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I believe in animal research. But it’s time to draw a line

If we want to defend genuinely groundbreaking and beneficial work, we need to think more seriously about how animals are used in education

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

Imagine, for a minute, that you’re a frog — a pro-science frog. You’re so pro-science that you’ve decided to donate yourself to it. You sign the consent forms, climb into the barrel and await your fate.

It’s all quite exciting, you think, as you travel the bumpy road to the lab. A huge sacrifice, but a chance to expand the shores of human knowledge. You might be part of a cure for cancer, or the common cold, or help to eliminate polio. Finally you emerge — and for the first time, a doubt does too.

You’re in a lab, sure, but instead of scientists, there are children everywhere — all dissecting frogs. ‘Dissecting’, though, is a loose description. One seems to have ripped the leg off his and stuck it down his neighbour’s shirt, in what surely can’t be a variable-controlled way. Another is carefully copying a diagram straight from the textbook. In the heading a third has misspelled the word ‘frog’. Slowly it dawns on you that your death might not be furthering the spread of knowledge after all. You have laid down your life, in fact, to make biology ‘fun’.

I’ve overstretched the conceit, haven’t I? If you were a frog about to be dissected in a classroom, you’d almost certainly be dead on arrival. But the thing is that animal use in education is not just morally questionable, but pointless. There are so many other ways to teach the same lesson. Boring ways, perhaps. A diagram on the board doesn’t quite have the same pizzazz as a bloodied heart on the table. But we manage to tempt kids into maths and geography without a Babes in the Wood trail of small furry corpses up to the classroom door. Why not science?


While we’re at it, we don’t need animals for undergraduate experiments, either, because they’re not discovering anything new. The answers can be found in textbooks, and the demonstrations online.

A few years ago, as a medical student, I remember entering class to find a sedated ferret on every desk. We were invited to test if adrenaline increases heart rate. We’d known the answer from about age ten — but we duly went through the motions, fixing tubes into the floppy creature, counting out the pulse, finding (surprise!) that adrenaline did increase heart rate. Afterwards each ferret was killed. It seemed so pointless.

I’m no fruit-loop activist, I just think we should keep our line on vivisection consistent. And our line is that we can’t do without it: for testing medicines, or for pure research. These are the special cases on which to splurge our supply of fetal pigs, rats, mice, and whatever else we can wrest from our consciences and the hands of animal rights protestors. Making anatomy students slightly less bored doesn’t quite seem worth it.

I say ‘our line’ — the line is of course true. In the 1880s, Louis Pasteur’s anthrax- infested sheep first showed us how germs spread. Insulin was isolated in dogs in 1922, giving us our treatment for diabetes. Then, after the 1960s Thalidomide disaster, laws were passed that required drugs to be tested on animals first — rather than simply waiting to see how many customers they killed. All good things. These days a great deal of animal testing involves modelling genetic diseases. Scientists can breed mice with the same defects, helping them understand the disorder, and test treatments. Tissue cultures are no substitute, as the effects of the disease are often found throughout the body.

Against all this, the common arguments for using animals in teaching seem fairly weak. Isn’t cutting up a mouse a cornerstone of a good old-fashioned hearty education? Maybe. But can’t kids just join the scouts instead? And in any case I’m sure the really boisterous ones will already be pulling flies apart in their spare time. Will our future scientists be hopelessly unskilled without some live practice first? Not really — such techniques are specific and taught on the job, and a couple of dissection sessions are unlikely to teach much lasting expertise.

What makes this blind spot so odd is that proper animal research is constantly being chipped away. It now has a regulator, which uses the principle of the ‘three Rs’ — reduction, refinement and replacement — to cut down animal use. Scientists must choose methods that do the least damage, methods that use the fewest animals, and, where possible, methods that don’t involve animals at all. Since the 1970s, under this system, animal experiments have dropped from 5.5 million to around 3.8 million. Why count every animal — at some considerable cost to science — then leave a gaping hole where education is concerned?

Schools and universities are also the places where odd things can happen to experimental animals. After the ferret experiment, our supervisor snipped out the animal’s heart with a pair of scissors and let us hold it as it stopped beating. An experience, certainly — but hardly necessary. A 1995 study showed that kids became increasingly inclined to mutilate animals as they dissect them — racing to gouge the eyes out, for example, or seeing how many organs they can fit into its mouth. Again, rather unlikely to happen in one of our over-regulated research labs.

Part of the problem is that animal rights fanatics are so mad that the debate has been all but shut down. Possibly their most insane moment was back in 1982, when the Animal Rights Militia mailed bombs to all three party leaders. Since then, concluding that full-on terrorism might be a bad idea, they have moved on to a sort of banter terrorism. Not actually threatening people’s lives, just threatening people’s lives as a joke.

One of their most famous targets was the Hall family, Staffordshire dairy farmers who started breeding lab guinea pigs. In 1999 animal activists spotted them. Six years of anonymous threats and booby traps followed. Graffiti appeared in local beauty spots and explosives were let off at night. Protestors turned up at local funerals. Anyone connected to the farm started to get nasty letters through the post — ‘hoax’ bomb threats, ‘hoax’ rape allegations, things like that.

When faced with this single-issue madness, the instinct is to oppose their cause. Who’d be labelled an animal rights protestor? Even writing this cautious argument has made me feel slightly queasy. I stand by it, though. We need to iron out the contradictions in our position — not least because grey areas are where extremism starts. Time, surely, to stop using animals in education.

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