Several INBO staff use wild or laboratory animals for their scientific research. Sometimes this research is considered an animal experiment, sometimes not.
If we only catch animals in order to record some data (length, weight, species, etc.), such as in fish monitoring, this research is not considered an animal experiment. But as soon as, in the context of scientific research, animals experience discomfort comparable to or worse than the insertion of a needle according to good veterinary practice, we legally speak of an animal experiment. Some procedures that do exceed this pain threshold do not fall under the legislation on laboratory animals. A not unimportant exception is, for example, the identification of animals with an ear tag, leg ring, chip, ... .
Telemetry is also often considered an exception. Decisive here are the animal species, weight and type of transmitter, and how it is attached. But also previous experiences of similar telemetry research can help to make a good estimate of the expected discomfort.
Because the current legislation regulating animal testing has its origins in the biomedical world, it is not always easily applicable to ecological research. Therefore, a working group was set up within the Flemish Animal Experiments Committee to draw up clearer guidelines. INBO also shares its experiences in this respect.
You cannot just carry out animal tests. You need an accreditation from the Animal Welfare Service. For that, you go through a whole approval procedure and you need to have the necessary infrastructure. Since INBO was founded in 2008, we have always had such an accreditation. All our animal research falls under the laboratory with the approval number LA 1400559.
In the beginning, animal research was mainly focused on brown rat housing in resistance research against rat poison and toxic bait testing. Resistance research is now proceeding genetically so there are no longer laboratory animals in our lab.
Other animal experiments are done to identify fish migration bottlenecks. For this purpose, fish are implanted with an acoustic telemetry transmitter after being anaesthetised. This allows their movements to be monitored via a network of telemetry receivers along our waterways. If our studies show that certain passages in watercourses are more difficult to cross, fish ladders can be installed to solve this problem. Several fish species then benefit from this for a long time. The evaluation of fish ladders can also be investigated using acoustic telemetry. Among other things, the extent to which pumping pumping stations allow fish to pass through in an animal-friendly way was also investigated.
The number of experimental animals used since 2015 is shown in the table below:
In order to conduct animal experiments, accreditation alone is not enough. Staff must have undergone the necessary training, and each animal experiment application must be assessed by an ethics committee. INBO has its own ethics committee (ECD-INBO), with 5 internal and 3 external members. All these members have special knowledge about wildlife in addition to classical competences such as ethics, animal welfare and trial design.
An important aspect in the assessment is how the applicant deals with:
- reduction: researchers always calculate how many animals are needed to arrive at a statistically sound number, this minimises the number of animals used.
- substitution: in resistance research, genetic screening was decisively chosen, thus eliminating the use of experimental animals.
- refinement: this is classically done by offering cage enrichment such as shelters, nesting material, etc. In our context, this involves optimising trapping or telemetry equipment, e.g. lighter transmitters so that the animals experience less stress or disturbance.
Together with about 20 other Belgian research institutes, INBO signed the transparency agreement on laboratory animal research in Belgium. This commits INBO to openly communicate on the use of laboratory animals. This strategy fits perfectly with our 'Open Science' objectives.
You can find the full agreement on the website of Belgian Council for Laboratory Animal Science (BCLAS), who co-ordinated the drafting with the European Animal Research Association (EARA).
Contact: Kristof Baert