Activists ambush Bristol Uni Vice-Chancellor over ‘cruel’ animal research practices

The PETA protest comes after a number of celebrities have condemned Bristol University’s use of the ‘forced swim test’

Animal rights activists surrounded Vice-Chancellor Evelyn Welch at a New York alumni event last week, demanding that the University of Bristol ends its use of the highly controversial “forced swim” test.  

The protest occurred on the evening of the 16th of May at an event in the centre of New York. It was originally intended to be an event for US-based alumni of Bristol University to reconnect and network but the evening was disrupted by protestors from the animal rights organisation PETA.

The forced swim test involves placing rats or mice in a long cylinder of water that they cannot escape from. It is used to evaluate the antidepressant efficacy of new compounds but has been criticised for being inaccurate and cruel. 

The activists held placards and could be heard chanting: “Evelyn Welch has blood on her hands … the University of Bristol has blood on its hands.”

The protests are the latest in a long-running dispute between animal rights activists and the university which has involved a number of campaigns and stunts. In nearly two years of protests, PETA activists have set up billboards around Bristol, disrupted university events and even dressed up as dinosaurs and zombies to draw attention to the issue. 

In April, students staged a sit-in at Beacon House after the university renewed its licence to test on “a total of 4,000 rodents for a further five years”. 

Last week, BAFTA-winning actor Richard E. Grant waded into the debate, joining Will Poulter and Mark Rylance in writing an open letter to Bristol University and urging it to end its use of the forced swim test.  

He wrote: “My career has taken me everywhere from Penrith to a galaxy far, far away. And while I’ve experienced some absurd things on my travels, even I couldn’t believe it when I heard that the forced swim test is still used at your university.

“I can only imagine how terrified rats must feel as experimenters put them into inescapable beakers of water, in which they paddle frantically in search of an escape – pawing at the sides of the beaker and diving to the bottom – but to no avail.

“I can only imagine how terrified rats must feel as experimenters put them into inescapable beakers of water, in which they paddle frantically in search of an escape – pawing at the sides of the beaker and diving to the bottom – but to no avail.

The forced swim test (FST) is a behavioural test which is used in neuropharmacological research to study the impact of potential antidepressants on behavioural despair by exposing animals to stress.  

Rodents are placed in a small, confined space from which they cannot escape, and the time it takes for the animal to stop swimming is measured. 

Floating is thought to be an indicator of despair and is used to model depression in humans. The animals are given various antidepressants, and if the animal swims for longer than others without the drug then the antidepressant can progress to further testing.   

However, it has been criticised for having “poor accuracy”, with scientists at the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) also claiming that it is “no longer considered a model of depression” and concluding that it cannot predict the efficacy of new antidepressants.  

PETA argues that “floating is not a sign of despair, as some claim, but rather a positive indicator of learning, saving energy, and adapting to a new environment”, going on to describe the test as both “useless” and “cruel”.   

In a statement regarding the recent protests, PETA neuroscientist Dr. Emily Trunnell said: “The forced swim test does not translate to humans, yet the University of Bristol continues to defend it.

“PETA is calling on Vice-Chancellor Welch to join the rest of the U.K.’s top universities in dropping this cruel and pointless experiment.”

A University of Bristol spokesperson has told The Bristol Tab: “We recognise there are differing views about the use of animals in research, including some concerns around whether it is ethical.

“We are committed to a culture of openness and transparency regarding the research carried out here at Bristol, ensuring the animals are treated with compassion and respect. We keep up to date with the latest thinking on all aspects of research using animals (including advances in welfare) and have robust and thorough ethical review processes in place for every project.” 

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