Behind closed doors
Activists wonder where testing stops and cruelty begins
CUP Western Bureau Chief
VICTORIA (CUP) — After 60 animal advocacy groups called on the University of British Columbia to become more transparent with its animal research methods, many are asking what controls are even in place to protect those creatures who can’t speak up for themselves.
It turns out, very few are. The Stop UBC Animal Research Now campaign begun last summer, finally going public months after the campus paper, The Ubyssey, published an article on UBC’s research practices. Since then, Stop has organized as a guerrilla initiative against UBC and has filed six Freedom of Information requests from the university – two were rejected and are currently being appealed, while the remaining four remain “in progress” or unanswered.
“The problem is, we have no idea what’s going on today [with UBC’s animal research practices],” said Brian Vincent, head organizer of Stop. “We don’t know how many or what kind of animals are being used, and there is no secure legal system in place in Canada to make this information readily available.”
While UBC officials have stated that part of the reason the university doesn’t disclose this information is because the public could “misinterpret” these details, Vincent believes this is just another way to say the public wouldn’t like what it sees.
“The fact that the university thinks the public would be confused by facts is not only condescending, it’s implying that people are too ignorant to make up their own minds about something,” said Vincent. “The reason why this is such a problem is because this kind of release of information is already being done in other places, like in the U.S., for example.”
In Canada, by law all accredited animal research facilities must meet the standards of the Canadian Council on Animal Care, the national organization responsible for “setting and maintaining standards for the care and use of animals in science.”
The mandate states that “the purpose of the Canadian Council on Animal Care is to act in the interests of the people of Canada to ensure through programs of education, assessment and persuasion that the use of animals, where necessary, for research, teaching and testing employs optimal physical and psychological care according to acceptable scientific standards, and to promote an increased level of knowledge, awareness and sensitivity to relevant ethical principles.”
The CCAC’s mandate also states that organizations must be clear in defining the benefits that can come from the research performed on animals, and be committed to finding alternatives to animal use.
“Animals should be used only if the researcher’s best efforts to find an alternative have failed.”
UBC specifically holds a “CCAC Certificate of Good Animal Practice,” which is awarded to institutions that participate fully in the programs of the CCAC, have been assessed regularly by expert panels composed of scientists, veterinarians, and community representatives, and have been found by the assessment panel and by the CCAC Assessment Committee to have standards of experimental animal care and use which satisfy the CCAC’s guidelines and policies.
“UBC has always been found to be compliant with our mandates and protocols,” said Clément Gauthier, executive director of the CCAC. “Of course, nothing is perfect, but we assess the whole program and they must open their doors all the way to our reviewers. This means more than just repainting your walls the week before we get there. If there is anything ever out of place, the inspectors know it instantly.”
UBC was assessed just last June – recent, in terms of the CCAC’s standard three-year testing process. And while the institutions do get a heads-up about when the inspection will take place, Gauthier says this is in everyone’s best interest, so that the facility can focus on what they’d like to improve upon as well.
Gauthier also says that, despite the bad press that UBC has received as of late, they have never received even a conditional probation that would set off any red flags for the CCAC.
“UBC has no reason to hide from the public, or even fear scrutiny,” Gauthier said. “The university should be very proud of its practices and I have no hesitancy in telling the Canadian public that they are a very successful institution.”
Yet, despite the seemingly well-intentioned mandates and confident reports, many are questioning just how much practice goes into seeing how the CCAC’s guidlelines are interpreted and followed, even by council organizations.
Liz White, director of the Animal Alliance of Canada, says that there is a huge conflict with the fact that much of the CCAC is made up of council members who have a vested interest in research and not necessarily animal care.
“We’re lead to believe that the CCAC is there to protect the animals, but I would argue that it’s really there to protect the researchers,” said White. “The only way the system can be transparent is for them to open up the doors and allow us all to see what’s going on inside, but there is a huge unwillingness to do this.”
White and the Animal Alliance recently concluded an animal rights case with the University of Guelph earlier this year, when live “purpose-bred” dogs were being used for castration and euthanization practices. The university eventually agreed to stop all live terminal surgeries for third-year veterinary students.
John Hepburn, vice-president of research at UBC, says that the university does stick to the CCAC’s mandate of using research animals when there is no human or mechanical alternative. He also points out that the use of animal models in human health research is essential for the medical advancements we appreciate.
“Without animal research, we wouldn’t have many of the life-saving cures and treatments we do today. Polio would kill or cripple thousands each year. Smallpox would spread unchecked. Insulin-dependent diabetics would die. Millions would risk death from heart attack, stroke or kidney failure,” Hepburn said. “And thousands who are disabled by head and spinal cord injuries would not be rehabilitated. Animal research has played a significant role in these and virtually all major medical advances of the 20th and 21st centuries.”
Hepburn also says that UBC research studies are thoroughly reviewed by internal and external panels before they are undertaken. The studies are then published in publicly available academic journals. That said, currently there are few alternatives to animals for research, he says.
“We are committed to reducing the use of animals as much as possible. However, federal law mandates that studies be conducted in animals before approval can be given for clinical trials involving people,” Hepburn said. “We first try to seek non-animal alternatives, such as the use of cell cultures and computer simulations, for many fundamental and applied studies. However, particularly in disease research and the development of new medicines, scientists need to mirror the complicated processes that occur in living systems.”