Students ask questions about animal research

How are experiments with animals conducted? How are laboratory animals kept? To find answers to these questions, four students from Thuringia spent a day at the Ernst Strüngmann Institute (ESI) for Neuroscience. Here, Rosalie (17), Sara (20), Antonia (19), and Marius (18) talk about their impressions and experiences.

Part of your final exams at high-school was a term paper. You were allowed to choose your topic. You decided to write about animal testing. How did you come up with it?

Antonia: Curiosity. I liked that it wasn’t something you hear or read about every day. I didn’t know much about animal testing and was curious to see where it would take us, what we would find out and what we would learn.

Marius: The topic is interesting because it affects us all: it is of elementary importance for medical research. I wanted to find out how animal experiments are conducted and regulated, and above all, take a look behind the scenes.

What did you know about animal testing up to that point?

Rosalie: The topic was quite new to us at the beginning. It was Sara’s idea, and my mother then suggested Christa Tandi (the animal protection officer of the Ernst Strüngmann Institute, editor’s note) as a discussion partner because she knows her personally. We had no prejudices or reservations whatsoever. We were excited to learn more. Everyone we told about it felt the same way - curiosity always prevailed.

Antonia: To be honest, I didn’t know much about animal testing, either. I had this idea of lipsticks tested on animals. But I found out quickly that testing cosmetic products and their ingredients on animals was banned in Germany in 1986 and across the EU in 2013. At the same time, almost every non-scientist we talked to about animal testing brought up this myth, too. It seems like everyone is buying into this misconception! How does this come about?

At the beginning of your research, you visited the ESI’s animal housing facility. Our animal welfare officer and our veterinarian answered all your questions. What struck you the most?

Sara: The pictures circulating in the media only show cramped cages and animals with bloody implants. Because of these horrible depictions, we were bracing ourselves for the worst. Then we came to the ESI… Alf (the veterinarian, editor’s note) was totally at ease with the animals, and the rats did not live too close at all. They even had toys. They are almost better off here than in some private homes.

Marius: Also, the animals are not just a means to an end, but treated almost like real employees. Alf knows all the monkeys by their names and can tell you a lot about their preferences and personalities.

Antonia: I didn’t know the complex chain of laws behind every single animal experiment, and all the factors that have to be taken into account! We were also allowed to visit the monkeys. I was positively surprised by their housing: so much food, toys, and room to move around…

You also visited the vigil of the opponents of animal experiments, which takes place once a month in front of the ESI. Please describe your impressions.

Rosalie: It was weird. The protesters were loud and blew their whistles. There were probably about 10 or 15 people. They were friendly and approachable. We had a list of questions to ask them. For example, why do they think that animal experiments are carried out, what do they think about alternatives, and whether there is enough education about the subject in Germany. Their answers were clear: there are enough alternatives, animal testing is outdated and pointless.

Sara: At first they were suspicious of us. We wanted to ask them questions for a video survey we were doing for our term paper. But they denied permission for us to record them. In response to our questions, they always asked us counter-questions, for example, what we thought about animal testing. Then they gave us information material from 19-hundred-something.

Antonia: Before the vigil, we visited the institute, where Alf and Christa told us a lot about animal experiments and we were able to make up our own minds. After the vigil, I wondered if the opponents of animal experimentation outside the ESI have ever bothered to get their information up to date? Their level of knowledge and the books they handed out seemed outdated to me.

Marius: I remember that it was quite loud: We could hear a woman with a megaphone when we were still in the building. She kept calling to the passing cars, “If you’re against animal testing, honk!” We asked the participants in the vigil, for example, why they were holding it in front of the ESI of all places. Their answer: Because animals are tortured there and we want passers-by to find out how awful it is in there. This was in stark contrast to what I experienced during my visit to the animal facility of the ESI.

What was the most challenging part of your work?

Sara: Getting familiar with the topic, and finding a reliable source among the many, many websites that exist on the subject. Also, there were so many technical terms, such as ‘validated animal model’, that I had to google first.

Antonia: It was always my goal to stay as neutral as possible. But the more information I gathered, the more difficult it became because, for me, the positive aspects outweighed the negative ones. For example, the great benefits derived from animal experiments, especially in basic research or in the development of drugs.

Do you think differently about animal experiments now than you did before you wrote your term paper?

Sara: Before, I knew all the clichés - to put it briefly: that animal experiments are bad. So the four of us agreed to find out whether animal experiments are really as terrible as they are always portrayed. Our conclusion: they are not.

Rosalie: I had never dealt with the topic, but my attitude was rather neutral. Now I am convinced that animal experiments are necessary for research and I don’t think they can be replaced so quickly. From what I have learnt from Marius, who has been looking into alternative methods, I’m sure general replacement will be possible one day, but not soon.

Marius: I have noticed that the reality is very different from what animal rights organizations tell. And I would not have thought how much money is put into the research of alternative methods.

Antonia: My conclusion is that we still need a lot of education on this topic here in Germany. And I wonder why so many researchers or institutes who conduct animal research communicate about it only very subtly - or not at all? There is hardly any kind of communication that appeals to the general public. When a laboratory hits the negative headlines, there is no one to remind people to not generally condemn all researchers who work with animals; or to remind them of the benefits that are gained from these kind of experiments.

Further information

Interested in finding out more about animal research at the ESI? Then you might want to continue reading here.