In recent days, the issue of research animals transport has once again come to the fore in the UK, with increasingly vocal and heated crossfire between animal-rights activists and scientific researchers being the hallmark of the debate.
At the core of the issue is the increasing refusal, as reported in the Daily Telegraph and elsewhere, of ferry companies and airlines to carry live mice, rats and rabbits intended for scientific research, following pressure from animal-rights campaigners.
UK Science Minister David Willetts has said that “it would be a pity” if the animal-transportation process was forced to be handed over to the military but, with Stena Line reportedly now having followed DFDS Seaways and P&O Ferries in prohibiting the carriage of test animals and thus closing the last available sea route for medical, researchers are despairing of the situation, given that no UK-based airline nor the Channel Tunnel operators will operate such a service.
The proportion of imported animals used in UK research is relatively small, but researchers stress that access to genetically modified strains bred overseas is vital for certain advanced research techniques. According to scientists, as they strive to improve understanding of diseases and to develop new treatments and cures, alternatives to using animals in research are sometimes not available. Moreover while the vast majority of animals used in the UK for research are bred in the UK, modern scientific research is highly collaborative and global. For example in certain research programmes it is essential that scientists share specific genetic strains of animals, which take a long time to breed. If their transport is stopped then researchers will have to recreate them, requiring the unnecessary use of many more animals over successive generations.
Most headlines put it stridently, with ‘not importing animals puts human lives at risk’ being the gist – Willetts, also speaking with BBC Radio 4's Today programme said that it was is “a serious problem that we do need to tackle”. He added that Britain should be proud of the fact that it developed many of the world's top drugs, and that scientists carrying out animal testing needed to be done so in carefully-controlled conditions complying to "high standards of animal welfare", which the UK Home Office is also very keen to stress. The European Commission, citing Regulation 1/2005, is also keen to stress the “effective monitoring tools in place”. So what are the animal rights campaigners trying to stop?
Essentially, research-animal transport supporters are asserting that a moratorium, as has been actively supported by animal rights groups, would in fact not improve animals’ welfare, given that longer routes and organisations with less experience would have to be used.
So which way now? Scientists are adamant that stopping the transport of animals would harm UK medical research but, with an issue that is as emotive as animal testing, and its opponents seemingly not prepared to budge an inch, Britain’s already overstretched armed forces may soon find themselves providing an unusual kind of taxi service.
Is this kind of animal rights activism improving or aggravating the welfare of animals? What’s your view?