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Animal rights campaigners set up a protest camp at a “factory farm” that breeds puppies for laboratory experiments after comedy actor Ricky Gervais launched a campaign to ban all tests on animals in the UK.
The protesters said they wanted to close down the site in Cambridgeshire, which breeds beagles that are sold when they are 16 weeks old for chemicals and drugs testing.
The centre denied claims that it trains the puppies to be “laboratory-ready”, including offering a paw for injections and accepting paper cups on their faces, ready for wearing gas masks.
Gervais and fellow actor Peter Egan are lobbying against all animal experimentation and calling for laboratory animals to be included in the Animal Welfare Act, which outlaws causing animal suffering.
Activists who monitored the breeding site at Huntingdon for more than a year described “harrowing” scenes.
They said they saw workers grabbing dogs by the scruff of the neck and piling them into overcrowded trolleys, and dogs in crates cried “pitifully” as they were loaded onto a lorry.
The site, called MBR Acres, owned by US company Marshall BioResources, breeds up to 2,000 puppies every year, most of which are sent for toxicology tests at UK laboratories.
Toxicology testing often involves force-feeding animals with chemicals or making them inhale pesticides.
Critics say this can be done every day for up to 90 days with no pain relief or anaesthetic, before the dogs are killed.
But the company says most experiments are mild, such as taking a blood test, and the results are used to develop vaccines, such as the Covid-19 jab.
Protesters from across the UK descended on the site, calling for the company to hand the dogs over for rehoming.
Government figures show that last year dogs were used in 4,340 procedures in the UK, of which 4,270 were on beagles – a 5.3 per cent increase on 2019.
Egan has launched a government petition calling for causing suffering to lab animals to be banned by law.
He is patron of a group called For Life on Earth (Floe), which wants the government to launch a pioneering “public scientific hearing” on whether animal experiments can predict responses in human patients, with independent scientific experts as judges.
Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall has backed the idea, and SNP MP Lisa Cameron has tabled an Early Day Motion calling for the hearing.
Louise Owen, founder of Floe, told The Independent that if the science hearing took place, animal experiments would end “because the government would recognise they were out of step with current scientific knowledge and harmful to human patients”.
She pointed out that the government’s new Animal Sentience Bill enshrines in law the ability of animals to feel joy, suffering and pain.
Gervais said: “I’m deeply shocked to learn that thousands of beautiful beagles are intensively bred, right here in the peace of the British countryside, for painful and terrifying toxicity experiments that are also now proven to entirely fail the search for human treatments and cures.”
Mel Broughton, of the Free the MBR Beagles campaign, said: “Increasingly, there is scientific opinion that these experiments are not valid in terms of finding cures for human diseases, and these dogs suffer greatly in toxicity tests. They’re poisoned to death slowly.”
A spokeswoman for MBR said the company bred animals raised to be healthy, content and comfortable in laboratories, adding: “It does not undertake regulatory toxicology or other experiments and has only animal care staff working on its sites.
“Expert opinion on why animals are needed in research should be sought from the medicines regulator and scientists or organisations working in this field.
“These experiments form a small but crucial part of a wide range of applications, from ecology work to investigations into human and animal diseases, including those that led directly to the vaccines and treatments for Covid-19, cancer drugs, pet medicines and products labelled as safe for pets.
“We are proud of the role we play in supporting human and animal health regardless of the misconceptions of campaigners.”
Understanding Animal Research, which is part-funded by MBR among others, said repeated-dose toxicity testing involved adding a small, non-lethal dose of a proposed drug to dogs’ food for several weeks. When the dogs are killed, their organs are inspected for signs of pathology.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA) already regulates procedures that are carried out on ‘protected animals’ for scientific or educational purposes that may cause pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm.
“The Act also regulates the breeding and supply of certain species of animals for use in regulated procedures or for the scientific use of their organs or tissues. The Act also regulates the methods used to kill protected animals.”