Animal welfare and research

The death of 25,000 animals during teaching and research projects at the University of Otago since 2009 sounds a high number.

Certainly some of those who oppose the use of animals for research purposes will insist it is 25,000 too many, but some context is required. While some animal rights proponents might argue otherwise, there is a distinction to be made between the use of animals in teaching and research projects and those which involve testing of cosmetics and the like.

And it seems the numbers for the period audited contained a larger proportion than usual of fish; otherwise the research was carried out on rodents, pests or commonly farmed animals such as mice, rats, guinea pigs, rabbits, sheep, pigs, goats, pigeons, birds, marine mammals, possums, reptiles, and amphibians.

The use of such animals and the research to which they are allocated is governed not only by Act of Parliament, but by strict ethical guidelines. Legislation that has some oversight of these activities includes the Animal Welfare Act 1991; the Agricultural Compounds & Veterinary Medicines Act 1997; and the Hazardous Substances & New Organisms Act 1996. Further, animal use and welfare is strictly monitored by several national bodies including the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee, the Environmental Rick Management Authority, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the New Zealand Food Safety Authority and the New Zealand Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Authority.

In addition, the University of Otago has its own Animal Ethics Committee, tasked with reviewing all projects involving the use of animals for teaching, diagnostic development, or research purposes at the university and making sure they conform to the principles outlined in the university's Code of Ethical Conduct for the Manipulation of Animals. In other words, research or teaching involving animals is not an activity indulged in at whim.

It is only to be invoked when it has been shown that there are no non-animal-based alternatives and when the design of the research has been thoroughly audited and approved.

Legislative restraints and ethical considerations notwithstanding, moral philosophers of the animal rights world have long rallied against the use of animals in research. Eminent Australian philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer, author of the book Animal Liberation, often cited as the godfather of the movement, promoted the view of the "greatest good of the greatest number" being the only measure of good or ethical behaviour and, further, popularised the term "speciesism" to describe the privileging of the health and wellbeing of humans over animals.

This is a philosophical threshold that some are not prepared to cross - in the same way that many choose to become vegetarians because they fundamentally disagree with the farming and killing of animals.

But for many, while they may not be entirely comfortable with the idea of sacrificing animals in the cause of the advancement of scientific, technological and medical knowledge, the "greatest good of the greatest number" applies to people: if the prevention and cure of diseases and conditions that, left to their own devices would ravage entire human populations, requires the use in laboratory experiments of a number of mice and rats, then this is a necessary evil.

A pragmatic view of the world would endorse this position.

Should potentially disease-carrying vermin be considered to have equal consideration to those people whose lives might be saved, or whose conditions could be vastly improved through research work that promotes a better understanding of, for instance, how cancer cells develop, how to improve vaccines, possible treatments for dementia and Parkinson's disease, the causes of human infertility and so on?

It is possible to respect the views of the dissenting minority - along with their absolute right to express their opinions - without agreeing with them. After all, compassion is a valued human quality. But as long as research and teaching involving animals, as a result of which some may have to be euthanased, is devised and carried out according to rigorously enforced standards and ethical guidelines, then it should continue.


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