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Picture This

4 November 2014

Posted by: Liz Harley

Category: Staff blog

mouse–injection.jpgIn today’s staff blog Policy and Communications Officer, Dr Liz Harley, argues that providing images of animal procedures is a vital part of openness. 

Earlier this year BBC Health Correspondent Fergus Walsh was invited to film a package inside the primate facility at the University of Oxford. His footage showed macaque monkeys in their normal housing, and one individual undergoing a psychological procedure that involved tapping different coloured discs for a food reward. Fergus explained that some of the monkeys had been given brain lesions that impacted on their performance in the task.

While many within the sector applauded this piece as an important step towards greater openness, the segment also drew criticism for showing a “sterilised” view of an animal procedure. Why, critics asked, did we not get to see the monkeys undergoing the surgery that gave them brain lesions? That surely would be true openness rather than a sterilised PR stunt?

monkeys–cage.jpgYes and no. Perfect openness would show all the procedures conducted using that animal, including all the less savoury parts. But the media are less interested in ‘true’ openness than they are in a perfect story. When it comes to press coverage, what makes it onto the television news will be at the discretion of the journalists and editors involved, not the animal facility.

It is very unlikely that you would see images of humans being cut open during surgery on the BBC 6 o’clock news, so it is equally unlikely that video of an animal being given a brain lesion or a surgical implant would be broadcast before watershed.

Images are a very powerful tool when talking about research. Even more so than words, and even more so in the age of Facebook. All it takes is one picture to inspire knee-jerk outrage, disgust and fury. Think about how many “sad” monkey pictures from 30 or 40 years ago still adorn the placards at anti-research demonstrations; or Double Trouble, the cat from UW-Madison in America wearing a sound-localisation head implant, whose pictures appeared recently splashed all over news articles about completely unrelated UK cat research; or the images captured in secret by the BUAV from inside UK research facilities. All it takes is a picture.

The internet is riddled with pictures tagged as animal research. Most of these are from animal rights groups and all of them claim to show the “reality” of animal research, complete with extra blood splatters. Stripped of their context, their date stamp, and emblazoned with emotive slogans, these images are often the first and only information available to an average member of the public who wants to see what these experiments actually look like. 

And the public are keen to find out what an experiment looks like. During an Ipsos MORI public dialogue, conducted to underpin the development of the Concordat on Openness, it became clear that written descriptions of experiments, however simple and stripped of their jargon, did not have the same impact on public understanding as images. The report notes that

“This was particularly key after participants watched the BUAV film… Participants felt they had little context for these distressing images and would have liked to know how far these were the norm, or how far these represented bad practice. Some said that showing more images would create a more informed view of what procedures actually involve.”

The move towards making images of responsible, current animal research publicly available has already begun. 

The MRC has a number of films taken inside its animal research facilities freely available via a YouTube channel. One of these includes footage of mice that are used to research into a condition called glue ear. The film shows mice undergoing a hearing test, which involves them being placed under a general anaesthetic. 

 

The Procedures With Care website, a collaboration between Newcastle University, the Institute of Animal Technology and the NC3Rs, shows a number of the most common animal procedures using mice and rats. While this website was produced as a training resource for researchers, the videos are some of the clearest demonstrations of what we mean by ‘best practice’.

UAR’s own website has several examples of video footage of animals undergoing procedures, and we are working to make more available. This example shows mice undergoing surgery as part of research into organ transplantation. In addition to the surgery images this film places the experiments within their context, as part of a wider research project to design better anti-rejection therapies. 

Ultimately, producing video footage ‘in house’ is the best opportunity that any institution has to present every facet of an animal procedure and the surrounding science, free from the agenda of a news outlet or an activist group. 

This option is not without its difficulties. After all, the most important outcome of an animal procedure is good scientific data and minimal animal suffering wherever possible, not a clear picture. But if the sector wants to answer its critics and show the public what is being done on their behalf then it is important to figure out how to capture those images without compromising on welfare or science.