Animal research kept quiet

University refuses to divulge specific data on animal use

Michael Blennerhassett conducts research with rats to learn more about inflammatory bowel disease.
Michael Blennerhassett conducts research with rats to learn more about inflammatory bowel disease.

Queen’s uses a variety of animals for research in medicine, biology, neurosciences and other fields, but won’t disclose how many animals they have, what species they are or where exactly they’re kept.

“We don’t release specific information about the species that we use or the number that we use; we report that to the required bodies,” said Bonnie Beresford, the University’s veterinarian.

“We do use a broad spectrum of species … It’s a controversial area and there are opponents who express their opposition to it through violent actions.
“For the security of the researchers and the animals, we comply with the laws and regulations.”

A student filed a freedom of information request with the University during the 2005-06 academic year requesting information regarding animal research at Queen’s, the 2006 annual report to the Senate and Board of Trustees states.

This request was turned down and couldn’t be appealed because it was filed before the new Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act came into effect in June 2006.

The Journal filed a request for information through the University’s Freedom of Information and protection of Privacy Act, but Queen’s refused to provide any documents or e-mails that discussed animal research.

Diane Kelly, University Access and Privacy co-ordinator, said the requested records fall outside the
act because they include research and teaching materials. Beresford said no one has taken
action in protest of animal testing and research at Queen’s since she started working at the University four years ago.

“In the past I’ve been told there were incidences of vandalism,” she said. Beresford said the most vocal opponents of animal research usually don’t know very much about how animals are used
in Canada.

“The use of animals in research at universities is the most highly regulated use of animals in Canada and possibly everywhere, and … all of it is aimed at increasing and improving the welfare of the animals being used.”

Beresford said many improvements in human and animal health and welfare have come about through the use of animals in the course of experimentation, and the public recognizes this.

“It’s actually the Canadian public that regards animal testing as important—they support this through their tax dollars, which are going to grant agencies,” she said.

Many people don’t understand why or how animal research is conducted, Beresford said. “I think there are a lot of people who don’t understand how these animals are treated and there’s a misconception that animals are mistreated or subject to unreasonable levels of pain,” she said. “I think a lot of people don’t realize how highly regulated this is.”

Beresford said the University conducts a variety of research using animals, from cancer and heart disease, to toxicology and environmental patterns on growth and reproduction.

Beresford said there’s a distinct differentiation between animal testing and animal research that goes unnoticed by many.

“People tend to use the word ‘testing’ and the word ‘research’ kind of interchangeably,” she said. “In our field, the term ‘testing’ implies that you are actually testing a drug or a chemical for side effects, whereas research implies looking for the mechanisms by which things work.

“There may be drug testing, for example, in research, but that would be part of the research on a particular disease.”

The University doesn’t conduct animal testing, only research, Beresford said.

Beresford said there are regulations in place regarding the transportation of animals, the recovery time of animals after transport, temperature, humidity, feeding, clean and comfortable sleeping quarters, the need for appropriate social interactions and requirements reducing any pain or distress the animal may undergo.

All work involving animals at the University must first be approved by the Queen’s Animal Care Committee. Researchers are required to fill out a form detailing the purpose and procedure of the experiment, the species of animal and the number of animals to be used.

“There are quite a number of different facilities [at Queen’s] that carry out research … across the medical spectrum and the biological spectrum,” she said.

Beresford said a number of considerations come into play when choosing a species for research.

“Certainly the species would have to be one that would show the effectiveness of the drug,” she said.

“In some cases, it would be a species that had been used by other people in the field and had been shown to be a good model.”

The period of time that the University keeps animals varies, Beresford said. “Some animals are kept for longer periods than others,” she said. “The majority of animals used here are brought in for short-term active studies.”

Beresford said the animal care committee is required to ensure all animals come from approved commercial suppliers and are healthy when they arrive.

Beresford said that in recent years there has been a trend towards fewer animals used as they’re replaced by experiments using alternatives such as artificial tissues and computer models. She said there has also been increased ethics training for students and researchers.

* * *

Queen’s is subject to the regulations of both the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC).

The former has a provincial veterinary inspector who visits Queen’s several times a year unannounced to ensure compliance with the Ontario Animals for Research Act. Clément Gauthier, CCAC executive director, said if an institution fails to comply with the regulation, it’s given a certain amount of time to change the way it operates.

“If things don’t happen, finally a line is drawn in the sand—they will have gone from conditional compliance to probation,” Gauthier said. “Whenever any academic institution is put into on-compliance, we are … forced to divulge that fact to the federal granting agency supporting research in Canada.”

The agency has a memorandum of understanding signed with each institution receiving public funds, and will suspend grants if an institution doesn’t receive a certificate of compliance, Gauthier said.

Since March 2003, it has been mandatory for all scientific animal users in Canada to be trained in animal use. Gauthier said Canada’s regulations on animal research were declared the best in the world in 2003 because of the way multiple branches are incorporated under one organization.

The CCAC also espouses the “Three Rs”—replacement, reduction and refinement—that encourage the replacement of animals, a reduction in the numbers used or a refinement of techniques that may reduce the pain, stress or distress of the animals.

Michael Blennerhassett is chair of Queen’s Animal Care Committee and a researcher with Kingston General Hospital’s gastrointestinal diseases research unit, studying inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Part of Blennerhassett’s research involves using rats and mice, looking at the disease from a primarily cellular level.

“[IBD is] one of the increasingly recognized human diseases because we don’t know its cause and we don’t know its cure,” he said.

“We don’t know what causes it. What we can do is induce inflammation of the intestines and see what … damage repair exists.”

Blennerhassett said researchers can also use human tissue that’s removed during surgery and no longer needed. “We induce inflammation and study the effects on a cellular level,” he said.

“The vast majority of animals are euthanized for tissue retrieval.
“[Testing on the retrieved tissue is] what told us nerve cells are lost from the inflamed intestine.”

Blennerhassett said rats and mice lend themselves to cellular research.

“They’re a convenient size and their complexity is close to that of humans,” he said. “Particularly the nervous system—that’s quite similar between humans and mice.”

Blennerhassett feels strongly about the importance of animal research.

“No animals, no progress: disease. If we have a problem that really makes people very sick and can kill, that can affect their quality of life … to find new knowledge, you have to investigate research; you have to explore.”

To reduce the number of animals used, Blennerhassett said experiments are coordinated so that the tissue of the euthanized animal can be used by multiple people.

“We’re struck by the way that people reduce the numbers of animals that are used currently.”

Blennerhassett said the number of animals the University uses for research decreased by nine per cent from 2001 to 2005, despite a net increase in the number of scientists and labs.

This, he said, is indicative of the success the University has had in reducing, replacing and refining its animal-based research.

* * *

Brad Schneideman, ArtSci ’07, experimented on dead hamsters and frogs and live goldfish in his biology class, using electric currents to test their muscle reactions. “[With] the hamster and the frog, we’re looking at different types of muscle and the reaction to different kinds of energy,” he said, adding that the animals had to be killed right before the experiment so the tissue could remain alive.

“When we get them they’re all dead, so the frog, it’s brain-dead, but it’s still alive so we have to look at the heart … The heart’s still pumping but there’s no brain or anything like that.”

Schneideman said he found the hands-on experience beneficial to what he was learning. “For biology and medicine … there are computer simulations for some of the stuff … but the more hands-on [experiments], you actually kind of learn it better and you actually see the effect immediately.”

Sharon George, ArtSci ’07, injected drugs intravenously into the gastrointestinal system of mice in her pharmacology class to study the drug’s effects on their nervous system. George said she and her class were trained to hold and pick up the mice as they injected the drug into their abdominal cavity, and were monitored by TAs while doing so.

She said she thinks the issue of animal research is a complex one without an easy answer.

“It’s a very tough decision because I guess some people don’t think we have the right to use animals for testing drugs and experiments, but … as a student of science, and hearing about the number of discoveries we have made through testing, obviously it makes sense.
“[I’m] not saying that human life is worth more than an animal life, but at the same time, it is necessary sometimes.”

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