Science - February 14, 2013

For the quality of animal life

The use of animals for scientific experiments is not without opponents. By being open about its experiments and improving its ethical testing, Wageningen UR aims to set an example. Which could mean ending research that causes too much animal suffering.

This cow was moved after a tweet: ‘I see a cow with a big hole in it @wageningen. #pitiful’
The difficulties posed for this organization by openness about animal experiments are exemplified by a tweet from a certain Esther Wouters. On 19 September last year, she tweeted a photo of a cow with a cannula [a tube into its stomach], saying: 'I see a cow with a big hole in it @ Wageningen. Does anyone know why that is? #pitiful'.  She received a reply from @wageningenur: 'Hole is a rumen cannula for research into the digestion of fodder in the rumen. Cows with cannulas get to graze in the fields too.' But the cow in question was promptly moved to a different field, out of sight of passers-by.
This case illustrates two of the problems you encounter if you try to be more open about animal experiments. One: the general public knows precious little about animal experiments. A cow with a hole in its side may look pitiful but that does not mean the animal is suffering.
The second problem is that openness can lead to an upsurge in animal activism (Wageningen UR was subjected to threats and vandalism in 2008 and 2009). We do animal experiments, but we don't say where. There is not a single signpost on campus pointing the way to animal housing or research.
These stumbling blocks are mentioned in a report on the use of animals in experiments published last week. Wageningen UR wants to set an example. The organization has already 'committed itself to rules of the game that go beyond the letter of the law' and wants to 'take this a step further.'
What does it mean to set an example in this context? In spite of the above mentioned stumbling blocks, Wageningen UR wants to be more open. From now on, therefore, the numbers of animals in use for experiments by DLO institutes are to be published. The university already did this, in line with the Law on Animal Experiments. Such transparency is a moral duty too - in annual reports but also in replying to the tweet about the cow with the cannula.
But there is more to it than that. The most far-reaching proposal is to take the suffering of animals into account in the drawing up the research programme. To confront the issue: should you not stop a line of research that causes a lot of animal suffering? Things have not reached this point yet, but the discussion is livening up.
One example is research on curbing obesity. Wageningen nutrition research focuses primarily on changing the diet, by cutting down on saturated fatty acids, for example. But you could also shift the emphasis to changing the choice of foods in favour of a healthier diet. Such a change of course would significantly reduce the number of animals used in experiments. Besides, there is already a little research on food choice going on at the Restaurant of the Future, by varying the recipes, the range on offer, the packaging, lighting and the route through the self-service area.
The plea for openness was written by Rob BurĂ© of the department of Safety and Environment. He points to animal research on intensive livestock farming. 'By raising production we have already made big profits there, but there is still a lot to be gained by improving animal welfare. The question is whether the animal research should focus on raising production or on improving living conditions for the animals. Because our mission is to contribute to the quality of life. That includes animals.'  
Rector magnificus Martin Kropff feels it would be going too far to alter the course of research programmes. He values the autonomy of the chair groups and science groups to plan their own lines of research. Kropff sees this report as the starting point for a discussion.
Eventually, the aim is for Wageningen UR to arrive at an organization-wide position on research using animal experiments. Test animal expert Rob Steenmans would applaud this. He advises one of the two Wageningen committees that evaluate animal experiments. 'The committee has to weigh up the value of the experiment to society against the expected distress for the animals. In research on livestock or on lifestyle, that always proves to be tricky. Strictly speaking, there is an alternative to obesity - namely to eat less. But of course, that is an oversimplification, which is why it is a good idea for a higher body to pass judgment on whether this type of research is relevant.'
Animal testing much more costly
It is soon going to be much more expensive to get permission to conduct animal experiments. The Law on Animal Experiments is due to change this year. To date, the ethical assessment is done by an Animal Experiments Committee (DEC), funded by the organization carrying out the research. This has now been forbidden by Brussels. The DECs are now to be external and are to be paid per application, currently around 400 euros. DLO researchers already passed on that cost to their clients, but university researchers will now have to pay it from their own budgets. But one application could include several different experiments, as the DEC is going to assess projects of maximum five years' duration.
What is more, a new evaluation process is to be set up. An Office for Animal Welfare within Wageningen UR is to assess an application before it goes to the external DEC. This new authority will check whether the proposed research could be done with less animal experimentation, and propose alternative experiments that cause less suffering. The Office for Animal Welfare is legally required to consist of one animal welfare specialist, one veterinary doctor and one scientist. Wageningen wants to add two more experts: a statistician and someone who works with animals. The applicant will foot the bill, estimated at between 800 and 100 euros.
Thanks to the Animal Rights Party
In February 2007, the Dutch animal rights party demanded to see the ethical assessments of the Dutch royal academy of science and several universities and research hospitals. This provoked a discussion about the code on transparency in animal experiments, which was signed by Wageningen UR among others. The use of animals is unavoidable but - says the code - it will improve the atmosphere around the subject of animal testing if you are open and honest about it.
This code led to a dialogue between universities and academic hospitals in Groningen, Nijmegen and Utrecht, Wageningen UR and the association that opposes animal testing. The dialogue produced a Wageningen memo about transparency and the dilemmas surrounding animal testing. Last week the executive board gave its stamp of approval to this report, in which four chair groups, the CVI, Alterra, Rikilt and the VHL Animal Management programme set a good example by describing their work with animals. In a sequel to the report, other groups and degree programmes are expected to give an account of themselves.