Liberals love to castigate conservatives as “anti-science.” But when it comes to doing lasting harm to valuable, life-saving scientific research, no one can top the ultra-liberal People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Medical researchers have long relied on animal testing to advance their work, especially studies involving non-human primates. In 2011, over 18,000 monkeys were shipped into the United States for research purposes, most of them from China.
But last year China Southern Airlines cancelled a shipment of macaques bound for Los Angeles after suffering a withering public pressure campaign from PETA. “This was part of our larger campaign to disrupt the flow of primates to US labs,” boasted Justin Goodman, associate director of the laboratory investigations for PETA in Washington DC. Other airlines are facing similar pressure, including Air France, the last major European line to carry research primates.
PETA says that imports are not as necessary as they used to be because Western labs already have large, breeding primate populations. But as the prestigious scientific journal Nature reports:
Breeding the animals in the United States instead would be problematic: infrastructure and labour costs are much higher than they are in Asia, and colonies are much more likely to become the targets of animal activists. And moving the animals by sea is a non-starter because of the deleterious effects of the six-week trans-Pacific journey on the animals’ health.
Needless to say, PETA’s efforts to shut down primate importation has sent chills through the biomedical research community. “It’s unfortunate that some airlines have chosen to capitulate to a small number of individuals with an agenda who aren’t truly representative of the general public,” says Matthew Bailey, vice-president of the National Association for Biomedical Research.
The sad thing is that, even if successful, PETA’s campaign may backfire and actually hurt the monkeys whose welfare they claim to champion. Drug researchers say that, rather than stop using non-human primates in their work, they may simply move their labs overseas.
“Let’s say [the activists] get their wish and no animal comes into the United States,” argues Michael Hsu, president of animal-breeding company Shared Enterprises in Richlandtown, Pennsylvania. “Merck is not going to say: ‘Okay, fine.’ They are going to go to other countries where animal care might not be as good, and start doing research there,” says Hsu.
Tipu Aziz, professor of neurosurgery at the University of Oxford in the UK, agrees. Aziz, who has used macaques in his research on Parkinson’s disease, says, “My gut feeling is that more and more scientists will go elsewhere to do primate research….I have no qualms about going abroad to do my work. There are quite a few countries that have good facilities: there are centres in India, Singapore, Malaysia, China.”
So let’s do the tally. PETA’s push to cripple primate importation will: 1) hurt sick people, who may be denied medical advances made possible by primate research, 2) hurt the economy by forcing biomedical companies – and the jobs and tax revenues they provide - to relocate overseas, and 3) hurt the monkeys themselves, who will still be experimented on, but now in countries where their treatment will be far below what is standard in Western facilities.
Congrats, PETA. That’s some hat trick.