When should animals suffer?

May 26, 2000

Declan Mulkeen and Simon Carter report on a survey of public opinions on animal testing

We are often told that public opinion is shifting steadily against research that uses animals. But few studies have explored opinions and knowledge in any depth. Recent work commissioned from polling company Mori by the Medical Research Council paints a hopeful picture of the complex pattern of reasoning, knowledge and values that lie behind measurements of opinion.

The quantitative surveys commonly used to measure public opinion give access to attitudes that are genuinely representative of a population. But the results are closely related to the use of language in the questionnaire and the assumptions this may create. This may be especially true of surveys on the use of animals in medical research, where most people have no direct knowledge and may not form a firm opinion until the moment they are asked.

To avoid these problems, Mori adopted a two-stage approach. In the first instance we commissioned a series of forum qualitative discussion groups organised by region, class, lifestyle features and age with a mix of men and women. The group discussion format was used to provide rich data about people's frameworks of understanding and about the language that people use in discussing these issues.

This allowed us to explore how people make sense of the issue and the different meanings they attach to animal experiments. The results of the group discussions, as well as being of interest in their own right, were then fed into the design of a quantitative survey administered to a representative sample of the British public.

In the discussion groups, people with no specialist knowledge readily engaged in sophisticated discussions about whether or when animal experiments were acceptable. People took into account not only the assumed level of suffering and the level of need for research or new products, but also the degree of trust they had in scientists, regulators, the media and campaign groups, and concerns that medical research might be driven by personal ambitions and greed rather than need.

In the discussion groups, people appeared ambivalent about the use of animals in medical research but almost all accepted that it could be right, in principle, to use animals. Support was strongest for research into life-threatening disease.

Some regretfully considered their use inevitable and a "necessary evil" with no practical alternative. In the quantitative survey, 72 per cent thought animal experiments would always be a part of research: most also felt there should be strenuous efforts to develop alternatives.

Even among those who saw themselves as vegetarians or "animal lovers", most accepted the importance of the medical use of animals, particularly when considering their own family or friends:

"Much as I love animals... my child would come before an animal" or "I don't want to eat them but I don't want my child and my family members or my friends to die of diseases, and if that means testing on animals... I think it's horrible, and I don't particularly like that part of me that thinks that, but I just can't see a way out of it."

People were less certain about the use of animals in the development of treatments for non- life-threatening conditions, preventive medicine or basic research. The quantitative survey confirmed these observations. Thirty-two per cent either supported animal experiments for any purpose if there was really no alternative or were not bothered about animal use at all. And up to 84 per cent accepted experiments if the right conditions applied, such as that suffering was minimised or the research was medical research or addressed life-threatening disease.

For many of these, a precondition was that the experiments were for medical research and that there was no alternative available. At the same time, 44 per cent either said they did not support animal experiments (39 per cent strongly agreed or tended to agree) or would favour a ban (26 per cent). Yet two-thirds of those who "did not support" animal experiments would accept them in some conditions, representing 29 per cent of the public overall.

Our methods showed that people were often well aware of inconsistencies between their attitudes towards animal experiments and their use of animals or products derived from animals: "One of the things that I think is really difficult is the idea of breeding pigs specifically for liver transplants. My first thought about it is that's horrendous, it's so unnecessary. But then I think I'll have a bacon sandwich, and what is the difference?" A high proportion - 64 per cent - described themselves as wanting to know more before reaching a firm opinion, though those who generally opposed experimentation tended to be least inclined to want to know more. The level of interest and the demand for information appeared high at first sight. About a quarter of people had discussed the issue with a friend, close relative or colleague in the past three months, and 67 per cent said they were at least reasonably interested in the issue. But only 14 per cent were "very interested", which is unusually low and which may suggest that many people are not inclined to take their initial interest further.

Contrary to the MRC's expectations, the survey found that younger adults (aged 15-24 years old and 25-34 years old) were no more likely to oppose animal studies than older adults.

In all the group discussions, people were asked where they might have seen information and stories about animal experiments and what they thought of this information. Many could recall stories in the media and having seen campaign materials produced by groups opposed to the use of animals in research.

However, people did not accept such materials at face value. Media stories were readily deconstructed as playing on people's emotions by picking on "chimpanzees and dogs and puppies with sad eyes... to get the attention of people who disagree with it" because "it sells papers". Thirty-four per cent believed the media opposed animal experiments, 35 per cent that it was neutral, and 15 per cent that it supported animal experiments.

Campaigning materials were also perceived to be biased towards using the worst possible images and some even believed that images might have been staged to maximise impact: "What's to say they haven't pinned the animal down themselves and taken a photograph to get people to support them?" Yet despite this mistrust, media campaigns have a powerful influence on the way people think about the issue. Many of those in the group sessions used images from old media stories and campaigning material in their discussions, referring to "smoking beagles", rabbits with shampoo in their eyes and chimpanzees being treated cruelly, while occasionally recognising that these images might no longer be relevant.

When asked which three or four species were most commonly used in animal experimentation, rats and mice were mentioned most often (by 93 per cent of survey respondents) but followed closely by monkeys (79 per cent) and rabbits (64 per cent), reflecting their use in campaigns.

Two themes emerged from group discussions on information. Many people recognised that they normally only saw information opposing animal studies, and were unsure where to turn for explanations of why animals are used, or for balanced, impartial information. Some said they understood why industry could not publicise its work, mentioning the danger of attacks, the difficulty of getting good publicity and competition.

But nevertheless, most linked animal experimentation with secrecy and unaccountability, and when people were asked what might make them trust the system of regulation, honesty and openness were mentioned most often (33 per cent of responses), followed by having better information (21 per cent).

Groups were asked to identify, drawing on their knowledge only, the regulations or controls that they felt should be in place in the UK. There was a close match between what people wanted and the UK's 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act. Groups identified the need to balance suffering against the goals of the research, the need for standards of husbandry and housing, considering alternatives, and independent and unannounced inspections.

Some went further to discuss the need for rules on when experiments should stop, and whether it was necessary to kill animals at the end of experiments. At the same time, there was only limited awareness of the UK regulatory system, little knowledge of what it might be like, and very little trust in it.

Ninety-one per cent described themselves as "not knowing a lot about regulation" and while 41 per cent felt Britain probably had tough rules, only 29 per cent expected they would be well enforced. People assumed it would be easy to bypass the regulations, and speculated about secret experiments and laboratories. Sixty-five per cent said they did not trust the regulatory system, and only 11 per cent disagreed.

This survey shows that most people approach the issue in a sophisticated, rational way and want to form opinions based on the facts. Even if many doubt whether they would approve of all that goes on in practice, the vast majority accept in principle that animal experiments are sometimes necessary. But most of those who are inclined to support the use of animals in research have not firmly made up their minds, and most people notice the absence of balanced, reliable information on animal experimentation. The survey confirms that the UK already has in place a regulatory system that would probably be widely supported if people knew about it.

Declan Mulkeen is head of policy and secretariat services at the Medical Research Council; Simon Carter is lecturer in the Department of Public Health and Policy and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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