This is the third in a 5 part series on animals that made the Toronto news in 2012. While these stories are local, the issues they present are global, each one asking us to scrutinize and reassess our relationship with captive wild animals.

Read:  Part 1: The Boys | Part 2 : The Ladies |

Flying Monkeys – Not Any More


Each year, thousands of macaques and other monkeys are flown into Europe and North America to supply academic and industrial research labs — more than 18,000 to the United States in 2011 alone. (Nature News, Mar 2012)


What do you do if you can’t convince biomedical research facilities to stop experimenting on non-human primates?  Well, one way would be to find a way to prevent the animals from ever reaching the labs.  And to do that, a first step might be to convince cargo companies to stop transporting primates to research facilities. That’s exactly what PETA has been doing.


Tens of thousands Long-tailed Macaques are imported from SE Asia for neuroscience research

Long-tailed Macaques are commonly imported from SE Asia for neuroscience & other medical research (Photo: Wikipedia)

As a result of the pressure from PETA and the public, in 2012 Air Canada became the latest to join a large group of airlines who have responded to activists and now refuse to transport primates for research.

But the pressure on Air Canada began years before. In 1994 the airline tried to refuse to carry monkeys from Barbados destined for a research lab. Responding to a complaint from The Primate Research Center and Wildlife Reserve of Barbados, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) said the airline could not refuse the shipment because the animals didn’t impact the passengers.

According to the ruling, the “opinion” that the monkey shipment was offensive on “humane or moral grounds” wasn’t good enough. (Toronto Star, Jan 2011)

However, in November 2011, responding to public outrage when they flew 48 monkeys from breeding farms in China to a research facility in Quebec, Air Canada filed an amended tariff with the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) …

“that would enable [Air Canada] to discontinue transportation of non-human primates intended for research and/or experimental purposes..” (Toronto Star, January 2012

Finally, in December 2012, the CTA ruled that Air Canada is within its rights to refuse to transport the primates.  The airline will now require all non-human primate shippers to sign a declaration that the animals are not intended for research or experiments.

Clearly the airline had learned one lesson.  The CTA based its decision, in part, on Air Canada’s convincing argument that it the loss of passengers who had threatened to boycott the airline would outweigh the possible income they earn from transporting the primates. As CTA required, the request was a business one, not an emotional one.

Animal activists celebrated the decision. ”The public can [now] book Air Canada flights with a clear conscience,” says Justin Goodman, director of the laboratory investigations department at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in Washington DC. (The group was granted “interested person” status in the complaint, and nearly 19,000 people signed a PETA petition lobbying the CTA to allow Air Canada to change its policy.) (Nature News, Dec 2012)

Rhesus monkeys used for polio research (1956). Do we need primates to develop the next medical breakthrough?

Rhesus monkeys used for polio research (1956). Do we need primates to develop the next medical breakthrough? Many scientists believe we do. (Photo: NMAH)

Biomedical researchers and animal suppliers have felt the pinch of this and similar decisions. In the Air Canada case, official opposition came from Steven Liss, vice-principal of research at Queen’s University, and the Public Health Agency of Canada, who argued that refusal to transport research animals was discriminatory and did not take into account the well-being of Canadians, the country’s international competitiveness and its economic growth.

Meanwhile, PETA told Nature that they plan put pressure on every major cargo carrier in the world – not just airlines, but ground carriers as well.  And sure enough, they have been successful, convincing UPS, Fedex, and DHL to not ship “cruel cargo.”   But ending the shipment of primates may not have the desired effect.

“Let’s say [the activists] get their wish and no animal comes into the United States,” [Michael] Hsu argues. “Merck is not going to say: ‘Okay, fine.’ They are going to go to other countries where animal care might not be as good, and start doing research there.” (Nature News, Mar 2012)


Meredith Wadman at Nature News has been tracking this story:

Activists Ground Primate Flights (March 2012)

Lab Animal Flights Squeezed (Sep 2012)

Air Canada to Stop Transporting Research Primates (Dec 2012)