University of Otago/Fourni
An example of the cage system used by universities, in which all cages are individually ventilated.
Animal research is an issue shrouded in controversy – in New Zealand the use of animals in research, testing or teaching is covered by strict controls covered by the Animal Welfare Act 1999.
But are the same practices practiced here? How does animal research work in Aotearoa and what is being done to protect animal subjects?
According to a 2019 report by the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), 131 organizations hold or are authorized to hold an ethical code of conduct, which allows them to use animals for research.
Any project involving animals must be approved by an animal ethics committee. MPI Accredited Reviewer Dr. Alan Macleod said getting a project approved by a committee is no small feat.
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“On a sliding scale of one to 10, from easy to hard, that’s nine or 10,” Macleod said.
“There are certain criteria that the proposal must adhere to, and then there is a strict checklist used for the different categories that form the protocol.”
The University of Otago holds an ethical code of conduct. Its recently opened Eccles Building is one of the facilities where hands-on animal research is carried out.
The building has 18 experiment rooms and several dissection and tissue sampling labs, as well as other rooms and equipment used for various projects.
Professor Richard Blaikie, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor for research and enterprise, said research at Otago is not just “done out of curiosity”.
“It’s more to support discovery research,” Blaikie said.
“There must be a real benefit, where there is a real problem involving an animal or wildlife condition. Not just “I came to work thinking about this stuff”.
Types of events
Blaikie said the types of research the facilities do will often be behavioral and physiological studies.
In December last year, the university came under fire for conducting the ‘swim test’ with mice – in which rats or mice are put in water to see how long they will swim before giving up. It is a type of behavioral study.
Blaikie said New Zealand facilities generally eschew product testing, where brands are tested on animals for reasons of quality and commercial benefit.
“We’ve never tested the product and that’s mainly because – rightly so – people see the business benefit of selling the product, but we don’t see a better business benefit outweighing the cost for animals,” Blaikie said.
Other studies rarely conducted with animals are called Grade E tests, which fall under the MPI’s definition of “very high impact”.
“At grade E, you’re doing a procedure where pain and suffering won’t be alleviated,” Blaikie said.
“If you’re researching pain, you have to find out if this or that painkiller works. But we generally don’t approve of these kinds of procedures, we are looking for other ways to do it. »
Blaikie said the university will try to find ways to conduct research without using animals in the first place.
If there is no alternative, animals of “lower order species” will be used. These range from fish embryos for developmental research to smaller fish, amphibians and eventually rodents.
Blaikie said while other jurisdictions could experiment on primates, New Zealand facilities – including the University of Otago – would not use them.
“We always opt for the lowest intervention. It would be rare to go above small rodents,” Blaikie said.
The Eccles building’s research has been criticized by groups such as the New Zealand Anti-Vivisection Society (NZAVS), which accused the university of carrying out “a new form of cruelty” through its animal research.
Blaikie said his researchers often find the reviews “upsetting.”
“We need to be clear: our researchers uphold the highest ethical standards and operate in a way that matters,” he said.
“We have to be open to scrutiny. We stay true to what we do, it’s important work.