Scientific research on primates: what do we owe animals like us?

Non-human primates, like these macaques, are the animals with the closest resemblance to humans. Moyan Brenn

The documentary Maximum Tolerated Dose (showing in Melbourne tonight and Sydney on February 12) offers a “look inside modern animal experimentation with the animals who lived through it and the people who walked away.”

Like the scientists and technicians featured in the film, Australian researchers subject animals to surgery and other procedures, which often result in pain and death. Of particular concern are experiments performed on non-human primates, such as infecting macaques with HIV, passing electric shocks through marmoset brains, inducing high-blood pressure in pregnant baboons, overdosing baby marmosets with opiates and deliberately making baboons diabetic and wounding them.

No matter what the benefits, many critics of animal research (including ourselves), see experimentation like this as abhorrent and unethical. If these acts were committed against people, they would amount to torture. Indeed, it is arguably morally indefensible to cause such harm to animals particularly to the animals that are most like us.

Out of step

Non-human primates have a close resemblance to humans - they belong to the same biological order as ourselves. These animals have larger brains than other mammals, the capacity to feel and express complex emotions, and some can communicate in a symbolic language.

While it’s not simply similarity to humans but a shared capacity to suffer that should guide our concern for an animal’s welfare, non-human primates are granted somewhat special consideration in the laboratory environment compared to other animals.

Some countries have banned the use of an important group of primates, the great apes - gorilla, orang-utan, chimpanzee and bonobo - in research altogether. New Zealand granted apes the right to not be used in research, testing or teaching over ten years ago, but their use is still allowed in Australia.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which funds research on non-human primates, has a Policy on the care and use of non-human primates for scientific purposes. Although it appears to offer primates better protection than other animals, much of the wording of the policy is very loose; terms such as “where possible”, “the most appropriate”, and “should consult” leave considerable room for interpretation.

Breeding colonies and importation

Australia has three government-funded primate breeding facilities at two sites: the National Marmoset and Macaque Facilities at Churchill (Victoria) and the National Baboon Facility in Sydney. Animals are also imported from Indonesia. Humane Research Australia estimates that between 2000 and 2009, at least 648 non-human primates were imported for research purposes.

Importing non-human primates is problematic for a number of reasons. The pigtail macaques imported from Indonesia, for instance, are threatened by the destruction of their habitat (commercial timber harvesting, conversion of land to agriculture), and pollution.

While the NHMRC prohibits importation of primates taken from the wild for research purposes, it doesn’t forbid taking animals from the wild to replenish breeding stocks.

Like all research involving animals, there’s secrecy and a lack of transparency around primate research. The exact location of the Australian breeding facilities is not publicly available information, and we don’t know what research is undertaken, how it is justified, at which research institutes, the conditions animals are subjected to, or what happens to them once the research project is complete.

The NHMRC policy states that the breeding colonies generally won’t accept animals that have been used for scientific purposes, noting “In most cases, euthanasia will be the only option.”

Ending primate research

Ideally, we’d like research involving non-human primates to stop, with the exception of observational research in the animals’ natural habitat. This would mean closing down breeding colonies and ceasing live imports. But short of that, we can take a number of interim measures to better protect these animals from exploitation. They include:

  • having baboons, macaques and marmosets included in the direct benefit clause of the NHMRC policy that currently applies only to the great apes,

  • an unconditional ban on the use of great apes in research,

  • banning the importation of primates for research purposes,

  • funding retirement sanctuaries that allow former research participants to enjoy a good quality of life (if they are not so traumatised or ill that euthanasia is the most humane option),

  • creating a national data base for animal research, so research is not duplicated,

  • implementing a strengthened NHMRC policy that adequately considers “the views of people in the community who oppose the use of non-human primates for scientific purposes”, which is what it is supposed to do, and specific requirements that put the onus of proof for the lack of suitable alternatives firmly on research applicants, accompanied by tight monitoring, and

  • guaranteeing greater transparency and a requirement that information (in plain English) on the number and species of animals used, the aims of the research, the procedures employed, justification why alternatives could not be used, and the fate of the animals after completion of the research is publicly available. If the University of British Columbia can release statistics of animals involved in research, other universities can do so as well.

The primates used by medical research are sensitive and intelligent beings. We owe them a decent life, not confinement, suffering and untimely death in the lab.