Air Canada fights to remove lab monkeys

Air Canada finds getting out of the monkey business isn’t easy.

A P.E.T.A. (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) protestor poses as a monkey in cages during a demonstration outside the Animal Transport Association’s 38th annual conference in Vancouver. (Christopher J. Morris/Redux)

Air Canada is one of a dwindling number of airlines still transporting monkeys destined for scientific experimentation in research laboratories. It would rather not be. For years, it has sought to place primates on its no-fly list but, surprisingly, has been thwarted by regulators. The airline’s latest attempt, now subject of a squabble before the Canadian Transportation Authority (CTA), might just succeed.

Canadian researchers have been using between 4,000 and 5,000 monkeys annually in recent years. (Most were crab-eating macaques, though African green and rhesus monkeys were also popular.) But monkeys typically reside great distances from laboratories in North America and Europe (prime source countries include China and Mauritius), so airlines provide a crucial link in the supply chain. Activists know this. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), which has campaigned against lab animal use for two decades, began publicizing international carriers’ involvement early on. “Having a passenger airline involved is the weak link in the chain,” says Sarah Kite, BUAV’s director of special projects. “If you’re talking about public boycotts of companies or the public wanting to show their displeasure, that’s the most accessible target.” And since transporting monkeys is at once inconvenient and unprofitable, airlines quickly bend.

British Airways, Northwest Airlines and Quantas were among the many carriers to abandon the business. Air Canada first attempted it in 1994, when then-CEO Hollis Harris issued a directive stating that henceforth the airline would not carry lab monkeys from the Primate Research Center Wildlife Reserve of Barbados. But it wasn’t that easy.

The debate around primate research provokes intense emotions. Scientists emphasize the role of such research in many medical discoveries, some of them Nobel Prize–winning. Activists emphasize how monkeys suffer throughout the process. But the CTA, which determines who and what is carried aboard Canadian aircraft, is hardly an ideal forum for such disputes. It’s preoccupied with airline tariffs—documents laying out the rules by which airlines move passengers and cargo.

Gerard Chouest, a lawyer specializing in transportation, explains an important concept developed during the 19th and early-20th centuries: “The biggest case involved Rockefeller and the development of the oilfields in Pennsylvania,” he says. “One of Rockefeller’s early monopolistic tricks was to persuade the railways to refuse to carry his competitor’s goods.” The case helped build the general principle that common carriers must carry passengers and cargo of all varieties, subject to minimal restrictions.

The Primate Center complained to the CTA about Air Canada’s 1994 ban, arguing it was inconsistent with Air Canada’s tariff. The airline pointed out a tariff provision stating it accepts cargo only if it is not likely to annoy passengers. Since passengers had sent numerous letters complaining about monkey shipments, it reasoned, they were clearly annoyed. Dusting off a law dictionary, the CTA opined that the term “annoyance” included physical phenomena like loud noises or foul odors, but not moral discomfort. The monkey business continued.

Round 2 commenced in January 2011, when a worker at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport tipped off BUAV about 48 macaques arriving from China aboard an Air Canada aircraft. Responding to another fusillade of complaints, Air Canada claimed the CTA’s previous decision tied its hands. Activists retorted Air Canada could revise its tariff to explicitly prohibit monkey shipments, as other airlines had done. Air Canada acquiesced last November, precipitating another showdown.

Queen’s University and the federal Public Health Agency of Canada complained to the CTA, blasting the revisions as unreasonable and discriminatory. The CTA set aside the revisions and investigated. Numerous organizations deluged the CTA with written submissions, the last of which arrived Sept. 19. A decision is expected within months.

Should it be upheld, the new tariff might crimp Canada’s supply of lab monkeys. It would not, however, stamp out their use. Kite says most monkeys enter Canada by road from the U.S. And she notes Air France and three Chinese airlines, all of which fly to Canadian cities, continue transporting primates. “So we’re assuming other airlines will be available to pick up the business,” she says. But Queen’s, which uses Chinese-bred monkeys from a Montreal supplier, worries the inconvenience might drive more research offshore. It calculates “an increased purchase cost for each animal of between 10% and 15% would certainly be anticipated.”