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Animal testing: it’s a propaganda war!

Thanks to animal rights activists and their graphic campaigns, we’re all prone to seeing animal research as outrageously wrong. What’s the actual situation in Berlin labs and what are the alternatives?

Image for Animal testing: it’s a propaganda war!
Happy lemurs at the German Primate Centre in Göttingen, which offers public guided tours of its animal testing facilities. Photo courtesy of the Deutsches Primatenzentrum

Thanks to animal rights activists and their graphic campaigns, we’re all prone to seeing animal research as outrageously wrong, and the scientists who perform it as criminals. Yet what would medical progress be without animal testing? What’s the actual situation in Berlin labs and what are the alternatives? The scientific community has struck back with answers – and a PR push of their own.

Image for Animal testing: it’s a propaganda war!
The Tierschutzpartei poster in Berlin during last election campaign at the intersection of Yorckstraße and Bülowstraße.

Only a few months ago, as Berlin was blanketed with election posters, a monkey appeared amongst the friendly faces of politicians. No, it wasn’t running for office. It was trapped in a dirty steel and glass box, with a metallic cap where the top of its skull should be. The posters were from the Berlin branch of the Tierschutzpartei (Animal Protection Party), highlighting their call to end all animal experiments in Germany. As an emotional plea, the image was hard to ignore. A passerby couldn’t help but wonder where in Berlin such a barbaric experiment was going on these days.

As it turns out, probably nowhere. There are 25 academic, medical, pharmaceutical, and government institutions in Berlin which carry out regular animal research. The vast majority of their test subjects are mice, rats, and fish. Of over 188,000 animals used for research in this city last year, just 150 were monkeys. All but one were used in testing for “regulatory purposes” – the last step before a new drug or chemical can be approved for use by humans. The 150th monkey was likely used in a behavioural experiment, since on its own it would be too small a sample size for medical research. None of the 150 monkeys died or were put down after their tests.

But that hasn’t stopped Germany’s animal activists from focusing their campaigns on banning research on monkeys and apes. Using images like the one on the election poster, activist groups have succeeded in convincing most commercial airlines to stop transporting non-human primates for research. Only Air France is holding out, and every month, there is a rally at Tegel Airport against the airline. One of its organisers, Tierversuchsgegner Berlin Brandenburg (Opponents of Animal Experiments) is confident the campaign is having an effect. “One day, they will stop,” says spokeswoman Christiane Neuhaus. For now, the stalemate means monkeys are harder and more expensive for researchers to use, not to mention riskier from a PR perspective.

In fact, animal research in Germany is increasingly about communication as much as science. The debate over animal testing – particularly on monkeys – has lately led researchers into a media arms race with activists. As things start to escalate, both sides are in danger of relying more on photographs and half-truths than on facts.

Lab scandals

The latest round of skirmishes began in Bremen in 2014, with neurobiologist Andreas Kreiter. His experiments with macaque monkeys had been attracting outrage and legal challenges from animal rights activists for years. Activists claimed that by performing surgery on the monkeys – some of whom did not survive – to learn more about their brains, Kreiter was killing animals needlessly. His work was vindicated by the Federal Administrative Court, which ruled that it was scientifically significant and did not breach animal welfare laws. Following that decision, the Berlin-based Tierversuchsgegner Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Opponents of Animal Experiments in Germany) put Kreiter squarely in their sights. They ran a national ad campaign calling his work “barbaric”, “cruel” and “pointless”. Headlined “Kreiter continues in cold blood,” the ad ran in many of Germany’s major daily newspapers and featured a picture of a visibly distressed, restrained macaque with a number tattooed on its chest as a barely veiled reference to National Socialism and the Holocaust.

This prompted an immediate backlash from the Allianz der Wissenschaftsorganisationen (Alliance of Scientific Organisations) and from Kreiter himself, who claimed that “the ad aims for personal annihilation.” Several of the newspapers which printed the ad took pains to distance themselves from its sentiments, but the lesson was clear: words can only do so much to counter a powerful image.

That same year, another animal researcher found himself in the midst of an even bigger PR crisis. Posing as a new employee at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, an undercover animal rights activist secretly filmed institute director Nikos Logothetis’s monkey lab and sent the tape to the press. The footage, showing monkeys having sensors implanted into their brains and allegedly being mistreated, prompted three separate investigations into animal cruelty, and a police raid on the lab. No charges were pressed, but Logothetis decided to end his experiments with monkeys “as quickly as possible.” However, he maintains that the undercover activist deliberately induced distressed responses from the monkeys while filming, and implied that an emergency situation filmed at the lab was typical. Both sides seemed to think the video proved their point. In the aftermath, Logothetis decried “the tolerance and very slow reactions of scientific organisations” in the face of increasing criticism and “abuse” from activists.

‘People still believe that cosmetics are tested on animals…and that most research is done on primates.’ In fact, cosmetics testing on animals has been banned throughout the EU since 2009.

Misconceptions about the kinds of experiments which are allowed on animals in Germany are common. As one researcher observes, “People still believe that cosmetics are tested on animals… and that most research is done on primates.” In fact, cosmetics testing on animals has been banned throughout the EU since 2009, and overseas cosmetics products which have been tested on animals cannot be sold here. Primates make up roughly 0.01 percent of research animals, and Germany, along with the rest of the EU, has an outright ban on using great apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas for research. The approval process for any animal research must satisfy the “three Rs”: replacement, reduction, and refinement. The first means that if an animal test can be reasonably replaced with an alternative method, it must be. Reduction and refinement require researchers to minimise the number of animals they use, and to minimise any pain or distress caused. Animals must be housed properly and given anaesthetic before any painful procedure. Germany’s Centre for Documentation and Evaluation of Alternative Methods to Animal Experiments (ZEBET) has existed since 1989, to investigate alternatives to animal research and ensure that lab animals are treated properly. However, animal activists in Germany argue that these safeguards are not enough, and that all animal research should be phased out.

Logothetis wasn’t the only one calling for a change of strategy. The pan-European Basel Declaration Society (formed in 2011) and the European Animal Research Association (EARA, formed 2014) both attempt to improve the public’s view of animal research. In a presentation shortly after the Kreiter affair, the EARA pointed to Germany as a country with a vocal anti-animal research lobby but no organised opposition from scientists.

Scientists strike back

This year, the Alliance of Scientific Organisations moved to solve that problem, with a new campaign called Tierversuche verstehen (Understanding Animal Experiments). Launched in Berlin this September, the campaign’s centrepiece is a German-language website presenting a scientist’s perspective on animal research. “We aim to transparently inform the public about what is going on, what are the rules and regulations and why scientists actually do this type of research,” explains a campaign spokesperson. The site includes profiles of researchers and their work, showing how animal research has played a role in medical breakthroughs in the past. In a nutshell: animal research is necessary for science, particularly medicine, and German researchers do it responsibly.

But among blog posts, fact sheets, and infographics, the Tierversuche verstehen site’s target audience seems to be scientists themselves. It offers media training courses for researchers to help them explain and defend their work. In fact, the campaign says it is working to build a database of qualified scientists in different fields who are willing and able to respond to media enquiries. The goal is to have researchers shape the news, rather than simply respond to an activist’s claims. “Not every scientist, even if they are genius, is born to perform in front of a camera or microphone,” the Tierversuche verstehen spokesperson says. Media training has become an essential tool for scientists, in case they “find their science comes up against a campaigner using PR techniques.”

The focus on openness and approachability is clearly an attempt to neutralise the kind of undercover exposé video which caused trouble for the Max Planck Institute. The site is full of images and videos showing happy animals in well-lit labs, and encourages researchers to open their labs to the public. They point to Göttingen, where the Deutsches Primatenzentrum (German Primate Centre) offers guided tours showing its monkey enclosure, labs, and staff . According to Tierversuche verstehen, the Centre has seen far less outrage over its research since letting the public inside. Berliners can visit a local lab, too: the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Buch gives tours of its laboratories (but not its animal enclosures) every June, as part of the city’s Long Night of Science.

The fight goes on

But Ärzte gegen Tierversuche (Doctors Against Animal Experiments), a Cologne-based group comprising some 2000 doctors, vets and psychologists, isn’t convinced. Spokeswoman Silke Strittmatter sees Tierversuche verstehen as spin over substance. Since visitors can’t see the experiments themselves, “no one really gets insight into the labs. The public should have the right to see what is happening behind the closed laboratory doors.” As for Rainer Gaertner, the head of Tierversuchsgegner Bundesrepublik Deutschland, which produced the ads attacking Kreiter, he was quick to label the new campaign “propaganda” aiming at “brainwashing” the public. He’s pledged to react by “maintaining and expanding our effective counterbalance” against the researchers. Gaertner won’t share details on his plans, but it’s not hard to imagine activists organising their own PR push. Perhaps the monkey from the election posters will make another campaign appearance.

So where did that monkey even come from? A Tierschutzpartei representative claimed the photo was taken in Münster. According to the poster, the image came from Ärzte gegen Tierversuche, whose website credits it to the AESOP Project, a now defunct primate protection group which obtained the photo from an Israeli animal rights group. The picture shows a procedure at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2001, where scientists implanted electrodes into the brain of a monkey named Malish while he was still conscious. An employee at the lab leaked footage of the surgery, and the so-called experiment was widely condemned.

The story of that picture is typical of the turn this debate has taken. The photo seems to reveal a lot, but without knowing the background, what it conceals is critical. Statistics with no context can be misleading in just the same way. The challenge for Germany’s newly media-savvy researchers will be simplifying their message without cutting corners. The line between PR and spin is a fine one.