Animal Welfare – Killing Lab Animals – Researchers Under Pressure

Animal experiment with guinea pigs (dpa picture alliance / Hans Wiedl)

Many bred experimental animals do not have the appropriate genes needed for a given experiment. Due to the rules of inheritance, only part of the offspring has the correct genome. Others are usually killed because the researchers are of no use to them and would require significant resources to keep them alive – such as additional animal housing and food.

So far, female laboratory animals have been killed in particular repeatedly to rule out that monthly hormonal fluctuations do not alter the results of experiments. However, this selection based on gender is now largely outdated.

What is the claim of animal rights activists?

Two animal protection organizations have filed criminal charges because they believe the animals are being killed for no good reason. Associations say that animals can live to their natural death. They also refer to case law relating to the killing of males when raising laying hens.

Here it has been judged that purely economic reasons do not constitute “reasonable cause” as required by the Animal Welfare Act. In Germany, anyone who kills vertebrates can be fined or even imprisoned for up to three years. Since June 2021, several Hessen state prosecutors have examined the allegations against universities in Frankfurt and Marburg as well as against the Max Planck Institutes, the Paul Ehrlich Institute and various companies.

The ads were placed in Hesse because detailed information about the animals killed was available there. Investigations are still ongoing. Only one investigation into a research firm that came under fire for killing 222 small fish has now been halted.

How do researchers respond to the allegations?

Many scholars have reported that there is a lot of turmoil in society. Many are currently checking their routines, as well as legally insuring themselves. If the killing of animals is not allowed, “Biomedical research in Germany will virtually stop overnight,” says Bettina Kranzlin of the University of Heidelberg – who is also president of the Society for Laboratory Animal Sciences. The capabilities of the animal stables must be doubled or tripled. According to Kranzlin, the funds for this are “not even remotely available”.

What are universities and research institutes doing now?

A researcher from the University of Ulm reports that the killings initially stopped. There they want to let the animal stables “fill up” for the time being. The researchers argue that if there are no more animals that can be kept in a species-appropriate manner due to a lack of space, then this can be considered a “reasonable cause” of killings under the Animal Welfare Act.

In addition, they would change the software so that animals could not be released to kill with a single click – instead, alternative uses for the animals had to be found first. For example, they can be used in other laboratories, for teaching or for other purposes. Feeding the majority of animals not used in zoos is also not an option, as many of them are genetically modified.

How many animals are there?

This is not clear – there are no reliable numbers yet. The history of practically single animals dates back to 2017: according to the federal government’s estimate, 3.9 million animals were not used for experiments and killed at that time. More than 80 percent of them were mice, and most of the rest were small fish – but there were also some pigs and rabbits or mice among them.

What is the rate of killing that can be easily avoided?

The University of Frankfurt says it has reduced the number of animals killed by about 30 percent in recent years. A representative of the Max Planck Society hopes that the number of animals killed can be halved. On the one hand, this is fine, but on the other hand, it also shows that not everything seems to have been done to prevent these killings. This, in turn, may be of interest to the Office of the Prosecutor.

What’s Next?

Although the measures lasted for about a year, it is not yet clear when they will end – and whether they will be stopped or whether there will be charges against representatives of universities and research institutions. The Frankfurt Public Prosecutor’s Office is coordinating the proceedings because it does not make sense to clarify these basic questions in several places at the same time.

The truth is that killing “surplus” lab animals has been a practice for decades – and the authorities at least generally knew that the animals were being killed. But it’s not clear if the researchers can point out that it’s always done this way. The fact that so much is currently being done in laboratories where laboratory animals are used to avoid killing as many animals as possible shows that they want to treat animals differently in the future.

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