Commotion about animal testing

The Animal Rights Foundation has accused the RUG of performing hundreds of unethical tests on wild animals. Researcher Peter Meerlo feels the accusation is unwarranted.
By Christien Boomsma

Animal Rights director Robert Molenaar calls upon the RUG to cease the tests immediately. ‘This is a classic example of unethical animal testing, the functionality of which has not been sufficiently proved’, he says.

He is referring to research done at the Meerlo Laboratory, which is studying sleeping patterns and the consequences of sleep deprivation in jackdaws and starlings. The researchers feel it is relevant, because very little is known about sleep. We spend a large part of our lives sleeping, but we are still largely in the dark about why we need sleep and what sleep actually is.

What we do know is mainly based on studies using mice and rats. These are nocturnal animals, and quite different from people. But starlings and jackdaws are active during the day. ‘Studies have also shown that some wild birds are able to function with very little sleep. But humans suffer after just one bad night. More bad nights, and they become increasingly vulnerable to diseases’, says Peter Meerlo.

Brain waves

The researchers captured several dozen animals for the study. They took fledgling jackdaws out of their nesting boxes, which are also used for other studies. Then, under general anaesthetic, the birds got small electrodes on their brains, which measured their brain waves. During the actual tests, the researchers monitored the birds’ sleeping and waking patterns under various circumstances.

In the end, they removed brain tissue from several animals, to study the effects of sleep and sleep deprivation on a molecular level.

But Animal Rights says that the researchers are breaking the law. ‘We don’t see the point in the first place of animals suffering just because scientists are curious about sleep deprivation.’

Fundamental knowledge

In a statement, the RUG said that this criticism is unwarranted. ‘According to the Experiments on Animals Acts, all tests have to be in line with the Animal-Welfare Body. Then, the Animal Experiments Committee writes up a recommendation for the Central Animal Testing Committee. This procedure was followed in the case of this research.’

And the research certainly isn’t just for curiosity’s sake. ‘Of course every good scientist is driven by curiosity and a need to solve things’, says Meerlo. ‘But we need this fundamental knowledge in order to understand the phenomenon of sleep. 90 percent of our knowledge of the brain comes from research using animals.’

The commotion has shocked him. ‘Of course, you hear about these things, but I never thought it would happen to me. I feel like my integrity is being attacked. We always strive to minimise the animals’ suffering. We have to carefully consider the use of animals in research and ask ourselves whether it’s worth the knowledge we gain. But there are rules about this, rules resulting from a large social discussion, rules that are monitored by committees which have approved these studies. The way Animal Rights interprets the concepts of ethics and morality is not necessarily the standard.’



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