A YouGov poll for the Telegraph was interpreted as suggesting that support for animal testing is growing in response to the actions of animal rights extremists. The YouGov survey certainly found strong support for animal testing, but I’m not sure it suggests such a trend.

YouGov found that 70% of people thought that it was acceptable to test new medicines on animals while 18% thought it was “not acceptable under any circumstances”. 72% of people thought that tighter restrictions on animal testing would simply force the companies testing to do so overseas.

Asked whether various actions carried out by those opposed to animal testing were acceptable, a large majority of people thought it was acceptable to hold peaceful demonstrations or display placards showing pictures of animals being experimented upon. However, only 10% thought publishing the names and addresses of shareholders of companies using animal testing was acceptable, only 2% thought damaging property was acceptable, and less than 1% thought making death threats or desecrating graves was acceptable.

Last year an ICM poll found only 50% of people in favour of testing new medicines on animals – so, does this mean that support for animal testing is growing? Perhaps not.

On animal testing most people have pretty nuanced views – there is a very small proportion of people who think any animal testing is fine for whatever reason, and a small proportion of people who think all animal testing is wrong. Between that the large majority of people think that animal testing is okay under some circumstances, but not in others. Hence the answer you get depends upon the exact wording of the question. In YouGov’s poll the “No” option required people to say that they disapproved of animal testing in any circumstances – quite an extreme stance. In ICM’s poll last year, the question was far less strict and people were only asked to generally approve or disapprove of animal testing for new medicines.

Attitudes towards animal testing have been very well examined by a series of polls for Medical Research Council and the Coalition for Medical Progress (a pressure group supporting the use of animal research) in 1999, 2002 and 2005.

In the 1999 survey, only 27% said they agreed with all animal experiments when there was no alternative. However, narrow it to research for medical purposes and the percentage shoots up – 64% said they could accept it. With the proviso there was no unnecessary suffering, it rose to 69%. If there was no alternative 60% approved of animal testing for all medical research. (This read strangely to me to start with- how come 64% agreed with animal experiments for medical research, but only 60% agreed when there was no alternative – it’s because the word “all” has been added).

39% said they did not support the use of animals in any experiments. This apparantly contradicts the 69% of people who said they could accept testing for medical purposes that caused no unnecessary suffering – but the terms support and accept are clearly different. You can not support something, but accept that the same thing needs to happen sometimes. 26% said government should ban all animal research.

The 2002 survey also identified differences depending on what animals were used – 66% thought it was fine to experiment on rats, but only 39% thought it was okay to experiment on monkeys. There are also differences depending on exactly what type of medical research is being conducted – in this 1999 MORI poll for the New Scientist only 38% thought testing cosmetics on mice for allegic reactions was okay, 56% thought it was okay to test insecticides, testing painkilling drugs was 73-74%, testing an AIDS vaccine was 77%, testing a drug for kiddies’ leukemia reached 83% approval.

The 2005 survey asked series of questions asking about experiments to various ends using different animals and either involving pain or not. Less than 10% of people thought putting monkeys through painful experiments was okay for cosmetic research, rising to just under 50% for testing drugs for childrens leukemia. Painful experiments on mice had a higher approval rating (raising from just over 10% for cosmetics to just over 60% for leukemia), pain free experiments on monkeys a higher approval rating than that, and pain free experiments on mice the highest (from just under 40% to just over 80%).

The majority of people’s attitude towards animal testing is nuanced and conditional. The difference between the YouGov and ICM polls isn’t due to a change in opinion, just different question wording. Leaving those polls aside though, the series of MORI polls does suggest that over the last 7 years does suggest that support for animal testing is growing. The proportion of people who say animal testing is acceptable in some circumstance is steady at around 89%, but the proportion of people taking a very liberal line (saying they aren’t bothered by animal testing and/or saying they support animal testing when necessary for all medical purposes) has been gradually rising since 1999 and the proportion of people objecting (those saying they do not support any testing and/or supporting a government ban) has been gradually falling.

As with most complicated issues, a straight yes or no question doesn’t begin to explain public opinion on animal testing. The bottom line is that most people accept animal testing under some circumstances and reject it in others, and while the recent YouGov poll alone isn’t enough to demonstrate it, public opinion is gradually becoming more supportive.

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