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Ceremonial opening of a new institute for interdisciplinary research on human-animal interactions

03-29-2012 - Today, 29 March 2012, saw the official opening of the Messerli Research Institute, a joint venture between the Vetmeduni Vienna, the University of Vienna and the Medical University of Vienna.  The opening ceremony was attended by a number of prominent guests, including politicians and scientists.

The new Messerli Research Institute on Human-Animal Interactions was officially opened today (29 March 2012) at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna).  The Institute will be dedicated to investigating human-animal interactions, taking into account the underlying sciences of ethics, comparative medicine and animal cognition and behaviour.  The work will be characterized by a broad interdisciplinary approach involving the fields of biology, human medicine, veterinary medicine, philosophy, psychology and law.  It will also have an international focus.  As an example, the Master course conceived by the Messerli Research Institute entitled “Interdisciplinary Master in Human-Animal Interactions” will start in the academic year of 2012/2013 and will be taught in English.

The Austrian Minister for Science and Research, Karlheinz Töchterle, stressed the importance of the new institute.  “The work at the Messerli Research Institute is extremely relevant to our society.  Although many of us do not recognise it, animals are highly important to society and we bear a high degree of responsibility for how they are treated.  The Messerli Research Institute is based on a successful collaboration between several universities and its work will be highly disciplinary, thereby forging new links between the humanities and the natural sciences.”  The Minister expressed his sincere thanks to Herta Messerli, saying that “your Foundation is making a significant contribution to furthering research on human-animal interactions and will offer a high-quality education to many students in the future.”

In her speech, Sonja Hammerschmid, the Rector of the Vetmeduni Vienna, underlined the increasing importance of interactions between humans and animals for the way animals are treated in our society.  “Research on the requirements of farm animals, laboratory animals and pets will ensure that animals enjoy a better quality of life and will also improve regulations governing animal welfare.  Effective animal welfare legislation must be based on scientific knowledge.  Establishing the new institute on the campus of the Vetmeduni Vienna ensures that it will be well integrated with work on veterinary medicine.”

“The Vetmeduni Vienna and the University of Vienna laid the foundations for interuniversity collaboration in 2010 when they began to work together at the Haidlhof Research Station,” noted Heinz W Engl, the Rector of the University of Vienna.  As a result, the University of Vienna has been able to expand one of its fields of excellence – cognitive biology.  The Messerli Research Institute will apply scientific methods to the study of human-animal interactions and will represent an interesting complement to the existing institutions in Vienna.”

Wolfgang Schütz, the Rector of the Medical University of Vienna, underlined the new institute’s usefulness to all of the partners.  “The comparative research work at the Messerli Institute will enable the more rapid identification of disease mechanisms shared between humans and animals and this will help in the development of new therapies.  The exchange of knowledge between human and veterinary medicine will have highly positive effects on research, both at the Medical University of Vienna and at the Vetmeduni Vienna.”

Heinz Schweizer, President of the Messerli Foundation in Switzerland, commented that the Foundation had already supported or itself undertaken over 100 projects relating to the protection of animals and nature.  The Foundation had a wide experience of the issue, which had led it to the conclusion that an interdisciplinary approach was absolutely essential to ensuring lasting protection of animals and nature.  Ten universities from the German-speaking countries had been invited to create a research institute.  “The Vetmeduni Vienna was our first choice because it clearly had the best understanding of the Foundation’s vision and was prepared to make a significant contribution to the Institute’s creation.”

Ludwig Huber, the scientific head of the Messerli Research Institute, stressed that his institute would work on laying the foundations and establishing the criteria for the ethical treatment of animals, based on fundamental research on animal cognition and behaviour and on medical research for the benefit of both humans and animals.  “Research into the cognitive abilities and needs of animals and on comparative medicine will be particularly important for the three “R”s – Replace, Reduce and Refine, which govern the responsible use of animals for research.  These aspects will play an increasingly important part in the context of ethical research on animals.”

A tight schedule

The ceremonial opening also featured inaugural lectures by the heads of the three divisions of the Messerli Resarch Institution, Prof. Erika Jensen-Jarolim (comparative medicine), Prof. Ludwig Huber (cognitive biology) and Prof. Herwig Grimm (ethics).  These were followed by a platform discussion on the future of human-animal interactions in science and society.  The final act of the opening festivities comprised a lecture by the writer Barbara Frischmuth entitled “Animals for domestic use”.

The Messerli Research Institute was established by the Messerli Foundation under the aegis of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna and in collaboration with the Medical University of Vienna and the University of Vienna.  The Institute’s research should contribute to improving the way humans treat animals.  The Messerli Research Institute is thus facing the societal challenges of supporting humans in their responsibility for animals and of using its research to help educate society.