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We have all seen pictures of distressed
animals in laboratories. We have all read stories about activists getting
radically militant. So what exactly is animal testing all about, and why is
it legal in South Africa? By SHAUN SWINGLER.
'My close friends know what I do, but I've known them for years. You
don't go and tell strangers... You just don't talk about it.'
Smith isn't talking about an illicit activity or criminal act. He's talking
about his legally sanctioned job.
Smith is a pharmacological
researcher who has spent the last two decades working in animal testing, an
area whose emotional and perceptional minefields are clearly not lost on
Animal testing is a legal requirement in South Africa. Once a
substance has the potential to be prescribed for human use, it needs to be
tested on animals first, from zinc ointments for dermatitis to gemcitabine
for chemotherapy. This does not include cosmetics testing (animal testing
for most cosmetics research is banned in the UK and most of the EU).
South Africa's current medico-legal framework has animal testing at its
centre. But images of suffering animals in deplorable conditions have come
to define public perception on what this industry involves. Those images
have fuelled a worldwide anti-animal testing movement powered by people who
are ready to kill for their cause.
Hailing from England, Smith came
to South Africa to design and commission laboratories for the University of
Cape Town. His two-year contract turned into six and a half years at the
institution. He then took up a position at Stellenbosch University. There he
acted as the vice-chair of the Animal Care and Use Committee. After nearly
eight years at Stellenbosch, Smith left academia for industry.
difficult to quantify just how many animals are used in testing annually,
but estimates run from tens of millions to hundreds of millions worldwide.
In the UK alone, more than 3.7 million animals were used as test subjects in
2010. If the animal rights activists are to be believed, the animal testing
industry is responsible for abominable violations of these creatures' most
Animal research in South Africa has been
criticised by Animal Rights Africa as being non-accountable, secretive and
'It's not non-accountable,' Smith says, laughing. 'The
NSPCA is by law the government-mandated authority for animal welfare.'
Smith's claims are supported by the NSPCA.
According to Este Kotze, deputy CEO of the NSPCA:
'The NSPCA sits on the ethics committees of
80% of universities in South Africa and we conduct inspections in the
university facilities too. We haven't had any problems gaining access to
these university facilities so far.'
The NSPCA's 2011 annual report
states that the Research Ethics Unit inspected a total of 38 research
facilities during the year with 11 follow-up inspections, ensuring that all
research institutes under the NSPCA's supervision adhere to protocol and act
Smith explains that all university ethics committees are
now registered with the department of health, providing national oversight
to the testing industry and ensuring that all ethics committee personnel are
appropriately trained and qualified. In December 2008, South Africa
introduced a national standard from the SABS which outlines in detail the
procedures for the use of animals for scientific purposes.
Africa has come to the party a little later than a lot of other countries,'
says Smith, 'but it's come to the party now with what is possibly the best
and most up-to-date set of laws and standards in the world. It took five
years to get them together -- that's how much effort went into it.'
'The reason it might seem to be secretive, and I do take their point, is
because we do not openly advertise or publish what is going on,' he admits,
'You can see what animal work is going on just by doing a web search, but I don't think we'll
ever get to the point in South Africa when universities willingly publish
their animal usage figures.'
Why is this?
'It simply boils down to the fact that people do get beaten up, facilities
do get broken into, stuff does get vandalised, and animals do get
'liberated'. It causes a huge amount of damage. It's not that we want to be
secretive. I would love to be able to talk to people about the animal
research I've done over the last 20-odd years, but I can't because it's an
emotive issue and a lot of people don't want to know.'
personally had any bad experiences with animal rights activists?
UK we had some problems when I was at a pharmaceutical company. At one stage
we used to have weekly briefings from the police. They had an undercover
operation with some of the activist groups. This was because the company was
targeted on a fairly regular basis with letter bombs and petrol bombs, and
the facilities were broken into and animals liberated.
'We had a
couple of big bomb scares. We were advised to drive home different ways each
day, and were shown how to check our cars to make sure someone hadn't
slipped a car bomb underneath it while you were in the pub or while you were
doing your shopping. The company actually intervened and paid for security
systems to be installed in researcher's homes with panic button links to the
local police stations. It's worse in the States though. Researchers get
killed on a fairly regular basis there.'
Smith says the constant
barrage of threats made him think "seriously about whether or not it's worth
"But you soon realise that if you don't do
it, then somebody else will because, unfortunately, there is a legal
requirement for it to happen.'
While his work life has been shaped by the prospect of
violence, the nature of his job has also affected his personal life -- and,
inevitably perhaps, led to more than a few awkward moments at social
'One of the things I'm often asked is how I can work on
animals and then go home and have pets,' Smith says, fiddling with his
wedding ring. 'I just switch off. What you do at work stays at work.
Personally, I use the commute to and from work to switch off. Other people
have other ways of coping, but you have to do something.'
self-confessed animal lover, explains that he never developed an attachment
to any of the animals he worked with. 'It's always been a job. [My animals
at home are] pets. The animals I used to work with were 'work'. It doesn't
mean that you treated them any differently.
'When you're working with
animals you have to be committed to it. You don't have the luxury of
buggering off and leaving your animals to someone else because you don't
know how they are going to treat them, or how the animals are going to
respond to a different person.'
'If you do a six-month study working
with animals, you're working seven days a week for six months,' he says. 'No
holiday, no break, no leave, you can't be sick. You can't stop. You're on
He doesn't readily admit that he works in animal testing.
'It's something that we tried to impress upon our students not to talk
about outside of their peer groups,' Smith says. 'What we don't want them to
do is to start blabbing about it one night in the pub when there's liberal
arts students around because they're going to get into trouble.'
tight-lipped approach that many researchers adopt seems to serve as a
survival mechanism for them and their families. It probably seems safest to
put their heads down and stay out of trouble.
Toni Brockhoven, public
liaison for Beauty Without Cruelty, states, however, that BWC is 'unaware of
any researchers in South African being persecuted'.
'Animal rights activists' use of destructive action is not the same as
violence (destruction is property damage) and to date, as far as the Animal
Liberation Front is concerned, no human has ever been injured -- this would
be completely contrary to their policy of non-violence. Beauty Without
Cruelty has never employed destructive or violent tactics.'
not outwardly critical of all animal rights groups.
'I don't mind
Peta,' says Smith about People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "I
don't see them as extremist. Even I'm not particularly fond of the fur
industry and clubbing baby seals to death. But when it comes to the
development of medicines for the improvement of human and animal health then
they must butt out. The law says that we have to use animals. It's as simple
as that. If they want to, they should petition for changes in the law.'
Smith argues that animal rights groups need to avoid blatant propaganda and
The UK-based Animal Rights Militia (ARM), a splinter
group of the Animal Liberation Front, does not have the same ideals in mind.
Among numerous acts of aggression, the ARM is notorious for its 2006 attack
which culminated in four of its members being jailed, two of them receiving
sentences of 12 years each. For six years the group systematically
terrorised a farm which bred guinea pigs for medical research. The campaign
involved the use of letter bombs, death threats, destruction of property
and, ultimately, grave robbing.
Terrorism can be defined as an act of
violence to further one's ideological aims. While no one lost their life
during this campaign, the fanaticism shown by these individuals is
comparable to an act of terrorism. One could argue that their actions are
hypocritical and are in stark contrast to their supposed goal of relieving
the suffering of all sentient beings. While these groups believe their
actions are justifiable, many do not view them favourably. In April 2009,
Daniel Andreas, a militant animal rights activist, was placed on the FBI's
list of most-wanted terrorists for his part in the 2003 bombing of a
California biotechnology lab. He is still on the run.
that it is more constructive for animal rights activists to focus their
energy on lobbying for changes to the current legislation and working to
raise funds for replacements to animal testing. That way the medical
research still gets done, and fewer animals are harmed in the process.
'There are charities in the UK who are all about trying to reduce the
number of animals in testing by fundraising and promoting research into
alternatives. So, there are organisations out there that I fully support
because they put their money where their mouth is.'
Those who view
animal testing as a necessary evil generally cling to the principle of the
three Rs: reduction, replacement and refinement. Reduction focuses on
testing methods which reduce the amount of animals used; replacement focuses
on methods which find alternatives to the animal model; and refinement
focuses on methods which aim to decrease the amount of pain, stress and
discomfort animals feel during testing.
According to Smith, along
with lobbying for changes to the legislation, focusing efforts on the
principle of the three Rs is key to creating a responsible and humane
But what about the 'blatant propaganda'? It's
hard to look at pictures of these animals without feeling like you've
witnessed gross violations of their rights.
'They show the most horrific
picture of somebody picking up [Chris Barnard's] baboon with a big scar down
its chest. What they don't understand is that led to the first heart
I still find it difficult to come to terms with this
view. What about the claims of exploitation and maltreatment made by animal
rights groups? Surely the stories of neglected lab animals that have
resorted to self-mutilation and other harmful behaviours are not just
another example of stories taken out of context?
'That's a welfare
issue. It's not so much of a problem with smaller animals: rats, mice guinea
pigs, rabbits. It becomes more of a problem with larger animals,
particularly with primates. They are intelligent, they have free will, and
they can communicate in a similar way to humans so they need a lot more
stimulation and care. There is a lot more responsibility involved with
Because there's more responsibility, there's more cost.'
And do some institutions or researchers not uphold this responsibility?
'They try their damndest to uphold their responsibility, but they do not
necessarily have the resources to provide the best environment.' Smith goes
on to explain that primate testing facilities become significantly more
expensive because they require more staff to provide support and enrichment
to the animals. And this expense is sometimes one which certain institutions
The image of a white-coated scientist forcing mascara
into the red and watering eyes of a clearly terrified rabbit is one that has
dominated the movement against animal testing. But Smith is quick to point
out that this type of cosmetics testing -- unlike the testing of medicines
is not legally necessary. And he clearly despises the idea that the quest
for perfect skin or frizz-free hair can be used by the beauty industry to
justify this stomach-turning abuse of animals.
'If people are stupid
enough to wear cosmetics then they should take the consequences,' Smith
says. 'If you want to stick mascara on your eyes and your eyes get inflamed
then that's your own fault. For cosmetics I think you can get away with
testing in humans. It's also a lot cheaper. I don't think you need to do it
Smith also maintains that it is wrong to differentiate
between the types of animals being tested. In his eyes, 'A mouse is the same
as a chimpanzee: it's a research subject and they all deserve to be treated
exactly the same way. If you're going to work with animals, you're going to
work with animals. You shouldn't draw distinctions because it creates
World Animals in Laboratories Day is held on 24 April each
year. It's an event aimed at raising the public's awareness of the plight of
millions of animals in labs around the world. I ask Smith whether he thinks
these initiatives make a difference.
He pauses, considering his
response, 'They make the individuals who care about the animals feel better.
But hopefully it will also get institutions to take their responsibility a
bit more seriously. [And if offending institutions] become more publicly
accountable, I'm all for it. Because at the end of the day it's all about
There seems to be a small but active community of
animal rights activists in South Africa. A quick Google search leads one to
the Facebook page of the South African Animal Rights Activists Community.
With nearly 3,500 'likes', the group functions as a platform for activists
to share information that promotes a vegetarian and vegan lifestyle, and to
advertise events in line with the group's ideals.
One of these,
organised by Beauty Without Cruelty, is set to coincide with World Animals
in Laboratories Day. There will be a week dedicated to awareness-raising
events in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. This will include information
stands, flashmobs, live bands, and even the opportunity to get the BWC logo
permanently tattooed on your body for free -- Brockhoven has already shown me
The animal rights movement in South Africa appears to be made
up of a group of passionate, dedicated but ultimately peaceful individuals
who have yet to adopt the radical and aggressive tactics of those abroad.
These individuals embody the cause they are striving towards. Rather than
planting car bombs and destroying property, they show dedication to their
ideals through peaceful protest and stylised bunny tattoos.
there is a larger underlying issue at the heart of this ethical minefield.
For members of the public to reach an informed opinion on animal testing
they need to be provided with the facts and they need to be educated on what
the current medico- legal framework requires. As Smith points out, however,
scientists are not generally known for their public relations abilities.
"We're not particularly good at explaining why we do the things we do.
Maybe we should come out and say, 'I use animals because the law says I have
to. I work at developing medicines for the benefit of humans and animals,
and the law at the moment says that I have to test stuff in animals so I
test stuff in animals. But I do it to the minimum number of animals possible
and I do it responsibly.''
But amid the placards and protests, amid a
public debate that is dominated by images of brutalised animals in tiny
cages, would any animal testing researcher be brave enough to put their hand
up and explain their rationale of law and science?
And would anyone
actually listen to them?