Attitudes towards animal testing and research in Aotearoa – Expert Reaction

Kiwis care about the use of animals in scientific research, but are ill-informed about how it is regulated, according to a detailed new survey of more than 1300 people. 

While the use of animals for cosmetic testing is banned in Aotearoa, almost 30% of survey participants thought it was permitted, and 40% were unsure. While the use of animals to safety test products used in industry and farming is allowed in New Zealand, more than half of survey respondents were unsure if this was the case.

The survey, commissioned by the New Zealand Board of the Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching (ANZCCART), found that New Zealanders have strong and diverse views about when the use of animals is and isn’t acceptable and which animals should and shouldn’t be used, as well as strong expectations around transparency from scientific institutions.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the report. 

Professor Ngaio Beausoleil, Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre, Massey University, comments:

“A key finding of this study is that many members of the New Zealand public are interested in the use of animals in research and teaching but that they feel poorly informed about how such use is regulated and would like more information and transparency.

“To address such concerns, ANZCCART NZ spearheaded an Openness Agreement with the aim of encouraging organisations directly using animals and those supporting or funding the use of animals to be more open and transparent about these activities, their benefits and costs, including any harms to the animals involved. So far, 30 New Zealand organisations, including universities, companies and government agencies, have become signatories to the agreement. As well as initiating the Openness Agreement, ANZCCART provides information to the public about how the use of animals in research and teaching (at primary, secondary and tertiary levels) is regulated in New Zealand, what kinds of activities are permitted – with approval from an Animal Ethics Committee, and how the welfare of research/teaching animals can be improved.

“Given that this study highlighted the low level of public awareness about such matters, ANZCCART, signatories to the Openness Agreement, trusted animal welfare organisations and veterinarians could focus efforts on public outreach to help address concerns about the use of animals in research and teaching.”

Conflict of interest: Professor Beausoleil was part of the ANZCCART NZ subcommittee responsible for this research.

Dr Jodi Salinsky, Animal Welfare Officer & University Veterinarian, University of Auckland, comments: 

“Congratulations to ANZCCART and MPI on this important piece of work. It has been a long time coming, as the last survey of this kind was completed in 2005 (published in 2007). If we are to engage with our community and support understanding of animal-based research, testing, and teaching, it is important to consider their perceptions and opinions.

“These are interesting results that need more investigation, but it is clear that people want to know more. Fortunately, the NZ Openness Agreement has been signed by many members of the research community in Aotearoa, showing a willingness to work in this space. It fills me with pride that veterinarians working with animals in this field are a trusted source of information for people. I can confirm that these veterinarians care deeply for the animals, spending time and energy on ways to provide them with the best life possible, while helping ensure that research outcomes are as robust as possible.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I don’t believe I have any specific conflicts of interest. Full disclosure that I sit on a number of international laboratory animal boards/ committees: ICLAS Oceania Committee, ANZLAA Executive Committee, UAR Oceania (Chair of the Board of Directors), ANZCVS Medicine and Management of Laboratory Animals Committee.”

Dr Mike King, Bioethics Centre, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago, Dunedin, comments:

“Animal use in research, teaching and testing is a matter of ethical concern for many, and rightly so. At the centre of this issue is the welfare of animals, as well as the potential benefits gained from that use, for animals, people and the environment.

“Animals cannot represent themselves, but this survey provides an opportunity for others to represent them, along with their other values, and beliefs. Justifying the use of animals in research, testing or teaching hinges on a delicate balance of ethical values and obligations. This balance that is inherently complex, often leading to differing opinions among well-intentioned, reasonable people, even if there is much they also agree on.

“Understanding diverse viewpoints on this subject enriches our thinking, and all stakeholders in research, testing and teaching across the spectrum of this issue will have regard to the results presented in this report when thinking about their practices and seeking improvements. A progenitor to this survey was conducted almost 20 years ago. It should be repeated more often, perhaps biannually, mirroring the UK government approach with its “Public Attitudes To Animal Research” survey. Such regular polls are vital. They capture changing perspectives and steadfast convictions, providing essential insight for all parties involved and fostering progress.”

Conflict of interest: “I am a member of ANZCCART and was part of the ANZCCART NZ subcommittee responsible for this research, a member of the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee, and the Zoo and Aquarium Association Ethics Committee. I am writing in my academic capacity.”

Dr Christine Sumner, SPCA Scientific Officer, comments:  

“What we are reading from this report are some very positive shifts in public perception and understanding of animals being sentient creatures, capable of feeling emotions and experiencing pain and trauma. It features very strong signals to those who use animals in research, testing, and teaching – and to the government – that the public expects more development and implementation of alternatives to animals in research, testing, and teaching. Namely, that New Zealanders have high expectations for the welfare of animals used in research, testing, and teaching, that they want more transparency around this topic and that there is significant interest in alternatives to alleviate animal suffering.

“These points all align with our organisational position at SPCA – which is that we only support the keeping of animals for research, testing, and teaching when the animals’ physical, health, and behavioural needs are met, and when it is ensured animals experience positive welfare for the entirety of their life.”

No conflicts of interest.

Dr Jim Webster, Team Leader Animal Ethics, AgResearch, comments:

“Public insights provided by this report are of great value to researchers like myself who are grappling daily with the ethical issues of the use of animals in scientific research, testing, and teaching; as well as to organisations that are using animals for these purposes, to ensure that they are evolving in line with changing public expectations.

“The finding that there is considerable interest in the use of animals in research, yet not a great deal of knowledge regarding this use does not surprise me given the historical approach of research organisations to providing public information about animal research only when necessary.

“Encouragingly, there has been a shift towards greater transparency driven by an Openness Agreement on Animal Research and Teaching for New Zealand that was launched in 2021 and which many organisations are now signed up to. Organisations such as my own (AgResearch) have also been public in our commitment to only use animals in research if there is no non-animal alternative, and we’re also engaging with animal welfare and advocacy groups to share perspectives and find common ground.

“Ethical oversight of animal research was another area highlighted by the survey, with only half of respondents feeling it is adequate and requiring more public and government involvement. My view is that we have a rigorous system of ethical oversight that incorporates a blend of public and government involvement in New Zealand, but we clearly do need to keep working on building the public awareness and trust in this area.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am a former board member of ANZCCART and currently represent ANZCCART on two external organisations; however I was not involved in the preparation or dissemination of the New Zealanders’ Attitudes to Animal Research in 2023 report; I also sit on an Animal Ethics Committee that deals with applications for the use of animals in scientific research, testing, and teaching.”