The albino rabbit has become the enduring global emblem of efforts to end cosmetics testing on animals. We look out for the Leaping Bunny when shopping for cruelty-free products; and for decades the image of row upon row of rabbits restrained in stocks as chemicals are dripped in their eyes has symbolized a growing global revulsion at the beauty industry’s ugly secret.

Rabbits, alongside mice, guinea pigs and rats, have borne the brunt of cosmetics testing over the decades, commonly used in painful eye and skin irritancy and corrosion tests. Developed in the 1940s, these crude tests are notoriously unreliable and cruel, causing eye reddening, swelling, ulceration, even blindness, or skin cracking and bleeding.

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When I was a little girl, we had a dwarf rabbit called Daphne. She was timid and gentle, and her favorite thing was to sit on my lap and have the bridge of her nose rubbed. She’d close her eyes and sit still for what felt like an age, just to enjoy the simple pleasure of a little nose itch. Daphne felt special to us because we took the time to know her, understand her personality and respect her as a sentient creature. She was an individual, not a number.

While the thousands of rabbits enduring cosmetics suffering in laboratories around the world are no different than Daphne, unfortunately their lives are very different.

Life in the Lab

Like so many animals suffering in laboratories, rabbits used in cosmetics tests are denied the freedom to express natural behaviors essential for their well-being. In the wild, rabbits live in burrows in large colonies that foster a sense of group safety and security. But in the lab, they are often housed in isolation and restrained for testing so that they cannot interact with or even touch their fellow rabbits.

Their cages are typically barren and small, with little for these inquisitive creatures to investigate. In its natural environment, a rabbit’s territory can typically cover an area the size of three tennis courts! But rabbits used for testing don’t get to run or leap about, spending much of their time confined in their small cage.

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These highly sensitive creatures also have to cope with a cacophony of noise and light in the lab, their senses overloaded day after day with constant artificial lighting from which there is no escape, and the incessant noise of laboratory life — metal cages clanging, radios blaring, technicians talking. It’s a world away from the predominantly dark, quiet, nocturnal existence they’re suited to, and it’s well recognised that the combination of noise, light and constant human handling can itself induce stress and anxiety in animals that not only are detrimental to their welfare, but can also affect test results.

Testing

The Draize eye and skin tests that have become synonymous with cosmetics testing are notoriously unreliable ways to assess the safety of a chemical for humans. In fact very little science exists behind the choice of rabbits as test subjects. They were originally chosen mainly for practical reasons: they are small and gentle which makes them easy to handle; they are relatively cheap to maintain if only basic standards are adhered to; they breed fast, creating new test subjects quickly; and they have large eyes with no tear ducts which means the eye is exposed to the chemical for longer because it can’t be cried out.

In addition to the long list of significant differences between rabbit and human eyes that make test results highly questionable (e.g. the surface layer of a rabbit’s eye is ten times more permeable than our own; the next layer underneath that is six times thicker in humans; rabbits have a third eye lid), assessment of the eye damage is also entirely subjective. Lab technicians are required to observe physical eye damage and score it on a sheet according to how severe or otherwise it appears to them. But it’s well known that this leaves enormous scope for variability, as technicians in different labs and different countries don’t all think alike.

Alternatives

The good news is that modern science is providing humane solutions to overcome the cruelty and scientific uncertainty of animal testing. Human skin equivalent tests such as EpiDerm™ and EpiSkin™ have already been scientifically validated and accepted to completely replace animal tests for skin corrosion and irritation, and SkinEthic has also been approved to replace animals for skin irritation.

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The traditional replacement for live animal eye irritancy tests have been the BCOP (Bovine Corneal Opacity and Permeability) and the ICE (Isolated Chicken Eye) tests, validated as long ago as 2007. Although a dramatic improvement — they replace subjecting live animals to painful testing — they do rely on by-products from the slaughterhouse.

However, the next generation of non-animal tests is beginning to overcome this. For example, the cell-based Fluorescein Leakage Test can be used as part of a step-wise strategy, the Reconstituted Human Cornea-like Epithelium (RhCE) test method is under consideration, and most recently, scientists in Japan developed a new in vitro eye irritation method using human cornea cells, which shows promise as an additional replacement option of the future.

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#BeCrueltyFree

Cosmetics companies can end all animal testing immediately of course, regardless of the availability of alternative tests. All they need to do is avoid using new ingredients that require new test data, and stick to the thousands of existing cosmetic ingredients that have long histories of safe use. More than 500 cosmetics companies worldwide manufacture their products the cruelty-free way, so harming animals for the sake of a new lipstick or anti-wrinkle cream is no excuse.

Sadly, we estimate hundreds of thousands of rabbits and other animals continue to suffer cosmetics cruelty because such testing remains legal in around 80 percent of countries worldwide. That’s starting to change. Thanks largely to HSI’s #BeCrueltyFree campaign, testing cosmetics on animals has been banned across the European Union as well as Norway, Israel and India.

We also have test ban bills proposed in Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Taiwan and the United States. Earlier this year in China, we welcomed the country’s first ever reduction in animal test requirements, and we’ve worked with government agencies to train Chinese scientists in some of the latest non-animal test methods. #BeCrueltyFree campaigns are also forging ahead in Canada, Japan, Korea and Russia, and in India we’re hoping soon to welcome a ban on the sale of animal-tested cosmetics to go hand in hand with the test ban victory we secured last year.

Bunnies Need YOU!

So, as we approach International Rabbit Day on September 27th, Humane Society International wants to shine a spotlight on the plight of rabbits (and other small furries) suffering for the beauty industry, and you can help.

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Please contribute a photograph of your beloved rabbit companion — or a selfie in bunny ears — to remind the world that rabbits are for cuddling, not cosmetics testing! Here’s how you can get involved:

  • Take part on Twitter by tweeting your bunny photo with this message:

“I WANT BUNNIES TO #BECRUELTYFREE WITH @HSIGlobal  – let’s end cosmetics cruelty!

“RABBITS SUFFER in cosmetics tests. I WANT BUNNIES TO #‎BECRUELTYFREE‬‬‬‬! Take the pledge: http://bit.ly/1tl7bPY and help end cosmetics cruelty.”

Follow #BeCrueltyFree on Facebook here to get all the latest news, updates and actions.

Image source: Humane Society International