German court halts hamster space experiments

Winter white dwarf hamster Image copyright EverettTheUrban/Wikimedia Commons
Image caption Dwarf hamsters can slow down their metabolism in the cold

A major German university must halt experiments on hamsters due to be conducted as part of a European space project over welfare concerns.

A district court in Giessen in the state of Hesse said Marburg University must address "unanswered questions about the ethics of the animal tests" it was planning to run on 36 dwarf hamsters, the Hessischer Rundfunk public broadcaster reports.

The tests, part of a larger European Space Agency project, were to investigate what causes the "sleep-like state" of torpor in winter white dwarf hamsters - a "naturally occurring energy-saving mode that allows the animals to survive cold spells and lack of food," German radio elaborates.

The aim was to investigate whether the phenomenon could also be used in space travel.But, once the tests were over, all the hamsters would have been killed.

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The eminent university, one of Germany's oldest, filed an urgent appeal with the court after Giessen Council had refused it permission to conduct the experiments. The council said the scientists "had not provided enough evidence that the animal tests were indispensable and ethically justifiable within an adequate time frame".

The court upheld the council's decision, saying the "possible loss of European Space Agency funding and alleged importance of the research" were not a sufficient argument.

"The balance between scientific freedom and animal welfare did not favour the university," says the local Giessener Allgemeine newspaper, taking a key line from the court ruling.

But the university still has two weeks to appeal to a higher court in Kassel, the main city of Hesse.

Reporting by Martin Morgan

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