Animal protection awarded

German prize honors scientists who improve the lot of animals, activists unimpressed

Ned Stafford(
Nov 7, 2004

For the first time, the German Research Foundation (DFG) has this month awarded a new prize to scientists whose work has improved the protection of animals used in research.

The inaugural awards went to Klaus Otto, 51, professor of experimental surgery and anesthesiology at the central animal laboratory of the University of Hanover's Medical School, and Lisa Wiesmüller, 43, head of gynecological oncology at the University of Ulm. Each will be honored for their general work contributing to animal protection at a ceremony November 17 in Bonn.

The Ursula M. Händel Animal Protection Prize, which carries a cash award of €12,500 (USD $16,200), was created with a cash donation from Mrs. Händel, a long-time supporter of animal protection issues in the Bonn area.

Hans-Joachim Bode, program director of the DFG's Life Sciences Division and a coordinator of the new prize, told The Scientist that the DFG set up the award for two reasons: "Firstly, Mrs. Ursula Händel gave us the money to promote animal protection in research. Secondly, the DFG always has an interest in high standards in research and the protection of animals."

Otto was recognized for his work to find more accurate means of measuring the effectiveness of general anesthesia on animals used in research. Instead of using traditional measuring methods such as heart rate, blood pressure, and pupil dilation, Otto told The Scientist that he used electroencephalogram to measure brain activity.

"Always my goal is to promote adequate anesthesia for animals to avoid pain and suffering," Otto said.

Wiesmüller was honored for developing a test using human cell culture to detect potential carcinogenic effects or genetic damage from medicines and food additives. Such testing currently requires use of animals.

But not everyone in Germany is satisfied with the new award. Harald Ullmann, vice president of the German branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), told The Scientist that simply improving the protection of animals used in research is not enough.

"We would like to see the number of animals used for research fall to zero," Ullmann said.

Unlike in some countries, such as the United Kingdom, Ullmann said he was not aware of any violent or aggressive tactics by animal activists during the past few years in Germany. "PETA is against violence against humans and animals," he said.

However, Ullmann said that animal protection is a highly emotional issue that could potentially trigger aggressive tactics from some activists. He emphasized again: "We do not like that."

More than 2.126 million animals were used in Germany for research in 2001, according to a report prepared for the Bundestag, Germany's upper house of Parliament. Of the total, some 1.024 million were mice, 512,393 rats, 303,590 fishes, 117,890 rabbits, and 63,665 birds. Among larger animals, some 11,661 pigs, 2402 cattle, 4430 dogs, and 648 cats were used.

Ullmann said PETA is opposed to German regulations that require any medical products to be used by humans to first be tested on animals. PETA believes there are numerous alternatives animal testing, such as using in vitro cell and tissue cultures and computer models.

"This is not revolutionary news," Ullmann said. "It's already been done, and we believe we can bring it down to zero."

But the DFG's Bode disagreed. "Research will always need a certain, preferably minimal, amount of animal experimentation."

Bode added that he feels current German laws are adequate to protect animals used in research and also promote alternatives to using animals in research. "Germany has strict laws for the protection of animals in research," he said.

Florian Frank, a Germany Ministry of Research and Education spokesman, took the description one step further. He told The Scientist: "The legislation is very strict. We believe current laws are adequate for protecting animals."

Over the last 20 years, the Research Ministry has spent €80 million (USD $103.6 million) seeking new methods of research testing that do not require animals. "Our goal is to reduce animal testing as much as we can," he said.