Having sat on an animal ethics committee (AEC) for over 30 years, there is plenty we can learn from the ‘category C’ member (animal welfare representative) who has decided to speak out anonymously about her experience.
What motivated you to serve on an AEC?
As a young woman I was curious as to how cosmetics were tested before being marketed. I did extensive research and was appalled at the level of cruelty that existed in this industry. I continued delving into the household cleaning products industry where similar disregard for cruelty to animals used in product testing was rife. The situation for laboratory animals used in medical research was far more obscure. When I was asked to serve on an AEC as a Category C member, I accepted. That was well over thirty years ago and I have only recently resigned over the inability to resolve a particularly toxic issue with the committee. Together with my fellow Category C member, we had hoped that our resignations would have jolted the committee into reality – apparently not so.
What type of training and support did you receive during your tenure?
On average annually there was a seminar and/or workshop held for AEC members, however for me I had two young children still living at home and was a full-time carer for my elderly mother, as well as running a business. These workshops were held at a venue taking around two hours each way to reach and, at the time, I could not attend. So my training became ‘on the job’.
How would you describe your experience serving on an AEC?
Serving on an AEC was initially a very steep learning curve. Optimistically I was excited at so many opportunities I saw to be able to improve the conditions and attitudes towards the unfortunate animals that came before me. As time went by however, I came to see that a ‘group mentality’ existed which did not always have the best interests of the animals as top priority.
How frequently did you have access to the animal house?
Access to the animal house varied. On average it was a pre-arranged and escorted visit (five times a year) prior to our scheduled meetings. We inspected dogs, sheep, primates, rabbits, rats and mice however as I launched criticisms and made more than justifiable demands on improving the treatment and care of the animals, our committee was slowly removed from access to everything but mice and occasionally, rats.
Can you give some examples of the types of experiments that were submitted to the AEC?
In the latter parts of my AEC life most of our scrutiny was focused on mainstream research like heart, liver and kidney disease for example and the process was familiar, straightforward and therefore relatively easily ‘policed’. However, more unusual applications started to creep in e.g., to do with respiratory conditions such as COPD. Initially I was able to get it off the agenda, but I knew it was only a deferral not an abandonment. When forced inhalation studies returned to our Committee in late 2019 my Category C colleague and I steadfastly refused to approve it and were relentlessly asked over months to rewrite and/or resubmit our reasons for refusal to the point of absurdity. Our opposition was never going to be recognised so we opted, as a last resort, to resign in protest. Despite repeatedly asking for anticipated feedback as to the ultimate value of the research nothing enlightening was ever forthcoming.
What was the nature of adverse effects or incidents reported to the AEC?
Incidences were many and varied eg forgetting to feed and/or water the animals during weekends and holiday periods, unexpected adverse reactions to treatment, unexplained cannibalism of neonates, insufficient supervision of inexperienced or incompetent students. Occasional poor standards of surgery went unreprimanded. Animals kept for long periods (up to one year) in cages far too small for them to exercise instinctive and ‘personal space’ was one of my ongoing grievances. I had many causes to make complaints during my tenure. There are so many it would fill a small book. AECs must never forget the A in AEC. The priority must always be to aim for better and more humane treatment of research animals.
What improvements could you suggest to the AEC system?
The voting power of Cat C members must be increased to at least 50% of all voting members otherwise the animals have unequal representation and, particularly controversial research, will never be able to be vetoed. We either need more Cat C members or the voting units must be increased so that even 2 Category C members have the same number of votes as the rest of the voting committee combined.
What advice would you give to someone considering serving on an AEC?
Anyone considering serving as a Category C member on an AEC should meet with a current or retired AEC Cat C member. It is imperative that they understand how committees are run and, more importantly, how they should run. They must be forewarned and forearmed and know how to resist the bullying that can occur and how to defend themselves and all those little souls relying on them.
Why have you chosen to speak out about your experiences serving on an AEC?
I have chosen to speak out because of the culture that currently exists and is not only tolerated but, on occasions, is endorsed. There is no democracy as such and ultimately I felt that 30 + years of my life making some, but nowhere near enough, progress may be better spent on campaigning.