United Airlines Bans Shipping Primates for Lab Experiments

The last major North American commercial airline transporting monkeys for labs caves in following year-long PETA campaign

On Monday, following a year of sustained campaigning by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), United Airlines announced that it has banned the transport of primates to laboratories. “We do not book, accept or transport primates to or from medical research facilities,” says the new airline policy.

monkey Photo by Steven WorsterThe use of primates in lab experiments has been particularly controversial because they are humans’
closest relatives in the animal kingdom. But many scientists insist that their similarity to us also
makes them valuable for studying human diseases and treatments.

The announcement — following close on the heels of the Canadian Transportation Agency’s December decision to allow Air Canada to revise its shipping policy to ban primate transport to labs —means that very soon not a single major airline based in North America will ship monkeys to laboratories.

“It will be much harder for cruel experimenters to get their hands on monkeys to abuse now that United has joined every other commercial airline in North America in refusing to deliver primates to certain suffering and death in laboratories,” PETA Senior Vice President of Laboratory Investigations Kathy Guillermo said in a statement yesterday.

PETA’s “Air Cruelty” campaign — to stop international airlines and cargo carriers from shipping primates for lab use — has scored some major victories in the past 12 months. Last fall, two of the worlds’ biggest cargo carriers — FedEx and UPS — sent the animal right group written assurances that they wouldn’t ship mammals and primates meant for use in laboratory experiments. Another major carrier, DHL, also confirmed that it had “policies in place” prohibiting lab animal shipments.

(PETA’s United Airlines campaign began in 2011, when the airline — which had previously banned shipping primates for experiments — began to finalize its merger with Continental Airlines and adopted Continental’s cargo policies, which allowed for the practice.)

Lab animals, especially primates, are often subjected to painful and traumatic procedures, including experimental drug tests, military chemical warfare tests, and invasive brain experiments that usually end with the primate being euthanized.

Every year US labs import tens of thousands of primates from countries like China, Mauritius, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Some of these animals are bred in captivity on what PETA calls, “monkey factory farms,” while others are trapped in the wild. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, nearly 18,140 primates, mostly crab-eating macaques, were brought into the US in 2011— all but 96 of them were destined for laboratories.

PETA protest Photo courtesy PETAFaced with growing pressure from animal rights groups, most international airlines have
announced bans on transporting primates destined for labs.

Faced with growing pressure from animal rights groups, most international airlines have announced bans on transporting primates destined for labs. With United Airlines and Air Canada joining the ban, there are now only four major international airlines — Air France, China Eastern Airlines, Philippine Airlines, and Vietnam Airlines — that continue with the practice.

One of PETA’s major goals for 2013 is to get these last four airlines implement the ban, Justin Goodman, PETA’s associate director of laboratory investigations, told Earth Island Journal. The idea is that once it becomes too expensive for labs to procure animals, they will find better, more humane, research alternatives. PETA already has a team of scientists working to adopt alternatives to animal use in lab tests, Goodman said.

As I wrote earlier in the Journal’s Winter 2013 issue:

Live animals have been used in medical and scientific research for several centuries and many scientists insist that not using animal tests when necessary would hinder research and subject humans to unreasonable risks. But the practice has also always faced moral objections because of the suffering it can cause the animals. The use of primates has been particularly controversial, because they are humans’ closest relatives in the animal kingdom. But their similarity to us also makes them valuable for studying human diseases and treatments, including hepatitis C vaccine and Alzheimer’s disease.

However, the recent spate of bans on transporting primates by airlines and cargo carriers seems to indicate that public opinion about the need for animal research is on the wane. And that seems to be influencing policy too.

“Alternatives to animal testing are gaining quite a bit of traction these days,” says Susan Gilbert of The Hastings Center, a nonpartisan research group dedicated to bioethics. The greatest progress is being made in testing chemicals for toxicity, says Gilbert, who’s exploring the ethics of medical research with animals. Several federal agencies, including the National Institutes for Health, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration, have joined forces to develop alternative toxicology tests that don’t require animals. Gilbert believes that while “we really can’t eliminate animals from all research right now,” we need to carefully examine all instances where animals are used in labs and find out if it’s really necessary.

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