Cat with brain waves tracker
A cat having its brain waves monitored.
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Four animal-rights groups have joined forces to demand that the Health Ministry halt a medical experiment that involves forcing cats to remain awake in order to monitor their brain function. The organizations said the cats in the study at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev are confined in small enclosures and force-fed food containing substances to keep them awake during testing.

Research in Israel into feline brain function is generally conducted while the cats are anesthetized. They are often killed when the experiments are completed.

The study in question, led by Dr. Opher Donchin of the university's Department of Biomedical Engineering, investigates neural activity in Purkinje cells in the animals' cerebellar cortex. Researchers ultimately plan to study at least seven cats.

Last month Rachel Adam, a representative for animal-rights groups on the ministry's National Council for Experimentation on Animal Subjects, asked council chairman Ehud Ziv to look into complaints that the cats were subjected to unnecessary discomfort during testing. A veterinarian and a scientific consultant who were sent by Ziv to Donchin's laboratory wrote in their report that the experiment complied with the ministry's animal-testing regulations.

In response, animal-rights activists asked Ziv for permission to visit the lab and see the tests on the cats for themselves. When their request was rejected, they decided to take up the matter with the university directly.

This week the organizations sent a letter to Ziv and to university president Prof. Rivka Carmi demanding an immediate halt to the study. "This research is being conducted on conscious felines, subjecting them to prolonged, extreme suffering," the groups' attorney, Sagi Agmon, said. He said the experiment does not comply with the 1994 Animal Welfare Law.

The letter said the suffering caused to the cats far outweighed the study's potential "negligible scientific benefit" and that nothing could justify subjecting such sentient beings to prolonged, harmful tests, confinement and surgery for the purpose of dubious scientific gain. The activists said they are considering legal action against the study's organizers.

The director of the animal-rights group Behind Closed Doors, Anat Refua, said yesterday, "A cat can't be expected to sit in confinement for over an hour without moving. It breaks the animal physically and emotionally, leading to a state of powerlessness. In such a state the cat is likely to fall asleep, and inserting food into its mouth to keep it awake is both cruel and disproportionate. We ask for proportionality to be considered before approving any experiment in Israel, as required by law."

In response, Ziv said: "After the report was submitted, it was made clear that the council's representatives from nonprofit groups are invited to visit the lab and form their own impressions. They have yet to give us a date that suits them."

He said the conditions of the experiment were in compliance with its permit and that the cats exhibited no signs of suffering. "On the contrary," Ziv said, "they were in appropriate physical and behavioral condition, showed sociability and curiosity, and their interaction demonstrated their trust in the laboratory staff."

Ben-Gurion University said in a statement that while "Society grants scientists the authority to use animals for research and teaching purposes, in the recognition that animal research seeks to advance the saving of human life," the world and the university are increasingly using substitutes whenever possible to prevent unnecessary suffering to lab animals.

In its response the university rejected the activists' accusations and noted that the veterinarian and scientific consultant who viewed the testing determined unequivocally that it met all legal all council requirements. "This is highly important research with potential long-term value for the treatment of disorders of the cerebellum like autism, dyslexia and stroke. Donchin and his staff should receive all possible praise, not complaints," the statement said.