"That's just the limit", was my first reaction on reading Coenraad Hendriksen's article on laboratory animals (in the Forum section of the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, 31 December 2007). There, he contests an article by Jeremy Firkin (Forum, 19 December) in which animal experiments are labeled "barbaric'. Marc Bracke is researcher, ethologist, veterinary, philosopher-ethicist and member of an Animal Experiment Committee. This article was published on Wednesday 9 January 2008 in the Forum of the Dutch National Newspaper de Volkskrant.
Hendriksen claims that less than 15 % of all laboratory animals in The Netherlands have to endure extreme suffering, but he doesn't state how many animals are concerned and what these animals are actually subjected to. He also states that the ethical control system of Animal Experiment Committees and supervision by welfare officers cannot be called barbaric, whilst many question marks can be placed hereby.
Animal experimentation is very institutionalised. Only institutions with a permit may carry out experiments on animals. Before conducting these experiments, researchers need to be highly trained to do so. Test plans need to be approved by a special Committee who will determine whether the purpose of the test weighs up in importance against any discomfort or suffering on the part of the animals concerned. When seeking approval and financial support for their tests, researchers call upon the higher scientific and social goals involved, and to the increased dangers (to human health) should the research not be allowed to continue. Human suffering through cancer, cardiovascular diseases and aids are classified as 'inhuman suffering', whilst (laboratory) animal suffering - often equal in extremity - is classified as 'severe discomfort'.
In 2006 some 90,000 of a total of more than 600,000 laboratory animals in The Netherlands experienced such 'severe discomfort'. Furthermore, the Committee in charge of experiments gauges that discomfort subjectively, not scientifically. And then to think that nowadays, such a calculation can be done on a far more scientific basis.
And an Experiment Committee only checks on a preventive basis, there is no control as to whether the promised goals have been attained, not even if there have been (public) reports on the research, and whether the actual discomfort was as forecast.
One gets the impression sometimes that Science is searching for nothing less than eternal youth, and that this trend will continue for some time. Each research raises far more new questions than it answers. For example, the fear of a worldwide flu epidemic frees up enormous amounts of tax funds for research into an effective vaccine. This seems to have been found recently by a small British company. Research into Avian Flu carries on relentlessly, you may be sure of that.
The decision by the European Commission to look into the safety of the thirty thousand substances allowed into the Market ( the Reach programme) involves many laboratory animals. Hendriksen plays down that problem in his article in a manner that is incomprehensible to me.
There is no question of an ethical check by an Experiment Commitee. Many requests are adapted in accordance with remarks by the Experiment Committee, but a test plan is seldom or never rejected. One thing is clear: social discussions and political decisions are essential here.
But be careful. Whoever thinks that Scientists can hold an objective discussion about their own functioning could well be disillusioned. What's so remarkable is, is that the most fanatical protagonists of animal welfare are themselves the cause of new animal experiments.
For example, Marianne Thieme objects to castration of pigs. In reaction to this, the Ministry of Agriculture ordered a wide scale animal experiment into the discomfort of (non) anesthestised pig castration. Even more remarkable is the fact that, while an Experiment Committee requires no scientific research whatsoever to determine the seriousness of such an operation, that was required for a political decision. Are animal experiments then barbaric? A social discussion needs to be held for this. The crux, for me, is the golden rule: do unto others as you would that they would do unto you.
As professor of Alternatives for Animal Experiments, Coenraad Hendriksen should perhaps be able to develop an electric shock machine with which the discomfort of laboratory animals can be simulated on humans in the future. Ethical testing may then deviate considerably from what we are now accustomed to.