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Air Canada will no longer ship lab monkeys, but who actually benefits?


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)

Thousands of monkeys are transported every year to Canadian university or government labs with the majority of the animals dying during the research process. But they will no longer be arriving via Air Canada flights, a decision that came into effect on Dec. 20. The Canadian Transportation Agency finally agreed with Air Canada, which had long sought to end the shipping of rhesus macaques and other monkeys because the practice upset some passengers.

The implications for researchers are hotly disputed. Government departments and university researchers bitterly opposed the move. Queen’s University, which sought to have the CTA compel Air Canada to continue shipping lab monkeys, told the CTA that prices for the animals could rise between 10% and 15% should the airline stop. It worried the added cost and inconvenience could cause more research to be conducted in other countries. CTA, pointing to the paucity of evidence provided to support these claims, was dubious.

CTA’s decision did concede that researchers could be inconvenienced. That indeed seems likely. Although as many as 5,000 monkeys become lab subjects by Canadian researchers each year, Canada has no domestic source for these animals. (At one time Health Canada operated a small breeding colony that supplied macaques, but it closed in 2011.) Major source countries for lab monkeys include China and Mauritius, and according to the Public Health Agency of Canada there is one major importer, which has a primate holding center in Montreal. In 2010, Air Canada shipped more than 1,800 simians into Canada, so clearly researchers just lost a significant transport channel.

CTA’s decision noted Air Canada isn’t the only game in town, however. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, which strongly supported Air Canada’s move, observed that a handful of other airlines flying to Canadian cities, among them China Eastern Airlines and Air France, continue the business. And in 2010, 60% of lab monkeys imported into Canada arrived by road via the U.S., the activist group claimed. More may do so in future, and it’s unclear whether lab monkeys will benefit from Air Canada’s ban: PHAC claims road transport takes longer and inflicts greater discomfort. The federal agency has said it was developing contingency plans “to ensure important research projects are not adversely affected by the decision.”