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Conservation is animal research

5 September 2014

Posted by: Liz Harley

Category: Staff blog

badger.jpgLiz Harley, Policy and Communications Officer, looks at the animal research behind UK conservation, and argues that it is impossible to support one and be opposed to the other.

In a recent statement, the BUAV expressed concern “over the use of British wildlife in experiments”. Their Chief Executive, Michelle Thew, commented that "we believe the public will be shocked to learn that some of this country’s cherished wild animals are… being subjected to experiments”. They go on to describe a series of studies all licensed by the Home Office in 2013 and conducted on a range of UK mammals. While giving exhaustive detail of the procedures themselves they make no reference to why these studies were being done.

If you take a moment to read through the examples provided by the BUAV and go even further to look at other examples of recently licensed projects in which wild animals were used, a common theme begins to emerge. These were predominantly conservation studies.

Conservation is one of those funny areas of animal research that highlights a serious pitfall in the antivivisection argument. On the one hand, we want to protect and conserve endangered species. But sometimes this involves conducting research using those animals. These studies are designed to understand everything from their behaviour to their basic physiology in the hope that we can identify how to safeguard their populations from extinction. All fine so far, except that these studies can involve capturing wild animals, and subjecting them to procedures that may cause pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm.

The South East Asian vulture crisis is a prime example. Vulture species in South East Asia have been in serious decline for the last two decades following exposure to a veterinary painkiller called diclofenac. Diclofenac was identified as the culprit first through autopsies on dead birds, and then by actually feeding the drug to captive animals. These four captive birds rapidly sickened and died, but thanks to these early studies conservation organisations are now able to work with governments and drug regulators around the world to undo the damage that has been done to vulture populations. Without that research vulture populations would still be declining, and no one would have a clue why or how to fix the problem.

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Many of the UK’s “cherished wild animals” are under threat as a result of habitat loss, climate change and human activities. Bats, which are mentioned by the BUAV statement, are a key example; until quite recently the UK bat population had been in severe decline, although in recent years there are encouraging signs that key species like the Greater Horseshoe and the Common Pipistrelle are beginning to increase in numbers.

When animal numbers decline rapidly there is a serious risk of inbreeding, leading to greatly reduced genetic diversity and a host of serious degenerative illnesses. The study criticised by the BUAV was designed to address this, as part of an on-going study of genetic changes in bat populations to find out how bad the problem is. The bats had a 3mm piece of wing tissue removed in order to collect genetic data. Armed with this information, it is possible to design more effective ways to mitigate the effects of inbreeding. Much like the vultures, we have to understand the problem in order to fix it.

Another example that has not failed to capture the public imagination recently is that of the badger, possibly the UK’s number one “cherished wild animal”. In response to the badger culls intended to curb the spread of bovine tuberculosis, hundreds of campaigners marched through London waving placards that proclaim “Vaccinate Don’t Eliminate”. Many animal rights groups who also campaign for an end to animal research have made their anti-cull position unquestionably clear.

Perhaps surprisingly, none of these placard-wavers ever stopped to think where a wildlife vaccine comes from. Thankfully, the Home Office non-technical summaries (from which the BUAV have taken their information about wildlife experiments) can provide the answer. In 2013 a project license was granted for “Oral vaccine research studies in badgers”, conducted on behalf of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and involving the use of up to 80 captive badgers. The study intended to determine how effective the vaccine is in badgers, and the best way to administer it to the animals. Badgers in the study were fed the vaccine orally, placed under general anaesthetic to collect tissue and fluid samples, and at the end of the study those animals used to test the efficacy of the vaccine were humanely killed. If we want to vaccinate badgers against tuberculosis, or if we want to find out which drug is killing vultures, this is the work that has to be done.

When discussing the costs and benefits of animal research in terms of human health, the arguments tend to have a very utilitarian base. For example, insulin was discovered using twelve dogs, and has gone on to save the lives of millions of humans around the world. So here is the unique, utilitarian dilemma posed to antivivisection campaigners. Eighty badgers for a vaccine, or thousands in a cull? 5000 bats (who were not killed during the study) to safeguard a population totalling hundreds of thousands? Four vultures, or the extinction of a species.

I believe that the UK public would be far more surprised, and perhaps even a little pleased, to learn the extent to which our cherished wild animals both at home and across the world have actually benefitted from animal research.

Another example of conservation orientated animal research: Monitoring pollution with otters

Last edited: 8 October 2014 09:45