U.K. Report on Use of Primates in Research Challenges Notion of Cumulative Suffering

A report released in November 2013 by the United Kingdom Animal Procedures Committee (APC) challenges the notion that animals suffer from long-term involvement in scientific research. The report, Review of the assessment of cumulative severity and lifetime experience in non-human primates used in neuroscience, argues that the majority of animals used in neuroscience research do not experience cumulative suffering, or negative impacts resulting from prolonged housing conditions and repeated scientific procedures over an extended duration of time [1].

The team of researchers, led by Dr. John Pickard of the University of Cambridge Department of Neurosurgery, monitored 234 primates (macaque and marmoset monkeys) for 10 years, utilizing 13,000 data points for their study. They found minimal evidence of “additive stacking up or potentiation” of suffering in a variety of procedures including, anesthesia/pain control, housing, husbandry, weaning and surgeries. In other words, the primates recovered adequately between each event insofar that the suffering did not have a cumulative effect over time. 

Cumulative suffering resulting from long-term testing was included in both the Animals Scientific Procedures Act (ASPA) of 1986 (U.K.) and Directive 2010/63/EU of the European Parliament. After the passage of these laws, cumulative suffering has been considered a determining factor when scientific studies seek research licenses. The authors of the report suggest a re-evaluation of this clause in assessing the severity scientific research involving animals.

Though the researchers found that the negative impact of long-term involvement in scientific research may be overstated, they note the importance of supporting animal subject well-being. In the neuroscience laboratories they investigated, the researchers found that the labs were implementing effective “3Rs” guidelines (replacement, refinement and reduction), which aim to mitigate animal suffering. The researchers also support the “increasing use of CCTV to supplement monitoring of the welfare of non-human primates in their accommodation,” and greater transparency of research. The report only examined common practices in the United Kingdom and may not reflect the present condition of animal research in the United States. 

The report challenges some of claims of animal rights groups, which often contend that prolonged use of individual animals has a net detrimental impact on their well-being. For instance, an article published by the American Anti-Vivisection Society states, “Not surprisingly, the negative impact of life as a research subject has a cumulative effect. Primates who survive multiple experiments and make it to, perhaps, 10 years old, have a trail of horrible experiences behind them.” [2] The U.K. report suggests that these notions may be exaggerated—at least in the U.K.—and addresses many of the animal rights groups concerns directly [1, pp. 42-46].

Animal rights groups have disputed the report’s findings. In a press release, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) argues that the report, “systematically underestimates the serious impact of neuroscience research on primates and the level of suffering involved.” [3] The statement continues, “How anyone can think that confinement in cages, being subjected to repeated scientific procedures including surgery, the implantation of eye coils or head implants and electrodes, food and water deprivation, long periods of restraint, and the catalogue of other adverse effects listed causes anything other than severe suffering is completely beyond us.” The RSPCA plans to review the study in greater detail and release an extended critique of the findings.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/261687/cs_nhp_review_FINAL_2013_corrected.pdf
[2] http://www.aavs.org/site/c.bkLTKfOSLhK6E/b.7914291/k.B1ED/Primates__Science.htm#.UxiMxm00_Dw
[3] http://www.rspca.org.uk/media/pressreleases/details/-/article/PressRSPCAExtremeConcernAtPrimateResearchReport28Nov13

This article is part of the Winter 2014 issue of Professional Ethics Report (PER). PER, which has been in publication since 1988, reports on news and events, programs and activities, and resources related to professional ethics issues, with a particular focus on those professions whose members are engaged in scientific research and its applications.