TCD trapped in its own web of deception

TCD trapped in its own web of deception

Information Commissioner annuls TCD refusal to disclose records relating to suffering and deaths in animal testing

On 31st May 2023, the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) annulled the decision by Trinity College Dublin (TCD) to conceal information relating to critical animal welfare standards during vivisection at the College, where tens of thousands of animals perish every year. The Freedom of Information (FoI) requests had been made by the Students4Change group, with support and expert advice from the Irish Anti-Vivisection Society (IAVS). The defeat for TCD follows a series of false and misleading responses from the College as it sought to evade its FoI duties and hide the truth about its animal testing practices.

In particular, TCD had claimed in response to a previous FoI request: 

"All animals used in research have been humanely killed at the end of procedures by one of the approved methods as per Annex IV of the Directive 2010-63-EU."

This statement is untrue because the reality of animal experimentation is that, inevitably, a proportion of animals are ‘found dead’ during the experiment because of the adverse effects of the procedures combined with lack of 24 hour veterinary care. When animals are let to die rather than put down, it indicates the highest severity of suffering and potential breaches of regulations. Furthermore, many animals are found dead or euthanised outside of experimental protocols because of either over-breeding or animals dying while being held in stock.

TCD’s claim gave a false impression that downplayed animal suffering in TCD’s labs, hence there is a public interest in correcting the record. We sought to drill down into TCD’s false claim, so the four information requests that were made to TCD and subsequently dealt with by the OIC concerned:

  1. the methods of killing used at TCD, which could include controversial methods lacking humaneness such as decapitation, breaking of the neck or a blow to the head
  2. how many animals were found dead, which would indicate potential breaches of welfare laws, as well as confirming the dishonesty of TCD’s claim that all animal are euthanised
  3. how many healthy animals, who could potentially have been rehomed, were killed
  4. whether TCD met its legal obligation to consider the rehoming of animals

In its initial response, TCD claimed that the information on parts 1 and 2, did not exist. When it was pointed out to TCD that it would be illegal for them to not record this information, the College changed their story and admitted they did record the information, but claimed that it would be too much effort for them to collate the data. Once again, this excuse fell apart when it was pointed out that the misleading figures that TCD did provide for the number of animals euthanised required the collation of information in a similar fashion [1]. So if TCD was prepared to make the effort for the sake of providing biased information that suited their narrative, clearly it should not be too much effort to go through the same process for the sake of independently-requested figures.

Significantly, TCD’s own final decision letter admitted that the claim that all animals are euthanised at the end of the experiment is false:

"All HPRA authorised projects performed at TCD have approved attrition rates, these are the predicted percentage of animals that may not reach the pre-determined end point of the experiment. The possible reasons for this happening are clearly provided to the HPRA at the time of project review and are approved (e.g., being culled early due to the animal reaching a humane endpoint, anaesthetic deaths, or failure of the animal model e.g., due to natural causes)."

In relation to parts 3 and 4 of the FoI request. Once again TCD changed their story through the process. Initially the College replied by repeating the lie that:

"All animals are humanely killed at the end of experiments as part of the data collection for the project for which their use has been authorised."

In other words TCD was claiming that the answer to part 3 was ‘zero’ and therefore the issues about rehoming animals in part 4 did not rise. In TCD’s third attempt to explain themselves (in reply to the OIC’s inquiries), having admitted that their first reply was untrue, they suddenly decided to argue that it would be too onerous for them to collect the information. But it is in fact a regulatory requirement to collect this data periodically, further undermining TCD’s claims that it is not practical to carry out this task. Responding to part 4 would merely have required TCD to go through the minutes of their Animal Welfare Body meetings and copy and paste the standing item (according to TCD, that is) on rehoming schemes. Yet TCD also tried to claim, without reasonable explanation, that it would be too much trouble to do this.

The IAVS commented:

"We have been shocked and deeply disappointed by the litany of blatant falsehoods put forward by Trinity College in response to these information requests about the suffering and death they inflict on tens of thousands of animals every year. You would expect a prestigious institution of learning and science to have a reasonable commitment to the truth and to their legal obligations. Yet their approach to this FoI request has been cavalier, to say the least, unnecessarily undermining their own credibility and reputation. In the end, TCD has been trapped in their own web of deception, where one lie has then led to another lie to cover up the original lack of candour.

TCD needs to understand that when it comes to animal experimentation they are not a law-unto-themselves: they are only allowed to do specific experiments because the government, acting on behalf of Irish citizens, gives them limited permissions to do so. It is therefore incumbent on them to be honest with the public about how they conduct those experiments and whether they do so lawfully.

We urge TCD to respond to the OIC judgement with a constructive spirit of openness and respect for their FoI obligations. It is also vital that TCD conducts an urgent internal investigation of its handling of the original request. It cannot be right for TCD to allow falsehoods to be issued in its name and to treat FoI with contempt.

In our view, they should issue a public apology, discipline whoever was responsible for their first response, and simply disclose the important information of public interest which is being requested."

Catherine Morrow, IAVS chairperson, included the following statement: 

"Sadly, this may not be exceptional behaviour. It is very probable that - should similar FOI requests be made to other university laboratories where animals are routinely abused - a similar catalogue of deceit  would emerge, as the gruesome reality of vivisection is purposefully hidden from ‘the public’. 

In the case of TCD’s scientific community, such dismal behaviour - and  possibly questionable record-keeping - should seriously undermine public confidence in the quality of their research, and the veracity of ensuing results, as, where it exists, dishonesty tends to permeate all spheres of an institution. Their entire ethos needs to change : a strong infusion of compassion, courage and integrity might lead them to abandon callous and archaic vivisection, and to distinguish themselves instead as pioneers of truly modern, human-relevant, animal-free research."

[1] TCD claimed ‘We have provided you with the number and species of animals that died or were killed for the years you have requested, and for which we have information.’ In fact, the table only refers to animals killed (i.e. euthanised), not those who died (i.e. not killed by euthanasia).