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November 3, 2009

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Lab rats, mice, dogs, rabbits, monkeys - do they have rights?

AS needles pierce its stomach and drip anesthetic, a rat loses consciousness and is ready for research surgery that eventually may save human lives.

Of course, this is no ordinary rat, the kind you might spot on a street. It is especially bred in a sterile, controlled environment for laboratory use in Shanghai.

Strict treatment standards have been on the books for more than 10 years; regulations are issued and so are licenses, but lack of enforcement and penalties is a problem.

Regulating the use of lab animals - making sure they are clean, healthy and do not suffer - is important to ensure the reliability of experiments and prevent spread of potentially infectious diseases, experts say.

They must be standardized in weight and other characteristics for tests to be meaningful. They must also be raised in a sterile environment. Laboratory animals of all kinds are especially raised for research and used in medical, biological and other scientific research around China. The most common animals are rodents, rabbits, dogs, pigs and monkeys.

Humane treatment

Every new medication has to pass efficacy and toxicity experiments on rodents like rats, larger animals like dogs and non-human primates like monkeys before going into clinical trials on humans, says David Gao, president of the Shanghai Laboratory Animal Science Association.

"They are taking the risks for humans," he adds.

About 18-19 million laboratory animals are used in China each year, 80 percent of which are rats and mice, according to Gao.

The number in Shanghai reached 2.33 million in 2008, mostly rodents and rabbits, Gao says.

Laboratory animals are classified into four categories according to their "cleanness" and absence of pathogens: conventional animals, clean animals, specific pathogen-free animals and germ-free animals.

They must be free of zoonosis pathogen (a general term for infectious disease that can be spread from animals to humans). That is the bottom line for lab animals.

But dozens of years ago, there were almost no criteria for raising and using lab animals.

"As long as it was a live animal, it could be used for laboratory experiment at the time," says He Xinqiao, head of expert panel of Shanghai Laboratory Animal Administration Committee.

There were no standards for laboratory animals. Rats or mice were just raised in earthen pots with metal mesh covers. Dogs and rabbits lived in simple iron cages.

Non-standardized raising and use of lab animals threatens the reliability of research, as scientists gradually discovered.

"Some animals are born with genetic diseases," says He. "Some carry bacteria, some may be infected by bacteria in an open environment or in crowded cages during raising. All these factors alter the results of experiments and make them meaningless."

He agrees completely with the demands of animal lovers and animal rights activists for humane treatment of laboratory animals: ample space, good diet, anesthesia and euthansia. This benefits animals and, of course, humans.

Ensuring the welfare of lab animals means they are mentally and physically healthy, the best subjects for experiments, yielding the most reliable results.

Animals are raised in a comfortable, closed environment, with controlled temperature and humidity, nutritious diet, anesthesia before experiment, euthanasia afterward if warranted. Control is crucial to prevent spread of infectious disease, especially those that can affect humans.

"There are no sure rules about the spread of infectious disease. You won't know when or where the next disastrous outbreak will come," says He. "All you can do is be cautious and prevent every possibility in advance."

Unauthorized and unregulated raising lab animals for sale and their improper use can be a cause of infection, he warns.

An animal kept outside in a cage can be infected by passing animals and spread the infection to other animals and lab assistants who spread the infection to other humans. There's a chance the pathogen could mutate. Animals therefore must be raised in sterile closed environments.

He recalls a hair-raising experience in a lab study on plague in Guangdong Province in the 1970s. A cat was found infected with the plague, but all the lab rats were negative. The lab killed and tested all the rats within 9 kilometers, but still failed to find the source rat.

Fortunately there was no outbreak, but the possibility was chilling. Clearly ensuring sterility of the lab was key.

In 1994, a national standard on raising and treatment of lab animals was issued. In 2001, after amendment, it was enforced nationwide. This involves conditions already cited, as well as strict disinfection of humans and anything entering the lab and rapid removal and safe incineration of dead animals.

Shanghai has two large animal-raising centers, Shanghai Laboratory Animal Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Songjiang District and Shanghai Laboratory Animal Resource Center in Pudong New Area.

They are major providers of laboratory animal nationwide. Each year they provide more than 2 million laboratory animals.

Since 2001, licenses for raising laboratory animals and for use of animals in experiments have been issued by Shanghai Science and Technology Commission.

Licenses must be renewed every five years after inspection and examination of products and environment.

However, there is no specific law on enforcement. Thus, many animal-raising companies, labs and other companies ignore the regulation and keep operating without a license.

Since non-standard raising of animals costs much less, these animals are sold for less - and some researchers would rather buy cheap animals for their experiments.

At this time the city has issued only 25 licenses for raising/production of laboratory animals and 101 licenses for using the animals in experiments, says Gao.

But there is much more production and experimentation out there, Gao says, especially in high schools, universities and some health department as they are out of the reach of the Shanghai Laboratory Animal Administration Committee.

There has been no further legal development (such as adding enforcement and penalties) on regulation of use of laboratory animal since the Administration Methods on Laboratory Animals in 1987 and Decree No. 54 of Shanghai Municipal People's Government in 1997.

"I don't think it is a wise idea to issue a law after a disaster comes," says Gao from the Shanghai Laboratory Animal Science Association. "We cannot afford the outcome." Animal protection law in the pipeline

Tan Weiyun

China's first comprehensive proposal on animal protection has been drafted and unveiled by experts and could eventually become law if adopted by the National People's Congress, the legislature.

China lacks a comprehensive law on animal protection and prevention of abuse and this proposal, released in mid-September, covers private animals, livestock, performing animals and others. It provides criminal penalties as well as fines.

At this early stage, it's a recommendation, and it's controversial.

"If this recommendation is given enough attention, it will be approved in two to three years," drafter Chang Jiwen, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, tells The Bund.

The proposal is expected to be debated nationwide and undergo revision before the NPC even gives it a first reading. Many people say the concept of animal rights and preventing suffering is very new in China.

Anyone who abuses an animal to death shall be prosecuted in criminal court and could face up to three years in prison, according to the proposal. The proposed law would also prohibit cruel and dangerous circus acts, such as dogs or big cats jumping through burning hoops, as well as cock fighting and dog fighting.

People who abuse or abandon their pets would also be subject to penalties.

China's first Law on Protection of Wild Life was enacted in 1988, but no animal welfare or animal rights law has been enacted.

"This recommendation is at least a beginning," says Hua Ning, China program manager of the International Fund for Animal Welfare and a member of the committee that drafted the animal welfare recommendation.

"Whether it's adopted or not, it calls on Chinese to pay attention to animal protection, examine their own treatment of animals and seriously consider their own relationship with animals," she tells Shanghai Daily.

She cited common cruel practices in some Chinese zoos, such as performances by tiger cubs whose teeth and claws have been pulled - as well as performances by dancing bears whose noses are pierced with iron rings attached to chains.

"Kids are happy to take photos with these animals, thinking that this is a way to 'love and get close to animals.' However, I'm very worried that these children will grow up with this wrong kind of education," says Hua.

She says that since the International Fund for Animal Welfare came to China 15 years ago there have been many cases of animal abuse, both shocking and routine.

"What was most frustrating was that perpetrators received no punishment from the legal system," she says. "They were just labeled 'morally reprehensible,' so I think this recommendation is a good sign of some change."


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