Vivisection by Numbers

The Home Office has now published its statistics for the animal research completed in Great Britain (i.e. the UK without Northern Ireland) during 2021. As expected after the enforced lull of the Covid period, the total number of ‘procedures’ is greater than it was in 2020 – in fact by 6%, at 3,056,243. Putting aside that two-year vagary, the numbers have been slowly falling since 2015. But then the numbers in 2015 were at their highest in all the years since the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986: 4.14 million. Even now, therefore, this 3.05 million or so only takes things back to where they were in 2007, or in 1992 (or for that matter in 1957), and these were not themselves low points. The numbers have switch-backed through the years, and this seven year downward trend is too brief to mean anything. In short, the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, for all its patchy good intentions, seems to have had little sustained influence on the scale of animal research. 

That set of 2015 statistics was the first to be reviewed in this blog. I’ve been looking at that post, and the six that followed it, to see if there have been any significant changes, perhaps even encouraging ones.

Certainly the publication day (30 June this year) has been turned into a notable event in the animal research calendar, well-attended, metaphorically speaking, by the institutions that did the work. They are now chivvied into the public eye by Understanding Animal Research (UAR), which also provides some standardized material for them to use: even Cambridge University, second keenest user of animals in 2021 (Oxford comes ‘first’ again this year), doesn’t bother to be original in its statements. The various presidents, provosts, and other notables all declare in similar terms their conviction that animal research remains crucial to medical progress, and likewise their commitment to minimizing it.

I’m guessing that UAR even has some influence in the way the Home Office handles the numbers and their publication (the UAR commentary appeared on the same day as the official statistics). At any rate, the presentation has become much more eye-catching over the period. The statistical detail is more liberal, too: what used to fit into a few pages of tables has now become a separate interactive programme so complicated that you wonder who can want to know that much. There’s even something ghoulish about dabbling in all those numbers of the dead.

So yes, there’s been a notable change in the manner of reporting the year’s animals, on the part of the Home Office itself and of the various institutions responsible for them. This began, of course, back in 2012, with the founding of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research (much written about in this blog). It would be unfair to say that it’s only a matter of PR, however plentiful that is; there genuinely is more information now being provided. In fact by far the most informative summary of the Home Office numbers each year is the one featured on UAR’s web-site (this year’s is linked below, saving me the trouble of providing one here).

But the Concordat has never made it a collective aim to reduce animal research as a whole or to hurry on that day foreseen in European Directive 2010/63 (which used to govern UK research) when there would be none at all. On the contrary, the purpose of all this publicity is simply to reconcile such of us as mind about the welfare of animals to their continued use in research. Meanwhile, falls in numbers like the present one, or increases in them, are viewed rather as natural phenomena than something that needs dealing with. “The numbers of procedures carried out on living animals,” says this present Home Office report, “is determined by several factors, including the focus of scientific and medical endeavours, the economic climate and global trends in new technologies or fields of research.” The annually repeated genuflections to the 3Rs (reduction, refinement, replacement) made by the various research institutions reflect this same spectator’s position in the matter: as if to say, let the 3Rs do what they can for the animals – that’s their job – while we get on with our vital work of using animals for research.

In fact, as to public policy, there has been a noticeable decline in purposefulness since 2015. The period of the coalition government (2010-2015) had been a very hopeful one, thanks to the work of the one Home Office minister we’ve ever had for whom the rights of animals really mattered: that is, Norman Baker. Although he was in post for a short time only, he committed the state to a policy of reducing animal research and periodically reporting on the success of the policy. Since 2015, we have heard no more about this, and it’s symptomatic of the low status of lab animals in political thinking that there are no distinct provisions for them in the present government’s Action Plan for Animal Welfare (they are also, of course, excepted from the Animal Welfare Act of 2006) And after all, the Home Office minister responsible for animal research has many other calls on his attention which are likely to seem more urgent: as Minister for Crime and Policing (a title with a wholly false promise in the case of the animals), his other concerns include (I make a selection) unauthorised encampments, drugs and alcohol, facial recognition, football policing, firearms, and natural disaster relief. What are animals doing there at all?

It’s not so surprising, anyway, that the Home Office agency whose work it is to inspect and sanction animal research laboratories, namely the Animals in Science Regulation Unit, has not produced an annual report since 2018. No explanation has been given for withholding this information about practices in research laboratories during a period when the animals have been more than usually vulnerable. Not that there’s no news at all from these places. Their own web-sites, and UAR’s too, keep up a steady current of research stories showing what is being learnt from animal research. How many of these discoveries turn into real benefits we can’t know, but the propaganda value of reporting them is clear enough. In a House of Commons debate on animal research, which took place in February of this year (as a result of an e-petition), Dr Ben Spencer cited one such newsworthy instance, the operation in Maryland which put a pig’s heart into a man (discussed in this blog as linked below), and he concluded thus:

It would not be possible to develop transgenic animals for organs for human transplantation without research into animals. I cannot see the future of medicine, particularly the exciting stuff such as xenotransplantation to treat diseases, without the use of experiments on animals.

“exciting stuff”! The unhappy truth seems to be that neither official attitudes nor the ethical argument itself have made any progress since 2015. This same MP (formerly a doctor in the NHS) reminds us that another traditional defence of experimenting on animals, that it also helps them, is still thought convincing. “Without the ability to do animal research,” he said, “we are doing animals a disservice in terms of their future health and the prevention of disease.” He illustrated the point by recalling the “very upsetting” news in 2020 that 15 million mink had been culled in Denmark as a result of the Covid pandemic (see this blog for 28 November 2020). These mink, he rightly said,

are not stupid creatures. They are amazing, highly intelligent animals. Fifteen million are gone, just like that, because of the Covid pandemic.

We must suppose his distress at the news to be sincere, like the similar distress which is always spoken of at the culling of farm animals during foot and mouth epidemics (which Dr Spencer also cites) and other such outbreaks of disease. But the strange premise of such distress is that the short and miserable lives in cages or other confinements, imposed for human uses on these animals, are their proper and natural lot, to which unintended ill-health and death come as a cruel interruption. Such thinking is unlikely to do much for animals in research laboratories.

The minister, Kit Malthouse, wound up the February debate by telling his fellow MPs, “It is possible to be both an animal-lover and accept the need for experimentation on animals, in the greater cause of human and animal health.” Greater than what, he didn’t say: love, perhaps. But that phrase ‘animal-lover’ is anyway wholly unprogressive. It’s not our love that mice, rats, dogs, horses, non-human primates and all the other denizens of laboratories, need – though no doubt love is much better than nothing, even when nothing is its consequence, as it must be for these lab animals. What they need is their share in the right to live. For all the astonishing diligence of these annual statistics, and the elaborate and even humane bureaucracy which they represent, they continue to be essentially the numerical record of an enormous and cowardly wrong.

Notes and references:

The latest Home Office statistics can be seen here:   The quotation is from p.9. The summary provided by UAR (tailed with some supportive pieties) is here:

A transcript of the House of Commons debate on e-petition 591775 can be read here:  The petition asked for a revision of the Animal Welfare Act of 2006 to include laboratory animals. It gained 110,276 signatures, the rule being that a debate is triggered at 100,000.

The pig’s heart operation is reviewed in this blog here:  The mink cull and its implications are discussed here: