Ms. Daberkow-Nitsche, what does your job as an animal welfare officer entail?
We have a total of six animal welfare officers working for the MDC. These women are also veterinarians and gained practical experience for many years in different work places. We attend training courses and modules on a regular basis to learn all there is to know regarding animal welfare regulations and the submitting of applications. With currently more than 350 ongoing projects, we divide our work in such a way that each animal welfare officer is assigned their own research groups to supervise. This way, we can become familiar with the subject matter and our work gives the researchers security and reliability. We all come from a research background ourselves and have at some point been involved in studies as project leaders or group members. This is an absolute prerequisite for being accepted here both internally at the MDC and by external colleagues and contact persons and for being able to work confidently, as it is the only way that we can grasp the potential scope of the scientific work and the problems that must be addressed throughout the application process.
What sort of questions do researchers come to you with?
The researchers are actually in constant dialogue with the animal welfare officers and the animal keepers. If, for example, an animal becomes ill during an experiment – which can happen – then it is important we are there to assist. Together with the animal keepers and the researchers, we ask ourselves: Can the animal stay in the study? Should we treat it or should we remove it from the experiment? We also answer questions concerning animal housing, breeding, and the process of applying for animal experiments with the Berlin State Office for Health and Social Affairs (LaGeSo). As animal welfare officers, we see our main roles as mediating between authorities and scientists, monitoring animal welfare, and ensuring that there are no violations of Germany’s animal welfare laws here at the MDC.
In this role, how important is it to understand the scientific work of the research groups?
It is important to us that we understand the general idea, but not every little detail. Practically, we need to know what the team is doing with the animal. And it is certainly part of our job to understand the methods of experimentation! With every application submitted to the authorities, we enclose an opinion detailing our assessment of the development of the project and the burden on the animals, as well as whether the researchers have chosen the best possible methods. It is therefore absolutely essential that we understand the groups’ research focus.
To what extent are you involved in the application for animal experiments?
The applications are made by the scientists; we offer advice. Before submitting an application, it is important that the researchers approach us early on so we can discuss their project together. This way, the idea is honed further and we can make sure that animal welfare is being taken into account and given a high priority at every stage of the process. Then, during the course of the animal experiment, we ensure that the scientists are sticking to everything that has been approved in the application. For example, the experiments must not last longer than stated in the application, and a single animal may not be used more than authorized.
What do you pay particular attention to when preparing an application?
As animal welfare officers, we pay close attention to the number of animals used. We also talk about whether the chosen methods are suitable and in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act, and whether they are the most animal-friendly ones available. We are always guided by the “3Rs principle”. 3R stands for replace, reduce, refine. We ask ourselves: Are there any alternative methods? Can we use them within or before the experiments? How many animals are needed, and for how long are we putting them under experimental stress? What method are we using? Is it invasive? We strive to keep stress to a minimum to spare the animal any unnecessary suffering and harm. This includes always choosing the most animal-friendly experimental method and treating any pain the animal may be in. Yet we need to ensure that we are gaining scientific knowledge. With regard to the 3Rs, there is a well-established practice at the MDC that I would like to highlight: researchers often do very intensive preliminary work, which takes place in vitro or in silico – i.e., with cell cultures or computer models – before they even consider animal experiments.
How long does it take for an application to be approved?
After we’ve had our initial consultation and the researcher has submitted a first draft proposal, there will be one or two feedback rounds. It generally takes two to four weeks for all questions to be answered and any revisions to be made. We then take a final look and submit the application to the Berlin authorities. LaGeSo usually has 40 to 55 working days to process the application. During this time, the authorities will approach the researchers with questions. We sit down again with those responsible and formulate answers to these questions. We pass the answers on to LaGeSo and keep our fingers crossed that the application will be approved after only one round. Though this happens very rarely. At best, one can expect the entire process to take three to four months.
What must a research team bear in mind when submitting its proposal?
My advice to the scientists is always: Write the application in such a way that a high school graduate with an interest in biology could understand it. This is what makes applications fit for approval. Some researchers find it difficult to explain the ideas of the molecular processes taking place deep inside the cell in a way that is generally understandable. They have to be able to alter the register of their writing to the layperson level. This is because their application is also evaluated by an animal experimentation committee, which is made up of many different members. It includes representatives from animal welfare organizations as well as animal ethicists and animal rights activists – i.e., often educated laypersons. This committee meets every fortnight and the meetings are very intensive, with about ten proposals per meeting from different disciplines to get through – which are often some 60 pages long and highly specialized. That’s a fair amount of work. If a lot of questions arise because the panel does not understand the application, this can delay the researcher’s work. It is therefore a good idea to formulate applications as comprehensible as possible.
Christina Anders conducted the interview.
Head of the Animal Facilities Department and Animal Welfare Officer at the MDC