Jessica Scott-Reid is a freelance writer and animal advocate.
What happens when lab monkeys survive? Once their contributions to science are made, what happens to monkeys ravaged by experimentation who somehow manage to live?
Unlike the fairy-tale endings of the retired circus elephants and performing orcas sent to sanctuaries to live out their days, the fate for Canada’s lab monkeys does not include such a happily ever after.
For beings considered enough like us to be effective in designing and testing human medicines, but enough unlike us to be deemed ethical to test upon, the thanks Canadian lab monkeys get for their sacrifice is not a well-earned retirement.
Except for three. A recent feature in The Globe and Mail highlighted the unprecedented journeys of three macaque lab monkeys, given reprieve and the chance to live out the remainder of their lives at a sanctuary in rural Ontario. As Globe journalist Grant Robertson reported, there are 6,412 non-human primates currently sitting in university medical schools and pharmaceutical laboratories across the country, and Cedric, Cody and Pugsley are the first to be given a “stay of execution.” As a result, The Globe’s reporting asked the question: “Do we owe animals life after the lab?”
The answer is a resounding yes.
Unarguably, the use of non-human primates, our closest genetic relatives, in scientific research and testing has led to major medical breakthroughs, widely beneficial to human health. The cure for polio, and advancements in treatments and research for cancer, diabetes, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, and now the Ebola and Zika viruses, are all associated with testing on monkeys.
Like soldiers drafted into war, lab monkeys are made to provide this sacrifice to benefit the greater good. But rather than honouring these animals, considering ourselves indebted to them for their service, we discard them like worn-out laboratory tools. There is no honourable discharge at the end of this deployment.
Under Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulations, the status of lab monkeys cannot change. They are research animals only and always. This means that they must be cared for according to provincial welfare laws for research animals, even when they are no longer used in research. Unlike laws protecting animals kept as pets from anyone who might cause them pain or distress, laws for research animals are different. Their pain and suffering is often permitted. And when they are no longer useful, their death is permitted, too.
But consider what would happen if changes were made requiring all lab monkeys be sent to sanctuaries after their duties were done. Their existence would gain much more ethical importance transforming them from mere replaceable lab tools, to beings with the right to live. Of course it would be a costly and difficult endeavour, but don’t they deserve it? And maybe, just maybe, including mandatory after-care provisions in overall research budgets, might just add some extra incentive to finally find another way – which really is the ultimate goal.
Cultural attitudes towards the use of animals, particularly primates, in scientific testing are changing, and ethical questions regarding whether the gains for humans truly outweigh the losses for animals, are being asked. As a result, alternatives are being developed.
Last month, the University of Windsor received a million-dollar donation in support of the Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods, dedicated to developing alternatives to the use of animals in scientific testing. Charu Chandrasekera, the centre’s founding executive director, said in a statement that despite millions of animals being used annually in Canadian medical research and chemical safety testing, a growing body of scientific evidence shows the rate of congruence between animals and humans is at an all-time low. "There is a tremendous need to focus on human biology-based approaches to study human disease and health impacts,” she said.
However, until those alternatives are developed and put widely into practice, Canada’s research animals will continue to be used and discarded. After years of enduring confinement and physical and psychological experimentation, monkeys who survive, monkeys such as Cedric, Cody and Pugsley, deserve reprieve, and they deserve retirement. It’s the very least we could do for them, after all they’ve been forced to do for us.