Katy Taylor: Humane alternatives to animal experiments

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I work for the BUAV, one of the world’s oldest animal protection organisations that campaigns for a world where no-one wants or believes in the need to experiment on animals.

My role is to assess the claims made about experiments and to help promote the use of alternatives across the UK and continental Europe.

This week the BUAV has launched a review of cat experiments in the UK. Our findings provide an insight into the suffering and cruelty cats and kittens endure in UK universities.

In the last five years, at least 855 cats were used in 1304 experiments, some cats used more than once. Much of this is driven by university researchers who want to find out how cats’ brains “work”. The experiments we expose in our report include rearing kittens in darkness and then subjecting them to gruesome surgical procedures in which recordings via electrodes implanted into their brains are made while the kittens’ eyes are forcibly held open.

Edinburgh University is involved in this work; recent papers published by researchers there detail experiments conducted on cats using laboratories in Wales and Canada.

The work in Wales involved 31 kittens, some of which were raised alongside their mothers in complete darkness. Some kittens had one eyelid stitched shut. At just five weeks or 12 weeks old, the kittens were subjected to the surgical procedure just described from which they were not allowed to recover.

We are concerned about this kind of surgery as the kittens are injected with a drug that prevents them from breathing or moving. In these experiments the anaesthesia is kept deliberately light, so there is a chance the kittens could feel pain or terror during the procedure and the researchers would not even know.

The rationale underlying all animal experiments in the UK is that the “ends justify the means” and that animal suffering and loss of life is permissible if it is of benefit to humans or other animals. Yet, as the BUAV report outlines, the information gained from cat research has little direct relevance to humans because of the fundamental nature of the work and the substantial differences between the two species.

The experiments are done in a search for knowledge of how the human vision system works. In that case, we say, why not use human volunteers in an ethical manner – if that is your aim? There are plenty of sophisticated imaging machines that enable researchers to see inside the human brain and – importantly – ask volunteers what they are seeing as recordings are made.

Research on cats is cruel and unnecessary. We believe it should end. We think the public does, too.

Dr Katy Taylor is head of science at the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.