In late April, a US judge granted lawyers acting for two chimpanzees used in research at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Hercules and Leo, a hearing about their unlawful imprisonment. The case will test legal personhood for the animals. But in Australia, non-human primates may be about to see their circumstances change for the worse because of an impending research ethics policy change.
Public consultation on the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) draft Principles and guidelines for the care and use of non-human primates for scientific purposes will close tomorrow (Friday May 8). The document, which is an update of a 2003 policy and complements the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes, will remove some existing safeguards for ethical use of these animals in research.
In Australia, regulatory responsibility for animal welfare, including the care and use of non‐human primates in research and teaching, rests with state and territory governments. While the NHMRC’s code is not legally binding, it requires researchers it funds to follow its policy on animal welfare.
The new draft guidelines
The code requires researchers to minimise harm, pain and distress to the animals they use. It states all teaching and research activities “must balance whether the potential effects on the wellbeing of the animals involved is justified by the potential benefits”. But it doesn’t provide guidance on how to do this, so it’s up to researchers and local animal ethics committees to determine what procedures are justified.
Great apes (gorilla, orang‐utan, chimpanzee and bonobo) and other non-human primates are treated differently by the new draft. The use of great apes in research is permitted only when it “will not have any appreciable negative impact on the animals involved, e.g. observational studies, activities already being undertaken for management or veterinary purposes” or when it “will potentially benefit the individual animal and/or their species”. The former was not included in previous guidelines, so this is a step forward.
But, to my knowledge, great apes have not been used in Australian research for a long time. While this new clause will protect great apes from being used in NHMRC-funded research, it is unlikely to impact current research practice.
Other non-human primates used for research (macaques, marmosets and baboons) are not so lucky. The NHMRC has already acknowledged that non-human primates have the capacity to suffer more than other research animals because of their higher cognitive abilities and well-developed social structures. In spite of this, many of its purported protections are ambiguous and ultimately meaningless.
The NHMRC wants feedback on proposed changes to requirements that its animal welfare committee be notified when non-human primates are to be housed for periods longer than six weeks without access to an outside enclosure, or imported.
The reason for the latter is that importing animals is subject to Commonwealth regulation. But since the draft guidelines still require notification of export of non-human primates, there is no good reason why import should not be treated in the same way. The public has an interest to know, and this information would be difficult, if not impossible, to collect from animal ethics committees.
Removing the requirement on housing weakens animal protection because it shifts power from the NHMRC’s animal welfare committee to local animal ethics committees. Not requiring local committees to justify their decisions to an external body could enable conditions that are not in the animals’ interest.
Central overview checks potential abuse through oversight as well as overcoming lack of knowledge and expertise among small local animal ethics committees. Self-regulation is not sufficient to protect animals who cannot speak for themselves; we need more transparency to ensure this is happening, not less.
Indeed, transparency is an important issue not addressed by the NHMRC code or draft guidelines. In Australia, there is no publicly available information about the use of non-human primates – as well as other animals – in research and teaching. Not only does this mean there is no way of knowing research isn’t duplicated, it also stops the public finding out details of research that is funded through their taxes.
Australia is not unique in this regard but there is a precedent for transparency. A European Union directive effective since 2013 mandates the publication of a non-technical summary of all animal research projects after any trade secrets or information that could identify researchers or institutions is redacted. If European researchers can provide this information, why can’t researchers in Australia?
Some serious problems
There are much bigger problems here, too. The umbrella group for councils that fund research in the United Kingdom recently ended a two-year investigation that found an excess of animal lives were being wasted on poorly designed projects that produced meaningless results. Most likely the situation is similar in Australia but the lack of transparency means we have no way to find this out.
There are still outstanding questions about whether there are actual benefits in using animals for biomedical research. Indeed, the authors of a recent article in the BMJ have suggested that this kind of work may be diverting funds from research that is more relevant.
What’s more, we have valid research methods that replace non-human primates in research of debatable quality.
But all we have in Australia are these new draft guidelines that will more likely than not move us backwards. Apart from the problems already discussed, they lack guidance on the fate of research animals after their use, by leaving these decisions to animal ethics committees.
We don’t know where these animals go after research projects are completed, or whether they’re killed because there is no appropriate place for them to live. Surely, since the NHMRC funds primate breeding facilities, funding a sanctuary for them to spend the rest of their days after they have been used in research for human benefit is its responsibility, too.
While we erode the rights of non-human primates in Australia, Hercules and Leo will have their day in court. Even if they don’t achieve legal personhood, their case will be a step towards ending experimenting on animals that are so much like us.