The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986 applies to anything done in the name of science that might cause "pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm" to animals. Routine tests, antiserum production and a host of small interferences occurring during behavioral or field studies are covered for the first time.
The law replaces the grimly-named Cruelty to Animals Act, which in 1876 was the first law of its kind in the world. In recent years many countries have adopted laws to correspond to the European Convention for the Protection of Vertebrate Animals Used for Experimental and Other Scientific Purposes.
Animals are defined as any creature with a backbone, although certain specified invertebrates may also be included. Vertebrate embryos are covered from mid-term, a definition that brings into the law, for example, scientists who work with hens' eggs.
The number of animals used in experimentation has fallen successively for the past nine years, reaching a low of 3 million in 1985. The new Act will lead to an apparent increase in such experimentation as it includes certain procedures previously excluded because the risk of pain was considered to be remote.
The Act also involves more people at each location. Its predecessor put virtually all responsibility on the working scientist (some 11,800 were licensed as of 1985), with little employer involvement. Now, while scientists still need authorization for specified procedures, they can conduct them only within a license held by someone with responsibility for the objectives of the work.
The organization, in order to obtain approval for the work to be conducted, must name a veterinarian or another "suitably qualified person" available for consultation on animal health, as well as someone "responsible for the day-to-day care of the animals." In Britain this person is usually a senior technician.
Animals bred for use in the laboratory are covered for the first time. Scientists are worried that the new law will raise research costs, and some question whether the result will mean better conditions for animals or simply an increase in recordkeeping.
The long-term impact of the new Act is not clear. It calls for a strengthened Animal Procedures Committee with direct responsibility to advise the government on animal care issues. In the past the committee simply responded to questions put to it. The Act gives the Secretary of State the authority to issue and approve specific codes of practice, and Parliament the power to have a specific code withdrawn or modified.
The possible extension of protection to invertebrates has also raised concern. It is widely assumed that the provision relates to cephalopods—squid and the like—but it could just as easily be applied to fruitflies or flatworms.