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Animal House

Thursday, 23 October, 2014

It might come as a surprise to many students that animal research is conducted on every University of Melbourne campus. At Parkville, it’s performed in the basement of the Zoology building and the tenth floor of the Medical building. Animals are delivered via truck in plain sight. In the case of buildings where the animals are upstairs, they are transported via a service elevator.

Speak to anyone working in these buildings one-on-one and they’ll be frank with you. They will tell you that the rooms exist and there are animals in them. It’s essentially public knowledge that Room B112 in the Zoology building is marked “Animal Room” and even has a “biological hazard” warning on the door.

Yet these rooms are marked “classified” on building plans. And staff are generally reluctant to speak publicly about the use of animals for research—even if it is considered ethical and legitimate.

Bachelor of Agriculture student Magnus Gillberg took a subject with animal research last year. He said when the subject started there was a disclaimer about working with animals. For about a month, he and other students conducted blood tests on sheep—in the basement of the Zoology building.

Gillberg said the sheep were kept in tight but decent conditions.

“They were usually just kept in cages,” he said. “They weren’t able to really move around because they had an IV into their jugular vein the whole time.

“They weren’t treated poorly. They were fed a lot,” he said. “They were much friendlier than most sheep I’ve ever met.”

The Australian federal government and the Victorian government have strict rules around conditions for animal research.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) regularly updates the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes. The Code exists “to promote the ethical, humane and responsible care and use of animals used for scientific purposes”. It was last updated in 2013.

Applications to conduct research with animals at the university are extensive. Among other things such as writing an abstract and doing preliminary investigations, the researcher must pitch their project to a board of people. The board consists of veterinarians, scientists, an animal rights activist and a layperson. The researcher has to explain to the board exactly what they plan on using the animal for. They must explain why their animal research is worthwhile, and show that they can’t do it any other way. The board has to agree unanimously in order for the project to go ahead.

In 2012, only 38 per cent of these applications were approved at the university.

Public perceptions of animal research generally range from negative to unconcerned. A Humane Research Australia poll last year found that only 57 per cent of people surveyed were aware that animals are being used for research in Australia. 31 per cent said they were unaware that many results from animal research are later applied to humans.

Organisations such as the Australian and New Zealand Laboratory Animal Association (ANZLAA) are dedicated to breaking down the stigma around animal research. Their website states that they seek “to foster informed discussion and continuing professional development for those working with animals used in research and teaching”. However, when approached by Farrago, the organisation claimed that it wasn’t their role to comment on animal research ethics.

Staff from the Animal Ethics department in the university’s Office of Research Ethics and Integrity refused to comment.