#Watchdogs: The Use of Animals for Experimental Purposes is a Very Delicate and Difficult Matter

Anna GdulaRoksana Maślankiewicz: Tell me, which came first in your case – the right to information or animal rights? How did you learn about the right to information?

Anna Gdula: I started by advocating for animal rights. In 2012, I met Iza Kadłucka on Facebook. We founded the first “Lex Nova” Foundation. During the first years of our activity in the foundation we sat on the board together with Iza and Patryk. 

Patryk Łuczyński, a Watchdog member for a year. I remember that when recommending him to the association, you wrote that it was thanks to him that you learned about the right to information.

Yes, it’s an interesting story. At the time, Patryk was still a high school student. He was involved in animal rights issues for some time and was passionate about the law. For example, at that time he was already monitoring municipalities in terms of carrying out their statutory tasks related to combating animal homelessness and he filed complaints to the voivodeship administrative court about municipal resolutions. It was from him that I learned that there is such a thing as access to public information.

And how did you come across us, the Citizens Network Watchdog Poland?

If my memory serves me correctly, I accidentally came across an advertisement on the Internet for a course called “On Guard”, organised by the Watchdog Poland [a blended – internet and stationary course – for watchdog organisations]. And since I already knew that this right to information existed and that by exercising it, you could obtain important information to better protect animals, I decided to apply and got in. That’s how I met the Watchdog Poland’s people. I think that was in 2013 or 2014. 

In 2013.

Right. And in 2014, in autumn, the parliament began working on a bill to protect animals used for scientific or educational purposes. It was a new bill that was supposed to implement the provisions of a European directive. I was in contact with Borys Bura, who was working at Watchdog at the time. Borys is also a very pro-animal person, so he suggested that the Watchdog Poland should join in, because transparency issues were also raised in this bill.

We didn’t campaign together, but the Watchdog took part in the legislative process. Szymon [Osowski – R.M] and I were the most involved and we achieved a huge success – thanks to a campaign conducted with other pro-animal organisations, we managed to achieve almost all of our social demands.

Can you give me an example?

One of the most important changes was that in the following years, social organisations could join animal experimentation consent proceedings.

And why is it important that organisations can join such proceedings?

First, the use of animals for experimental purposes is a very delicate and difficult matter. The animals are commonly subjected to a lot of stress and suffering. There are many experiments in which you cannot alleviate the suffering because administering pain medication would interfere with the results. 

In addition, many projects are still being submitted that, under the current law, cannot or should not be carried out. This is why public scrutiny of experiments is crucial – only in this way can we be sure that no research is carried out that has no sound scientific justification and that is not designed to minimise the suffering of the animals subjected to experimentation.

Until organisations gained the authority to join experiment consent proceedings, which was in 2015, there was only one party to these proceedings. It was the very scientific institution seeking approval. If an applicant received the Local Ethics Commission’s approval, which violated the law, there was no way to appeal that decision. However, if the Local Ethics Commission refused to grant an approval, the applicant could appeal to the National Ethics Commission. In this case, there was also no one to present additional arguments to the National Ethics Commission against authorising the experiment.

The reference in Article 40 of the Act on the protection of animals used for scientific or educational purposes to the Code of Administrative Procedure and the possibility of exercising the right given to social organisations by Article 31 of the Code of Administrative Procedure led to organisations joining such proceedings. The “Lex Nova” Foundation was the first organisation to forge this path for several years, probably because there was no one on other ethics commissions who knew how to use this legal path. 

Didn’t they even know it was possible?

No, they didn’t or they were afraid that it would lead to some kind of conflict. Anyway, it turned out, of course, that these were quite legitimate fears. I was a member of the Local Ethics Commission in Olsztyn from 2014, for two years. Then, in 2016, I was appointed to a new commission that was already operating under a new law. It included several people from the previous term. As I began to submit my requests to join the proceedings, a major conflict suddenly erupted within the commission. This built up over several years, and I was ostracised pretty hard. 

And has anything changed in your approach?

At the beginning of my work at the Local Ethics Commission, I was not fully aware what consequences any irregularities in an application had for the animals. This was largely because when I started participating in the ethics commission, I had a lot of trust in scientists. It seemed obvious to me that they are the experts on the subject and if someone reviews the application, gives a positive opinion and recommends approval, then everything is fine.

It wasn’t until I was working on this act in 2014 that I met people who made me aware of the disastrous effects on animal welfare that various errors in applications and poorly designed experiments can have. 

That’s when I started pointing out procedural errors to my commission.

What irregularities in the proceedings might be revealed if an organisation is involved?

As an example, I will mention one such proceeding that began in 2018 and involved research on wild animals to be trapped in the strict reserve of the Białowieża National Park. The animals were later to be tested on in a laboratory. We were allowed to join the proceeding, but the ethics commission made many mistakes when it processed the application. The deputy director of the applying institution, who was also a member of the ethics commission, participated in the first vote on the application, in the proceeding of this application, and in the preparation of the explanatory statement for the resolution. One of several formal objections in our appeal, in addition to many substantive ones, was that there was a conflict of interest.

The case, after the appeal to the National Commission, returned for local review. Again, a similar situation occurred – this time another commission member, employed by that applicant, participated in the discussion and in the vote. So, the second appeal, on top of all our substantive objections, once again included formal objections. This time, the National Ethics Commission refused to authorise the experiment. 

How did it end?

The applicant submitted another revised application in 2020 and this time they finally implemented the suggestions made both by the National Ethics Commission and by us. It turned out that it was possible to plan this experiment in a less invasive way, capture animals outside of the strictly protected area, and achieve the stated goals of the experiment. But the case, due to continuous errors and the stubbornness of the applicant, dragged on for almost three years.

As if it wasn’t possible to do that from the beginning…

I have often heard an allegation, which also appears in the justification of the amendment to the Act, that it is the participation of organisations that prolongs these proceedings, but this is not true. If things are handled properly, meaning if the organisation is admitted right away and is given a deadline to review the file and present its position, then the process is quick. Two months and the proceedings are often finished, because not all proceedings end with appeals to the National Ethics Commission. In some proceedings it looks like this: the organisation presents its position, the applicant amends their application and we state that we have no further objections and do not appeal the decision of the local commission. Sometimes the applicant decides to withdraw their application after presenting their position, and the proceedings are discontinued.

However, in all cases where the consent procedure dragged on, it was clearly the fault of the ethics commission, which proceeded in an undue manner and made mistakes in issuing the decisions. 

Since 2020, when the composition of my commission changed, we have not been admitted to any proceedings in Olsztyn. Suddenly, the National Commission, which had always accepted our complaints about inadmissibility, made a u-turn and started refusing us. We filed complaints against these decisions with the voivodeship administrative court in Warsaw and last week the Court issued rulings in two such cases, declaring the National Ethics Commission resolutions invalid in their entirety. The voivodeship administrative court affirmed our position that the National Ethics Commission grossly violated the law in issuing its resolutions. The Chair of the commission is not authorised to be the only signatory of resolutions passed by the entire commission. This is probably how all resolutions issued by the National Ethics Commission were signed and if so, it means they are all invalid. In this situation, the judgements of the voivodeship administrative court made in our cases may provide an impetus for the parties to other proceedings to apply for a declaration of their invalidity. These judgements of the voivodeship administrative court also very clearly show that such a serious institution as the National Ethics Commission acts in an unlawful manner. In this context, the transparency of ethics commissions becomes even more important.

The first case in the current term to which the National Commission decided to admit us has only now started. I presented the foundation’s position two weeks ago, which is a year after the applicant submitted the application for approval of an experiment and after we submitted the request for admission! All because the Local Ethics Commission sent us repeated requests over several months that we demonstrate a special public interest and provide substantive justification for accessing the proceedings, even though each and every member of this commission knows very well that we cannot comment on the content of the application until we are admitted as a party to the proceedings. Until then, we as an organisation do not have access to the case file, therefore we cannot comment on it.

Unfortunately, the voivodeship administrative court will not address the above issue in the aforementioned cases as it did not consider all of our procedural allegations. The National Ethics Commission will only now begin to sign the resolutions in a legal manner, so if they continue to deny us admissions, we will be waiting another year for our subsequent complaints to be heard by the court. Only then will the court decide whether we have sufficiently demonstrated that admitting us to the proceedings is in the public interest. Such prolonged proceedings are a terrible waste of time and the taxpayer’s money.

And are there situations where you simply have no objection to the proposed experiment?

Yes, of course there are. In most cases, I make my comments as a commission member, as other members do, and the application is amended and accepted. In the 2016–2020 term, a total of about 3,000 applications for approval of experiments were filed nationwide, and organisations only joined 15 proceedings out of these 3,000, which was about 0.3% of the processed cases. 

Granted, all the cases were won by us then, but that’s a tiny fraction, isn’t it? 

Just a fraction. So, you can’t be accused of being ill-disposed from the start.

No, we can’t. When we do not submit an application to participate in the proceedings on behalf of our organisations, we function in the commission normally, as its members, we participate in the discussion, we vote, and so it is a matter of our individual assessment. Is the experiment well planned? Does it have sufficient scientific justification? 

In 2020, we actually started to observe an increase in applications to join, because when the call for commission members came out, we announced it on our sites and let other expert organisations know. As a result, more people who are genuinely interested in animal protection are on ethics commissions and more expert organisations are represented there. We also held a training for new commission members where we discussed the possibility of joining proceedings, among other things. Thanks to that, there are people on several commissions who have started filing requests to participate on behalf of various organisations. Things are looking up. 

What do you think will happen next with the Act?

Working with Senator Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, we were able to convince the Senate to pass 11 of the 14 proposed social amendments. One of these amendments restores transparency in the work of ethics commissions, a very important step in the right direction. We are still left with the most difficult task, i.e., convincing the Sejm that these changes are necessary.

The Ministry is trying to argue that experiment applications must be secret because they contain company secrets and that there is an exemption to transparency in other acts in this regard as well. However, this is a completely different situation, because the Ministry of Education and Science cites the Higher Education Act as an example, and its provisions concern making grant applications secret. Grant proposals typically contain a description of the specifics of a particular study, so they are entirely comprised of information that must be protected due to intellectual property protection, company secrets, etc. However, in applications for animal experiments, there things like the conditions under which the animals are kept, the methods of anaesthesia, the methods of pain management or killing, which absolutely do not constitute and should not constitute any kind of secret, because they deal with research that is either publicly funded to a great extent or conducted by publicly funded scientific entities. The public should have access to such information. 

Are you familiar with that case from Wrocław and the G2 pig? These pigs were kept in outrageous conditions. The applicant certainly did not write in the application for approval of the experiment that they would keep animals subjected to mutilating treatments on bare concrete and starve them, in which case they would not have gotten the Local Ethics Commission’s approval. Everything they did there must have been inconsistent with the description that had been included in the application. 

And now, if the applications were available and the commission was able to use the Access to Public Information Act appropriately and decide which portions to release, we could obtain information about what that source application looked like, the description of the living conditions for the animals, and the anaesthetic or pain medication that was planned to be used. However, we will not know any of this if the conclusions are kept secret. And we will never know to what extent the law was violated there.

Let’s change the subject, since we’re coming to the end. The Citizens Network Watchdog Poland had its 18th birthday a little over a month ago. What would you wish the organisation for its birthday and yourself as its member?

I don’t know, the thought occurred to me, as we are now in the final stages of the proceedings of this Act, again cooperating with Senator Krzysztof Kwiatkowski in the Senate…

…who has also submitted our proposed amendments to the anti-corruption act that introduced a central register of contracts.

Yes, he has, and when I saw him recently and worked on the amendments, I wished all politicians were as pro-transparency and pro-citizen as the Senator. (laughs)

Oh, is there going to be a congratulatory card?

But this is so valuable! As I observe the work of the parliament and come into contact with various politicians, I notice very different levels of activity, commitment and professionalism among them. I was impressed with the work of Senator Kwiatkowski, who had been keeping an eye on our Act the whole time, and with whom I am in touch all the time. It’s hard to wish for something completely unrelated to politics when we are concerned with something so dependent on it. Politicians make the laws on which the functioning of the state we collectively create and live in is based.

In the previous interview for our website, in 2019, you said: “It may seem funny, although it very much is not, but until 2013 I had no idea that the right to information is a human right, guaranteed by the Polish Constitution! Talking to my friends, to the people in my town, even to the staff of the institutions themselves, I see that a lot of people are not aware of this, and therefore do not know how to exercise this right.” Do you think anything has changed? Is there greater awareness that we all have a right to information?

I think this is a rather complicated issue: talking to people about the Constitution, about human rights… It seems to me that people simply live their daily lives with completely different problems, and such topics are for them quite abstract. For many people, it is only when they themselves come up against a wall somewhere and have to use this tool in their own case that they realise its value. This was my case – it wasn’t until I was able to request municipal resolutions regarding animal homelessness that I saw what a great tool access is.

Unless someone is in a situation where they themselves use it and appreciate its importance because it helps to solve a problem, it’s very hard to show how valuable this right is.

A cool thing about Watchdog is that it’s demonstrating this importance in big media cases. Then it’s not just your personal issue, it’s an issue that plays out in the media and it appals you as well. And it turns out that with access to public information you can identify various irregularities, go to court, and hold someone responsible.

Things are definitely slowly happening in this matter, people are educating themselves, but we still have a very long way to go.

We educate ourselves best when we suddenly need the right to information…

Exactly! The same is true for politicians, who are also discovering the right to information.

I think there are still many years of neglect when it comes to civic education. Poland has a completely different history than various western countries – for many years, we did not have this democracy, so there is a lot of work to be done to teach people what it is, how important the rights guaranteed by the Constitution are, and how citizens can and even should use them.

This is just what we can wish for as part of Watchdog’s 18th birthday! To make it happen.

That’s right!

Thank you for this conversation!

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