Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Do you invest in cruelty?

For many years I have had some concern about ethical investments.  Despite the frequent use of the word “ethical”, not all companies share the same values as me and so my superannuation was placed in the best I could find at the time.  

Several years later I learned of a superannuation fund that did indeed share my values – Cruelty Free Super – and of course I switched to them.  

As many good advisers suggest however, not to keep all your eggs in one basket, I did leave a smaller portion in my previously chosen superannuation fund – Australian Ethical Investments (AEI).

I was concerned to learn recently however, that AEI invests in Cochlear Ltd – a medical company that has recently been the subject of media attention concerning its involvement with research into the effects of cochlear implants.  The research involves rendering healthy cats profoundly deaf, performing craniotomies on them, conducting recordings using microelectrodes in their skulls and then killing them.

HRA was deeply disappointed that such cruel and unethical research is conducted by Cochlear Ltd and puzzled that AEI chooses to invest in such a company.   It therefore respectfully requested that AEI consider removing Cochlear Ltd from the portfolio of companies it considers to be ethical and instead invest in the development and use of innovative technology and research that is directly relevant to the species (humans) it is purported to benefit.

AEI did not share the same concerns. While AEI advised that it considers the wellbeing of animals as an issue in all its investment decisions, its ethical charter allows it to “invest in a healthcare company that conducts animal tests where the testing is necessary and we assess that the human benefit of the company’s products outweighs the concerns about animal testing.”  AEI did acknowledge however that the recent media article included concerning details about the nature of Cochlear’s testing which it had not previously had access to and that AEI will address those concerns with the company.

While I appreciate AEI’s willingness to look into this issue, I am nevertheless concerned that an “ethical” investment company continues to include companies which use animals in medical research in its Ethical Charter.

As the Chief Executive Officer of an organisation that is focused on bringing an end to the unethical and unjustifiable use of animals in research when so many scientific and relevant alternatives exist, I was having great difficulty reconciling my own superannuation investments with both my personal ethics and those of the organisation I lead.  From what I’d already heard, such sentiments are shared by a significant number of HRA members who are concerned that on the one hand they are opposing animal experiments while simultaneously investing in the industry they oppose through their superannuation fund and its choices.

I informed AEI of my dilemma and my intention to move my investments from them. Their response was:
“…we do accept that there are significant limits to the efficacy of animal testing for developing medical treatments for humans, and that these limitations need to be taken into account in deciding whether research programs which use animals should receive ethics approvals to proceed. However, where we currently differ I think is that we still consider that there are circumstances in which the use of animals for medical research and testing may be justified by the potential benefit to humans.”

Needless to say, I am currently in the process of withdrawing my investment from AEI and moving to a fund which is genuinely aligned to my values.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Thank you Sam. We will be forever grateful.

Like many, I was deeply saddened today to hear of the unexpected death of popular writer and columnist Sam de Brito.

Sad because the loss of anyone, in this case a single father, is always a tragedy, but moreso because Sam had a good heart and was willing to speak out for the voiceless victims of our society – animals.

It was Sam who exposed Cochlear Ltd’s cruel cat experiments in mainstream media. 
During our conversations discussing the article he touched on other areas of animal exploitation and it was clear that the systematic abuse of animals by humans was a heavy burden that was difficult for him (as it is with many of us) to bear.

His columns were passionate and thought provoking. I’m going to miss them during my Sunday breakfasts.

Humane Research Australia will be forever grateful to Sam for exposing the Cochlear/Bionics cat experiments - and other issues of animal cruelty - and extend our deepest condolences to his family.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Are humans more important than animals? And is THAT the reason animal experimentation continues?

I need to clarify an important point that continues to be misunderstood by the general public and the media.

While (almost) everyone abhors the idea that animals, including primates, are harmed and killed in cruel and invasive experiments, the bottom line almost always seems to be that while there are humans suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, HIV etc. “these awful experiments must unfortunately continue”.

The question of whether humans are more important than animals is subjective (some may argue for example that rapists, murderers and paedophiles should be used instead), but importantly, most of all, it’s irrelevant.

The people who are suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, HIV etc. are precisely the reason we should NOT be experimenting on animals. It is grossly unfair to these people – people who are depending on medical research to save their lives – to waste valuable and precious time and resources on studying the wrong species.

To use some references from the Victorian Medical Research Strategy currently under review:

  • Page 17 of the discussion paper recognises the challenges of “PhD students and scientists confronted by issues related to career progression, security and remuneration.” Often they resort to animal use simply in order to obtain funding and to enable publication of their work. 
  • Page 19 of the discussion paper states that “Australia punches far above its weight by producing 3 per cent of global research publications with only 0.3 per cent of the world’s population. However, compared with international standards, Australia has a poor record of commercial translation…” 

Consider too, Australia’s rate of animal use in research. We are the fourth highest user of animals in pure numbers behind only China, Japan and the United States, which makes us number one in terms of usage per capita.

According to the latest statistics, Australia uses over 6.7 million animals each year. A high rate of global research publication has little value when the subject matter is based on animal experiments and is therefore unlikely to translate to genuine medical progress (the United States Federal Drug Administration’s own statistics show that more than 90% of drugs ‘successfully’ tested in animals fail when translated to humans in clinical trials). And academic recognition is no excuse for subjecting sentient animals to cruel and invasive procedures.

In fact if you look at the US FDA statistics another way, how many cures could have been overlooked that didn’t work in animals in the first place?

The bottom line is that there are far too many intricate differences between humans and animals – differences including gene expression and protein function – that render animals inappropriate models for human research. If we are ever to find genuine cures for cancer and other ailments, (and find them quickly) we must focus on species-specific research – not antiquated methods that are more often than not, erroneously extrapolated from a species that differs from us anatomically, genetically and metabolically.

There are so many species specific methods of testing now, including microdosing, microfluidic chips, computer modelling and non-invasive imaging techniques of human patients. So, let’s stop taunting the sick and invalid members of our population with the promise of cures derived from animal experiments. Let’s instead, provide them with real hope through more efficient and more relevant methods of research – methods that will translate into genuine medical progress and result in better health outcomes for society.

Regardless of who you consider more important – humans or animals – animal experimentation is a waste of precious resources and needs to end now – for the sake of the humans who continue to suffer.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Cochlear Ltd’s Annual Report announces increase in revenue and earnings, but what price profit?

Today’s release of Cochlear Ltd’s annual report shows their revenue is up by 15% and earnings per share up by 56%. The announcement may well excite those investors keen to see an increase in value of their share portfolio, but at what cost has this profit been?

Cochlear Ltd has recently been the subject of media attention concerning their involvement with research into the effects of cochlear implants. The research involves rendering cats profoundly deaf, performing craniotomies, conducting recordings using microelectrodes and then killing them.

Research into the alleviation of deafness (and blindness) is of course a credible and worthwhile endeavour, however the use of a different species for this research – in this case cats – is highly questionable. It is becoming increasingly acknowledged that animals are poorly predictive of human outcomes and are therefore not good models on which to base scientific research.

Within a recent publication[1] the researchers themselves refer to the significant differences between even cats and rabbits, and note that the use of anaesthetised cats has profound effects on the relevance and utility of the experiment.

The international condemnation of the dentist who killed Cecil the lion suggests that financial profit does not justify the killing of a sentient animal. What of other animals – in this case 16 young cats deafened and killed.

It is disappointing that Cochlear Ltd invests in such unethical and unscientific experiments instead of innovative technology and research that is directly relevant to the species (humans) it is purported to benefit and shareholders would do well to object to their investments used in such a way.

[1] Fallon, J.B., Shepherd, R.K., Nayagam, D.A.X., Wise, A.K., Heffer, L.F., Landry, T.G., and Irvine, D.R.F. ‘Effects of deafness and cochlear implant use on temporal response characteristics in cat primary auditory cortex’. Hearing Research. 2014

Monday, 27 July 2015

Are you donating to animal cruelty?

7th August is Jeans for Genes Day. It’s one of those feelgood days where people can raise awareness and funds for vital medical research – and have fun at the same time.

Jeans for Genes Day is in support of the Children’s Medical Research Institute (CMRI), and who wouldn’t want to support an organisation that saves children?

Unfortunately however, there is a dark side.

Many kind donors are not aware that their financial contributions to medical research charities might actually be funding animal experiments. This is not something that charities often publicise, so I contacted CMRI to find out what their position was. Their response was as follows:

Thanks for your email. The majority of our research does not use animals, and we do not do ‘animal testing’ as it’s known in the media, but we do some studies with mice and rats to understand how genetic diseases and birth defects occur and how to treat or prevent them. Unfortunately, at this point in time it is impossible to understand these diseases without working with an animal, but we do try to do as much work as possible using human cells in culture or other methods. We can’t hope to find cures and save children’s lives without some animal studies, so I hope you will support Jeans for Genes and our vital research.

Medical research can, of course, progress to save human lives without experimenting on animals. Rats and mice are not good models on which to base human medicine due to the vast number of differences in our genetics, anatomy and metabolism. For these reasons they are poorly predictive of human outcomes and many scientific papers, systematic reviews and meta analyses support this position.  There are however many emerging technologies such as organ-on-a-chip, microdosing and non-invasive imaging techniques which not only eliminate animal suffering, but also provide data that is directly applicable to the species it is purported to save - humans.

CMRI’s justifications for using animals are all too familiar. Almost every institution that uses animals in research suggest that they are only used when absolutely necessary and that they adhere to strict guidelines and a code of practice. The guidelines and policies that govern animal use in research are far from strict. The National Health and Medical Research Council, Animal Research Review Panel and Agriculture Department have little control in the research as it is all considered and approved by the Animal Ethics Committee - a body which has a vested interest in allowing the research to go ahead. It is therefore self-regulated, non-transparent and hidden from public scrutiny. They do not protect animals from suffering and they don’t address the fact that animal experiments are not good at predicting human outcomes.

Neither I, nor HRA, have any right to tell you who or who not to donate to, but please be aware that your generosity may well be inadvertently funding cruel animal experiments. You may prefer to redirect your donation to a health charity that does not conduct or fund animal experiments. You can find a listing of these at

Alternatively, if you do choose to participate in and/or donate to Jeans for Genes Day, please specify that you want your donation to go toward research that does not involve animals.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Is wildlife research justified if it’s to benefit the species?

When most people think about animal experiments they envisage mice, rats or monkeys kept in laboratory housing, induced with diseases or cancer and injected with vaccines. While this is true of some forms of medical research, the issue of animal experimentation actually covers a much wider spectrum. Many animals are used for agricultural research – intended to increase productivity or improve welfare standards – and are often studied on (factory) farms. Many more are used for environmental and wildlife studies and the general perception is that such research is perhaps more justified considering the procedures are less invasive and the outcomes are to benefit the animals themselves.

One of the major arguments against the use of animals in research is ‘species differences’. Data cannot be extrapolated from one species to another with sufficient accuracy due to anatomic, metabolic and genetic differences. Of course this argument becomes invalid when research is conducted on (for example) a platypus in order to learn more about the platypus. Does this therefore mean that it’s acceptable to conduct research on wildlife if it is to benefit that species?

Some years ago, I attended the Victorian Bureau of Animal Welfare’s Scientific Seminar which was about this very topic. My concern was that wildlife research was not as benign as most people are led to believe. My concerns were verified at this seminar.

In order to study a species – even in its natural environment – the animals must be located, identified and monitored; all of which can involve risk to the individuals. The collection, taking, trapping, marking and banding of wildlife, however, are exempt from licensing by the state department. Licensing IS required when other procedures such as taking samples are carried out.

Trapping of animals can lead to stress and injury. Problems can include the animals being impaled by bait hooks or catching their eye sockets as they become distressed, panic and thrash around the cage. They must also be monitored regularly as small animals can quickly lose body heat throughout the night and be dead before they are collected in the morning by researchers, or suffocate in the heat of day if left for too long without water. Leghold traps, still legally used in Victoria (under certain specifications) can render prey animals vulnerable to predators.

Traps also carry the problem of missing the target species and capturing ‘pest’ animals. This leads to the further dilemma of wasted lives as it is considered illegal to release them and there are poor procedures for dealing with what are considered ‘by-catch’.

According to Dr Kath Handarsyde of Melbourne University Zoology, studying wildlife gives rise to other biological variables that are not applicable to a controlled laboratory setting. These include: no previous knowledge of the underlying health status; no clear understanding of the biology which leads to uncertainty over which anaesthetic is best nor how they will respond; and wild animals don’t have food and water ad-libitum and there is therefore need to be conservative, eg by reducing sample volumes.

There was further discussion at the seminar about the difficulties in monitoring and protecting animals upon release, control of infectious disease, poor understanding of methods of anaesthesia and the use of spotlights causing damage to sensitive and nocturnal eyes.

Even non-invasive techniques such as the use of ‘hair tubes’ have caused death to smaller animals due to the strength of the adhesive used to capture hair from animals without having to trap them.

While all of these risks need to be considered when weighing up the justification of wildlife research, a closing comment from Max Campbell (DPI Wildlife and Small Institutions AEC) summed up the issue very well, when he acknowledged that all wildlife is struggling to survive and asked whether we actually need the information obtained from the research or will it simply sit in a library of data. This, I believe, is a pertinent question for all forms of research – is it justified in the first place or is it being done simply out of curiosity, because ‘curiosity’ is not a justification for harming or killing.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

The 3R's - Time for change!

It’s been 56 years since William Russell and Rex Burch proposed the three R’s – replacement, reduction and refinement -in their manuscript The principles of humane experimental technique (1959). The recommendations, which have been universally accepted, were intended to reduce the overall amount of suffering caused to animals during research.

The 3R’s serve as complementary rules of thumb to reduce overall suffering and form the framework of the animal ethics system. When we consider the continued rise in animal usage statistics however, it is clear that this framework simply isn’t working.

At conferences I have attended there has been quite some focus on refinement but very little on reduction and specifically on replacement. Similarly, the use of animals in education is a clear example of an area in which we CAN replace animals and yet they are still being used.

Even according to co-author William Russell, “Refinement is never enough, and we should always seek further reduction and, if possible, replacement… Replacement is always a satisfactory answer.”[1]

It’s absolutely essential that we ask the question, “Can the aims of the research be achieved in ways that do not involve animals?” And “Will the scientific outcome of this research justify the lives it will take and the suffering it will cause?” In many cases you will find that it will not.

The House of Lords Select Committee 2002 has said: “We are not, however, persuaded that enough effort is always made to avoid the use of animals. We are similarly not persuaded that where this is possible, sufficient effort is always made to minimize the number of animals used, and to minimize the pain and suffering inflicted on each animal.”[2]

The major problem with the 3R’s principal, along with legislation, codes of practice and ethics committees, is that they serve to endorse the belief that animal experiments are necessary, rather than challenge its validity.

A radical overhaul is long overdue – a centralization of the decision-making process in order to avoid repetition of experiments, ensure for consistency and to guarantee that decisions are made based on expert knowledge of the alternatives available and the ethics of whether the experiment is even justified in the first place.

The 3R’s principal has served us well to identify the areas in which the suffering caused to animals in research may be reduced. But all laws, guidelines and principals need to be constantly reviewed, and after fifty six years such a review is long overdue!

[1] Quoted in ATLA 34, 271-272, 2006.
[2] House of Lords Select Committee 2002 Animals in Scientific Procedures (Norwich:TSO), quoted in The ethics of research involving animals, Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 2005, p.206