Neuroscience research on macaques at the Max Planck Institute, Tubingen (MPI): A reply to the BUAV

This entry by Kirk Leech, Executive Director of EARA, was originally published in the Huffington Post Blog on 7th October 2014.macaques x3 standing on tube C0002798 adjusted

The Chief Executive of the BUAV, Michelle Thew, has written to the European Animal Research Association (EARA) over comments on our website that challenged claims made following an undercover investigation at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tubingen, Germany, by their partner group Soko-Tierschutz.

Neuroscience research on macaques at the Max Planck Institute, Tubingen (MPI): a reply to the BUAV

The BUAV and their German counterparts, Soko-Tierschutz, claim that their joint undercover investigation at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tubingen Germany revealed ‘the shocking and disturbing truth about what happens to monkeys behind closed doors’. They assert that they ‘uncovered the brutal way in which monkeys’ lives were controlled and manipulated by researchers, causing severe suffering’. They have called for all licenses to conduct research on primates at the institute to be suspended immediately.

The selectively edited film, with sombre music and lurid descriptions, has indeed had the media impact they sought, particularly in Germany. However, as has now become a pattern with BUAV-inspired, undercover filming, their initial wild claims – which some sections of the media print uncritically – end up being much less than the sum of their parts. When these accusations are investigated, either by the Institution involved or (in the UK) by the Home Office’s Animals in Science Regulation Unit the hyped claims simply do not hold up.

The film clips taken at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics are not easy on the eye but neither is human surgery. There is shock value in showing Non-Human Primates (NHPs) with cranial implants, bleeding from head wounds and in some post-surgery discomfort. The Max Planck Society has challenged the selective editing of the film, which was shown on German television. It believes the clever editing created a narrative meant to make any understanding of what is actually happening in their animal research facilities impossible to understand.

Without context and an explanation of the benefits that have come from NHPs in research, such invasive techniques can be hard for some people to stomach. NHP’s are the most suitable animal model to study brain functions. Moreover, animal research is only licensed when no alternative is available. Research by the Max Planck Institute has improved the lives of millions of people through advances in the ability to diagnose patients with brain injuries, stroke and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, a disease that is estimated to affect 6.3 million people worldwide and 1.2 million people in Europe.

The Max Planck Society responded to the release of the film by commissioning an independent expert investigation led by Professor Stefan Treue, Head of the German Primate Center. He looked into the treatment of the animals and the nature and scope of medical care provided at the Institute. His investigation found that the accusations of institutional mistreatment of primates were without substance; there was no evidence of neglect. His report makes the point that any medical intervention, whether on humans or animals, always carries risks such as that of post-operative haemorrhage or suture insufficiency. His report recommends modifications to the Institute’s animal care regime but does not, despite the BUAV’s allegations, consider it to be a broken system. Professor Treue saw no indications that animals were neglected.

The Max Planck Society responded to calls by the BUAV to halt NHP research at the Institute by issuing a robust statement explaining the continued need for animal research, specifically the need for the continued use of NHPs which, they state, ‘remain a necessary aspect of research in the interests of resolving issues that are central to science and of establishing a basis for new approaches to medical treatments’.

The BUAV claim to be upset with the suggestion that their film was carefully edited to support their accusations about the animal care regime at the Institute. However, as is becoming clear, the BUAV are repeat offenders when it comes to exaggerated claims following undercover filming. A report released last week by the UK Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU) into two BUAV undercover infiltrations of UK research facilities reveals that what the BUAV claimed in the initial release of their film bears little relation to what was reported by subsequent formal investigations.

In April 2013 The Sunday Times ran a story based on BUAV undercover filming at Imperial College London. The article claimed that staff ‘breached welfare standards by mistreating laboratory animals ‘ and that their investigation had ‘shown the terrible suffering of animals in a supposedly leading UK university’.

The BUAV provided the ASRU with a detailed report and accompanying film footage. They made over 180 allegations including: ‘very large scale appalling animal suffering; unlawful regulations by the Home Office; inadequate care of animals by establishment staff; [and] inadequate enforcement by the Inspectorate’.

The ASRU findings released last week must make difficult reading for the BUAV and their supporters. Over 180 individual allegations of non-compliance with the UK law that govern animal research – Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986 (ASPA) – were investigated. Of these only five formal non-compliance cases were substantiated. The report suggests that there may have been some animal welfare implications but ‘[these did] not involve significant, avoidable or unnecessary pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm’.

The report also suggested that the infiltrator was more interested in filming what they believed to be cruelty to animals rather than alleviating the discomfort or distress that they were witnessing. As the report outlines, ‘No concerns about animal welfare were recorded as raised by the investigator with the agency. Similarly, the investigator from the animal rights organisation did not raise concerns through the recognized whistle blowing policy in place at the Establishment.’ It appears that banner headlines and shock are more important to the BUAV than reporting perceived animal cruelty.

The ASRU has also investigated the accusations from a second BUAV infiltration. In March of this year, the Sunday Express ran a story based on undercover filming of research on veterinary medicines at MSD Animal Health. The article supposedly shone a light on the ‘secret world of vivisection laboratories where puppies as young as four weeks old are taken from their mothers and killed’. The story claimed to have evidence of ‘horrific photographs and video footage showing puppies panicking as they were injected with needles before being dissected’.

The Report by the ASRU has a different take: ‘Our detailed investigations and review of available records and other evidence does not support the allegations in the investigation report’. It goes on to add, “Our findings confirm that the site is well managed with staff at all levels committed to the provision of appropriate standards of welfare and care within the constraints of the scientific requirements of the research.”

So here again the initial claims on the release of the film, which are meant to shock audiences, turned out to be little more than schlock. It is about time that the media began to adopt a more critical approach claims by the BUAV before running stories that later prove to lack all substance.

The BUAV boast of having spent, in 2013, £200,000 – that is 15% of its annual expenditure – on undercover infiltrations. Its backers obviously need to see some return on this investment. Keeping this money rolling in may help to explain the increasingly desperate and exaggerated claims which accompany each new ‘scoop’ or exposé by the organisation.

It is highly likely that this tactic of infiltrations and undercover filming, much used in the USA and UK, will be increasingly employed by European activists opposed to research using animals.

The purpose of this undercover activity is not to improve the health and welfare of laboratory animals but to send exaggerated shock messages to the public through national news media implying that scientists cannot be trusted with the care of animals with the ultimate aim of ending all research using animals.

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