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South Africa, World, Maverick Life, Sci-Tech

Science and animal testing – a minefield of necessity and emotion

We have all seen pictures of distressed animals in laboratories.  We have all read stories about activists getting radically militant. So what exactly is animal testing all about, and why is it legal in South Africa? By SHAUN SWINGLER.

“My close friends know what I do, but I’ve known them for years. You don’t go and tell strangers… You just don’t talk about it.”

Dr Rob Smith isn’t talking about an illicit activity or criminal act. He’s talking about his legally sanctioned job.

Smith is a pharmacological researcher who has spent the last two decades working in animal testing, an area whose emotional and perceptional minefields are clearly not lost on him.

Animal testing is a legal requirement in South Africa. Once a substance has the potential to be prescribed for human use, it needs to be tested on animals first, from zinc ointments for dermatitis to gemcitabine for chemotherapy. This does not include cosmetics testing (animal testing for most cosmetics research is banned in the UK and most of the EU).

South Africa’s current medico-legal framework has animal testing at its centre. But images of suffering animals in deplorable conditions have come to define public perception on what this industry involves. Those images have fuelled a worldwide anti-animal testing movement powered by people who are ready to kill for their cause.

Hailing from England, Smith came to South Africa to design and commission laboratories for the University of Cape Town. His two-year contract turned into six and a half years at the institution. He then took up a position at Stellenbosch University. There he acted as the vice-chair of the Animal Care and Use Committee. After nearly eight years at Stellenbosch, Smith left academia for industry.

It’s difficult to quantify just how many animals are used in testing annually, but estimates run from tens of millions to hundreds of millions worldwide. In the UK alone, more than 3.7 million animals were used as test subjects in 2010. If the animal rights activists are to be believed, the animal testing industry is responsible for abominable violations of these creatures’ most fundamental rights.

Animal research in South Africa has been criticised by Animal Rights Africa as being non-accountable, secretive and exploitative.

“It’s not non-accountable,” Smith says, laughing. “The NSPCA is by law the government-mandated authority for animal welfare.”

Smith’s claims are supported by the NSPCA.

According to Esté Kotzé, deputy CEO of the NSPCA: “The NSPCA sits on the ethics committees of 80% of universities in South Africa and we conduct inspections in the university facilities too. We haven’t had any problems gaining access to these university facilities so far.”

The NSPCA’s 2011 annual report states that the Research Ethics Unit inspected a total of 38 research facilities during the year with 11 follow-up inspections, ensuring that all research institutes under the NSPCA’s supervision adhere to protocol and act responsibly.

Smith explains that all university ethics committees are now registered with the department of health, providing national oversight to the testing industry and ensuring that all ethics committee personnel are appropriately trained and qualified. In December 2008, South Africa introduced a national standard from the SABS which outlines in detail the procedures for the use of animals for scientific purposes.

“South Africa has come to the party a little later than a lot of other countries,” says Smith, “but it’s come to the party now with what is possibly the best and most up-to-date set of laws and standards in the world. It took five years to get them together – that’s how much effort went into it.”

“The reason it might seem to be secretive, and I do take their point, is because we do not openly advertise or publish what is going on,” he admits, “You can see what animal work is going on just by doing a web search, but I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point in South Africa when universities willingly publish their animal usage figures.”

Why is this?

“It simply boils down to the fact that people do get beaten up, facilities do get broken into, stuff does get vandalised, and animals do get ‘liberated’. It causes a huge amount of damage. It’s not that we want to be secretive. I would love to be able to talk to people about the animal research I’ve done over the last 20-odd years, but I can’t because it’s an emotive issue and a lot of people don’t want to know.”

Has Smith personally had any bad experiences with animal rights activists?

“In the UK we had some problems when I was at a pharmaceutical company. At one stage we used to have weekly briefings from the police. They had an undercover operation with some of the activist groups. This was because the company was targeted on a fairly regular basis with letter bombs and petrol bombs, and the facilities were broken into and animals liberated.

“We had a couple of big bomb scares. We were advised to drive home different ways each day, and were shown how to check our cars to make sure someone hadn’t slipped a car bomb underneath it while you were in the pub or while you were doing your shopping. The company actually intervened and paid for security systems to be installed in researcher’s homes with panic button links to the local police stations. It’s worse in the States though. Researchers get killed on a fairly regular basis there.”

Smith says the constant barrage of threats made him think “seriously about whether or not it’s worth carrying on”.

“But you soon realise that if you don’t do it, then somebody else will because, unfortunately, there is a legal requirement for it to happen.”

While his work life has been shaped by the prospect of violence, the nature of his job has also affected his personal life – and, inevitably perhaps, led to more than a few awkward moments at social occasions.

“One of the things I’m often asked is how I can work on animals and then go home and have pets,” Smith says, fiddling with his wedding ring. “I just switch off. What you do at work stays at work. Personally, I use the commute to and from work to switch off. Other people have other ways of coping, but you have to do something.”

Smith, a self-confessed animal lover, explains that he never developed an attachment to any of the animals he worked with. “It’s always been a job. [My animals at home are] pets. The animals I used to work with were ‘work’. It doesn’t mean that you treated them any differently.

“When you’re working with animals you have to be committed to it. You don’t have the luxury of buggering off and leaving your animals to someone else because you don’t know how they are going to treat them, or how the animals are going to respond to a different person.”

“If you do a six-month study working with animals, you’re working seven days a week for six months,” he says. “No holiday, no break, no leave, you can’t be sick. You can’t stop. You’re on call 24/7.”

He doesn’t readily admit that he works in animal testing.

“It’s something that we tried to impress upon our students not to talk about outside of their peer groups,” Smith says. “What we don’t want them to do is to start blabbing about it one night in the pub when there’s liberal arts students around because they’re going to get into trouble.”

The tight-lipped approach that many researchers adopt seems to serve as a survival mechanism for them and their families. It probably seems safest to put their heads down and stay out of trouble.

Toni Brockhoven, public liaison for Beauty Without Cruelty, states, however, that BWC is “unaware of any researchers in South African being persecuted”.

Brockhoven argues: “Animal rights activists’ use of destructive action is not the same as violence (destruction is property damage) and to date, as far as the Animal Liberation Front is concerned, no human has ever been injured – this would be completely contrary to their policy of non-violence. Beauty Without Cruelty has never employed destructive or violent tactics.”

Smith is not outwardly critical of all animal rights groups.

“I don’t mind Peta,” says Smith about People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “I don’t see them as extremist. Even I’m not particularly fond of the fur industry and clubbing baby seals to death. But when it comes to the development of medicines for the improvement of human and animal health then they must butt out. The law says that we have to use animals. It’s as simple as that. If they want to, they should petition for changes in the law.”

Smith argues that animal rights groups need to avoid blatant propaganda and violent tactics.

The UK-based Animal Rights Militia (ARM), a splinter group of the Animal Liberation Front, does not have the same ideals in mind. Among numerous acts of aggression, the ARM is notorious for its 2006 attack which culminated in four of its members being jailed, two of them receiving sentences of 12 years each. For six years the group systematically terrorised a farm which bred guinea pigs for medical research. The campaign involved the use of letter bombs, death threats, destruction of property and, ultimately, grave robbing.

Terrorism can be defined as an act of violence to further one’s ideological aims. While no one lost their life during this campaign, the fanaticism shown by these individuals is comparable to an act of terrorism. One could argue that their actions are hypocritical and are in stark contrast to their supposed goal of relieving the suffering of all sentient beings. While these groups believe their actions are justifiable, many do not view them favourably. In April 2009, Daniel Andreas, a militant animal rights activist, was placed on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists for his part in the 2003 bombing of a California biotechnology lab. He is still on the run.

Smith maintains that it is more constructive for animal rights activists to focus their energy on lobbying for changes to the current legislation and working to raise funds for replacements to animal testing. That way the medical research still gets done, and fewer animals are harmed in the process.

“There are charities in the UK who are all about trying to reduce the number of animals in testing by fundraising and promoting research into alternatives. So, there are organisations out there that I fully support because they put their money where their mouth is.”

Those who view animal testing as a necessary evil generally cling to the principle of the three Rs: reduction, replacement and refinement. Reduction focuses on testing methods which reduce the amount of animals used; replacement focuses on methods which find alternatives to the animal model; and refinement focuses on methods which aim to decrease the amount of pain, stress and discomfort animals feel during testing.

According to Smith, along with lobbying for changes to the legislation, focusing efforts on the principle of the three Rs is key to creating a responsible and humane testing environment.

But what about the “blatant propaganda”? It’s hard to look at pictures of these animals without feeling like you’ve witnessed gross violations of their rights.

“They show the most horrific picture of somebody picking up [Chris Barnard’s] baboon with a big scar down its chest. What they don’t understand is that led to the first heart transplant.” 

I still find it difficult to come to terms with this view. What about the claims of exploitation and maltreatment made by animal rights groups? Surely the stories of neglected lab animals that have resorted to self-mutilation and other harmful behaviours are not just another example of stories taken out of context?

“That’s a welfare issue. It’s not so much of a problem with smaller animals: rats, mice guinea pigs, rabbits. It becomes more of a problem with larger animals, particularly with primates. They are intelligent, they have free will, and they can communicate in a similar way to humans so they need a lot more stimulation and care. There is a lot more responsibility involved with primates.

Because there’s more responsibility, there’s more cost.”

And do some institutions or researchers not uphold this responsibility?

“They try their damndest to uphold their responsibility, but they do not necessarily have the resources to provide the best environment.” Smith goes on to explain that primate testing facilities become significantly more expensive because they require more staff to provide support and enrichment to the animals. And this expense is sometimes one which certain institutions can’t afford.

The image of a white-coated scientist forcing mascara into the red and watering eyes of a clearly terrified rabbit is one that has dominated the movement against animal testing. But Smith is quick to point out that this type of cosmetics testing – unlike the testing of medicines – is not legally necessary. And he clearly despises the idea that the quest for perfect skin or frizz-free hair can be used by the beauty industry to justify this stomach-turning abuse of animals.

“If people are stupid enough to wear cosmetics then they should take the consequences,” Smith says. “If you want to stick mascara on your eyes and your eyes get inflamed then that’s your own fault. For cosmetics I think you can get away with testing in humans. It’s also a lot cheaper. I don’t think you need to do it in animals.”

Smith also maintains that it is wrong to differentiate between the types of animals being tested. In his eyes, “A mouse is the same as a chimpanzee: it’s a research subject and they all deserve to be treated exactly the same way. If you’re going to work with animals, you’re going to work with animals. You shouldn’t draw distinctions because it creates problems.”

World Animals in Laboratories Day is held on 24 April each year. It’s an event aimed at raising the public’s awareness of the plight of millions of animals in labs around the world. I ask Smith whether he thinks these initiatives make a difference.

He pauses, considering his response, “They make the individuals who care about the animals feel better. But hopefully it will also get institutions to take their responsibility a bit more seriously. [And if offending institutions] become more publicly accountable, I’m all for it. Because at the end of the day it’s all about animal welfare.”

There seems to be a small but active community of animal rights activists in South Africa. A quick Google search leads one to the Facebook page of the South African Animal Rights Activists Community. With nearly 3,500 “likes”, the group functions as a platform for activists to share information that promotes a vegetarian and vegan lifestyle, and to advertise events in line with the group’s ideals.

One of these, organised by Beauty Without Cruelty, is set to coincide with World Animals in Laboratories Day. There will be a week dedicated to awareness-raising events in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. This will include information stands, flashmobs, live bands, and even the opportunity to get the BWC logo permanently tattooed on your body for free – Brockhoven has already shown me hers.

The animal rights movement in South Africa appears to be made up of a group of passionate, dedicated but ultimately peaceful individuals who have yet to adopt the radical and aggressive tactics of those abroad. These individuals embody the cause they are striving towards. Rather than planting car bombs and destroying property, they show dedication to their ideals through peaceful protest and stylised bunny tattoos.

Perhaps there is a larger underlying issue at the heart of this ethical minefield. For members of the public to reach an informed opinion on animal testing they need to be provided with the facts and they need to be educated on what the current medico- legal framework requires. As Smith points out, however, scientists are not generally known for their public relations abilities.

“We’re not particularly good at explaining why we do the things we do. Maybe we should come out and say, ‘I use animals because the law says I have to. I work at developing medicines for the benefit of humans and animals, and the law at the moment says that I have to test stuff in animals so I test stuff in animals. But I do it to the minimum number of animals possible and I do it responsibly.’”

But amid the placards and protests, amid a public debate that is dominated by images of brutalised animals in tiny cages, would any animal testing researcher be brave enough to put their hand up and explain their rationale of law and science?

And would anyone actually listen to them? DM

Photo: Activists from the animal rights group AnimaNaturalis wear rabbit masks as they protest against animal testing for cleaning products in Mexico City on 15 May 2011. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez.


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