The case for animals in research

Published : Nov 22, 2002 00:00 IST

Animal rights activists are falsely counterposing humane ethics to good science. The Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals must be reformed if Indian science is not to be wantonly harmed.

"Atrocities hold no place in a country that is respected and honoured the world over as the birthplace of ahimsa."

IF you thought "atrocities" here referred to the insensate violence, including organised pogroms, periodically visited upon specific ethnic-religious groups in India, as in Gujarat, you are wrong. You would be equally mistaken to think that the term connotes what India's Dalits experience when hundreds of them are lynched or burnt alive every year, Jhajjar being the latest example (article on page 38).

In fact, the word pertains to "the millions of laboratory animals which in mute resignation are tortured, maimed, mutilated, bled and often killed". The unmistakable implication is that mutilation or vivisection is the normal fate of animals used in scientific experimentation in laboratories all over the world.

The CPCSEA, ever since it was reconstituted in 1996 under Maneka Gandhi as Minister of State for Environment and Forests, has attracted attention not so much for its "supervision" of animal experiments, not for laying down criteria for their "control", as for unleashing a series of confrontations with the country's scientific laboratories, especially in the biological sciences.

These include the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and Jawaharlal Nehru University and the National Institute of Immunology (NII), Delhi, as well as the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, the National Institute of Virology, Pune, the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad, the Institute of Chemical Biology, Kolkata and the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Bareilly.

Some of their experimental science programmes have virtually ground to a halt for example, at the NIN. The latest to join their ranks may be the NII, which was "raided" by CPCSEA-authorised inspectors on September 28. The raid, and the newspaper leaks that followed, gave the issue an especially contentious character.

The CPCSEA's confrontationist attitude is based on two premises, similar to the proposition that "millions of animals" are inevitably condemned to a cruel fate at the altar of science. The first premise is that there is something fundamentally irrational and unethical about the use of animals in scientific experimentation in the first place. And the second premise is that a great deal is wrong with the way animals are actually used in all Indian laboratories.

Both these propositions are open to question. First, experimentation with animals is neither irrational or unethical, nor unnecessary and redundant. A case can be made for minimising the use of animal-based experiments where a good substitute exists and for banning it altogether for trivial or "luxury" purposes as in testing cosmetics on rabbits' eyes. But that is a far cry from arguing for an outright ban.

Animal experimentation has been a necessary component of the process of advancing human knowledge of biological systems, and of the development of new drugs (for humans and for animals), new drug-delivery techniques and surgical cures. Science would not have established the foundations of anatomy and physiology, nor understood the processes of life, including the circulation of blood, or the basis of immunity and vaccination, without the work of people like William Harvey, Louis Pasteur, Edward Jenner and Joseph Lister, who used animals as well as human cadavers.

Contemporary research too needs experiments with animals to understand fully how, say, a drug works, what is the mechanism through which a living organism develops immune responses, and what side-effects medications may have. This cannot be done in virtual reality despite the recent advances in computing.

Ethically, it is defensible to use animal experimentation responsibly, rationally and humanely because it produces results that are in the larger interests of humanity, themselves related to life, well-being and freedom from disease. It is possible to argue that human beings have inherent rights, as we socially understand them, but that rights are conferred upon animals. The debate in modern ethics, as opposed to theology and medieval philosophy, is not focussed on questions such as, can animals reason, or can they talk. Rather, the central issue is, can and do they suffer?

The empirical answer is yes, and we must minimise that suffering. Adherence to this criterion in animal experimentation is in the overall interest of human beings and eventually animal species themselves.

THIS can be, and has been, done, over the years by researchers by following the "Three Rs" formula developed by zoologist M.S. Russell and microbiologist R.L. Burch in their book The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique: The three Rs are: replace animals by in-vitro methods where possible; reduce the number of animals in an experiment by more rigorous statistical treatment of data; and refine the experiment so as to cause less pain and distress. These three Rs have been adopted the world over as good laboratory practices. Scientists have developed testing methods such as bacterial cultures and cell lines, and the use of "lower" animals. They have also tried to minimise the pain animals suffer.

India's better laboratories follow the 1992 Guidelines for Care and Use of Animals in Scientific Research developed by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA). In such institutions, a large animal like monkeys or dogs cannot be bled except in the presence of a veterinarian. This does not apply to human subjects who are routinely bled (in small quantities) without medical supervision. Similarly, many animals have to be housed in a clean, comfortable, air-conditioned environment a facility denied to most of the human staff!

There is a case for improving these practices, not banning them. The proscription agenda has to do with animal liberation, which seems inspired by obscurantist or theological dogmas, and a projection of personal, individual, morality on to the larger society. For instance, an individual may choose to be vegetarian. There is an ecological and resource-conservation case for not eating meat breeding which consumes 10 times its weight in vegetable biomass. But it would be totally unethical to impose vegetarianism upon society as a whole.

Yet, India's animal liberationists and gau-bhakts do not hesitate to impose their personal dogmas upon the animal world itself. Thus, we have the weird case of Guman Mal Lodha, former Judge, current Bharatiya Janata Party leader and Animal Welfare Board chairman, who recently turned up at the Bhubaneswar zoo and insisted that all carnivorous animals must be fed not buffalo beef or other red meat, but live chickens. The animals all but choked on the chickens' feathers! It is impossible to separate such agendas from the obnoxious Hindutva premise, so starkly stated by the VHP in the Jhajjar context, that a cow is more precious than a human being!

Similarly, many animal liberationists fail to understand that a laboratory-based monkey cannot be simply "freed" and released into the wild. It will be unable to feed itself and could starve to death. Release into the wild needs preparatory steps such as the formation of troupes and acculturation/socialisation. Knee-jerk revulsion against the idea of cruelty is no substitute for rational thinking. Still less is it an excuse for the violent protests that animal liberationists have gained notoriety for including physical, bloody, damage to humans.

At the end of the day, there is a profound anomaly in allowing, say, goats, sheep and pigs to be slaughtered for the table, but in making animal experimentation virtually impossible for science.

TO return to the CPCSEA's basic approach, the second premise about universally bad practices in Indian laboratories is a sweeping generalisation, not an empirically verified fact, which papers over substantial differences in the quality of research in scientific institutions, their managerial culture, their commitment to setting up Institutional Animal Ethics Committees (IAECs) and their actual practices right from the way animals are procured, housed, bred, fed, bled, and so on. It stands to reason that huge disparities in the output and quality of our scientific institutions we have some top-class laboratories, a lot of mediocrity, and plenty of under-performing institutions will be reflected in their animal care practices too.

Admittedly, until 10 years ago, there was no systematic regulation of animal experimentation in India. Chaos prevailed, as did shoddy, bad, often inhuman, practices. This needed a corrective. In 1992, this was provided by the INSA's "Guidelines". These go into such specific issues as norms and standards for genetics and breeding, housing and environment, nutrition and feeding, hygiene and disease control, training of animal handlers, transportation of animals, and even into anaesthesia and euthanasia. The better laboratories in India follow these guidelines. A good number established IAECs by the mid- or late 1990s.

But the CPCSEA with its negative attitude formulated draft rules in 1998 which would have completely blocked animal experimentation. There was a huge uproar (Frontline, November 6, 1998). So some modifications were introduced to align the rules with international practices. Yet, the new rules too are implemented whimsically.

The CPCSEA has rarely shown sensibility and discriminating judgment in respect of all these complex issues. It has pushed its agenda of "raids" and tough rules in mindless ways. For instance, under the gazette-notified rules (December 1998), all experimental protocols could be approved by recognised IAECs. However, the CPCSEA now insists that only small-animal experiments can be approved by them, and that large-animal experiments must go to it. Under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, all CPCSEA sub-committees must be composed of its members alone. But they actually include one or more individuals who are non-CPCSEA members.

Some of this arbitrariness was in display during the NII "raid" of September 28. The CPCSEA inspectors exceeded their brief and barged into the animal house without proper authorisation identifying them by name. Since this was a holiday, they could not even collect adequate information. But they misinterpreted, misunderstood and misreported at least some facts, and one of them leaked these to the press, which sensationalised the issue. (The report is not available for public scrutiny.)

They charged the NII with under-feeding and starving its monkeys on the basis of watching just one of the four meals they are given daily. They were wrong to "identify" different kinds of monkeys to the press, including rhesus, macaques, marmosets and langurs. But the NII only has the first two kinds. They also grossly exaggerated the prevalence of tuberculosis among the monkeys 90 per cent-plus, when only two of the 200-plus animals were infected (and both were quarantined).

All this has provoked a substantial investigation and critical report by the Delhi Science Forum, which holds the CPCSEA team guilty of causing immense harm to the reputation of a premier scientific institution, and to scientific research in general.

This is the symptom of a deeper problem. The CPCSEA's composition is unbalanced and its working arbitrary. The bulk of its members are ex-officio. But virtually all the others are animal rights activists and office-bearers of NGOs such as Blue Cross and People for Animals.

The Committee has no steady attachment and hence no accountability to any Ministry of the Government of India. It, or rather the Animal Welfare Division, has moved in recent years from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, to Environment and Forests (MoEF), to Social Justice and Empowerment, then to Culture, and on to Statistics and Programme Implementation, and again back to Food and Agriculture (for 24 hours). It is now with the MoEF. It currently functions from a commercial building in Delhi's Connaught Place, but has a secretariat in Chennai, staffed by ad hoc appointees.

This situation must be reformed so as to fulfil the CPCSEA's intended function of promoting humane treatment of animals in scientific research. This means that its composition must be altered and balanced with genuine veterinarians, experts, and people with knowledge of animal care and welfare serving as inspectors. Its secretariat must be integrated with the AWD office, and placed under an appropriate Ministry such as Science and Technology. The ad hoc appointment of staff and inspectors must be stopped. Such reform is in the interest both of animal welfare and good science.

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