Riccardo Avvisati is a PhD student at Sapienza University of Rome, studying the influences of the environment on drug of abuse in a rodent model. He is currently a visiting research student at the University of Sussex.
There is no doubt that animal rights organisations are gaining support and momentum from the public and policy makers in Italy. In recent days, we are seeing quite a big change as the government recently implemented the transposition of the European Directive 2010/63/EU but with the following major restrictions:
Prohibition of performing xenotransplants (i.e., organ transplants between two different species);
Prohibition of carrying animal experimentation on substances of abuse;
Prohibition of breeding non-rodent animals for research purposes on the national territory;
Imposing mandatory anesthesia for every pain-inducing procedure, including ones as mild as blood sampling.
All these regulations will have huge impact on my research. Simply put, it will shut it down. Although there is a clause in the bill’s article about drug of abuse and xenotransplants, which states that this will only be the case if no alternative method for these branches of research is found, it is still unclear who is going to decide if it will be reasonable to test drugs of abuse or perform xenotransplants only on cell cultures. As Pro-Test Italia points out, these regulations will have wide-spread, damaging impact on research in Italy. Many people are already moving their laboratories to other research lines in the fear of not being able to gain authorisation to experiment on animals they need.
This change is due to the lobbying activity of many animal rights groups and the media coverage that has given them huge amounts of visibility and impact on the public. In Italy, the law currently allows these organisations to ask for preventive seizures of animals supposedly subjected to abuse, with the people responsible facing civil action. The court trial can go on for years, and at the end, even if the defendant is found to be innocent, the animals are no longer suitable for the purpose they were bred for. In the meantime, the seizure is advertised as a success by animal rights organisations. This has been the case for the beagle breeding facility Green Hill, which has faced constant attacks by animal rights’ activist. If animal rights groups win the case it takes the financial compensation intended for the animals, but instead of using it for animal-aimed initiatives such as housing, health care, or research for alternative methods, they reinvest the money in advertisement campaigns in order to get more money from donors.
I have personally confronted animal rights activists in Italy. Once, they were advertising a petition to stop ‘the false science of vivisection’ near the department in which I worked. They were giving away flyers with black and white pictures of a conscious macaque restrained on the operating table. When I asked about the source of the picture, they couldn’t tell me. When I asked if they knew about the current regulation of animal experimentation in Italy and Europe or the three Rs principle, that mandate replacement alternatives, reduction alternatives, and refinement alternatives (the 3Rs) in animal research, they couldn’t reply either. Instead, they told me that vivisection is just big business for pharmaceutical companies. Even the argument that animal experimentation represents a cost to pharmaceutical companies rather than a gain didn’t faze them. That’s what animal rights activism is about: a crusade that does not allow replies nor listens to arguments, instead using highly emotive images and slogans to capture public opinion.
At present, there are no replacements for animal models in behavioral neuroscience. As the name indicates, we need to study behavior. In order to study behavior, we need an organism capable of displaying behavior. My research could help define how environmental factors shape acute and long-term effect of abused drugs. Thus, it can support the development of tailored cognitive-behavioral rehab therapies, in a framework that is less drug-centered and more individual-centered. To do this, I first need rats to take the drugs.
The scientific community all around the world is facing a growing anti-science movement, which ranges from anti-animal experimentation to anti-vaccines groups. People do not trust or respect scientists anymore, and scientists aren’t engaging with the public.
In contrast, animal rights activists rely on emotionally charged pictures, often fake or de- or mis-contextualised, readily absorbable statements and ideas, and sometimes even false information. While scientists shouldn’t adopt these practices, little has been done in the past to educate the general population and decision makers on the scientific method, why and how animal experimentation is carried.
In Italy, as in every other European Country, we have to stand against people that, for ignorance or interest, do not even realise the danger of their actions— for the health and welfare of us all.