On May 17 the lower house of the German parliament voted to include animal protection in the constitution, making it the first country in the European Union to give animals constitutional protection, a move heralded by animal rights activists and met with concern by animal researchers.
The decision, which was supported by a vote in the upper house of the German parliament in June, is evidence that animal rights activists in Europe are focusing on legislative action and having some success.
Pressure from animal rights groups also has prompted England's House of Lords to conduct an extensive review of the country's animal welfare laws and is likely to influence the European Commission's pending revision of the animal research regulations that apply to all members of the European Union.
The developments have caught the attention of many in the United States who wonder what effect these decisions will have on veterinarians, researchers, and other scientists in the United States.
"Too early to tell"
International animal rights groups have said they plan to use the German law to restrict animal research, but many in the scientific community say it's too early to tell what the real impact will be.
Duane Flemming, DVM, JD, immediate past president of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association, said the German legislation would not have a direct effect on veterinarians in the United States.
And some European experts say there will be no immediate effects on scientists and practitioners in Germany.
Mark Matfield, PhD, the director of the European Biomedical Research Association, explained that contrary to many media reports, this does not guarantee animal rights, but rather, it makes the German government responsible for protecting animals and taking animal protection into account when making laws or deciding court cases.
Two words, "and animals," have been added to a clause of the German constitution that will now read: "The state takes responsibility for protecting the natural resources for life and animals in the interest of future generations."
From now on, German lawmakers and judges will have to take animal protection into consideration and weigh the government's responsibility to protect animals against human rights guaranteed by the constitution—freedom to practice religion or freedom of scientific inquiry—when creating or interpreting laws.
Dr. Flemming explained that it would take time to determine how the law will be applied. He said that in many cases, animal welfare laws are passed with little thought about how they will be enforced or monitored.
"These type of laws are warm and fuzzy, feel-good laws (that) are passed without much thought about the consequences," Dr. Flemming said.
Nonetheless, many German scientists, who have battled animal rights activists for the past several years over animal research, are unhappy with the change, Dr. Matfield said.
"They've been struggling and fighting these groups and they lost," he said. "It's one more small step to increasing regulation and control of animal research in Germany."
Animal rights groups in the United States have applauded the change.
Dr. Holly Cheever, president of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, said the change in the German constitution is aligned with the mission of her organization. Dr. Cheever said the AVAR mission is to balance the needs of humans with those of nonhuman animals.
"We hope more and more governments give recognition to nonhuman animals," she said.
Taking a closer look
Officials throughout Europe are taking a closer look at animal welfare laws, particularly laws that regulate research.
A subcommittee of the House of Lords recently published a report on the current animal research laws and their enforcement in England—considered some of the toughest in the world. The full report is available online at the British Parliament's Web site, www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld/ldanimal.htm.
The report examines the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986, which regulates the use of animals in research, and compares it to similar legislation in the United States, France, and Japan. It also includes several recommendations for improving the legislation and its implementation, such as the following:
- Increasing government and scientific support for research on alternatives to animal models, including setting up a Center for the three R's (replacement, reduction, and refinement)
- Publishing the details of animal experiments after the fact to increase public access to information about animal research and improve dialogue on the topic
- Simplifying the licensing process for animal researchers
The report took into consideration testimony from numerous animal welfare organizations, animal rights groups, and representatives of the scientific community.
The British Veterinary Association, which joined the Committee for the Reform of Animal Experimentation and the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments to lobby for the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986, has been closely following the review.
Dr. Matfield said the report has been well received by the scientific community, and so far, officials have said the changes can be made without new legislation.
"(The House of Lords subcommittee) really did a thorough job. It took in evidence from all sides," he said. "I think the report has been welcomed as very sensible."
Additionally, the law governing the use of animals in research in the European Union has come up for periodic review ,and the European Commission has announced its intention to fully revise the law, Directive 86/609/EEC, according to Mary Rice, chief executive of European Biomedical Research Association.
Matfield said animal welfare groups and animal rights groups are likely to influence the revision.
"Every animal welfare and rights group will be lobbying for change," he said, adding tha "a considerable amount of damage" could be done to the European scientific community if the animal protection groups succeed and the directive becomes extremely restrictive.
A tactical shift?
Animal rights groups in the United States are also focusing their efforts on legislation and lawsuits.
In the United States, for many years, animal rights organizations have been taking their campaign into the courts and to legislatures at all levels. Dr. Flemming said some of the laws they are backing could have a tremendous impact on veterinarians.
"Right now there's a lot of discussion about pet guardianship laws," he said; if passed, "(those laws) would have a huge impact on veterinarians."
Animal rights law centers, which advise activists on how to use the law to further their cause, have popped up at well-respected universities, including Rutgers University School of Law. Lewis and Clark University has an animal law section that examines animal rights laws as well as other legal issues related to animals.
Animal rights groups are targeting constitutional laws as well. In Florida, a proposal to make individual pregnant sow housing unconstitutional has qualified for the November ballot. Floridians for Humane Farms, an animal rights organization, petitioned to have the item included on the ballot. If passed, the amendment would make it illegal to confine sows in 2-foot by 7-foot cages during pregnancy.
Dr. Cheever said she didn't see the legislative efforts as a tactical shift, but rather a response to a change in the public's view of animal rights.
"I don't think it's a paradigm shift," she said. "I think as the attitude of the public changes, the atmosphere becomes more friendly (to animal rights legislation)."
But some legal experts say that legislative efforts by the animal rights community are just another way of forwarding its goals—goals veterinarians and the public may not fully understand.
"I think the animal rights community is going to push whenever and wherever they can," said Dr. Flemming, who suggests that veterinarians learn more about the animal rights movement, its tactics, and its goals.
"We need to be aware of what's going on," Dr. Flemming said. He said many people are unaware that the ultimate goal of many animal rights groups is to stop the use of animals by humans. "I think veterinarians should become more active by expressing their feelings and opinions about (animal welfare) issues."