Killing Excess Lab Animals Could One Day Be Considered a Crime in Germany

Authorities in Germany are considering whether the culling of "excess" lab animals constitutes a crime, following complaints filed by animal rights activists.

Millions of animals are used in medical experiments around the world every year, with this practice often the target of criticism from activists.

But the huge number of animals killed every year that were never used in experiments often goes unnoticed.

These animals, which perhaps don't meet the criteria for a study or were bred in the process of creating a new generation, are often killed to save space and money.

Now, prosecutors in the German state of Hesse—located in the center of the country—are investigating whether the culling of animals like these by local research institutions, including universities, should be considered a crime, Science magazine reported.

This move comes after two animal rights groups in the country filed several complaints with prosecutors last June, arguing that the practice of culling these "excess" animals violates the country's strict animal protection laws, which forbids harming animals without a reasonable cause.

Huge Numbers

Figures published by the European Union two years ago estimated that in 2017, around 12.6 million animals bred for lab experiments—the majority of which were mice—were culled in the bloc without ever having been involved in a study. This compares to roughly 9.4 million animals that were used in experiments.

According to the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, around one-third of those excess animals were bred and killed in Germany, which is the EU's largest member state by population.

"It's known for a long time that animals are killed in labs because they are not needed," Silke Strittmatter, a research associate at the non-governmental organization Doctors Against Animal Experiments, which filed the complaints alongside the German Juridical Society for Animal Protection Law, told Science.

Strittmatter said research institutions should keep excess animals until they die a natural death, although she acknowledges that there may not always be capacity to do that.

Andreas Lengeling, who is responsible for animal research at the Max Planck Society, said institutions can't house that many animals for such a long period. Meanwhile, others institutions are attempting to reduce the number of surplus animals by better matching the supply to demand. The use of gene editing techniques could also create the desired animals in a single generation.

Several German institutions that Science contacted said they were trying to reduce the number of excess animals. Lengeling said the number of excess animals killed could be reduced substantially, perhaps by half.

The German Research Foundation said culling should be allowed if housing or the personnel needed to maintain the animals is limited and space is required for animals that will be used in research. However, the Foundation said it recommends considering alternative uses for the excess animals.

In a statement provided to Newsweek, Shalin Gala, PETA's vice president of international laboratory methods, said: "The killing of 'excess' animals in German laboratories is a crime—against animals who paid with their lives, against taxpayers who paid for the animals used in horrific experiments, and against patients who are left waiting for treatments as experimenters waste valuable resources studying different species with different physiologies from that in humans."

"There should be no such thing as non-essential animal research taking place in laboratories, especially at the expense of taxpayers, who in the U.S. pay nearly $18 billion each year for failed animal tests," Gala said. "Given that 95 percent of all new drugs that test safe and effective in animals end up failing in human clinical trials, now is the time to phase out these cruel and wasteful animal experiments that don't advance human health and switch to more effective, ethical and economical human-relevant models."

Mice used in medical research
A file photo showing mice used in medical experiments. Authorities in Germany are considering whether the culling of “excess” lab animals constitutes a crime, following complaints filed by animal rights activists. iStock