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With last monkeys dead, U of T sees a shift in animal research Add to ...

The University of Toronto’s last two research monkeys are dead and gone, euthanized less than three weeks ago after seven years of experiments into movement and pain in the human mouth.

The use of “non-human primates” for research has steadily dwindled at U of T, down from about seven a year in the 1990s, as much for logistical reasons as ethical sensitivities.

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And while U of T won’t close the book on primate research entirely, the school is clearly shifting away from using monkeys to advance science, a contentious issue debate that has at times been marred by violence and threats.

“We have no more monkeys, fortunately,” said Peter Lewis, U of T’s associate vice-president, research. “We have no intention at the moment of using non-human primates.”

The last two monkeys were macaques used to investigate the brain’s mechanisms for sensory and motor functions in the face and mouth, like chewing or swallowing, and pain pathways between them. The researchers consider the results crucial to understanding why some people’s bodies can’t adapt when their “oral environment” changes – if they lose a few teeth, or suffer a stroke, which can often impair a person's ability to speak.

Although the monkeys had electrodes implanted in their brains to stimulate and record brain activity, the lead researcher, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to past pressure from animal rights groups, insists they were not in pain.

“Any pain studies we do are done in rodents,” he said.

Last week, five U of T graduate students in primatology wrote an appeal to U of T that the monkeys be allowed to live out their lives in an animal sanctuary, hoping they might still be alive. That wasn’t possible, Dr. Lewis said, because the researchers needed to dissect the animals’ brains to verify the right parts had been stimulated.

“It was always the intention for this study that, in the end, the animals needed to be sacrificed,” he said.

Erica Tennenhouse, one of the primatology students, is glad to see U of T moving away from animal research, having read studies describing other laboratory macaques so distressed they bit themselves and pulled their own hair.

“I think monkeys are simply too intelligent and emotional to be subjected to these types of experiments and living conditions,” she said.

But university veterinarian George Harapa paints a different picture of the monkeys’ lives: they were kept in large cages where they could interact with each other and staff, and had “enrichments” like televisions and puzzle boards.

“The oversight is tremendously different than it used to be,” he said.

Dr. Harapa joined U of T in 1977, when standards were much looser. For 40 years, the rules set by the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) have grown ever stricter, but to U of T Animal Rights Club organizer Paul York, they’re still too weak. He points to documents showing the university conducted more than 200 “category D” experiments in 2010 – those causing animals of various types “moderate to severe distress or discomfort.”

Mr. York also thinks the CCAC is an “industry-led body” that lacks credibility, but Dr. Harapa defended its “peer review” role: “We’re certainly not in bed with them – quite the opposite,” he said.

Public information on university animal research is scarce, and schools are squeamish about discussing it for fear of reprisals – in the 1980s, U of T laboratories were vandalized and fire-bombed. “I’ve even had death threats,” Dr. Harapa said, “and I’m a veterinarian.”

Decades have passed since many of Canada’s larger universities last housed research primates, and although the University of British Columbia holds a small number of small monkeys for experiments on diseases like Parkinson’s, none are being carried out now.

Across the country, Dr. Harapa has watched the appetite for research primates waning. Their cost and availability are factors, and universities do feel some ethical pressure, he said. “But the main reason is that people have just adopted other animals for their experimental needs – mostly rats and mice.”

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