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Published 21 August 2023

A step forward in openness in animal research and teaching but more progress needed in Three Rs reporting: 2021 New Zealand Animal Research Statistics

New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) released 2021 statistics for the use of animals in research, testing and teaching in May. The full release can be found at www.mpi.govt.nz. 

ANZCCART NZ commends the publication of the annual statistics as a significant step to ensure open reporting of animal use in research and teaching in New Zealand.

Chair of the New Zealand Board of ANZCCART, Professor Pat Cragg notes: “The yearly release of this report supports the objectives of the Openness Agreement on Animal Research and Teaching in New Zealand, which ANZCCART launched in July 2021 to encourage institutes using animals to commit to a number of initiatives that ensure greater transparency. The information enhances understanding of the use of animals in research and teaching, but importantly also shows where progress can be made in the principles/objectives of replacement, reduction or refinement in animal use as well as the extent of replacement by use of alternatives to animals.”

“These objectives, the Three Rs, are critical for ensuring animal research and teaching is ethical and that animals are only used when critical for achieving scientific robustness, the minimum number of animals are used for maximum benefit, and any impact is minimised.”

“The statistics reflect the number of animals used in studies that were completed during 2021 and reported to MPI. There are some notable differences with previous years, but this is largely due to single trials, not long-term trends, and these fluctuations are expected in New Zealand animal research, testing and teaching.”  

“What is clear, however, is that reporting on the Three Rs really needs to be boosted. New Zealand has a way to go to further support alternative models for animals. We encourage funding bodies to allocate funding for the use and development of non-animal based research, testing and teaching methods.”

“As part of ANZCCART’s commitment to openness, we present some notes about the 2021 animal use statistics”:

Animal use statistics 2021
The total number of animals used in 2021 was 309,872, which is slightly higher than 2020 but lower than 2019. Much of the annual variability in the overall number of animals used is because the regulations require statistics reports every three years for long-term projects, when the project is completed or when ethics approval expires. The 3-year rolling average gives a better idea of any trends. For the three years to 2021, this was 290,323 compared to 287,477 for the three years to 2020.

The most commonly used animals were fish, followed by cattle, with the majority of other animals being sheep, rabbits and mice. There is not a clear trend in the types of animals used over the last ten years.

Cattle and sheep tend to be mostly used in animal husbandry research in New Zealand, also teaching, veterinary research and basic biological research. The majority of rabbits in this report were part of a study into the control of wild pest rabbits. Mice and rats tend to be used in medical research, testing, and basic biological research. This was also the case in 2021. The fish category includes zebrafish which are increasingly used for medical and basic biological research – specific identification of zebrafish in the MPI statistics report would provide greater clarification and transparency.

Who uses animals and why?
The main reason for research, testing and teaching in 2021 was for environmental management, followed by basic biological research and animal husbandry. This is unusual, with environmental management only reaching the top five once in the last ten years alongside the more common uses including basic biological research, animal husbandry research, veterinary research and teaching.

One of the most notable changes was the increase in commercial research. This was primarily due to a single environmental control trial involving 55,000 rabbits to assess the impact of an experimental formulation containing 1080 in carrot baits. However, this increase is not a new trend as commercial research has fluctuated over the years, and the 2021 increase aligns with this pattern.

What is the impact on animals
The impact of research, testing and teaching is reported on a five-point scale. It ranges from no or virtually no impact (pain or stress) through low, moderate and high to very high impact, where there is significant pain or stress caused over a long duration. In New Zealand, research, testing and teaching is mostly no-low impact, and 2021 does not change this.

Animals bred but not used
The total number of animals that were bred annually for research, testing or teaching but were neither manipulated or used and were subsequently killed was 178,569 – higher than the year before. This was mainly mice, followed by rats and fish, and then some smaller numbers of other animals.

Animals bred but not used are those animals that were killed in the research setting without ever having undergone a regulated procedure. The government introduced regulations in 2018 requiring animals that are bred for research, testing and teaching but are not used, to be reported as part of the annual statistics return. This was to increase transparency. Animals may be bred for research but not used for a number of reasons, for example, they may be the wrong sex, they may have been bred as part of a genetics programme but do not carry the desired genetic trait, or there may be too many animals bred (e.g. because the number of animals born can be unpredictable). Animals are also bred but not used for other reasons, for example they may be kept for breeding, or they may be ‘sentinel animals’ used for health screening of other animals in a group.

In 2021, it is likely that the higher number reflects animals that were bred but unable to be used because of COVID-19 impacts on research and teaching programmes. This also likely affected the rehoming rate in 2021, but that will remain to be seen when the 2022 statistics are released.

Ideally the number of animals bred but not used should be as small as possible to minimise animal usage that do not create any benefits.

A positive change is the increase in rehoming, particularly of fish. In 2021, 3,812 animals used in research, testing and teaching were rehomed, a notable increase from the 172 animals rehomed in 2020. Of these, 2,916 were fish. The report does not provide an explanation for this increase, so we are unable to tell what type of fish were rehomed, their origin, or any details of their new home. As noted above, it is likely that animals in programmes that were interrupted by COVID-19 contribute to this figure.

Reporting on Three Rs should be boosted
The report also contained changes in the reporting of the 3Rs (Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement) in animal research. In 2021, the ‘Development of Alternatives’ category, which previously reported research that aims to develop new ways to replace, reduce and refine the manipulation of animals, was not included. This makes it difficult to compare 2021 data with previous years in this area. This is possibly because the statistic is inaccurate, since 3Rs research that does not involve animals or manipulation of animals is not carried out under the oversight of an animal ethics committee and therefore is not recorded and reported. The statistic therefore didn’t reliably quantify all 3Rs research. However, it did quantify 3Rs research that involved animal manipulation. That’s only part of the 3Rs research story, but it is an important part. 

Source: Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching (ANZCCART)