Whether it’s CEOs commanding eye-watering salaries, the bullying of vulnerable people to commit to ongoing donations, or huge marketing budgets that consume more funds than are allocated to help the actual cause - controversy surrounding charities is nothing new. While many of us happily give to charity thinking we are contributing to positive change, we could however be supporting the animal cruelty and faulty science used by many of the most well-known health charities.
Back in 2011, the UK’s largest animal rights group, Animal Aid, created an initiative called ‘Victims of Charity’ to help expose the cruel and medically unsound animal experiments funded by research charities. In their initial report, written by Dr Adrian Stallward (a specialty doctor in emergency medicine) and Andre Menache (who holds degrees in zoology and veterinary medicine) Animal Aid’s investigations revealed the horrific practices of several major medical charities such as Cancer Research UK, The British Heart Foundation and The Alzheimer’s Society.
According to campaigner for Animal Aid, Isobel Hutchinson, although the organisation works primarily for animal rights, through this campaign they are able to highlight that not only does animal medical experimentation cause huge suffering for animals, it’s also detrimental to advancing human health, which is supposed to be the whole aim of the research.
“The ‘Victims of Charity’ campaign isn't just about animals, it's also about increasing the chances of finding cures for diseases that we know cause a great deal of suffering for humans as well,” says Isobel. “Animal experiments are wasting valuable resources and delaying progress by producing results that can't be reliably translated to people. Charities obviously have a duty to use the money that's being donated to them in good faith to maximum effect”.
There aren’t any known figures regarding how many animals are used specifically in charity supported research; however, it is estimated from data received for 2014 that in the UK just under four million animals are used in a variety of experiments each year. In terms of global figures, one rough estimate has suggested about 115.3 million animals are used for experiments annually globally.
Isobel comments: “Although unfortunately the number of animals used, particularly in the UK, is high, at the same time there is a shift going on. Scientists are becoming increasingly doubtful about the usefulness of using animals in medical experiments. So it’s our hope that as we continue to campaign on this issue these numbers will start to go down but unfortunately we haven't reached that point yet”.
The majority of the animals used in research are rats, mice and rabbits but Animal Aid has also uncovered experiments using dogs, pigs, goats, sheep, cats, horses and monkeys. The fundamental physiological differences between humans and non-human animals tragically results in causing enormous suffering to animals and research findings that can’t be reliably translated to humans.
“These animal experiments are bad science as well as ethically shocking and whenever we bring out these reports we always analyse the faulty science as well as the suffering that's being caused to the animals. We're regularly providing briefings for the medical charity sector with information on scientific issues involving animal experiments to keep them up to date on the evidence.
“Things are starting to change now in the scientific community and doubt on the usefulness of animal experiments is growing. There have even been articles in the British Medical Journal, so the idea that there's a serious problem with animal experimentation and it's seriously flawed is beginning to enter the scientific mainstream. This should be of interest to research charities because obviously they should want to fund research that is actually relevant to patients”.
There are many non-animal research methods that can be used in medical science, including using human cells and tissues, computer modeling, and high resolution scanning technology but there are also really important traditional methods like clinical studies that are directly relevant to human patients. However, Isobel says it’s important to bear in mind that animal experiments can't always be directly replaced with non-animal methods.
“So for example, if we look at some of the very crude techniques like tying off coronary arteries to induce heart attacks, which is sometimes used to study heart disease, there's no direct non-animal way of doing that. But because the information produced using that method is so useless, we're much better off just abandoning that form of research and focusing on answering the question in different ways such as cell-based or clinical studies.
“Many of the animal experiments carried out are no more reliable than flipping a coin. So there's all that suffering going on but it's not providing useful results and often the results are actually dangerously misleading, which is why nine out of ten drugs that pass animal tests go on to fail in human clinical trials.”
If the science behind these animal medical experiments is so flawed, one has to wonder why it continues.
One worrisome contributor is that the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), an umbrella organisation that incorporates many of the medical research charities in the UK, currently has a policy of forcing its member charities to publicly support animal research by adding a declaration to their website. The AMRC claims to help their members to meet their charitable objectives by ‘interpreting and influencing the regulatory, policy and research environments, and connecting members to encourage collaboration and share learning’ with a vision to help charities deliver high quality research to improve health and wellbeing for all.
Animal Aid is calling for the requirement for the AMRC members to publically support animal research to be dropped by the AMRC so that charities are able to make up their own minds and for there to be a properly moderated debate about the scientific validity of animal research.
Since Animal Aid’s damning 2011 report exposed four of the UK’s biggest health charities - generating high-profile media coverage and a PR nightmare for the charities involved - some charities have resorted to continuing to fund third-party animal medical research in an attempt to distance themselves from the controversy.
“What charities tend to do is say somewhere on their website, not usually particularly visibly, that they do fund animal research only when this is necessary and there are no alternatives. Obviously we've talked about the fact that this research is redundant, it's never necessary and there are plenty of alternatives but charities vary in how much they actively try to distance themselves from experiments. The charity that we have the most experience with of this is the British Heart Foundation.”
According to Animal Aid, the British Heart Foundation has repeatedly tried to distance itself from the research they have exposed. The first experiment they discovered saw pregnant sheep being surgically mutilated and their unborn lambs given brain damage through repeated compression of the umbilical cord.
The scientific paper describing the experiment and its outcomes was supported by funding from the British Heart Foundation. When they were approached by a national newspaper journalist they stated that they hadn't funded the research, they'd only contributed to the equipment in the laboratory.
Animal Aid then uncovered another experiment which involved the same researcher who had received more than a million pounds from the British Heart Foundation and again the scientific paper describing the experiment said that it had been carried out with support from the British Heart Foundation. This led to a major exposé in the Sunday Express but the British Heart Foundation was quoted as saying that they hadn't funded the research, they were simply one of the many general funders at the laboratory where it had been carried out.
“It's unlikely the British Heart Foundation wouldn't know about the animal research that is being carried out. But in some ways the British Heart Foundation’s approach has guided the next stage of our campaign. We pulled together some mini reports. We looked at the charity's longer term funding of a key researcher, a high profile professor of cardiology and we pulled together a catalogue of all the medical research experiments that they had funded or supported through him. Some of these included dogs having their hearts surgically stretched causing disruption to their natural heart rhythm and dogs being deliberately made to suffer heart attacks. So we were able to bring that to the public's attention”.
Animal Aid’s current exposé on the Victims of Charity action website reveals a series of experiments co-funded by the Alzheimer’s Society. It involved mice being genetically modified to suffer from a very crude version of Alzheimer’s disease, then given eight weeks of abdominal injections and repeatedly subjected to stressful water maze testing.
In addition to exposing those charities involved in animal medical research, a further strand of Animal Aid’s work has been to provide the public with a list of UK charities that don’t fund or carry out animal experiments. This information is provided in a number of formats including an online charity database, a printed wallet-sized guide which people can order for free, and their latest development, a free smartphone app called ‘Cruelty Free Giving’ available from iTunes or Google Play, which allows users to search for charities and check their policies on animal experimentation.
While the situation for animals in the medical research sector may seem hopeless, Isobel reminds us of the power that we all have as individuals.
“Not donating to charities that fund medical experiments on animals is an area where people can take powerful action to help end these practices because charities rely on public donations. If enough people withdraw their support from those that fund animal experiments then these organisations will eventually have to choose between either focusing entirely on productive and ethical non-animal research or facing serious financial difficulties.”
If you’re interested in supporting Animal Aid’s ‘Victims of Charity’ campaign you can order free copies of their leaflet, Is your money paying for animal experiments?, to share with friends, family or to do a leaflet drop. Some supporters have even enclosed pocket guides in Christmas cards; a great idea for this time of year when people are more inclined to make charitable donations.
You can also order Animal Aid’s ‘End Animal Experiments’ action pack, which includes a number of useful resources, including a brand new briefing outlining the scientific and ethical case against animal experiments, the charity pocket guide and a car sticker (UK only).
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