13 / 11 / 2023
Reflections on an animal facility visit
Written by FRAME CEO Celean Camp following a visit to an animal house
Visiting the animal house
I love animals and deeply believe we need to move to a position where we can ease human suffering without causing animal suffering. So, travelling on my way home from my first visit to a large establishment animal facility, I can’t help but feel sad – and honestly a little nauseous (but then I’m a bit of a wimp). Intellectually, the visit was fascinating and I am incredibly grateful to the staff who showed us around and were so open about their work. While animal research sadly continues to happen I am pleased that there are people involved who do care about the welfare of laboratory animals. I saw rats in double height cages so they can stretch freely, got to see the lovely play space they had for enrichment, and heard about the way in which the technicians investigated what it was that was causing mice to be anxious about a new piece of equipment and how they could help (allowing them time to explore it in a group with their cage mates). In discussing their processes and procedures, they more than once mentioned the responsibility researchers carry when dealing with life and death decisions for these animals. I was particularly glad to hear that they have implemented enhanced post project reporting, requiring researchers to reflect retrospectively on their research and consider whether they felt the project had in fact delivered the intended benefits for the harm caused (a judgement of harm and benefit is part of the project approval process at the outset of any planned animal research).
Why was this visit important?
So why was it so important that we visited this facility, as surely we would rather it didn’t exist? I personally feel that when working in any sector it is imperative to be informed about that sector, to talk to the people doing the work, and to keep that information up to date. You can’t preach change from the outside. At least not if you want to make a difference; you have to be willing to listen to understand.
The second reason for me is to be reminded that there is more that unites us than we think. I know I could not do their work. But I also know that none of the people I met at this establishment or at similar events and visits, wants to harm animals. They would much rather be able to answer their research questions in other ways. Generally, they like animals. Their own assessment of the harm to the animals vs the benefit to humanity of the research is just different than mine. And being able to engage in respectful discussion generates food for thought on both sides. I was reminded how much in vitro and modelling work many researchers have done before they move to animals (it’s never black and white), and how critical it is to change the need, or perceived need, for in vivo work in order to be published in the most prestigious journals. I was also able to make suggestions about how to raise awareness of possible alternatives and replacements within the institution, since much potentially relevant research happens in areas that don’t ever consider themselves as “replacements” or “3Rs”.
How do we create change?
It is crystal clear whenever we engage with academic institutions that the twin drivers of research behaviour are funding and publication. As such it is imperative that funders engage reviewers with a range of methodological expertise to assess proposals. We would also like to see the bar set much higher by funders in terms of the evidence of likely translational validity that should be provided in grant applications to justify the proposed methodology. On publication, FRAME is involved in a consortium project examining animal reliance bias in publication and what additional support can be provided to authors, reviewers and editors to mitigate this. Every effort should be made to address any identified source of bias in order that research published is of the highest quality and the published evidence base accurately reflects the actual state of knowledge in a given field. This is just good science, but is especially important in order to destroy the straw man of animal research as “the gold standard”.
The final point that came crashing home to me today was the importance of institutional leadership and buy in. Staff we met described challenges with getting senior leadership engaged with the issue (as advised as part of the National Centre for 3Rs self-assessment tool) despite this being considered an establishment that was quite well developed in this area. Strategy, policies and procedures are being driven by those who work with animals – the faculty managers, senior technicians and named persons – and there is only so far they can go. As is always the case refinement and to a lesser extent reduction measures (such as good experimental design) are significantly easier to implement and monitor, as they are within the control of those staff. To develop this into an actual strategy for replacement requires an institutional perspective and a long (probably very long) term commitment. Hearing the extent to which people have to fight to get any aspect of 3Rs work recognised makes me incandescent. After all, there is a legal obligation to ensure that work with animals is only considered where there is no scientifically suitable alternative. Animal research is not the norm it is the last – very last – resort. Yet there is no institutional support or strategy in place for helping researchers to adhere rigorously to this requirement, nor any long term vision for transitioning away from animal use as the science develops.
I see the same division playing out in policy circles, with strategy about the use of animals in science being developed by the Animals in Science Policy Coordination Unit advised by the Animals in Science Committee, and strategy for non-animal methods happening, well… somewhere else. No-one really knows. We have been arguing that it is impossible for the Home Office to discharge its responsibility in respect of replacement as the first and most important means of protecting animal welfare, without joining these two strands up. It isn’t possible for those steering and authorising the use of animals to know in which fields the science has moved to a point where replacement is possible without having a continual dialogue from experts in those new methodologies. Currently however this doesn’t happen and the two conversations take place entirely separately.
So I move from being sad to being mad. Thinking how important it is to keep prioritising replacement, to keep lines of communication open, and to keep the conversation going about how to solve this problem together.