Max Planck Society statement dated 18 September 2014

September 18, 2014

In the light of the stern TV programme broadcast on 10 September 2014, which included illegally recorded video sequences showing the animal facility at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, the President of the Max Planck Society requested the Head of the German Primate Center, Professor Stefan Treue, to carry out an in situ review of the situation.

In a verbal report, Professor Treue has given his assessment and evaluation of the way in which the animals are treated and the medical care provided. His findings were arrived at independently and without prejudice to the intensive and detailed official enquiry still in progress. They are intended, in view of the seriousness of the allegations, to enable the Max Planck Society to reach a speedy and objective decision on further action. All records and documentation are naturally at the disposal of the authorities for further investigation.

In the course of his visit to Tübingen, Professor Treue spoke with the staff and inspected records and documents. As an experienced researcher himself, he stressed that every operation entails risk – something that is equally true in the case of human patients. The possibility of post-operative haemorrhages or suture insufficiencies can never be entirely excluded. He considered it important to discover whether such complications are a frequent occurrence at the MPI, and whether the animals are treated in an appropriate manner (e.g. immediate replacement of failed sutures). The Head of the Primate Center has attested that the Institute employees exercised great care in the treatment of their animals. According to Professor Treue, the employees are very experienced and highly motivated, and he found no indications that the animals were neglected. The documents confirm that the animals at the Institute are subject to close veterinary supervision.

The President of the Max Planck Society, Professor Martin Stratmann, has also travelled to Tübingen to interview employees at the Institute. As the President emphasised, these allegations have been a source of great anguish for all of the staff at the Institute who have carried out their duties to the best of their belief.

Professor Stratmann stressed that the research conducted at the Institute is of outstanding national, as well as international repute. The Max Planck Society is of the opinion that animal experiments – including the use of non-human primates – remain a necessary aspect of research in the interests of resolving issues that are central to science, and of establishing a basis for new approaches to medical treatments. Not only are there high demands on science, Professor Stratmann explained, but the manner in which experimental animals are kept and treated is subject to equally high expectations. No serious shortcomings were identified by the Head of the German Primate Center. Nevertheless, detailed discussions have taken place with the Institute management regarding further improvements. The resulting initial list of measures includes the following points:

Staffing levels in this Department are adequate, even in comparison with other such facilities. However, a need for improvement has been identified in terms of organisation. In addition, the veterinary care provided for the primates is reaching its capacity limits. The Institute will therefore immediately and permanently provide additional external veterinary capacities. With immediate effect, it will be ensured that staff are available to supervise the primates both by day and the night following a surgery.

A full-time manager with veterinary qualifications will be recruited for the primate facility. In order to ensure that structures keep pace with requirements, until such time as these measures have been implemented, the Institute will make no further applications for the approval of experiments involving primates. The Institute will in future introduce a computerised documentation system that will, for example, record not only the consumption, but also the availability of foodstuffs. The Institute will in future also dispense with the use of lead poles during training.

The President of the Max Planck Society emphasised that research involving animal experiments on non-human primates must meet the highest standards. With this list of measures the Max Planck Society intends to ensure that animals used in experiments are both kept and treated under optimum conditions at the Institute.

Updated statement 15 September 2014

Following on from the Max Planck Society's statement on a TV report about animal testing at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen dated 11 September 2014, we would like to provide you with information about the current situation.

We want to emphasize once again that we take these allegations very seriously indeed. The Institute is investigating all points raised. To this end, it must comprehensively view records and documents. In addition, the Max Planck Society has commissioned an external expert to carry out an on-site inspection. The results of this investigation are expected to be available on Thursday. Only then can the Max Planck Society make a further announcement and decide how to proceed further. It is our highest priority to completely clarify all allegations that were made. The value of primate research for society must not be comprised.

Statement dated 11 September 2014

The stern TV programme of 10 September 2014 showed unlawfully recorded footage of the animal-holding facility at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics under the title “Suffering for Science”. The footage was selected with the sole purpose of discrediting animal testing. Practically none of the footage shows the normal conditions at the Institute’s animal-holding facility. The sequences are strung together in a way that makes meaningful arrangement in the actual context in which they were produced impossible, or in some cases even deliberately suggest a completely different context. The Institute had provided the broadcaster with a number of its own recordings, which were unfortunately almost completely discarded in the report. In light of these circumstances, balanced reporting was not achieved.

Emotionalised impact using images of suffering or only supposedly suffering animals is a method continually deployed by animal welfare activists. Objective analysis of the issue unfortunately does not serve their purposes. After the broadcast by Stern TV, employees of the Institute, as well as those of other institutes of the Max Planck Society, are currently being exposed to malicious insults, abuse, and death threats. Just several months ago, the Alliance of Science Organisations, in view of a defamatory advertising campaign against a brain researcher at the University of Bremen, expressly called for all parties concerned to conduct the important social debate on the general conditions and importance of animal experimentation in research in an objective and open manner, and without personal vilification. We wish to reiterate this request here on behalf of our employees.

Moreover, we wish to take the opportunity to once again point out the following:

  • Germany has one of the most stringent sets of animal welfare laws by international comparison. Scientists require authorisation from the competent authority in every individual case of experimentation for experiments on vertebrates. Justification must be provided in the application of why the research objective cannot be achieved without the use of laboratories. In the decision on the authorisation or rejection of such animal experimentation applications, the authority is provided with advisory support from a committee which also includes representatives of animal welfare organisations, as well as experts from the fields of veterinary medicine, medicine and specialist scientific disciplines.
  • The welfare of animals used in experimentation is a matter of great concern to all employees at the Max Planck Society involved in animal experimentation: animal welfare, the best possible holding conditions and a responsible approach to the animals are ethical obligations. The researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics are therefore working, for example, towards constant improvement of the implants and the operating techniques. All operations take place under general anaesthetic and according to human medical standards. Animal experimentation is also always carried out under veterinary supervision, the supervision of the animal welfare officer and with regular official checks.
  • A fundamental objective of biological and medical basic research is to obtain the fullest possible picture of the complex interactions taking place in the body. This is necessary in order to understand diseases and to develop appropriate medicines or methods of treatment. Despite all efforts to develop animal-experiment-free methods, such as cell culture studies and computer modelling etc., we are still a long way off from being able to analyse the physiological correlations in this way in the study of such complex organs as the brain.

The scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics are carrying out research in the field of neurocognition. Their discoveries have made a significant contribution, amongst other things, to a better understanding of magnetic resonance imaging – precisely the type of non-invasive method mentioned as a substitute for animal experimentation during the live debate on Stern TV. The images of MRI scanners actually only became interpretable by doctors at nerve-cell level thanks to the work of Max Planck researchers. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has today become a key diagnostics instrument in medicine. It enables rapid and non-invasive assessment and observation of the condition, for example, of stroke patients, patients with craniocerebral trauma or patients with neurodegenerative diseases.

Magnetic resonance imaging nevertheless only shows brain areas, and not what is happening at nerve-cell level. For the future development and optimisation, for example, of “brain pacemakers”, such as those used for Parkinson’s disease patients, electrophysiological recordings on animals used for experiments remain essential.

Yesterday’s programme on Stern TV is currently still being evaluated, as not all footage is available to us. However, we can confirm at this stage that the footage shown in the film of an animal suffering a severe stroke constitutes an absolute exception. We have no understanding if the infiltrated animal carer was filming this seriously ill animal rather than immediately notifying the veterinarian, which would have been his duty.

We also dispute the impression conveyed in the film that dead animals are disposed of like “rubbish”. The fact is that all animal corpses are sent to the competent state veterinary analysis unit for pathological examination where their state of health prior to sacrifice is examined and checks are always carried out as to whether the animals were treated responsibly from a veterinary perspective.

The images of the animal entering the primate chair are also taken out of context. Trained animals climb directly into the chair. This training takes between two and three days. The footage shows a completely untrained animal. The scientists at the Institute have developed a new primate chair which enables the animals to voluntarily climb into the chair. Training them to do so is more complex, but the project has received a great deal of support from the authorities in particular.

The Max Planck Society is evaluating the current procedure in close contact with the authorities.

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