“The blackest of all crimes” – Gandhi
I nod a greeting to the security guard as I walk silently with my colleague towards the lift. We prepare our cameras as we travel to the upper floors. My task is stills photography today. Will we get what we need?
First stop is the monkey-holding rooms, where different species are caged side by side, sharing their common hell for their last days on Earth. They scream at the sight of humans in lab gear entering the room.
We move to the experimental rooms, and there she is. She’s beautiful, intelligent, brutalised. Large circular metal casings are cemented into her head and she constantly picks painfully at the scabs around the implants. The lovely Elisa, destined to end her days being forced to perform tasks while plugged into a computer connected to her brain. Chosen for her large, dextrous, human-like hands – she can push and pull levers. Food is the reward for doing as she’s told.
On the other side of the lab is Alice. Poor Alice, constantly circling her cage, unaware of what is going on outside of her own head. She is in her own hell. Alice and Elisa are different species, so they cannot communicate in any meaningful way. There’s no solace here.
I take my photographs and vow that their story will be told.
Vivisection, the cutting up of a live body, is also generally described as “animal procedures” or experiments. Every year in the UK around 3 million animals suffer and die in unreliable and unethical experiments; that’s roughly one animal every 10 seconds. Worldwide, it is estimated that over 100 million animals die in laboratories each year.
Animals are used to test all manner of products, for the household, the car, the garden, food colouring, additives and pharmaceuticals. Animal tests are the yardstick that government regulators use to pronounce something ‘safe’ for human use.
Currently most UK animal experiments take place in academic institutions, primarily for so-called fundamental research seeking information with no specific application in mind.
Regulatory safety testing is the other huge sector, where millions of animals are force-fed, injected or coerced to inhale products to test for toxic effects. These ‘safety’ tests allow products onto the market. Animal experiments include a wide range of work:
• Catheters implanted under the skin of primates, who were placed in a chamber where they received regular injections to mimic human drug abuse. The vivisectors commented: “The longevity of non human primates is an important consideration, allowing for long-term studies to be conducted and repeated-measures designs to be employed. A single venous catheter can be readily maintained for over a year, and multiple implants permit the conduct of self-administration experiments for several years in individual subjects.”
• Monkeys who were used to test the poisonous effects of an incontinence drug; they suffered rectal prolapses as they were restrained in experimental chairs. On this study the animals were dosed by a tube being pushed down their throats, then the product was poured directly into their stomachs, every day for 52 weeks. The lab reported that some animals vomited every time they were dosed.
• Monkeys who vomited and salivated repeatedly. One animal was so stressed that she almost chewed off her own finger. Others pushed their fists into their mouths, tried to bite through the metal food hopper, pushed sawdust into their mouths or dragged their teeth along the cage bars. The government licence classified this test as likely to cause ‘moderate’ pain and suffering.
• Three monkeys on an inhalation study died or were euthanised due to partially collapsed or blocked lungs. Three other animals collapsed, but were revived. Necropsied animals were shown to have blackened lungs. This was licensed as a ‘mild’ procedure.
• A scientific review on animal models of obesity concluded: “Most of the interest in the study of non-human primates and obesity has been with respect to their responses to high fat diets and epigenetic effects,” and “Despite all this work, there are many gaps in our understanding of how composition and energy storage are regulated, and a continuing need for the development of pharmaceuticals to treat obesity. Accordingly, reductions in the use of animal models, while ethically desirable, will not be feasible in the short to medium term, and indeed an expansion in activity using animal models is anticipated as the epidemic continues and spreads geographically.”
All animals suffer terribly in laboratories, but the suffering of non-human primates, with their high intelligence, emotions and family bonds, epitomises all that is wrong with this cruel and secret world.
All primate species are intelligent, good at problem solving. Some use tools, others show self-awareness. Most species live in family groups, in organised social structures. Some non-human primate species have shown an aptitude for rudimentary arithmetic; many have demonstrated reasoning. Chimpanzees have been taught to communicate using human sign language and subsequently they were observed teaching each other independently of their human captors. Non-human primates have been seen to display similar emotions to ours, such as affection, anger and sorrow – even empathy.
Such similarities are frequently used to justify their use in laboratories, but this ignores the fundamental differences at the cellular, genetic and immune-system level – differences that are so important to experimental results.
Although we human primates share over 90% of our DNA with most of our non-human primate cousins, Nature demonstrates what a difference this small percentage can make. Moreover, when these animals are snatched from the wild, caged, confined, transported, restrained, injected with drugs, force-fed chemicals, deliberately brain damaged, we are close enough to them to know they suffer.
Comparisons of genes and immune systems have revealed the unreliability of using results of chimpanzee experiments for human safety. Scientists have recently discovered crucial differences in the way that genes are expressed in the brain, and just as importantly, there are immune-system differences too.
In the UK and elsewhere, the use of great apes in laboratories has been banned for many years, and currently no great apes are used in Europe. The US is now the only major Western nation where great apes remain in laboratories, although in 2007 the US National Institutes of Health announced it was ending the breeding of chimpanzees for research purposes.
Over 10,000 primates (macaques and marmosets, for example) die in European laboratories each year, and the UK is a major user. It is estimated that 10% of primates in EU labs still come from the wild, and the dealers supplying European laboratories regularly trap from the wild to replenish their breeding stock.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) advises that a quarter of primate species are threatened with extinction. Governments in primate home ranges make desperate efforts to prevent poor and hungry people from eating some species to oblivion. Yet Western countries demand the right to take primates for unnecessary and unreliable experiments.
Whether wild-caught or captive-bred, the majority of monkeys used in Europe are imported from China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Mauritius, Kenya, Israel and Guyana. They endure long, arduous journeys, isolated and trapped in small boxes. The cynomolgus macaque is the most commonly used species of lab monkey in Europe, yet it has been described as the macaque that is least able to handle transport satisfactorily.
A new European directive on animals used for scientific purposes (2010/63/EU) was adopted in 2010, and the UK government is currently preparing to transpose this into UK law. One of the provisions of the new directive is a seven-year phase-out of the use of F1 primates (primates born of wild-caught parents). Whether this will be implemented in the UK remains to be seen.
Animal research: fundamentally flawed
It is often claimed that animal experiments are vital to progress, but modern research takes place at the genetic and cellular level, where new technology, focusing on human data, allows greater precision than ever before.
Animal research is crude and unscientific, a relic of the past and fundamentally flawed, due to ‘species differences’. The biological and genetic differences between species mean that they respond differently to chemicals or drugs.
These differences are apparent in some critical areas: the way a drug is metabolised (works through the body) varies from species to species, and even within the same species. Studies of test results have found differences between humans and laboratory monkeys, on average, a third of the time.
A simple aspirin is known to cause birth defects in monkeys, dogs and cats, but not in humans, despite extensive use by pregnant women. Morphine drugs are depressant in rats, dogs, hamsters and other species, but produce tremors and convulsions at comparable doses in mice and cats. Herpes B virus in monkeys may cause lesions on the face, lips, mouth and body, but monkeys can carry the virus without suffering the disease, which is rare but almost always fatal in humans.
These difficulties are compounded when the stress caused by laboratory life causes biochemical changes, which can also affect results. And artificial disease created in the laboratory is not the same as naturally occurring conditions in humans in the real world.
Misleading results from animal tests have caused injury to patients
The anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx had unexpected effects on human patients after being passed as safe in laboratory animal tests; a reported 88,000–140,000 extra heart attacks may have been caused by Vioxx in the five years from its introduction.
Fialuridine, a hepatitis B medication, killed five people and caused serious illness in others although it had been tested on dogs, rats and monkeys. A review found: “unfortunately, there is nothing to indicate that other laboratory animal studies would have been more appropriate or capable of better prediction of the fatal outcome.”
The experimental drug TGN1412 caused serious, permanent and life-threatening damage to trial volunteers, yet the drug had been given to laboratory monkeys at 500 times the human dose, without such side effects.
Many scientists now agree this could have been avoided by using microdosing, where tiny amounts of a substance are given to human volunteers, and samples analysed using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS). The doses are so small that there are no harmful effects, but the AMS analysis gives accurate and speedy results.
On the other hand, the breast-cancer drug Tamoxifen was designed as an oral contraceptive; it worked in rats, but in women it has the opposite effect. It is now used in the treatment of breast cancer, despite causing cancer in rats in some studies.
Progress without animals
The reality is that the majority of current medical and scientific research does not use animals; advances in science and technology provide non-animal techniques that are faster, more accurate and of direct relevance to humans. These include modern scanning systems, computer analysis and simulation, modelling – for example Quantitative Structure-Activity Relationship (QSAR) – high-throughput screening, human cell cultures and three-dimensional human-tissue engineering.
These new advances in sophisticated techniques are not the only answer, however. Many medical discoveries were made in the past using standard research and observation methods: for example the early anaesthetics, beta blockers for blood pressure, digitalis for heart failure, morphine as a painkiller, and quinine for malaria. Surgical procedures such as removal of the appendix, repair of cardiac aneurism and removal of cataracts were all also introduced and carried out without the need for testing on animals.
It was the study of people and their lifestyles that uncovered the link between cancer and smoking, and the causes of heart disease.
The new legislation in the UK
The new European directive contains some key principles we need to see applied in the UK; for example, “full replacement of procedures on live animals for scientific and educational purposes”.
The UK must set limits on the pain animals are allowed to endure. It must end the capture of wild monkeys by dealers, increase transparency and public accountability, remove the current secrecy clause (section 24 of the current Act), and introduce retrospective assessment of experiments to establish what actually happened during the project.
A major advance would be the introduction of a system of thematic review of specific animal experiments or animal use, an important step-by-step approach to the replacement of the use of animals in research and testing. It would allow binding targets to be set, a strategy that has proved to be effective in other areas, for example in the testing of cosmetics on animals.
It is time to start dismantling this cruel and archaic system.