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Air Canada bans research primates from its flights

Airline makes the move following a ruling upholding its right to refuse to transport the animals.


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.”

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  1. Claudio / January 16, 2013 at 12:48

    Air Canada decided not to transport research animals because it can have a negative impact on its reputation.

    Well, I reciprocally propose that researchers will not use Air Canada for any air transportation, because it can also have a negative impact on our reputation. At least I don’t want my name in their passenger list; they care about their reputation without considering the negative impacts of their decisions on scientific research.

    The world is upside down: image is more important than health research. Let’s boycott Air Canada.

  2. Jackalina / January 25, 2013 at 09:43

    This is utterly ridiculous and completely based in ignorance. While I’m struggling to develop therapies for Alzheimer’s disease, I need to validate efficacy in non-human primates before going into humans (rats are not humans) but I can’t do that because Air Canada thinks they’ll look bad! How about helping me cure a devastating human disease?! This shows a complete lack of integrity.

  3. Rob / May 18, 2013 at 15:29

    I completely support the comment by Claudio that researchers and universities as a whole should boycott Air Canada. Air Canada’s reprehensible move to ban the transport of research animals will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the advancement of human medicine, and certainly make that research more expensive. Even more important is the fact that Air Canada chose to align itself with animal “rights” fanatics and against the overwhelming viewpoint of the scientific community. Air Canada needs to be held accountable and to boycott this the most visible means to do that.

  4. Davis Mirza / August 22, 2013 at 14:44

    I, and 47,000 other animal rights “fanatics” support Air Canada’s decision to stop shipping primates to university labs. One cannot ethically balance research on primates when credible alternatives exist such as computer simulations, high-quality videos, ethically sourced cadavers, preserved specimens, models and surgical simulators, non-invasive demonstration experiments conducted on students, and supervised clinical experiences. Currently, ninety-five percent of medical schools across the United States have completely replaced the use of animal laboratories in medical training with sophisticated human-patient simulators, virtual-reality systems, computer simulators, and supervised clinical experience.

    In April 2013, Harvard Medical School (HMS) decided to close its Primate Research Centre.

    The assignment of different rights, values or special consideration to human beings over animals solely on the basis of their species membership is defined as speciesism. For example, behind every “experimental model” is an absence: by labelling a monkey as a “model” or “unit”, it conveniently displaces the suffering of that animal from our conscious minds, making them appear invisible. This in turn allows for the moral abandonment of a sentient being which, in turn, empties violence from the language of medical science. The moral abandonment of being fits into the bigger picture of discrimination against animal species which denies them empathy, compassion, value and rights. By not addressing this moral dilemma surrounding primate research at Canadian universities, one wonders whether students and school officials hold firm to an implicitly (or explicitly) speciesist bias that defers debate intentionally so as not to advance a case for animal rights within the scientific community.

    Is animal experimentation immoral, especially when proven alternatives are being adopted by more and more universities across North America? What incentive is there for Queens University to commit to Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) 3 R’s guidelines ( that require universities to use fewer animals in research (Reduction); that call for increased procedures to minimize pain (Refinement), and that insist researchers avoid or replace the use of animals in university laboratories (Reduction)?

    US biologist Marc Bekoff notes that if animals share with humans the capacity for empathy, they have in place the cornerstone of what in human society we know as morality which allows us to be compassionate to avoid causing pain or suffering and to act with an intention to improve the welfare of those around us. I believe Air Canada is confirming this moral science with its actions, recognizing that animal suffering is not good for business. In his book, “The Costs and Benefits of Animal Experiments”, UK ethicist Andre Knight (2011) argues that there is insufficient empirical basis for the belief that the benefits of invasive research on nonhuman animals outweigh the costs. When considering costs and benefits overall, Knight concludes that the human benefits do not exceed the costs incurred by animals and that, in fact, evidence indicates that actual human benefit is rarely – if ever – sufficient to justify such costs. ( I would urge Canadian researchers to read Knight’s findings as it has changed the way I do graduate research at the University of Toronto for the better.

  5. Cardia / January 7, 2014 at 01:51

    While it is a great victory that Air Canada banned the shipping of primates for experimentation, China Southern Airlines (along with others) are yet to do so.

    Believe it or not, there are ways other than animal experimentation, which can still achieve scientific progression. See the following link if you are interested in learning a little more about alternatives to animals in research.

    If China Southern Airlines have been the largest airline in the Peoples Republic of China for over 30 years so there’s no doubt that they would set a standard, and open up a whole realm of possibilities for other companies if they took a stand and changed their ways. These animals don’t deserve to be shipped across the globe to undergo harsh and painful experiments. Sign this petition to help send a message to end shipping of primates.

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