“300 animals a day tortured to death.” is pretty much how Paul Henry recently reported the figures on the use of animals for scientific research, teaching and testing in New Zealand.
A statement like that calls for some definite debunking!
This month the Ministry for Primary Industries released the 2014 figures on the animals used for research, teaching and testing in New Zealand.
You can read the report here but I’ve summarised it in FAQ form below. The NZ Anti-Vivisection Society (NZAVS) immediately put out a press release condemning the 38% increase in animals used compared to 2013 and the secrecy and lack of openness by publicly funded institutions using animals in New Zealand.
NZAVS executive director Stephen Mason joined Paul Henry to discuss the figures on his breakfast show. And that’s how we ended up with Paul Henry leaving his audience with the impression that scientists in New Zealand torture 300 animals to death every day.
Before I bust that assertion I want to get something straight. I totally agree with Stephen Mason about secrecy and a lack of openness. I’d love to see New Zealand adopt a similar concordat to that of the UK in which almost 100 institutions, charities and companies have committed to help the public understand more about animal research.
But here’s the thing. Scientists are not going to be open about their research when journalists like Paul Henry flippantly refer to their work as torture. If the public want scientists to step up, then they need to demand that the media stop spreading emotive misinformation.
I contacted Paul Henry’s producers and offered to talk about the 162 animals that aided my research efforts in 2014. I had a good chat with one of his team but then didn’t hear from them again. It’s a pity, as I was hoping to explain to Paul Henry the ethical framework we scientists work under: the 3Rs of replacement, refinement and reduction.
Essentially, if a suitable replacement to animals exists it should be used (replacement), but if not, experiments should be designed to use the least number of animals (reduction) while minimising any suffering (refinement). I was also hoping to explain all about animal ethics committees, the groups of scientists, vets and lay people that researchers have to get permission from to go ahead with their experiments.
I hope Paul Henry and his producers take me up on my offer one day, as he clearly has a lot to learn. In the meantime, here’s an FAQ with a little more info on the figures. All the tables below are taken from the MPI report I linked to above.
How many animals were used for research, teaching and testing in NZ in 2014?
Using Paul Henry’s accounting ‘system’ that would be 850 a day. The majority of these (almost 40%) were cattle and sheep, about a quarter (24%) were rodents and rabbits and about 15% were aquatic species, mainly fish. A more comprehensive list of the animals involved in shown in Table 1, alongside the percentage that died or where euthanised. I’ll explain a bit more about that below.
What were the animals used for?
The top 5 uses for animals in 2014 were:
- Basic biological research (24%)
- Veterinary research (19%)
- Teaching (17%)
- Animal husbandry (15%)
- Medical research (10%)
A broader list is shown in Table 2 below.
300 a day?
Where did Paul Henry’s figure of 300 a day figure come from?
That’s roughly 109,500, which I’m guessing refers to the 106,678 of the 310,287 animals that died or where euthanised during or after what are called ‘manipulations’, which is the phrase the government use for anything that is done to an animal as part of research, teaching or testing. This means things like surgery and injections, but it also refers to animals that are fed a particular diet or mated at a specific time. Almost all of these animals would have been humanely euthanised. A small number would have been ‘unexpected’ deaths, which are usually investigated by an animal welfare officer to find out if something was amiss.
That also means that 203,609 animals remained alive at the end of the manipulation. We can see from Table 1 that 99% of the cattle, cats, deer and reptiles and 97% of the dogs manipulated were not euthanised, compared to just 5% of guinea pigs, 3% of mice, 8% of rats and 9% of rabbits.
Were those animals really tortured to death?
Paul Henry repeatedly used very emotive language to describe the fate of the roughly 106,000 animals that were humanely euthanised. I think it’s fair to say that whatever the animals experienced, those who fundamentally disagree with the use of animals in research, teaching and testing would call it torture.
The government ranks manipulations into five grades based on ‘impact’ on the animal, and which range from ‘no or virtually no impact’, to ‘very high impact’. Below is the definition the government provides for each grading:
The NZAVS uses the phrase ‘suffering’ in place of ‘impact’. Table 3 shows the breakdown of the animals into each grade. The majority (258,469 [83%]) are listed as experiencing ‘no or virtually no impact’, or ‘little impact’. These will be animals that have been bred and then are euthanised to collect their tissues.* The rest of the animals (51,818 [17%]) fall into the remaining three categories. 8,555 (2.8%) animals are graded as ‘very high impact’, so in Paul Henry’s terms that’s more like 23 a day….
*For example, there are a number of research groups in New Zealand that are trying to develop mathematical models of how different organs work. These groups euthanise mice and rats for organs, like hearts and lungs, which are then experimented on and measured to provide data to build the models.