Animal welfare is pushing scientific research to the sidelines at Health Canada, writes Lindsay George
There is something going on over at the Health Protection Branch of Health Canada that Canadians have been ignoring ever since word got out that 115 macaque monkeys at the primate colony were slated to be killed.
That something is research.
The long-tailed monkeys are part of research into the effect of toxins and AIDS developmental vaccines at Health Canada. Until researchers are able to perform autopsies on the animals, the research done to date is virtually useless.
In September, Health Minister Allan Rock imposed a moratorium on the use of research animals at the Health Canada labs.
It is in effect until an expert panel, appointed by the Royal Society of Canada on behalf of Health Canada, makes recommendations on the future of the colony at the Health Protection Branch. Their report is expected at the end of November.
Jacqui Barnes, director of the Animal Alliance of Canada in Toronto, says the alliance would rather animals be put to death than be used for research. It seems many Canadians agree.
After The Ottawa Citizen ran a series of articles on the Health Canada monkeys, outraged letter-writers bombarded the Letters pages. Most agreed the monkeys should be killed and that the health minister’s moratorium was prolonging a torturous existence. Many said they would never treat domestic pets the way the monkeys are being treated.
The monkeys, however, are research animals, not domestic pets.
There is a double standard when it comes to animals, says Barnes. She says we tend to look at different animals in different ways.
For example, we can put “Rover” the dog or “Fluffy” the cat to sleep when they get old or sick because they are household pets. But we can’t touch those animals on which we do research because they could still help us find a cure for AIDS.
Dr. Pierre Thibert, chief of animal research at the Health Protection Branch, says putting the 115 monkeys to death is necessary not because the monkeys are suffering, but because they are vital to the research.
As sad as it is to think there is a colony of cute little monkeys sitting around waiting to become research subjects, it is a fact of life in a world faced with the threat of Ebola and AIDS.
These monkeys were bred in captivity for the sole purpose of research. Some end up breeding, but most are used for testing and then are killed.
It may not be right, it may not even be very nice, but it is necessary.
At the Health Protection Branch’s primate colony, researchers have only had to kill nine monkeys in the last year because of illness or suffering. That’s nine monkeys out of more than 800 which made up the colony last year, says Thibert.
That number goes up to 22 if you include the 13 monkeys killed for research purposes.
This year the number of monkeys in the colony has been reduced to 750. In theory, the reduction in the population will also reduce the number of deaths resulting from illness and experimentation.
Lab animals are part of a disposable industry, says Lynn Gordon, manager of shelter operations at the Humane Society of Ottawa-Carleton. She estimates 70 million lab animals are put to death every year in North America.
As politically incorrect as it may seem, there are few alternatives to animal testing when it comes to toxins and vaccines.
Monkeys are prime specimens as research animals because they share such a close genetic make-up to the humans they are being used to help.
Approximately 98 per cent of a monkey’s DNA is a close match to human DNA, says Thibert.
Monkeys and humans also have similar brain patterns, similar menstrual cycles, the same type of placenta and the same life spans. These are all important factors if an animal is going to be a good model for human research.
They don’t hold true in rodents, which have shorter life spans and different genetic make-up.
Thibert says 140 monkeys from the primate colony are used for testing of heavy metals (such as lead and mercury), AIDS developmental vaccines and pesticides.
Letter-writers and activists can complain all they want about the testing at the Health Protection Branch, but no one has stepped up and suggested a viable alternative.
No one has volunteered to have lead injected into their unborn child to see how it will affect the baby’s intellectual growth. No one has stood up and said, “Here, use me to test that experimental vaccine.”
There can be no alternative to animal research until society can say that the best guinea pigs for experimental vaccines are not guinea pigs at all, but humans who suffer from the disease themselves.
If the Royal Society panel decides to dismantle the monkey colony at Health Canada, it will not mean an end to animal research in Canada. It will mean Canadian researchers will have to import monkeys from four major U.S. suppliers. That takes time and money.
It costs $900,000 to maintain the breeding colony each year. Since the colony opened in 1983, Health Canada has spent over $11 million on maintaining it.
Dr. Thibert at the Health Protection Branch says retiring the monkeys (building a habitat where they can live out the rest of their lives) or selling them to other research facilities will end up costing more than maintaining the colony, especially if Health Canada has to buy back monkeys to do research at a later date.
Save the weeping over lost animal life for the millions of domestic pets who are killed every year in animal shelters for no good reason other than that there are too many of them and let the researchers and scientists get on with their work.