Eli Lilly's Swiss lab closure worries animal rights group

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Eli Lilly's plan to close a Swiss laboratory that conducts tests and experiments on live animals has caused concerns by a local animal welfare group over the fate of the facility's hundreds of dogs, cats and livestock.

The U.S.-based company said on Thursday it was working to secure new owners for many of the animals as its Elanco animal health company may shut the research center in the Swiss town of Saint-Aubin, about 25 kilometers (15.53 miles) southwest of the Swiss capital of Berne.

But Julika Fitzi, a veterinarian and lawyer who works with the group Swiss Animal Protection, worries many may be killed.

"We want to work closely with Elanco to find individual places for as many of the animals as possible," Fitzi said Thursday. "These animals have earned a future that includes more than being killed."

Fitzi said the laboratory houses about 350 dogs, 170 cats, 280 sheep, cattle and pigs and about 200 mice, figures that Eli Lilly didn't confirm, and she had been told by the company last month it did not need her group's help in finding them new homes.

The expected closure comes as Eli Lilly looks to concentrate some of its Swiss research activities in Basel following its acquisition of the animal health business of Novartis earlier this year for $5.8 billion.

Its Saint-Aubin research and development facility has been the site of bioanalytics and clinical pathology research, as well as research and in-vitro screening work in relation to animal parasites.

Elanco's spokeswoman Maria Zampaglione said on Thursday the company will make a final decision on the Saint-Aubin research site later this month.

She said that if it is closed the company's primary plan for so-called "companion animals" such as cats and dogs would be "transfer of ownership to other facilities and employee pet owners."

"We have already identified the appropriate relocation options for all livestock, companion animals and fish on the site," Zampaglione told Reuters in an email.

What to do with animals used in research and testing which are no longer needed due to age or the ending of a research program, is an issue for many companies.

European rival Bayer's animal health unit in Germany says on its website that it placed 3,000 animals including cats and dogs with adoptive owners after they were no longer needed for research.

However, animal testing itself by companies and research bodies such as universities remains a sensitive and controversial issue.

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In 2009 Novartis's then Chief Executive Daniel Vasella had the front and rear of his Austrian holiday home doused with fuel and set alight and a family grave desecrated by activists who Vasella called "terrorists". Windows of Novartis employees' cars were also smashed.

According to Switzerland's federal veterinary office, the number of animals used in experiments in the country has fallen to around 600,000, from 2 million in the 1980s.

Swiss law requires humane treatment of laboratory animals, but isn't specific about what should happen to animals no longer wanted.

"There are no requirements for what is done with the animals after tests, except that they cannot be used two times in a very stressful trial," said veterinary office spokeswoman Nathalie Rochat.