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?
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.