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In response to the publication of the University of Bristol’s animal experimentation figures, Rebecca Thomas argues for a more fact-centric debate surrounding animal testing.

The recent publication of the University figures for animal experimentation in 2016 will have left many in a state of confusion.  As members of an activist generation, should we be storming our way to the Chancellor’s office and demanding the cessation of such cruelty on our campus, or is there in fact another side to the story?

‘Educated discourse is too often drowned by angry voices, seldom grounded in fact and reality’

The answer to such a  question remains unclear, mainly due to our society’s lack of understanding when it comes to the who, what and where of animal research. Educated discourse is too often drowned by angry voices, seldom grounded in fact and reality, whilst research departments remain secretive kingdoms closed off from public view.

This year I had a two-week placement in such an establishment and I admit I arrived wholly sceptical about the sights I was about to witness. Images of white rabbits tied down to tables, with scientists injecting every chemical under the sun sprung rapidly to mind. I am after all, the girl who read Peter Singer throughout her youth, appalled with every page documenting yet another cruel and needless experiment- particularly those involving primates in the US.

‘I found the unit to be … cruelty free’

Thankfully I found the unit to be primate -and I would go one step further to add – cruelty free. Cruelty after all is defined as ‘indifference to and pleasure in inflicting suffering’, not applicable in any shape or form to the animal care I saw taking place within the establishments walls. The interior was calm and clean – with rodents housed in containers – each furnished with sawdust, nesting material, water and food. As well as enrichment in the shape of cardboard tubes and plastic houses to shelter under – just as you gave your hamster as a child.

‘Far more stringent measures for lab rodents than the legislation which surrounds your cat, dog or horse’

Every animal within the University’s walls, that’s 26,990 in 2016, will be accounted for by means of a licence. Granted by the Home Office, this states the severity of the procedure  – rated mild, moderate or  – as well as stipulating which staff members are legally responsible for the animal. These licences are legally approved by a select committee at the University – a panel containing a Veterinary Surgeon, Welfare Officer and Lay member (A randomly selected member of University staff). All this legality is part and parcel of the Animals in Scientific Procedures Act 1986 (ASPA) and, as far as legislation goes, it is one of the most water tight in the UK’s’ legal tool box’ of animal protection with arguably far more stringent measures for lab rodents than the legislation which surrounds your cat, dog or horse.

The ASPA will also require Animal Technicians to work within the Universities midst. Separate from the researchers, these individuals oversee the day to day running of the unit, checking every animal daily and alerting the Named Veterinary Surgeon to any welfare concerns. I worked with similar Technicians for 2 weeks, side by side as we cleaned out countless cages and topped up endless water bottles. Many of them had a similar degree to my own, but all of them had a deep rooted passion for ensuring the health and wellbeing of the individuals in their care.

‘Too often we quote the needless use of cosmetics testing …  but what of research that improves human life?’

Too often we seem to view staff members working in these establishments with disdain or even anger. Placing them in that hated group, alongside traffic wardens, estate agents and bankers. Yet by ostracising them we prevent valuable discussion and further improvements to the ASPA from taking place. How can we hope to influence any activity which takes place within university walls if our only response is to protest on the basis of our imaginations, rather than to listen to the realties and then instigate change?


Animal testing research, as I saw throughout my time at this unit, is also incredibly relevant. I spent time with a behavioural group focused solely on gaining a deeper insight into mental health, one of the more prevalent conditions in today’s social-media-spammed generation. This research plays a pivotal role in understanding the impacts of antidepressants on the brain, investigative work which could impact the lives of individuals from all walks of society. Too often we quote the needless use of cosmetics testing when it comes to animal experimentation, but what of research that improves human life? The ethical waters become murky when the benefits of animal research strike closer to home.

‘Alternatives to animal testing appear to lack… scientific belief and backing’

Though my visit was a short one, I left the Animal Unit with little doubt of the authenticity with which the staff care for their animals. But as it currently stands alternatives to animal testing appear to lack the scientific belief and backing which would enable widespread usage within society. Cell cultures and computer models are making little inroads into scientific spheres, with the overwhelming majority favouring the use of animals. Focus needs to constantly remain on refining and reducing animal testing with the ultimate end goal of replacement.

I don’t ask you to agree with my opinion of animal testing, I am after all still formulating where I stand in my own mind.  All I ask is that you push away those sensationalist images and face reality head on before you pick up your placard and start shouting.


Do you agree that the debate on animal testing is too distanced from the facts? Let us know:

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