowadays all the relevant numbers which the University is required by law to submit to the Home Office are also promptly posted on its web-site, together with a great deal of other material of a more or less enlightening kind. Other signatories to the Concordat (121 institutions altogether) are similarly informative.

Such increase in public knowledge must be a good thing. But of course the knowledge is still rationed by those who provide it; even if it’s dependable in itself (and this blog has shown that Oxford’s is not), nothing unpleasant or seriously discreditable is likely to be volunteered. The most notable effect of the new candour is really on the morale of those practising animal research. They may personally prefer to remain as discreet as ever, but their work is continually boosted for them, and a habit of boastfulness and complacency now characterizes the whole scene.

Already in 2015 this can be noticed in a post about that year’s WDAIL published on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research, and titled ‘World Day for Animals in Laboratories – 140 years of animal welfare improvements’. Here we are reminded that we’re “a nation of animal-lovers” (actually the original has “animal lovers” without the hyphen, but I know they didn’t mean that, even though it would have about the same amount of truth in it). Accordingly, we are urged to mark this anniversary (instituted as a focus for anti-vivisection protest) by celebrating “the major milestones which have ensured the UK has some of the best laboratory animal welfare conditions in the world”. These “milestones” are then listed, beginning with the Royal Commission of 1875 and ending with the 2015 ban on testing of household products. Complacently looking backwards, the writer treats all this as a completed history, something for us British, and the animal-research profession in particular, to take pride in. He helpfully forgets that the purpose of milestones (anyway a tellingly obsolete image) was to inform you, not how far you’d got, but how far you yet had to travel to reach your destination. As for the “World” reference, the writer seems to regard that not as a plea for all the animals suffering in laboratories, including the many millions enjoying none of the protections mentioned, but as introducing an element of international competition in which the U.K., satisfyingly, comes at least equal first. It’s a classic piece of PR management.

The listed “milestones” have, it’s quite true, been valuable improvements. However, most of them were the result of strenuous campaigning from outside the profession, against fierce and indignant resistance from within. Nor were the results ever quite what had been hoped and aimed for; they were always partial successes at best, milestones indeed on a still unfinished journey. What we really learn from this UAR retrospect, therefore, is that eloquent and active opposition to animal research is what causes progress, and that WDAIL, as this opposition’s symbolic or representative annual event, should therefore be as noisy, restless, uncompromising, and future-minded as possible.

And that’s indeed what the 2019 WDAIL in Oxford was, just as it had been in 2013. The speeches, having nothing to hide or disguise, were in plain vehement English. Nobody was there to advance a private or professional interest, or to secure their salary. Three of the speakers had, on the contrary, paid heavily for their part in this sort of campaign with time in prison. It was, in fact, just the sort of communal/political event which the much-missed Tony Benn used to speak about and prize (and attend). “Everything comes from underneath”, he used to say: meaning that it was the collective will and sense of justice of the people, the ‘commons’, that effect change, not the formal agencies, authorities and powers. They, indeed, are what suffer the change and therefore resist it, until resistance becomes futile, when they accept, institute, and take credit for it: we’ve seen it happen. So the familiarity of the scene at Oxpens – the unpolished and WDAIL cops and dog.JPGmiscellaneous crowd, the banners and placards, the shouts, chants and whistles, the dogs, all as they were in 2013 – should be reassuring. It means that progress continues.

 

Note and references:

Film of the WDAIL speeches can be seen here:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb42LS3_n_U7hob9qMVnmDQ

The prospectus for Oxpens redevelopment is online here: https://www.bidwells.co.uk/assets/Uploads/oxpens-brochure.pdf

The UAR post about WDAIL 2015 is here: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/animal-welfare-alternatives/world-day-for-animals-in-laboratories/

Please read this blog for more about Tony Benn and the “underneath” at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/11/21/tony-benn/

Photographs are by Paul Freestone.

 

 

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Public Labs

The last Oxford University Gazette of the Michaelmas term included the annual report from the Animal Care and Ethical Review committee: 2000 or so words about animal research at the University, for the proper conduct of which that committee is responsible. There were, voluntarily published in this way for the first time, a few statistics. Thus, 222,436 animals were used in 2014, an increase of about 19% on the previous year (comparing unfavourably to the slight decrease nationally); 1211 personal licences to use animals have been in force during the year 2015, a number which also seems to be on the increase; and, to supervise that work over the  1 Lab Mansfield Rd DSC_0984 same period, the Home Office inspectors made 30 visits to the University’s various “animal facilities”.

Mainly, however, and rather oddly for an annual publication, the report was about regulations and management, things which don’t change much from year to year. This makes dull reading (who does read it, one wonders; but then, who reads this?). All the same, there’s a victory implied in it. The more laborious the bureaucracy presented in the report , the more thoroughly it affirms that a scientist is not a fit person to judge the ethics of his or her own work. The old appeals to the exceptional tender-heartedness of physiologists (see earlier post, ‘The Real Benjulia’) or to their professional dignity (“You are proposing that physiologists … shall be licensed and regulated like publicans and prostitutes”, one of them indignantly told the Royal Commission on the subject in 1876) have no force now, persist as they may (and do). And of course this bureaucracy, though most immediately the product of various commissions, reports, statutes, etc., which have cumulatively proposed and created it, is really the work of all those adversaries of vivisection who have battered at the practice for the last 150 years and more.

What happened recently at Imperial College London is a clear reminder of that fact, as also of the fact that the victory is incomplete, that no system is sloven-proof or even delinquent-proof, and that the only way to do such research ethically is to take the animals out of it altogether. The malpractices of various sorts at that institution, which the British Union Against Vivisection (as it was then called) recorded and made public in 2012-13, had been missed or accepted by the institution’s own ethical supervision, and by the Home Office inspectors. The BUAV exposé prompted an independent report (the Brown Report, December 2013), and out of that came the much more purposeful management of animal research which is already being boasted about on the new ICL web-site.

In fact this ICL web-site won the “highly commended prize” two or three weeks ago at the Annual Openness Awards, an evening of mutual congratulation for the various corporate members of the ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’. Since most of the people involved in the bad old days at ICL are presumably still at work there, this suggests some very smart PR. And the Concordat itself turns out to be, as suspected when it was announced in 2013, essentially a PR project. That solemnly portentous word ‘Concordat’, with its grand sound and perfectly ordinary meaning, is itself a ripe product of the profession, and I only wish that we had access to a record of all the brain-storming that led up to its triumphant selection. Anyway, it’s difficult to trust the sort of openness which boasts of itself in this fashion. The test of its authenticity will be what happens to Section 24, the ‘secrecy clause’, of the 1986 Act, still apparently being reviewed by the government. If the members of the Concordat are willing to scrap it, that will certainly be done.

Back to the animal research web-sites. ICL’s has a noticeable resemblance to Oxford University’s. Is there one consultancy designing all such sites? As to the Oxford pages, these days they appear in the University web-site’s News and Events category – inexplicably, since they include no news or events, and in fact don’t seem to have altered significantly since 2011 (the date of the last animal numbers which they provide). There is one newish feature, however: a short film which shows some of the animals off-duty, and draws particular attention to the ‘enrichment’ of their homes – wood-shavings, plastic tubing, hiding-places, and so on. These things no doubt do represent, for the animals, a real improvement upon the wretched ‘standard’ cages with which generations of their captors had apparently been quite satisfied. But the ranks and stacks of these new custom-made dwelling-boxes shown in the film reminds one that for some people such changes are also good business, as indeed vivisection always has been. And even the scientists get a professional ride out of it, because enrichment itself has become a research topic.

In illustration of this last point, I shall conclude with two extracts from an article in the highly-regarded Comparative Medicine, a publication sponsored by the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science. The first extract identifies some of the effects of enrichment, and in doing so provides some insights into the way of life enjoyed by these animals, with or without the upgrade:

As an example of a behavioral study, a comparison of C57BL/6 and 129S6/SvEv mice found that housing in an enriched compared with a standard environment increased exploratory activity in the plus-maze test and reduced habituation in the locomotor activity test in C57BL6 mice, whereas 129S6/SvEv mice showed increased hot-plate latencies and reduced aggression. Furthermore, EE accentuated strain differences in the plus-maze, locomotor activity, hot plate, and forced swim tests, whereas strain differences in the plus-maze and resident-intruder tests were not retained across environments.

The second extract helpfully warns us against attaching too much importance to such improvements, and ends with an absolutely model euphemism. In fact, brief as it is, this is a really choice bit of scientific prose. Next time, perhaps, I shall do a proper critical appreciation of it.

However, animal wellbeing, as reflected by normal growth, development, and reproduction with low likelihood of injury, illness, distress, or maladaptive behavior, can exist even in housing situations in which the animal cannot perform its entire repertoire of species-appropriate behaviors, particularly if the animal will be maintained for a relatively short portion of its lifespan.  [see Comp Med. 2011 Aug; 61(4): 314–321]