NSW to ban forced swim tests

Today Abigail supported the prohibition of forced swim tests and forced smoke inhalation tests. NSW will now finally outlaw these cruel and outdated practices. 

Abigail said:

On behalf of the Greens I support the Animal Research Amendment (Prohibition of Forced Swim Tests and Forced Smoke Inhalation Experiments Bill) 2023, which I thank the Hon. Emma Hurst for introducing. There are so many aspects of the flawed animal welfare laws in our State that we need to correct, and I am sincerely grateful to be able to share the work in this portfolio area with such a principled and hardworking colleague in the Hon. Emma Hurst, despite us representing different political parties in this place. According to research by Animal Liberation, up to seven million animals are cruelly exploited through animal experimentation and research every year in Australia. We have a long way to go in this country to phase out this incredibly cruel industry, and the bill takes a sensible and straightforward step towards doing that by banning two of the most shocking and inhumane types of experimentation.

In 2022 I was a member of the Portfolio Committee No. 2 – Health inquiry into the use of primates and other animals in medical research in New South Wales. During that inquiry, the committee received considerable evidence about the use of both forced swim tests and forced smoke inhalation experiments. There is no doubt that those two methods of experiment were some of the most horrific and unnecessary to be considered by that inquiry. Many submissions and witnesses called for those two procedures to be banned in New South Wales. A number of animal care and ethics committees had already banned the use of those tests, and it is now no longer thought to be necessary by some universities and global pharmaceutical companies. Page 24 of the inquiry report illustrates what is meant by the forced swim test. It states:

"The forced swim test was developed in 1978 and has been used for decades in neurobiology research and drug studies, including to evaluate antidepressants. The test involves placing a mouse or rat in a transparent cylinder of lukewarm water where they swim and attempt to climb the walls of the cylinder before becoming immobile and floating. The animals are generally removed after a set time, but some animals die after the test from aspirating water. The test is grounded in the theory that animals that spend more time floating (and less time swimming or attempting to escape) are feeling helpless and that this indicates depression or anxiety. There is a correlation between the efficacy of some antidepressants and the outcomes of the test. However, there have been questions raised as to whether this test is a good model for a complex, chronic condition like human depression, as contradictory evidence has shown that floating is a learned and adaptive behaviour that saves energy and is beneficial for survival."

As Humane Research Australia submitted during the inquiry, even if this was ever a valid research technique, there are now many suitable humane alternatives available, including methods involving the use of human tissues or cells, or mathematical and computer models of human systems. Pages 26 and 27 of the inquiry report describe what is meant by forced smoke inhalation or the use of the smoking tower. It states:

"Forced smoke inhalation research exposes mice to cigarettes or other hazardous inhalants and observes the physical effects that follow. Smoking towers ensure nose-only or head-only exposures by placing mice in small chambers. Mice are forced to breathe in smoke for a minimum of one hour, twice a day for five days a week, for up to 18 weeks. In whole-body exposure, the animals are immersed in the smoke without being restrained."

Although some inquiry participants sought to justify extreme animal cruelty on the basis of providing insight into human health issues, many thought that the high welfare impact of using mice in smoking tower research could not be justified and should be banned. Dr Fowler of RSPCA Australia explained to the committee:

"Not only is the animal—in most cases, a mouse—being exposed to smoke being forced into its lungs, but there is also the feeling of not being able to escape the environment. The ongoing stress of that and the fact that they are repeatedly exposed to that day after day, generally five days a week, Monday to Friday, because that is what is convenient for the research student. Straightaway, it is convenient for the research student or the research paradigm but not necessarily convenient for the animal, and that is not taken into consideration."

Other witnesses outlined the severe distress experienced by animals, including hypothermia and withdrawal symptoms, and even mass culling when research is not proving fruitful. Many stakeholders also referred to less cruel alternatives, such as the less invasive technique of whole-body exposure, where animals are placed in groups in a chamber. Others queried whether research seeking to use mice to understand human disease was going to be useful at all, given the biological differences between our species.

In short, evidence to the committee in relation to the use of these two research methods indicated that the extreme impacts on animal welfare could not be justified and the committee recommended that the New South Wales Government take steps to rapidly phase out forced swim tests and smoking tower tests in research in New South Wales. That brings me to the bill before us, which has faithfully followed the findings and recommendations of the committee. The bill seeks to prohibit new research seeking to use these tests, while maintaining current approvals so that research already using one or other of these tests can be concluded. The Greens support this incredibly reasonable and straightforward bill.


To read the full debate, see Hansard here.

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