As animal rights organizations celebrate a victory, Canadian biomedical researchers are disappointed and thinking in terms of Plan B. This is after the Canadian Transportation Agency dismissed objections by Queen’s University and the Public Health Agency of Canada to Air Canada’s decision to stop transporting non-human research primates.
“There’s lots of disappointment with this ruling,” said Andrew Winterborn, university veterinarian at Queen’s and its director of animal care. “It will make it harder to source non-human primates. Our concern is that the decision is a stepping stone” to further restrictions, he said, pointing to a recent policy by ferry companies in the U.K. to ban all research animals.
The Public Health Agency of Canada also said it is disappointed by the ruling but will try to minimize the effect by implementing “contingency” plans. However, the agency would not give details, citing security concerns.
Air Canada was one of the few remaining major airlines that carried primates destined for research. But the airline had become the target of animal rights organizations in their campaigns against the use of research animals. Even though Air Canada has never been in breach of international regulations governing the shipping of animals, it stopped shipping primates this past December. The CTA, in its ruling, said it accepted Air Canada’s argument that continuing to transport non-human primates for research purposes could have “a perceived negative impact … on its reputation and passenger sales.” Air Canada said it was pleased with the decision.
“This landmark ruling confirms the right of Air Canada to refuse shipment of primates to laboratories, which is an important stimulus for … the replacement or reduction of animal use,” said Gabriel Wildgen, campaigner for Humane Society International/Canada in a statement immediately after the CTA decision.
Most of the primates that Air Canada delivered to research facilities across the country were long-tailed macaques from China. The airline served notice in November 2011 that it wanted to ban such shipments in January 2012. Queen’s University and the Public Health Agency of Canada filed a complaint against Air Canada’s proposed change of tariff with the CTA, thus delaying its implementation while the regulatory body investigated. The decision to uphold Air Canada’s plans was released nearly a year later on Dec. 20, 2012. Air Canada put the transport ban in place three days later.
The airline will continue to carry animals, including primates, but not those primates used for research. Queen’s University had argued this policy was discriminatory, arbitrary and unreasonable. Air Canada, which carries more than 32-million passengers a year, said it had received correspondence from 47,000 people objecting to the transport of non-human primates and threatening to boycott Air Canada.
The Canadian Transportation Agency stated: “After assessing relevant facts and circumstances, and weighing the various factors and evidence presented by the parties involved in the case, the Agency found that Air Canada’s decision to stop transporting non-human primates for research constitutes a rational business decision and does not differentiate between shippers on a specific characteristic or otherwise.”
The ruling surprised many researchers, including Martin Paré, whose neuroscience research at Queen’s concentrates on schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s conditions. Speaking for himself as a scientist, he said this move could hinder important biomedical research, increase the cost of research and have a negative impact on animal welfare since alternative travel could be more taxing on the animals. He says the year’s warning gave researchers across the country an opportunity to discuss various scenarios, including establishing a breeding centre in Canada, jointly chartering planes to transport the animals, or possibly having pro-science groups run campaigns to increase public awareness to counter the claims of animal-welfare groups. “There might even be a petition for those who support biomedical research,” he said, pointing out that Canadian animal research facilities are state-of-the-art and that the country is at the forefront globally in animal care.
Dr. Paré and other researchers say they use alternative testing methods whenever possible, but at times they must use primates, especially in medical research. They endorse and follow the Canadian Council on Animal Care’s ethical policy for alternatives called the Three Rs, which means replacing a sentient animal with inanimate material or a non-sentient being, reducing the numbers of animals used, and refining an experiment to make it more humane. According to the council, Canadian researchers used 4,629 non-human primates in research in 2010.
Canadian researchers had hoped Air Canada would follow the policies of Air France, which has refused to bow to petitions, saying research animal cargo is legal. Air France ensures all the research institutions receiving its animal cargo comply with international animal care regulations. Air France also says on its website that the European Union’s directive on animal research states that “the use of live animals remains necessary to protect human and animal health and the environment.” In particular, “the use of non-human primates in scientific procedures is necessary for biomedical research.”
The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection said it will continue to monitor Canada and North America in its campaign to stop the transport of research monkeys. “There are now only a small number of airlines that continue to be involved in this business, including Air France, Vietnam Airlines, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines. We shall be focusing our attention on these. We know that China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines both have flight routes to Canada.”