Emotive hysteria trumps opportunity to educate (now there’s a surprise!)

By Siouxsie Wiles 05/03/2012

University’s death toll – 25,000 animals in two years

So screams the front page of the print version of the March 5th edition of the New Zealand Herald (online here). The story was originally written by Matthew Haggart for the Otago Daily Times and concerns the statistics on animal use for research and teaching at the University of Otago for 2009 and 2010.

Despite the highly emotive headline, Matthew’s story is actually not that bad. It just summarises the numbers of animals used, the species and where they came from. It also has a few quotes by the Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Richard Blaikie about the legislation in New Zealand (the Animal Welfare Act 1999) and the requirement for animal ethics committees to approve any work.

What is depressing about this story is that a topic worthy of public discussion is reduced to a highly emotive headline on the front page and not much else. Matthew even noted:

Statistical information about which academic divisions at Otago were using animals could not be supplied to media because individual researchers could be identified from them

Is there any wonder the vast majority of scientists won’t go public and talk about what they do and why their research is important? This could have been a great opportunity to explain to the public the ethical framework which guides research and teaching using animals, namely the three Rs. No, not reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic! Or reduce, recycle, and reuse. In this case it is replacement, reduction and refinement.

As its name suggests, replacement refers to methods that avoid or replace the use of animals and include making use of computer modelling, established human and animal cell lines and even invertebrate hosts such as fruit flies, caterpillars and worms. Reduction refers to methods which minimise animal use and enable researchers to obtain comparable levels of information from fewer animals or to obtain more information from the same number of animals, thereby reducing the future use of animals. Refinement refers to improvements to scientific procedures and husbandry which minimise actual or potential pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm and/or improve animal welfare.

Just a little digging and Matthew, or indeed journalists for the NZ Herald, would have found a scientist willing to talk to the media about this very subject. As winner of both the inaugural 3Rs prize from the UK National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) back in 2005 and the NZ National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee (NAEAC) 3Rs prize in 2011, I’ve talked about the use of animals in research and the 3Rs with Alison Ballance for the Radio New Zealand National weekly science programme, Our Changing World, and Margo White for the NZ Listener. Hell, I’ve even made a You Tube video about my work which summarises what, how, and why in two and a half minutes!

I passionately believe that scientists should be engaging with the public to discuss emotive issues like the use of animals in research. And with society yelling for effective drugs to treat devastating diseases, this use is necessary and not going away. Which is why I despise such lazy journalism and hysterical headlines. Come on guys, you can do better!

UPDATE 08/03/2012: The Otago Daily Times has now written an editorial supporting the use of animals in research. Which is more than can be said for the NZ Herald. But at least they printed my letter to the editor!

0 Responses to “Emotive hysteria trumps opportunity to educate (now there’s a surprise!)”

  • I see statschat commented on this story yesterday, noting how inane it was that the phrase “this number is expected to rise when 2011 figures are added to the total” was used. The other point they noted was that the numbers of animals used has been steadily and significantly dropping for several years now a fact that apparently made it to the otago daily times but not the herald.


  • Dismissing someone’s argument because they might be emotional about it is a cop-out. I have seen the same attitude from people on regards to footage of animal slaughter as well as animal cruelty footage. It is disrespectful to those who have ethical disagreements with it.

    Is it fair that science students (even first years majoring in a vastly different area) do not get to choose whether or not they have to dissect an animal or have it killed for them? Medical students get a cadaver, who has not been killed specifically for the purpose. It doesn’t seem fair to force your own view (or the most common view in society) on a student. I think scientists have the ability to discuss animal testing with their students. However I have not seen them do this very often, only one lecturer I have had did that in a respectful and constructive way.