14,000 animals killed for university research at Queen's and University of Ulster
Almost 14,000 animals died in experiments carried out in the laboratories of our two main universities in one year.
The Department of Health has rejected calls from a leading animal rights campaign body for Stormont to take independent action to reduce experiments on animals at Northern Ireland universities.
The British Union Against Vivisection (BUAV) revealed that 13,784 animals died in experiments at our two universities in 2012.
Most, a total of 11,886, were used by researchers at Queen's University Belfast and the remaining 1,898 in the University of Ulster.
Both universities said animal testing is a legal requirement for some products, adding that it is strictly regulated and subject to veterinary inspection.
Neither commented on specific cases cited by BUAV, which included rats being forced to inhale lavender oil after having their anxiety levels raised by bright lights and noise.
The figures emerged in Freedom of Information requests by BUAV. Official statistics, released by the Department of Health, show that the overall number of animal experiments in Northern Ireland decreased by 1% between 2011 and 2012, and now stand at 17,455.
However the numbers tested in universities rose, and now makes up 70% of the total, 13,784 animals.
Most of these, 11,886, died at Queen's while the University of Ulster accounted for 1,898.
Mice and rats are the main species involved. Some 32 rats were fed on a diet of pro biotic supplements, like the ones used in some yogurts, before being killed and dissected.
Earlier this month, the Home Office launched a delivery plan to replace and reduce the use of animals in research. It pledges to encourage scientists to use alternatives but sets no targets.
The BUAV is asking Health Minister Edwin Poots to review the situation here and states that Northern Ireland is not included in the UK scheme, which it regards as inadequate.
Michelle Thew, its CEO, said: "After the missed opportunity of the (Westminster) Coalition Government's reduction strategy, Northern Ireland must use its power to take a pioneering lead and implement strong targets to significantly reduce the number of animals used in research."
A Department of Health spokeswoman said that the overall number of animal tests conducted here had fallen year on year and were strictly regulated. She pledged that Northern Ireland will abide by UK ethical standards but added, "there are no plans to introduce any new regulations in Northern Ireland or to adopt a policy for Northern Ireland that is different from the rest of the UK."
A Queen's University spokeswoman said: "As a leading research university, Queen's conducts research on animals only when it is absolutely essential for clinical, biomedical and environmental studies and where there are no alternatives.
"All such work is heavily regulated by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 and its subsequent amendments. The research is conducted under licences issued by the Home Office in accordance with UK legislation, and is equally scrutinised by the University Animal Welfare and Ethics Review Board.
"The use of animals within the university are strictly regulated through the submission of detailed annual returns to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) (NI) on the numbers and types of animals and procedures used."
The University of Ulster added: "Where animal testing is a legal requirement in medical or healthcare research, or is required as part of pre-clinical testing of novel drug entities, the University of Ulster is committed to following best practice and treats all animals humanely.
"Research carried out in the university is closely monitored by university staff, appointed Veterinary Officers and by the Northern Ireland Department of Health...The university remains supportive of efforts to find non-animal based research methods and regularly reviews its research activities to ensure that animal alternatives are adopted where possible."
A spokesman for the USPCA said: "We were very much opposed to the use of animals in relation to cosmetic testing and that was banned last year.
"With human health, whilst we don't in every case accept the need for animals to be used for experimentation, it's a requirement of the society that the law is complied with in every respect."
There were times I was in the room with them and cried
Dr Sarah Millsopp - animal welfare expert and former animal technician at Queen's
The numbers forwarded by BUAV are upsetting. But, it is important to remember that the studies being carried out at universities in Northern Ireland will vary widely in purpose and in the impact they will have on the animals involved.
Queen's University has conducted trials to test treatments for hugely debilitating illnesses like cancer and Parkinson's, but also conduct experiments designed specifically to improve animal health and welfare. Some studies will induce no particular pain or suffering to the animal during life, some may have inevitable negative effects on the animal's well-being.
Ideally, we would not be testing on animals, for both ethical and practical reasons. Animals are expensive to keep and to source, often being transported from mainland UK to Northern Ireland before use.
Animals used to test treatments for medical conditions sometimes do not respond in the same way as a human would, making results unreliable. We also cannot justify causing suffering to non-human animals if there are alternatives available.
There were times when I was in the room with the animals and I cried. Animals aren't as happy as they could be when they're in a confined environment like a lab and people who are working with animals day to day can't help but form significant emotional bonds with them.
Some of the work would have involved invasive procedures such as taking blood samples but adequate pain relief was always provided. If a treatment for a disease was being tested, the animals would be infected with that condition to test the efficacy of the treatment. Handling and restraint was kept to a minimum.
The hardest thing for me was essentially putting money into animal testing when it would have been better to siphon off money into alternatives to animal testing.
I didn't see any unnecessary suffering because we made sure it wouldn't happen and if we did have concerns a named veterinary officer would come in.
Legislation relevant to animal testing, The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986, states that animals cannot be used unnecessarily in research, or be allowed to experience unnecessary pain and suffering.
The 3 Rs – Replacement, Refinement and Reduction – is a framework used by scientists to attempt to move away from animal testing. It states that alternative technologies should be developed to replace animals in research, that procedures should be refined to maximise animal welfare through provision of environmental enrichment.
The welfare of animals used in experimentation is a priority. We must, however, invest in alternatives and to stop unnecessary suffering in our fellow animals.
High death rate has left me shocked
By Steven Agnew - leader of the Green Party NI
I am shocked by the fact that over 13,000 animals died in our local universities in 2012. Not all these animals died as a result of testing, but it is my understanding that Home Office licensing for animal experimentation requires animals used in testing be euthanized when the study is completed – hence the high numbers of animal deaths.
Animal experimentation is a practice that goes on behind closed doors and many people are unaware of the numbers of animals involved and the suffering they are subjected to.
There are a number of practical issues related to animal testing which need to be highlighted.
For example, 92% of new drugs that pass pre-clinical tests, including tests on animals, fail to reach the market either because of safety or efficacy failures.
There are significant differences between the physiology of animals and that of humans and the reliance on animal testing and experimentation increases the risks of adverse reactions and can actually hamper progress.
A large proportion of animals are used for non-medical testing and for duplicate research that could be avoided. There are now many techniques available for testing of chemicals, drugs and medical procedures and for researching disease that do not use animals. However, these alternatives are often not used and are not adequately supported.
Green Party NI is opposed to the harmful use in education of animals and of animal-derived materials where the animals have been killed for this purpose.
We support the replacement of the use of animals with methods such as models, mannequins, mechanical and computer-based simulators, films and interactive videos, plant experiments and field studies and human studies.
I will be lobbying Health Minister Edwin Poots to support BUAV's call to action to reduce the number experiments on animals in Northern Ireland universities.