Colombia considers ban on most research and education using live animals

Several pieces of legislation that are under consideration in Colombia threaten to change the country’s research landscape if passed, by banning almost all science and education using live animals. Although one bill introduced in Colombia’s Chamber of Representatives has already been rescinded after backlash from scientists, a second bill and a constitutional amendment remain active in the Senate.

"Science hasn’t always been supported by politicians in Colombia, but I don’t think any of us saw this coming,” says Nataly Castelblanco-Martínez, an aquatic-mammal biologist at the National Council for Science and Technology in Mexico, who is originally from Colombia and frequently collaborates with scientists back home. “No one is saying we don’t need regulation, but together, [these bills] affect virtually everything we do as researchers.”

A rising movement

Colombia is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries. After a civil conflict that lasted more than 50 years and limited where scientists could travel, researchers resumed chronicling wildlife and establishing conservation plans. But there are many understudied species, and in recent years, an ‘animalist’ movement has developed in Colombia that threatens scientists’ work.

The bill that has since been withdrawn from the Chamber of Representatives — which hosts a number of politicians who are sympathetic to animal-welfare causes — had stated that “in no case may wild animals be used in education or biological studies”. After scientists raised the alarm, at least four members of the Colombian Congress pulled their signatures. In an e-mail to Nature, the bill’s author, Juan Carlos Lozada Vargas, said that he ultimately withdrew it “to create a space of trust” with scientists. And he has been visiting researchers in various institutions since then.

Some scientists say that ‘animalists’ are taking advantage of the closure earlier this year of a malaria research facility in Cali, which had been funded by the US National Institutes of Health, to push through more restrictive animal-research policies. The animal-welfare organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) unearthed evidence of alleged animal abuse at the laboratory.

At the same time, there’s an ongoing debate over how best to manage a population of invasive hippos accidentally introduced into Colombia after they escaped from the drug-cartel leader Pablo Escobar’s estate outside Medellín. The hippos, biologists say, threaten native species, and their population must be reduced. Others, however, are protective of the hippos and the benefits they bring through tourism. The Animal Legal Defense Fund, an organization that advocates for the rights of animals, filed a lawsuit against the government over its efforts to control the hippos, and Colombian senator Andrea Padilla Villarraga recently introduced a draft constitutional amendment that would recognize animals as people, with commensurate legal protections.

Researchers note that granting personhood to something like an invasive species would be a dangerous precedent that ignores the damage a single species can do to an entire ecosystem. In an e-mail to Nature, Padilla Villarraga rejected this argument. “Does environmental protection conflict with the protection we owe to other animals as sentient individuals?” she asked. “It is a false dilemma to think that you have to choose between one and the other.”

Research transformed

Padilla Villarraga is also the author of the pending Senate bill that would curtail animal research and overhaul the country’s ethical-approval process. The bill states that “the use of live animals in academic and scientific research, toxicity-testing studies, biological or related studies” is prohibited when the results can be obtained “by other means” or when using “live animals of a higher grade on the zoological scale”. Scientists say that they take this to mean animals with greater cognitive capacity or sentience, but that the vagueness of the bill makes it challenging to interpret.

Carlos Daniel Cadena Ordoñez, the dean of the school of science at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, says that larger institutions in cities might be able to meet these new requirements, but that smaller, more rural ones probably won’t. “There are all these barriers to science, and now we’re going to put more barriers that are going to make it even more exclusionary,” he says.

Beyond the damage that the legislation would do to research, it would change the way in which students are educated. The bill states that undergraduate students cannot interact with animals until their last two years at university, and then only under supervision. “But all the research that I do, I do with students,” says Andrés Cuervo, an ornithologist at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá, who focuses on avian biodiversity. “We need to put these people out there in the field right away.”

The Senate bill would also effectively shutter the conservation work of Ana María Morales, a wildlife biologist at the Eagles of the Andes Foundation, a bird-rehabilitation centre in Pereira. She observes endangered black-and-chestnut eagles (Spizaetus isidori), and sometimes captures and tags them. Animals that cannot be released are used to educate the public and to train professionals on proper handling techniques. “As the only raptor rehabilitation centre in Colombia, we are the ones that have this information, and this bill will prevent us from sharing it,” she says.

A tense wait

The likelihood of the bill passing remains unclear. Cuervo says that it has a good chance of making its way to President Gustavo Petro, and that it could be signed by the end of the year. But others, including Cadena Ordoñez, think it’s unlikely to pass, given the reaction to the withdrawn Chamber of Representatives bill. However, “we have to act as though it will, because a lot of people will be out of work if this bill goes through,” he says.

The threat has prompted Colombian scientists to organize. What began as a WhatsApp chat among concerned biologists has grown into a group called Biodiversos that currently has more than 2,750 members. Castelblanco-Martínez, who is a member, says that the group has been largely reactive — putting out statements in opposition to the bills — but that is changing: members recently attended a forum with Padilla Villarraga to outline their concerns. “The fact that we’re coming together, all working towards the conservation of our resources, it’s really great,” she says.