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The Numbers Today

In the graphic at the top of this page you can see how many individual animals of each species were used in experiments here in the United Kingdom in 2014. (Latest figures available.)

These numbers represent vast, industrialised suffering which everyone should recognise and understand in order to make informed choices today. Political decisions, food production, military and defence spending, commercial product testing and medicine… These areas all influence and are influenced by the readiness to accept experiments on animals for the promise of a better quality of human life.

The animal testing regime here takes place despite 55 years of work in the field under ‘the three ‘R’s’, a British aspiration to replace, refine or reduce animal exploitation in our laboratories. But this long standing ethical objective hasn’t paid off for around 214 million rodents, dogs, cats, horses, primates, cattle, fish, and birds in that time.

1959 saw the definition of the principle of the three ‘R’s for scientific experiments. The initiative was developed by the University of London’s Animal Welfare Society, under the slogan ‘Science in the service of animal welfare’. Replacement, reduction and refinement of experiments was intended both to bring down the number of animals affected by demand for test subjects in the scientific community and to reduce suffering.

In the 1970s the total number of animal based experiments in the UK began to drop, a trend which continued consistently until the year 2000. Since then, annual rises in that figure have delivered a massive 60% increase from 2.5 million tests per year at the lowest levels recorded, to an average of over 4 million for the last three years.

Why? Medical, defence and industrial research, activities designed to develop products and services for economic and political gains, are fields in which the UK aims to lead the world. As scientific advances have stimulated growth in these sectors, so demand for animal subjects has increased. By law, chemicals for industrial, agricultural or domestic use must be tested on animals before inclusion in products for sale. Medicines likewise cannot advance to human trials before having been tested on animals. Security threats, biological, chemical or physical, draw on animal subjects for defence agencies to understand their effects. Meanwhile, the rapid growth of genetics as a branch of biology has enabled laboratories to engineer multiple millions of mice to have certain characteristics, either at birth or developed over time, making them preferred test subjects for specific diseases.

Some people believe the current situation shows how well the 3‘R’s approach has worked. Research as an industry has grown much faster than the number of animals used in tests. Others suggest that market forces are at work – breeding, maintenance, testing, analysis and disposal of animals are expensive processes, not just through direct costs but also through reputation. So many people find testing on animals abhorrent that companies, universities, governments and charities run a major risk to their public profile by conducting them at all.

This is the scenario which makes it difficult to explain why laboratories have failed to adopt a duty of care for animals. Wasteful testing, bad experiment design, ignorance of the need to reduce, replace or refine the use of animals and under-funding of available alternatives are all widely reported each year.

At Naturewatch Foundation we believe that the explanation may lie in two widely discussed features of the animal testing regime in the UK, bias and secrecy. The first of these is described in the next page of our Animal Experiments campaign section.