Should UBC experiment on monkeys?

Animal welfare group wants to spare monkeys from Parkinson’s experiment on campus

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The University of British Columbia has gotten a lot of unwanted attention lately for its proposed study of Parkinson’s disease. According to documents obtained by The Province, the university plans to inject four rhesus monkeys with substances to mimic Parkinson’s disease in humans. The monkeys will be tested and subsequently euthanized for post-mortem analysis. A group called “Stop UBC Animal Research” has said it will launch an “adopt a monkey” campaign, which will offer to buy the monkeys from the university and send them to a primate sanctuary. According to Anne Birthistle, a member of the animal welfare group, Stop UBC Animal Research will pay “whatever it takes” to save the monkeys.

This is not the first time UBC has made headlines about its use of animals in research. Back in November, Stop UBC Animal Research filed a complaint with the B.C. Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act commissioner when the university failed to provide details of its use of animals in experiments within the required 20 days. Needless to say, the lack of transparency didn’t inspire warm thoughts among UBC’s critics.  A month prior, Stop UBC Animal Research paired with PETA to stage a naked protest in downtown Vancouver with the aim of bringing attention to the estimated 100,000 animals used in research at UBC annually. That demonstration, needless to say, didn’t inspire proud sentiments among the more pragmatic thinkers of the animal welfare movement.

But now UBC is again on the defensive as Birthistle and her allies claim that the university does not need to be testing on animals. “We have computer modeling and technology, and human tissue samples,” she told The Province. UBC Vice-President Research John Hepburn responded to the allegations in a letter to the paper, writing, “The truth is that scientists regard the use of animals in research to be a privilege, to be used only when no alternative exists.” Back in October he said, “We wish we understood organisms well enough that we could model them on a computer. But that is way off in the future. Essentially, the same thing is true with doing things in Petri dishes . . . A group of cells, even if they come from a liver, are not a liver, so if you want to test the impact on an organ or a whole creature, you do have to use an animal.”

The medical contributions of animal research are undeniably invaluable. Whereas some animal testing has, and continues, to be used for more frivolous uses like makeup and haircare, there are many historical advances where animal research has led to life-saving medical breakthroughs. The chemical isolation of insulin in 1922 was a direct result of Frederick Banting’s experiments whereby he tied the pancreatic ducts of dogs. The vaccine against polio was made available in 1955 after an estimated 100,000 rhesus monkeys (same as in the proposed Parkinson’s experiments) were killed in clinical trials. And in 1960, heart valve replacement surgery was pioneered as a way to save patients with valvular disease after surgical testing on dogs.

The examples go on, but the point is that these medical breakthroughs would not have happened if it were not for testing on animals. I am not a medical researcher, so I am in no authoritative position to debunk John Hepburn’s claim that the alternatives to animal testing are, at present, not equally viable. If indeed his point is valid, animal welfare activists would be better served to advocate for the most ethical and humane treatment of animals currently used for medical study (animal welfare regulations in Canada are devastatingly loose; adherence to the Canadian Council on Animal Care’s policies is, as I understand, voluntary), as well as the promotion of continued study and development of alternatives to animal testing. In the meantime, UBC needs to adopt a more transparent approach to discussing its use of animals in medical research. Silence can’t possibly inspire public faith.