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Behind the scenes: journalists visit animal testing lab

"An unusual step": press event to launch the “Principles on the Ethical Treatment of Animals
Inside the lab: Dr. Sonja Schelhaas, who works at the European Institute for Molecular Imaging at Münster University, answers questions from ZEIT editor Fritz Habekuß during the journalists’ visit.<address>© WWU - Norbert Robers</address>
Inside the lab: Dr. Sonja Schelhaas, who works at the European Institute for Molecular Imaging at Münster University, answers questions from ZEIT editor Fritz Habekuß during the journalists’ visit.
© WWU - Norbert Robers

The white mouse has been anaesthetized. Its little legs have been affixed to a heating plate by means of adhesive strips, and a large amount of gel has been spread over its clean-shaven breast. An ultrasound probe is positioned overhead, and Richard Holtmeier, a member of the team at the European Institute for Molecular Imaging (EIMI) at the University of Münster is using this to study how the mouse copes with a plastic catheter which has been inserted into its carotid artery. Sources of infection inside the body can be seen on the screen of the ultrasound device.   

“We can’t see inflammations without using optical imaging,” says Prof. Michael Schäfers, the Director of EIMI. The researchers use this experiment to try and find out why bacteria collect on artificial implants such as hips or knees. The experiment lasts ten minutes, and afterwards Richard Holtmeier carefully puts the mouse in the storage box. “We need animal testing because we can’t carry out the experiments on humans,” Schäfer explains. “It takes a very long time before our findings can be used for the benefit of patients.” During any series of experiments a mouse is used, on average, two and a half times. After this, the animal is killed and tissue is removed from it for further research.     

In the lab there are seven journalists from newspapers and a news agency who have been invited here by the Münster University Press Office. Full of curiosity, they watch the EIMI staff at work. A hubbub of voices fills the cramped room. Everyone is wearing a white coat, everyone has to watch out for the others in the room. While the researchers around Michael Schäfers describe their daily work and demonstrate three experiments involving imaging, the journalists go about their own work: asking questions, making plenty of notes. The reason for the journalists’ visit is the unanimous vote by the University Senate in October to adopt the six-page “Principles on the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Scientific Research and Teaching”.    

Call for greater transparency

Seeing journalists in an animal testing laboratory at the University of Münster is something that would have been unimaginable until just recently. Over the past few years, though, there have been ever louder demands – from both inside and outside the University – for greater transparency. Calls for a debate came not only from among students, but also from scientists and researchers who advocated more openness. The idea of drawing up a set of principles was born and was supported by the Rectorate. On the “Coordination Committee for Animal Testing”, whose members came from a variety of disciplines, there then followed some lengthy, painstaking wrangling to reach agreement on content and wording.

The Principles were to be presented to the Senate in 2016. The Committee informed the University Press Office. One thing was clear: publicly, the Principles should be made as widely known as possible. But it was also clear that it would be difficult to persuade external journalists to come to Münster for a press briefing just to hear about these Principles. For journalists, it is incomparably more interesting to see and experience what the issue is all about. Thus it was that the idea was born of combining a press briefing with discussions and a look inside an animal testing laboratory. The Press Office had already worked out the plans with the researchers involved when the preparations had to be halted. The reason was that the Senate asked for a public hearing to be held before the Principles were adopted. And so the thought of any PR work was put on hold until then.

Two standpoints, one set of principles

The public hearing followed in 2017. In October the Senate voted for the Principles to be adopted – without any objections or votes against. The Press Office and the researchers now resumed their plans for a press event. The result can be seen today, on this day in November, with the seven journalists who have come to visit EIMI. Before everyone can take a look inside the lab, there is first a press briefing. After a look inside the lab, the next step will be a visit to the Central Institute for Animal Experiments at the Faculty of Medicine.

It is clear even before the Principles are presented that animal experiments are a controversial issue. Biophysician Prof. Stefan Schlatt is the spokesperson for the Coordination Committee for Animal Testing. He also uses monkeys in his research work – and does so because he wants to help people. In contrast to Stefan Schlatt, Committee member Dr. Johann Ach – a philosopher undertaking research into ethical problems in modern medicine and into animal ethics – considers most animal experiments to be “ethically unacceptable”. Two opposing opinions which are taken up and included in the journalists’ reports.  

“Some honesty at last”

Despite their differing standpoints, both Stefan Schlatt and Johann Ach put forward their concerns in a level-headed and constructive manner. Several questions are raised on the practicability of implementing the Principles. After all, the paper can include all sorts of things, but how can it be verified that researchers at the University take seriously the moral responsibility they have towards sentient creatures? The paper provides a framework for guidance, says Johann Ach, and time alone will tell whether it proves itself in practise. The Principles are not something that only research staff and those responsible for animal testing should adhere to – the University’s Rectorate also firmly supports them. “These Principles have the support of the Rectorate, and have been voted for by the Senate, and the University thereby wishes to make it clear where it stands on this issue,” says Prof. Monika Stoll, Vice-Rector for Research, by way of clarification. The journalists seize on this message. In the next few days, the University’s stated intention is reflected in press headlines such as “Principles for Less Suffering” or “Some honesty at last”

Münster University wants a level-headed, public debate – for which PR work is necessary. In 2015 the Press Office had already made a first move towards greater assertiveness and transparency in dealing with the issue of animal testing. The occasion at the time was the opening of a second Animal Protection Centre at the University, which was set up at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences in addition to the existing Centre at the Faculty of Medicine. The Press Office published a two-page article on animal testing in the June issue of the University newspaper “wissen|leben”. The article included a debate between Stefan Schlatt and Johann Ach, in which they each put forward their opposing standpoints.

After the article was published, there followed a waiting game. What would happen now? Might the University’s image be damaged if journalists seized on the issue and reported on animal experiments at the University? And things could have turned nasty: everyone involved had in the back of their minds cases involving other German research institutes, where researchers had been personally attacked by radical animal rights activists. After a few weeks it became clear that … nothing would happen. Some praise here and there for the comprehensive reporting, but otherwise no reaction.

Seeing how animals are kept

Back to the journalists’ visit. After the press briefing and the visit to EIMI, the next topic to be dealt with is how animals are kept – because keeping animals for research purposes in appropriate conditions is also a responsibility that researchers have. The journalists get to see how animals are kept at the University of Münster when they visit the Central Institute for Animal Experiments (ZTE), which houses rats, pigs, zebra fish and 14 white rabbits for courses on animal testing. The rabbits live in small groups and can move around freely in three straw-bedded boxes.

Anyone entering the ZTE is met with a pungent smell of animal. Normally, visitors cannot enter the rooms just like that. The building is well secured – not least because germs must be prevented from entering it. This is why face masks, lab coats, gloves and shoe covers are compulsory for anyone coming into contact with animals. Marmosets and macaques jump around behind the bars of their cages. Before Stefan Schlatt lets the journalists into the room housing the macaques, he asks the group why they think the monkeys are staring at the blue door with the viewing window. There is a simple explanation: the monkeys are watching television, so that they are kept occupied. “Again and again there are discussions on how much TV is healthy in a day. Basically, our animals here are better off than in any standard form of accommodation for animals,” says Schlatt.

An unusual step

The issue of animal testing is controversial and will remain so. But ways of handling the issue are changing in many places. At Münster University, too, the issue is now more visible than in the past. 2017 saw the appointment to the University of Prof. Helene Richter, Professor of Animal Behaviour and Animal Protection. The chair is the only one of its kind in North Rhine-Westphalia. One of the things which the University of Münster is doing with its new Principles on the Ethical Treatment of Animals is to advocate greater transparency towards the public on the issue of animal testing. The visit to the lab at EIMI and the guided tour of the ZTE are a beginning, and one which one journalist described as “an unusual step” …  

Christina Heimken and Kathrin Nolte

Translated from German by Ken Ashton.

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