Catriona MacLennan: NZ can drive ending of animal testing

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Plenty of humane alternatives exist to cruel practice - what's lacking is commitment to make change.

The testing of psychoactive substances on dogs is illegal in other countries. Photo / Supplied
The testing of psychoactive substances on dogs is illegal in other countries. Photo / Supplied

Why doesn't New Zealand take a bold step and complement its clean, green image by becoming the first country in the world to ban testing on animals?

This would attract international praise and attention and fit in with this country's drive to draw tourists here on the basis of the unspoilt wilderness to explore.

The Herald reported this week that novel psychoactive drugs - commonly known as party pills - were expected to be tested on dogs and rats to determine their safety for human use. Both dogs and rats will be given lethal dose 50 per cent tests, which involve subjecting their bodies to increasing doses of a drug until half of the test group dies.

This barbaric and outdated type of testing is illegal in the United Kingdom and unacceptable in the OECD.

Even worse, New Zealand plans to introduce legislation to permit this cruel practice.

Why would the country even consider taking such a retrograde step which will be damaging to its agricultural industry by associating New Zealand with cruelty to animals and running counter to the international environmental and animal welfare messages the Government spends millions of dollars seeking to promote?

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne said animal testing was unavoidable to prove that products were safe for humans, describing it as "an unpleasant but necessary reality".

Actually, he's wrong. There are ample alternatives to animal testing.

What is lacking is any real commitment to ban animal experiments entirely and replace them with humane practices.

New Zealand every year uses hundreds of thousands of animals in biological, medical or veterinary research; testing; production of biological agents; teaching and environmental management.

Last year, 327,674 animals were used this way. These included 978 cats, 39 of whom suffered "high impact" as a result. More than 20,000 fish were used, with 3128 suffering "very high impact," while 70,608 mice were subjected to these practices and 11,365 suffered "very high impact".

Other animals who suffered very high impacts were guinea pigs, rats, pigs and sheep. More than 1000 dogs were used, as were more than 1000 reptiles and 659 horses.

Over the past five years, the number of animals exploited this way has been rising, rather than falling. In 2007, it was 246,667, climbing to 341,520 in 2008 and being less than 300,000 in 2009 and 2010 before increasing to 327,674 last year.

Between 2007 and 2011, the percentage of animals who died or were euthanased as a result of their use ranged from 55 per cent in 2009 to 37 per cent last year.

Before this, the number of animals used in research had peaked in 1994 before dropping to 160,000 in 1995. When the number increased to 325,000 in 2001, it was reported as "skyrocketing". But the 2001 figure was actually lower than the number of animals exploited last year.

There is simply no need for animals to suffer in this way.

It is 2012 and there are many other ways to conduct experiments. These include:

* In vitro cell culture.

* In silico computer simulation.

* Skin irritancy tests performed on human skin.

* Use of donated human blood for pyrogenicity studies.

* Microdosing - using humans to tests drugs at doses well below those expected to produce whole of body effects.

In the United States, Western University as long ago as 2003 pledged to use only donated animals who had died of natural causes or been euthanasedbecause of illness or old age for veterinary students' research. The university has a "Reverence for Life" philosophy and, several days before the students begin dissecting dogs, the families with which the dogs lived come to the university and speak to the students about the dogs' lives.

Those who advocate testing on animals seek to have it both ways by arguing that it is acceptable to experiment on animals because animals are somehow lesser and inferior to humans and do not really feel pain or fear. However, at the same time, vivisectionists argue that animal experiments are necessary because animals' physiques are very similar to those of humans. These are contradictory and mutually exclusive rationales.

Researchers have for years been talking about reducing the number of animals used in experiments, only using animals as a last resort and being committed to developing alternatives.

However, the statistics show that, in fact, these are just words. The number of animals being subjected to experiments is not declining. Last year it was 35.3 per cent higher than in 2010.

The cruelty of the experiments performed on animals is also in no way diminishing. Scientists internationally now breed animals specifically to suffer human diseases so that experiments can be conducted.

In 2007, American scientists bred cats designed to go blind so they could be tested, while in 2009 Japanese scientists developed a technique to create genetically modified monkeys who suffered from human illnesses. This was expected to lead to a leap in the number of monkeys used in experiments.

In 2010, a team of Canadian and Dutch scientists deliberately inflicted pain on mice by injecting their stomachs and paws with acetic acid, mustard oil and capsaicin. The aim of the research: to find out that the mice displayed the same facial expressions as humans when they suffered pain. Last year, researchers announced plans to build Britain's biggest beagle "factory", holding up to 2000 dogs bred for experiments. The number of animals used in experiments in Britain is at a 25-year high of 3.7 million, despite pledges by scientists to reduce their use.

This is why New Zealand could make a mark internationally by banning experiments on animals and winning international praise for good treatment of animals.

Mr Dunne has the chance to be bold and innovative and to take a stand against cruelty.

Let's use that opportunity.

Dogs shouldn't die so humans can get high.

Catriona MacLennan is a barrister and journalist.

- NZ Herald

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