How much does the public knows and accepts about animal experimentation ?

Photo by user “tiburi” on Pixabay.

Highlights

  • Surveys and opinion polls produce highly variable results depending on the wording and format of the questions used, and sometimes resemble communication operations rather than rigorous research.
  • There seems to be general public acceptance of certain types of research (e.g., studying diseases and developing remedies) more than others (e.g., testing the toxicity of chemical or cosmetic ingredients) and the use of certain species (e.g., rodents) more than others (e.g., dogs, cats and primates).
  • The public generally appears to be less accepting of animal experimentation when it involves high levels of animal suffering or when non-animal alternatives are available.
  • The public’s knowledge of animal experimentation is very patchy, which people are aware of, to the point of judging themselves to be ill-informed on the subject. The link between the level of knowledge and opinions on animal experimentation is not clear.

Main sources

Expérimentation animale – Analyse de la controverse de 1950 à nos jours en Suisse – A huge work on the Swiss situation, that also provides many sources concerning all of Europe.

Comment le public voit-il l’expérimentation animale ? Résultats d’un questionnaire diffusé en ligne au printemps 2020, concernant les opinions et les connaissances du public sur l’expérimentation animale.

Les Français et la condition animale – A survey by the Ipsos organisation ordered by the french animal right association “la Fondation Brigitte Bardot”, that gives us a lot of infomation concerning the relationship between french people and animal welfare, including animal testing.

Que nous disent les enquêtes réalisées auprès des citoyens ? – A critique of surveys by the website “Transcience”, containing many information to better understand the weak and strong points of these kind of sources.


Introduction

Over the last twenty years, numerous surveys have measured the degree of public support for animal experimentation and public representations of regulations and practices. Some of these polls have studied the public’s position towards movements opposed to animal experimentation, according to their mode of action ​[1–3]​. The focus of this article, however, will be to assess the public’s positioning and knowledge of animal experimentation.

Public opinion on animal experimentation

Depending on the surveys and studies, results can be very different. At the beginning of the 21st century, 45% of surveyed persons were for and 41% were against allowing scientists to “experiment on animals” in the European Union ​[4]​, but 34% were for and 64% were against animal experimentation in France ​[5]​, and only one third were against in England ​[2]​. Also in England, 26% are in favor of a total ban on animal experiments ​[3]​, while 73% of French people would be in favor of such a ban “within 10 years in order to give laboratories time to develop alternative methods” ​[6]​. Very recently, a European survey found that 53-71% of people, depending on the country, agree with the idea that the European Union should ban animal testing as a whole immediately, while only 10-22% disagree with this idea ​[7]​.

However, a review of European surveys conducted up to 2010 notes that acceptance of animal research differs according to the type of research, the species used, the suffering inflicted and the possibility of alternatives, and is also due to demographic factors ​[8]​. Demographic factors also play a role ​[8]​. Age, sex, gender, experience with animals, religion and vegetarianism also seem to play a role ​[9]​. Men, people with political affinity with the centre-right, as well as managers are more likely than others to be in favour of animal experimentation ​[4,10]​. However, in France, people with lower paying jobs and/or a lower standard of living are less in favour of public funding for the development of alternative methods – but are equally in favour of a ban within ten years in order to give laboratories time to develop alternative methods ​[6]​.

Depending on the purpose of the research

Public support varies greatly depending on the goal. In France, 56% of people would be in favor of animal experimentation if it “makes it possible to better treat human diseases (vaccines, drugs)” – a level of support that rises to 61-77% for specifically named diseases or for surgical research ​[1]​. In England, the degree of adherence to animal testing ranges from 5% for cosmetic product testing to 79% for research into new treatments and procedures to treat specific diseases (65% for COVID-19, for example), with much more mixed positions for the rest of the applications of animal experimentation ​[11]​. Within a US university, similar results can be found: the study of animal and human diseases, in particular, are considered much more justified than the testing of chemicals or cosmetics ​[12]​.

Image by Ryan Hagerty on Pixnio.

In a recent European survey, 59-78% of people agreed that animal testing of cosmetic products or ingredients “is unacceptable under any circumstances”, and 63-81% of people agreed that the European Union “should ban animal testing of household products” ​[7]​. In Switzerland, “75% of respondents reject EA [animal testing] to test the harmfulness or safety of substances used daily, such as dishwashing products” ​[13]​. In France, 55% of people would be in favor of a total ban on testing chemical products and ingredients (household products, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) ​[5]​. In England, 48% of people say they accept animal testing for chemicals that could be harmful to humans, but only 39% are in favor of using animals to test chemicals that could harm the environment ​[2]​.

Depending on the species used

In the European Union, depending on the country, 29-65% of people are favorable and 12-51% are unfavorable to experiments “on animals such as dogs and monkeys, if it can help solve health problems for humans” – France being among the least favorable (33%) and most unfavorable (51%), a very different figure for mice: 68% are favorable, and 20% unfavorable to their use “if it gives information on health problems for humans” ​[10]​. In fact, 27% of French people say that research on primates “is never acceptable”, 14% that it is “always acceptable”, 53% that it is conditionally acceptable to study certain diseases ​[1]​. But the species associated with a greater rejection of animal experimentation remain pets: according to surveys, 72% of French people would be in favor of a total ban on experiments on dogs and cats ​[5]​, or 73% would be in favor of a total ban on experiments on pets ​[14]​. These differences can be found in the United States: at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, experiments on rats and mice were considered more acceptable than experiments on pigs and sheep, which in turn were considered more acceptable than experiments on primates, dogs and cats ​[12]​.

According to the suffering of the animals

The suffering of animals is also a recurring criterion in the positioning of surveyed persons. We often hear researchers assert that animal welfare is necessary to obtain good quality results (this is notably the case in the questionnaire of Pollo et al. in 2004 ​[15]​). In France, 87% of people are in favor of banning “any experimentation that causes suffering to an animal” ​[5]​. In Switzerland, “66% of respondents (…) consider experiments that inflict pain, suffering and anxiety on animals to be ethically indefensible: as the level of seriousness of the experiment increases, acceptance decreases, reaching only 8% in the case of experiments of degree of seriousness 3” ​[13]​ – the maximum degree of seriousness, involving severe constraints and/or unrelieved suffering. In England, 74% of people say they accept animal experimentation in general as long as there is no alternative and no unnecessary suffering ​[11]​.

Depending on the availability of alternatives

In France, according to polls, 75-90% of people are in favor of banning the use of animal experimentation when alternatives exist ​[5,16,17]​. At the same time, in England, 56-74% of people declare that they accept the use of animals for research in general or for medical research as long as there is no alternative ​[2,11]​. On both sides, there is widespread agreement that more work needs to be done to find alternatives ​[7,11]​, even if it means setting deadlines ​[7]​ and providing public funding for the development of alternative methods, to which 30% of French people seem to be opposed ​[6]​.

Public knowledge of animal experimentation

Despite this quantity of surveys on a variety of subjects, which provide a better understanding of the complexity of the issue and the biases posed by the various ways of formulating a questionnaire, the knowledge of the general public on the subject seems to be very little studied.

Assessment of public knowledge

Only a few snippets of very specific (wrong) knowledge were questioned: in England, 35-41% of people think that animal experimentation is allowed to test cosmetic products or their ingredients ​[3,11]​, whereas the situation is more complex than a simple authorization/ban; in France, 67% of people agree to generalize, saying that “there are other means as effective as animal experimentation today to advance science and medicine” ​[5]​.

Image of the CSIRO.

In a recent knowledge questionnaire ​[18]​, scores were generally low, with very marked differences between questions:

  • Very few respondents were able to give the number of animals used each year in France (see the commented analyses of Transcience ​[19]​ and Animal Testing ​[20]​ for a sufficiently nuanced answer to this question), and with the exception of mice and rats, a varying proportion of people seemed unsure whether other species were used, or even tended to think that they were not – even for cats and dogs, which had been widely promoted since the 19th century by associations fighting against animal experimentation.
  • The definition of basic research (which does not seek a direct application, but an understanding from which applications may eventually emerge) is far from obvious, especially for those opposed to animal experimentation, even though it is one of the fields that uses the most animals each year.
  • The 3Rs (reduce – refine – replace), likewise, seem to be very little known: whether they were opposed or in favour of animal experimentation, very few respondents were able to say which word each of the 3Rs referred to, a large majority having even replied that they did not know at all.
  • Among the applications of animal experimentation, almost no one mentioned at least one application from each of the three main areas (biomedical research, toxicology and basic research), with biomedical research being mentioned much more often than the others.
  • Among the alternative methods, almost no one mentioned at least one method from each of the three main areas of in vitro (culture medium), in silico (computer science) and in humano (human testing), with in vitro methods being mentioned much more often than the others and with a greater variety of specific methods.
  • Many people still believe that all of the results obtained from animal experiments cannot be reliably transferred to humans. This is probably due to the widespread generalization widely practiced by certain associations fighting against animal experimentation by attacking in particular the disappointing predictivity of animal models used in toxicology, or the equally disappointing record of research on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. This issue is particularly complex and should not be the subject of generalisations if the aim is to inform the public.
  • Many people still believe that it is already possible to replace all animal experiments with alternative methods, whereas even if human beings are used as replacements, there will always be the possibility of animal experiments that do not involve applications in humans, and experiments for veterinary medicine. While this does not mean that animal experimentation cannot be stopped as a single ban on experiments concerning non-consenting human beings, stopping animal experimentation altogether implies (in certain areas) to accept to deprive oneself of a number of possibilities, or to imagine other avenues of research.
  • As far as cosmetics are concerned, while almost all respondents knew that they could find in-store products from brands that test on animals, the European law on the testing of finished cosmetics and cosmetic ingredients was clearly not clear to many people. Its interaction with the laws of other countries and the REACH regulation ​[21]​ does not help people understand its scope, and the only attempts to do so come from associations that are trying to set up certifications to help inform the public.
Knowledge and opinions on animal experimentation

In fact, one survey revealed that, despite a rather favourable general result for animal experimentation under certain conditions, results tended more and more towards mixed positions with time, perhaps because people were more aware that they did not know much about different subjects. The survey also identified an increase in the neutrality of responses to many questions compared to previous surveys, and found that 70-85% of people felt insufficiently informed about alternatives, efforts to reduce animal suffering, government initiatives and the organisms like the British Centre for Alternative Methods ​[2]​. In 2020, in a Europe-wide questionnaire, 60-76% of people, depending on the country, answered that they knew little or nothing about the regulation of animal testing ​[7]​.

The link between knowledge and support for animal experimentation was discussed in a literature review: “One study showed that when knowledge increases, members of the public are less supportive of the subject, especially if it is considered morally questionable. Other studies echo these findings, finding that in some cases familiarity with animal research was associated with lower levels of support” ​[9]​. More recently ​[18]​, it appears that vegans (i.e., people who claim to be vegetarian, vegan, or vegan) have slightly higher levels of knowledge than non-vegans about animal testing, and people with nuanced opinions have slightly higher levels of knowledge than people who claim to be radically opposed to animal experimentation (i.e., people who are opposed to animal experimentation regardless of the purpose of the experiments, the species used, and the level of suffering involved).

Lack of transparency

Overall, the lack of transparency is the area where the public is most in agreement. In France, 73% of people agree that “currently, there is insufficient information on the conditions under which animal experiments are carried out” ​[5]​. In England, one third of people do not know whether or not they trust the regulatory system, 42% describe animal testing establishments as secretive, 65% say they do not feel well enough informed about the use of animals in research and 76% say they do not remember seeing any information on animal research in the last 12 months, while 90% say they are not aware of the UK center dedicated to the implementation of the 3Rs ​[3]​.

In fact, lack of knowledge and information seems to be one of the two main reasons why people who are opposed to animal testing continue to buy and use products involving animal testing. The second reason is the need to treat oneself with treatments and drugs developed and tested on animals ​[18]​. These difficulties can be generalized in today’s society with the use of all the technologies and elements of comfort that we are familiar with, for which the laws often involve the use of animals, which does not mean that animal experimentation is necessary to maintain daily comfort and new technologies, as for the pursuit of biomedical research.

Transparency or one-way communication?

In response to the public, a 2006 survey of scientists working in biology suggests that researchers are afraid to speak out publicly and are not encouraged to do so by their institutions, but say that they do so anyway ​[22]​ – an article in the same issue notes, however, that the debate is so polarized that it is difficult to express oneself and debate rationally without being labeled as a collaborator or extremist ​[23]​, which does not make it easy to deepen the debate on these issues. For example, while 86% of Swiss scientists consider the public debate on animal experimentation to be important, more than 60% say that the media are in favor of the opponents of animal experimentation and give a negative image of research ​[13]​.

On the basis of the responses recorded in our study, the engagement of scientists seems to be more in a one-way relationship from scientists to the general public (which is seen as a target that needs to be informed so that it can then be more positive towards science, according to about three-quarters of the responses). Less space is left for the scientist to listen, understand and debate with society. Moreover, 59% of respondents consider that the public should not have a say in the regulation of scientific activities and their applications, and only 33% attribute common sense and relevant judgment to the public. ​[24]​

F. Crettaz von Roten, Laboratory animal science course in Switzerland: participants’ points of view and implications for organizers. Lab Animal. 52(1) (2018), 69-78.

The limitations of surveys

Beyond investigations conducted in a scientific framework, it is extremely rare for this kind of survey results to be accompanied by a review of the literature on their subject. As E. Ormandy and C.A. Schuppli rightly pointed out in a review of the literature in 2014, questionnaires have their limits, especially when the respondent population is made up entirely of undergraduate students, when the questions asked are very general and when only scales or closed (yes or no) questions are used, without qualitative data ​[9]​. Moreover, the answers are sometimes radically context-sensitive, and surveys sometimes resemble communication operations more than sociological surveys.

Photo of a “Rhesus” monkey dressed to be sent into space, from the US National Archives.

For example, among the surveys conducted by animalist associations, we find the recent European survey commissioned by Cruelty-Free Europe, in which agreeing with a proposal always meant taking a stand against animal experimentation to varying degrees ​[7]​. There is a positivity bias, whereby respondents to a questionnaire tend to answer positively to yes/no or agree/disagree questions, which may have played a role in the results by biasing them in favour of the message conveyed by Cruelty-Free Europe. In a more explicitly oriented way, the recent Ifop survey for the Brigitte Bardot Foundation introduces the section on animal experimentation by stating that France is the European Union country that uses the most dogs for animal testing, whereas the questions have nothing to do with these animals specifically ​[6]​. More problematic yet, in 2021, 30 millions d’amis asserts that 89% of French people want “a complete ban on all animal experimentation” ​[25]​ without mentioning that the 2021 Ifop survey mentioned “when it has been shown that substitutive methods can be used instead” ​[26]​.

On the side of people and associations in favor of animal experimentation, these aspects are equally obvious. In a survey produced by Gircor (the French animal experimentation lobby), in response to the question on the acceptability of using primates, the option “acceptable if primates are the only animals whose use makes it possible to advance research into certain diseases such as AIDS, cancer or Parkinson’s disease” ​[1]​ is found to be particularly misleading, insofar as other species are also used to study these diseases. In this survey and in the one produced by Understanding Animal Research (English lobby), there are questions about the regulation of animal experimentation – but they are so generic that they seem to be just an opportunity to recall the expression “strictly regulated” ​[11]​ and to list the existing “legal provisions” ​[1]​.

In the United States, a study concludes that public exposure to specific elements of the regulations, rather than to generalities about animal research, influences their positioning by making them less unfavourable ​[27]​ – but the “facts about the Animal Welfare Act” selected by the author, himself an experimenter, correspond only to positive elements of the regulations: the species protected by the law are mentioned, but not those that are not; the principle of pain relief by anesthetics is mentioned as if it were unavoidable, whereas some experiments involve pain that is not avoided because it is part of the experiment; inspections by veterinary services are mentioned as if they were always unannounced, not to mention their frequency, the types of non-compliance found or their consequences; and so on.

Conclusion

Animal experimentation is a particularly divisive subject for several reasons. First, it brings the ethical ideal into conflict with the desire to see science and medicine advance. Second, it brings together diverse and complex fields of knowledge, from law to epistemology, biology and moral philosophy. Finally, as a legacy of the last 150 years, it often pits the scientific world against a more or less profane public, whose access to information is limited by what animal experimentation institutions are willing to let slip out of their activities, and by what animal rights associations choose to put forward.

Even in the case of polls and other surveys, responses are often guided by the questions and their context. In spite of this, there is a general tendency: at least in Europe and North America, people generally oppose “unnecessary” or “abusive” suffering, whether because it concerns a species deemed too close to us, because it is deemed too intense, or because the purpose of the research is deemed too futile.

In addition to the need of sincerely taking into account the interests of animals (which anti-speciesism demands), and for the debate on these issues to move forward, it is now necessary that full transparency be established. And this concerns the transparency of establishments on their practices or the transparency of administrations on regulations and their application – even if it means, perhaps, questioning some or all of the current practices of animal experimentation.


References

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Nicolas

Musicologist, composer, but above all an animal activist in recent years, I am particularly interested in animal experimentation, a complex subject that is completely opaque to the public.

Please, don't use these sources as weapons !

Sources of information are now commonly used in debates across the internet to prove a superior argument.

It is, however, a very bad habit, and for multiple reasons : this favours behaviours of cherry picking (selecting sources that only support a certain point), the simplification of the scientific discourse by exaggeration, and simply the habit of behaving like we are in a culture war.

If you came on this website to find sources supporting your opinion, we sincerely ask of you :

1) To read the article fully before acting (it's not very long, and you will have a real comprehension of the subject rather than quoting things that you might not really know).

2) To not only select sources that support your opinion, but all of the sources relevant to your debate.

3) To behave in a mature way in your upcoming debate. Stopping a culture war starts with you !

 

Thank you in advance, and have a nice reading !