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Is it really right to blow up pigs even if it saves our soldiers' lives?

Is it really right to blow up pigs even if it saves our soldiers' lives?
By Tom Rawstorne

28th May 2010

Anaesthetised, but still very much alive, a pig lies on a raised platform in the middle of a field deep in the Wiltshire countryside.

To one side, mounted on a pole seven feet away, is a 2.2kg explosive charge. But when it is detonated, the pig will not be killed.

Like a giant sausage roll, the animal

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Research: In the past five years, 119 live pigs have been blown up with explosives by the MoD

The blast wave from the explosion will, however, cause it internal injuries.

These will be exacerbated by an operation that has already been performed on the animal that allows a third of its blood to be drained (mimicking a massive haemorrhage) and measured precisely.

For up to ten minutes following the blast, the pig will lie like this, untended.

Then scientists will move in to stabilise the animal, measure the blood loss and check its responses to medical intervention.

In all, 18 pigs are blown up in this way. Some do die instantly as a result of the blast, while others will survive for as long as eight hours.

But, come the end of the experiment, all will be killed. No doubt, there are those who find it hard to believe animals continue to be used barbarically in this way in the name of science.

But not only do these experiments go on, they are also funded by the taxpayer.

The tests involving the pigs took place at Porton Down, the Government- run Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).

In the past five years, 119 live pigs have been blown up with explosives.

In the same period, some 75,000 animals have been used in other experiments at the Ministry of Defence-funded facility.

In 2009, that included 96 pigs, 190 guinea pigs and more than 7,500 mice.

There were also 149 monkeys used in experiments, a near three-fold increase on the previous year.

The procedures carried out have included exposing guinea pigs to nerve agents and marmoset monkeys to anthrax.

The MoD and Porton Down insist that using animals in this way is not only justified but entirely necessary, given the new threats facing Britain in the 21st century.

In Afghanistan, a week rarely goes by without a British soldier losing life or limb to a roadside bomb.

The tests conducted on the pigs, it is claimed, will help to ensure that medical treatment given to human casualties on the frontline is effective and appropriate.

'This has saved lives in Iraq and Afghanistan and, therefore, has had a significant impact on operational effectiveness and duty of care of UK Armed Forces personnel,' says a spokeswoman. And it is not just service personnel at risk.

As the London and Madrid bombings demonstrated, civilians are also being targeted by terrorists.

The lessons learned at Porton Down today could, so the argument goes, prove critical in saving life in the event of a conventional or biological attack on the civilian population.

Not everyone is convinced, however. Caroline Lucas, Britain's first Green MP, has called for the MoD to cease such experiments, claiming that they are 'cruel, unnecessary and misleading'.

The RSPCA has also been critical of the policy.

Unequivocal in its opposition is the anti-vivisection lobby.

'Subjecting animals to such appalling suffering, and in some experiments, massive mutilation and injury, raises profound ethical questions,' says Sarah Kite of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV).

'And not least of these questions is whether it is ethical to be using animals for research into injuries that people are causing to other people.'

Set in 7,000 acres of Wiltshire countryside, Porton Down is one of the most secure and sensitive installations in the UK.

Porton Down: Experiments at the research centre in Wiltshire are funded by the taxpayer

Founded in 1916 to combat German gas attacks, it initially conducted research and development into chemical weapons agents such as chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas.

Ever since, Porton Down's research has reflected the changing face of modern warfare.

Responding to those threats has involved extensive testing, not just on animals but on humans, too.

In 2004, an inquest ruled that a young RAF mechanic had been unlawfully killed in a secret nerve gas test.

Ronald Maddison, 20, died moments after having liquid Sarin dripped on to his arm in May 1953.

His family, who had long campaigned to have his death re-investigated, revealed that he was told the tests were part of a search for a common cold cure.

Hundreds of other veterans who also took part in similar experiments have since received an apology and a share of £3 million in compensation from the Government.

Today, nearly a century after its establishment, the work of Porton Down continues. And while humans may no longer be used as guinea pigs, guinea pigs and other animals most certainly are.

Scientists insist that as potential threats change so, too, must their experiments.

Placing a live pig just a few feet from an explosive device is, they say, a case in point.

Research documents published last year reveal how one such experiment was carried out in response to concerns about whether blast injuries caused by bombs were being dealt with in the best way.

'The increasing number of civilian terrorist attacks means that the management of blast injury is now no longer confined to military doctors or those working in certain geographic locations, such as Northern Ireland or Israel,' the Porton Down paper finds.

PETA: 'Shooting and maiming pigs is as about as outdated as Civil War rifles.'

'The complex additive effects of blasts in enclosed spaces, as seen with bus or train bombings, greatly increase the incidence of primary blast injury; up to 94 per cent of the critically injured casualties from the Madrid train bombings were identified as suffering blast lung (damaged lungs are the most common cause of death among people who initially survive an explosion).

'The introduction of weapons which use the blast wave to engage the target primarily rather than as a means of propelling fragments, means that the threat of blast injury in a military setting is increased.'

While the theoretical justification for blowing up pigs sounds straightforward enough, the description of what happens in practice makes less easy reading.

The type of pigs chosen for the experiment are the large White variety, a traditional British breed.

Weighing about 60kg, they were selected because their skin closely resembles human flesh.

Prior to being blown up, the animals had monitoring tubes inserted into their blood vessels and bladders, and their spleens removed (so they might better mimic a human patient).

A major blood vessel in the abdomen then had a wire inserted into it so the vessel could be lacerated during the blast, allowing for a controlled 'bleed'.

The experiment was to replicate an injured soldier suffering from blood loss and blast injuries caused by a bomb.

If the scientists blew up a normal pig with a real bomb - without bullet-proof Kevlar sheeting to protect it from shrapnel - it would be too difficult to calculate the side-effects.

So, they created an experiment that inflicts blast injuries but also artificially mimics blood loss, which can be the animals were anaesthetised, they were left untreated for between five and ten minutes after the charge was detonated, to simulate the real-life delay between injury and medical intervention.

Human testing: RAF mechanic, Ronald Maddison, was killed after having liquid Sarin dripped onto his arm at Porton Down

Other experiments carried out at Porton Down will be equally hard for many to stomach.

One of these, again using pigs, involved the animal having sulphur mustard applied to its skin.

The substance, used in chemical warfare, causes chemical burns and severe skin lesions.

The test was carried out to judge the effectiveness of barrier creams against the agent.

More controversial are the tests carried out using primates.

In one, ten marmoset monkeys were exposed to inhalational tularemia, a disease caused by a bacterium used as a biological weapon.

The experiment was to establish what is known as the LD50 - the lethal dose causing 50 per cent of the animals to die.

The monkeys suffered severe effects, including fever, abnormal breathing and internal bleeding. Some died and all survivors were killed.

Another experiment saw a dozen marmosets exposed to an aerosol containing anthrax spores.

The animals developed shortness of breath, partial paralysis, disorientation and lethargy.

Six animals died, and those still alive after ten days were put down. In a separate experiment, guinea pigs were poisoned with a nerve agent, exceeding the lethal dose by five times.

Various combinations of therapy drugs were then injected into their muscles. The animals were observed for signs of nerve agent poisoning.

These included incapacitation, abnormal body temperature and intestinal intussusception (a condition where the intestine telescopes on itself causing blockage of blood vessels).

Animals in poor condition were killed 24 hours after the poisoning.

Critics of Porton Down say that the use of animals in these experiments is crude, cruel and unnecessary.

Prior to being blown up, the animals had monitoring tubes inserted into their blood vessels and bladders, and their spleens removed.

'There is no question the animals suffered before death in these experiments,' says Ms Kite of the BUAV.

In some of the tests, the animals were conscious and reportedly given no treatment or pain relief. Some were allowed to develop a disease and subsequently died from it.'

Her organisation also questions how transferable to humans the insights gained from tests conducted on animals really are.

'Claims by Porton Down that these animal tests are vital to saving lives in war zones is misleading and plays on people's fears,' she said.

'These are grotesque and cruel experiments that involve substantial suffering. They are also not an accurate simulation of what a human would experience.

'Tragically, the appalling suffering that humans inflict on each other provides more than enough material for study. There is no need to add to the suffering by artificially causing more in animals.'

Meanwhile, Tim Phillips, campaigns director of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, argues that avenues other than animal experimentation offer better prospects of medical advances.

'It is shameful that the UK, which has such strong public opposition to animal experimentation, remains at the forefront of warfare experiments on animals,' he says.

'For years, it has been acknowledged that the real advances in surgery and wound treatments come from clinical work. Modern non-animal techniques offer us data which is of direct relevance to people, and so it is this research which will actually benefit soldiers and the public.'

He also dismisses the implication that by attacking the work at Porton Down, critics of this research are in some way endangering the safety of troops in Afghanistan.

'I have massive sympathy for those who serve and put their lives at risk, but I believe there is a better way of doing this,' he explains.

Casualties: In Afghanistan, rarely a week goes by without a British soldier losing a life or limb to a roadside bomb

'It is misleading to put patriotism on one side and say it outweighs everything else - this is good science versus bad science. We don't need to be doing this in 2010.'

But Dr Simon Festing, chief executive of Understanding Animal Research, an umbrella group for organisations that use animals in experiments, disagrees.

'The animal models, especially the large mammals, are particularly good when it comes to things such as injury to organs and internal wounding,' says Dr Festing. 'The research is highly relevant.'

Meanwhile, Porton Down itself stresses that tests on animals are conducted only when there is no alternative.

A spokeswoman for DSTL says it is responsible for less than half a per cent of animal research procedures carried out in the UK.

Any animals used would have received appropriate pain relief medication. She said: 'DSTL is fully open about its work and seeks to publish the results wherever possible in open literature, to enable new ideas and advances in thinking to be freely available to the wider research community.

'Publishing its work with animals is part of DSTL's pro-active commitment to reducing the number of animals used by enabling others to use the data and information gained.'

She explained that the work on pigs was part of a broader programme that has led to significant improvements in body armour, casualty resuscitation and surgical techniques.

'The efficacy of medical countermeasures against chemical and biological weapons cannot be established in humans,' the spokeswoman added.

'Assessments of efficacy must, therefore, be based on alternative models that can then be extrapolated to humans.'

Britain, it must be added, is not alone in carrying out such experiments.

In America, whose soldiers are serving alongside the British in Afghanistan, pigs have also been used in recent tests.

One study involved dressing up live pigs in body armour and then strapping them into Humvee (high mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicle) simulators that were then blown up with explosives to investigate the link between roadside bomb blasts and brain injury.

There had been concerns that the body armour being worn by troops was deflecting the bomb blast towards the head, so increasing the risk of damage to the brain.

But the research found it not to be the case and that the armour was 'critical' to surviving the blasts.

More controversial is the practice, not used in this country, of using live animals when training medics to deal with combat injuries.

Campaign group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has identified a number of American military bases where pigs have been deliberately shot or stabbed to inflict injuries to vital organs such as the liver, bowels, spleen and stomach.

These are then treated by military personnel in a bid to prepare them for dealing with casualties when in Afghanistan.

Those involved in the training say that while other methods can be used, they are not as effective.

'Would you ever give someone a driving licence who has only driven a simulator?' asked one.

But animal rights campaigners both in the States and here would no doubt argue that when it comes to taking an animal's life, different standards should apply.

Or, as PETA spokeswoman Kathy Guillermo puts it: 'Shooting and maiming pigs is as about as outdated as Civil War rifles.'

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