Meet the anti-vivisectionist

By Siouxsie Wiles 16/02/2014

“Vivisection is scientific fraud” screeched the placard placed next to three elderly ladies sat on deck chairs. Attached to the fence beside them were pictures of caged monkeys and what appeared to be a dead dog. This was the scene that greeted passersby and staff and visitors to Auckland Hospital and the Medical School on Friday morning. I find protesters like these quite fascinating and am always interested to find out what they believe about the use of animals in scientific research. By the time I went to have a chat with them, a little drizzle meant only one lady remained, clutching another picture of a monkey and handing out leaflets produced by the NZ Anti-Vivisection Society.

“Do you know what they do in the basement of that building?” she whispered to me, pointing over at the university campus. Being a member of the Animal Ethics Committee (AEC), it turns out I do. The AEC is responsible for approving all research procedures carried out using animals, as well as regularly inspecting facilities. But I was curious what the protester believed. “Terrible, terrible suffering, and murder” she says. She quoted the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee’s (NAEAC) figure of 301,964 animals used in scientific research in NZ in 2012.

I’m not surprised to find that the protester is cherry-picking data. Actually, those 301,964 animals were used for research, testing and teaching (RTT). Less than a third of those animals were used for biological or medical research, while a little more than a third were used for veterinary research. Over 80% of the animals were exposed to manipulations which had no, virtually no, or little impact on the animals’ welfare. To put this in context, breeding is considered a manipulation. More than 70% of the animals were returned to their normal environment afterwards. In other words, not “murdered”. Can you guess what the most used animal was for RTT in New Zealand in 2012? Cattle. They made up over half of those 301,964 animals. I can honestly say there are no cows in the basement of the med school. Given the protester was quoting NAEAC’s report at me, I asked her if she knew that no monkeys were used in RTT in NZ. “Yes”, she says. So isn’t it misleading to be displaying pictures of monkeys, I ask? “A little” she concedes. Might people passing by think that monkeys are being used in scientific research in NZ, I ask? “Maybe” she says. So she is not only cherry-picking but being downright dishonest too.

“That animals are made to suffer” was the protester’s main objection to the use of animals in research. I asked her if she has heard of the 3Rs* – replacement, refinement and reduction. These are the ethical and legal basis on which animals are used in research, teaching and testing in New Zealand and many other countries around the world. Animals should be replaced with an alternative if possible, but where not possible, the numbers used should be the minimum necessary, and procedures should be refined to cause minimal suffering. In reality, this means using things like pain killers to alleviate any suffering. “Nonsense” she snorts.

During our chat, I ask the protester whether she takes any medicines when she is ill and the conversation moves in an unexpected direction. I find out she believes the only causes of cancer are alcohol, smoking and doctors, and that there is no such thing as infection (“the bugs are just coming to clear up our mess”). Here I am on fairly strong ground, so I tell her I’m a microbiologist studying nasty microbes, and that many of them are not “clearing up our mess” but have entire systems devised to overcome our immune system and cause damage. “Nonsense” she snorts again.

I know this is not a popular view, but I would love to see universities being proactive when faced with protesters like this – perhaps putting up their own placards and talking to passersby about the benefits of research and the lengths scientists go to to minimise suffering. It is clear that we can’t change the minds of the die-hard protesters, especially those that believe you can avoid cancer by not visiting the doctor and that infectious diseases are a myth**. But I believe most people are curious and will listen to both sides of the story. By remaining in our ivory towers we are missing opportunities to engage with the people who stop and talk to the protesters, and those who see their placards. Instead we create the impression we have something to hide. We don’t.

*Not reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmatic, or reduce, recycle, reuse…

**I am not saying for a minute that all anti-vivisectionists are as crazy (in my opinion) as the lady I spoke to.

0 Responses to “Meet the anti-vivisectionist”

  • You state, “Over 80% of the animals were exposed to manipulations which had no, virtually no, or little impact on the animals’ welfare. More than 70% of the animals were returned to their normal environment afterwards. In other words, not “murdered”.”

    So, not all were murdered. And “returned to their normal environment afterwards”??? Is a cage natural? Thousands upon thousands of animals live in cages in basements without natural light. Is being bred your entire life normal? Where do the cattle live? In a breeding facility? That is not normal either! And all these issues have major NEGATIVE impacts on those animals’ welfare. No living being wants to live a life in a cage.

    Does NZ not test on any monkeys? Are there no monkeys in cages there? Maybe not, but there are millions all over the world being stolen from their natural, wild world and families and flown to basement labs to live in cages and be poked, burned, injected, dehydrated, infected, brains exposed and electric wires implanted, etc. Since universities and experimenters are not transparent about what species they are testing on and what they are doing to them, we can only use the pictures we have. This woman was standing up for all animals, regardless of what picture she was holding. If you have nothing to hide, show us your labs, the animals you are testing on, the actual protocols of the experiments, etc.

    Vivisectors can continue to spread their lies to make it seem that everything they do is humane, but the bottom line is that they keep millions and millions of animals in cages their entire lives to be bred, manipulated, poked and murdered. And one massive storm from Mother Nature will likely kill them all (as it has many times before) because there is no way to save thousands of animals in a short time, especially when they are not a priority.

    This woman was not crazy. She is compassionate.

  • So the animals go right back in the wild? No, they go back in a cage so they can be used yet again. Please. You cherry pick her information as well. There are all kinds of alternatives out there. Doubt they bring in as much grant money though. Do some research as well. Read the NY Times article showing that after 10 years of killing mice in the search for solutions to sepsis, all they figured out was how to help sepsis in mice. Not one human health benefit. Penicillin wouldn’t make it out of animal testing today. The evidence is mounting and becoming more and more public: animal testing, with the differences in physiology, does nothing to help humans. Any miracle drug is pure luck. The number of drugs that fail in humans dwarf those that make it to market, and every one of those has a list of side effects that can’t fit on the bottle. Why? Because none of that shows up in non-humans.

  • Ok, I’ll start by clarifying that I don’t think the woman I spoke to is crazy because she was compassionate. I think she is crazy because she doesn’t believe infection exists.

    Regarding the statement that animals are returned to their normal environment afterwards – the majority of animals this refers to are cattle, and these are returned to the farm.

    I agree with Jodie about the lack of transparency being a problem. That is why I have always talked openly about my research and methods. All people like Jodie and Jim can imagine are rooms of animals screaming in pain, and the smell of death everywhere. But it’s just not like that. That is not only bad for the animals but bad for the science.

    Yes scientists around the world keep millions and millions of animals in cages. But the majority of these are rodents and they are kept humanely. Many children’s pets are kept in much more stressful environments.

    And as for Jim’s comments about us not being interested in alternatives, that’s not true either. Apart from the clear ethical imperative to replace, reduce, refine, many alternatives are cheaper. I’ve replaced a lot of my animal use with zebrafish embryos and caterpillars. I’m guessing Jodie and Jim will disagree with us using them too. In which case, what do they want us to use instead?

    I also think it is worth separating the use of animals as a legislative requirement, eg to get drugs approved, and the use by animals in fundamental research. Scientists have limited influence over legislators.

  • Jim Devereux
    If you are going to complain that some one is cherry picking (and I think Siouxsies last post shows that she isn’t) then it is probably best that you don’t cherry pick a couple examples where animal testing hasn’t worked, don’t you think?
    Siouxsie has also clearly stated the philosophy of replacement, refinement and reduction which shows that many scientists are trying to minimise the number of animals used in experiments.

  • While there are no doubt some intelligent and informed anti-vivisectionists, I guess it is often the crazy ones that get the publicity, for example those that threaten and harass researchers and families.
    My PhD supervisor received a threatening letter when our lab had never used or needed to use any type of animal.

  • From Jim,

    “Any miracle drug is pure luck”

    No actually most miracle drugs have millions of hours of research time behind them. And new techniques such as computer modeling and cell cultures have reduced the number of animals used.

  • If cattle make up over half of the animals used, that means there are still 150,000 or so living in cages. Regardless of what species they are, it’s inhumane. And animals die in laboratories. They are used until they are killed or die, so it may not happen every second, but there are definitely animals crying in pain or from fear, moaning and dying and those other animals can sense it. They can also probably see it sometimes.

    Many animals in shelters are typically scared in their cages, yet the people who work there do so because they love animals and are trying to comfort them, make sure they are/get healthy and adopted into a good home. Living in a cage where you cannot escape is scary and if shelter animals are frightened, we can be certain most lab animals are as well.

    I’m glad you agree on the transparency, but until the public is made aware of the experiments and the outcomes, we will deduct what’s happening based on the numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act that come out nearly every day including primates being scalded to death in cage washers, mice being sealed alive in a plastic baggie, deprivation of food and water without proper approval, unapproved euthanization methods, and on and on.

    So, if you wonder why people like Jim and I think the way we do, it’s because we are seeing the USDA slap fines on some of the most prestigious universities all the time for these cruelties. If this negligence and suffering is so common at Harvard, UCLA, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, etc., I can only imagine how animals are treated at smaller labs where there is even less oversight.

    Re. your question of what to use instead, there are some amazing advances out there, but here are just a few examples:

    Chris Austin, director of the Chemical Genomics Center for the National Institutes of Health. (Re. animal testing) That process is slow, it’s expensive, it is not necessarily predicative of human toxicity, and it’s become increasingly discouraged by the public. He said the new method grows cells on small trays. Each tray may have over 1,500 different chambers, each chamber holding just a few cells to be tested. Robots working 24/7 quickly handle and process the information, which translates to whether a chemical might be harmful to a human being.

    “Synthetic stem cell scaffolding has the potential to change the lives of thousands of people, suffering from diseases such as Parkinson’s, diabetes and heart disease, as well as vision and hearing loss. It could lead to cheaper transplant treatments and could potentially one day allow us to produce whole human organs without the need for donors.”

    “The development of the Direct Peptide Reactivity Assay (DPRA) marks a milestone in overcoming the need for animal testing,” he says. Schlatter explains that it also makes more business sense to use alternatives as they are faster, and often cheaper and more accurate than animal tests when it comes to establishing the safety of ingredients.

    Caroline Lappetito, a spokeswoman for Whitehouse Station-based Merck says the company decided late last year to stop research on chimpanzees because “the science has advanced and we don’t really need it.”

    If chimpanzees, who share 99% or so of human DNA, are not a good model for human health according to Merck and 2 dozen other big pharma companies, how are your zebrafish and caterpillars going to advance human health?

    • Hi Jodie

      Ok, we are just going to have to disagree on whether it is inhumane to keep things like rodents in cages. And labs aaren’t shelters so you have made some big leaps from what animals in shelters are like to those in labs. But I’ll try to address some of your other points. I’ll start by saying that my experience relates to the use of rodents, who make up the majority of animals used worldwide, and so that is what my comments relate to. I am also talking about using rodents in research not toxicity testing. My experience also relates to rodent use in the UK and New Zealand, not the USA.

      You say that animals are definitely crying in pain or fear, moaning and dying. This is not true. Approvals require the use of pain relief and there are strict endpoints in place so that animals aren’t left to die, but are humanely euthanised.

      Regarding the alternatives you have listed, they mostly relate to toxicity or ingredient testing, so are not really relevant to the kind of stuff I do, which is studying infectious diseases.

      You are misrepresenting the view of Merck and companies when you say that they stopped using primates because they are not a good model for human health. They stopped because of a mixture of cost, pressure and their obligation to find an alternative. Not the same thing at all. I’m also a little surprised by your remark about how zebrafish and caterpillars are going to advance human health. I am interested in finding drugs that can get to bacteria and kill them when they are inside cells. The zebrafish are proving a great way to do this.

  • A pleasure! I really loved your account of talking to the placard-waver, and your level of patient and good faith engagement is amazing. Thanks on behalf of we-who-lurk-in-ivory-towers-more-than-we-should.

  • “things like rodents”…

    Rodents aren’t things. And neither are cats, dogs, rabbits, horses, birds, aquatic species, possums and other farm animals that are being experimented upon, according to the chart you posted. They are living, feeling beings capable of joy, pain, fear, sympathy, etc. If you do not know that, then you are not paying attention to many animal experiments that have shown that. I cannot help but feel that you have little, if any, empathy for ‘rodents’ based on a few of your statements. I would hope all animal experimenters have the utmost respect for the animals they are experimenting on, but I know that is definitely not true based on a wealth of documentation of experimenters intentionally harming the animals who are the very reason for their livelihood.

    So, animals never die on their own? I find that very hard to believe especially with the numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act in the U.S. (“the green monkeys’ teeth were knocked out by “improper use of a pole” in June 2012, according to a letter from Robert R. Twilley, then vice president for research at Louisiana-Lafayette. He said the New Iberia Research Center worker who injured the animals was immediately placed on administrative leave and fired within weeks. The baby rhesus monkey died after paralysis and numbness spread from its left leg to both legs.” (; “Animal death due/euthanasia due to a fractured pelvis, and a 10 month denial of adequate pain relieve to 30 animals.” (;
    a cage of mice being left on a hot plate and the animals literally cooking to death; numerous instances of animals dying from dehydration (

    It’s true I do not know about similar violations in the UK and NZ since I do not live there, but if animal experiments are taking place, there likely are animal deaths from negligence and cruelty, just as there are here. Regardless, even if an animal is humanely euthanized, it’s still killing the animal.

    (The following 4 paragraphs are from a recent article entitled “The Futility of Animal Experimentation”)

    A couple of real life examples, both taken from Bernard Rollin’s insightful book ‘Animal Rights and Human Morality’, highlight the problem. The first involves mice and the experience of shock. In order to gain insight into the human experience of shock, scientists have long traumatized mice and studied their “microcirculatory shock profile.”

    Put aside for now the question of the experiment’s utility, and consider something even more problematic: scientists simply assumed that all mice yet to be traumatized by the scientists were starting from the same emotional/physiological baseline. In essence, that they were all passive objects awaiting human action within the framework of an experiment designed to induce trauma.

    In point of fact, as Rollin himself had to remind members of the Shock Society (yes, there’s a Shock Society), the mere act of picking up a mouse and shifting it a few feet into position initiates a shock response. Scientists who might have been rearranging animal subjects for clinical traumatization would have been unwittingly already traumatizing their subjects, thereby screwing up the results and rendering the entire experiment, not to mention the harsh treatment of the rodents, totally pointless.

    Hence we come to what may very well be the inherent problem of animal experimentation: because we can never predict how an inarticulate animal capable of experiencing fear or pain or distress will react to the almost incalculable and endlessly subtle stimuli of any scientific environment, we can never fully trust the experimental results.

    I am not misrepresenting Merck. The spokeswoman clearly stated, “the science has advanced and we don’t really need it.”

    Outdated experiments on chimpanzees did not cure AIDS, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, infections or any human afflictions. Chimps are being phased out because they ARE NOT a good model for human disease after being experimented upon for decades. You can be sure that if chimpanzee experiments were leading to cures, costs and public pressure would simply not matter.

    This will be my last post for a few reasons. It is your blog, and I respect that and I thank you for the open dialogue and discussion.

    • Thanks Jodie for the discussion.

      I apologise for my careless language. I do indeed know that animals are living creatures capable of all the things you describe. That’s why I promised myself that the day I no longer bothered about the animals in my care I would stop using them. It is why as a group leader I still physically take part in this side of our research, rather than leaving it to others to do.

      And I believe you are misrepresenting Merck. It’s a bit of a jump from the spokeswoman’s statement to your premise that they animals are not a good model. But we will just have to agree to disagree.

  • Jodie

    “Outdated experiments on chimpanzees did not cure AIDS, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, infections or any human afflictions”

    I think you are generalising here – while some uses of chimpanzees (and other animals) may have been unnecessary (something that often can only be found in retrospect) there have been benefits for example, the study of SIDS did contribute to the understanding of AIDS (which although a cure has not yet been developed, is now much more treatable than it used to be)

  • If you are saying there is a “clear ethical imperative to replace, reduce, refine” animal experiments then you are at the very least ambivalent about it yourself. So….why do you argue for it as if animal experiments are the moral equivalent of making a pot of tea for Grandma???

  • I’m sorry Paul but I don’t understand your comments. You say I am ambivalent about the 3Rs, but this is not true. My career has been based on applying the 3Rs to infectious diseases research so I’m not sure what gave you this impression. I also don’t understand where the comparison to making a pot of tea comes from.