Views / Citizen Scientist

The ethics of using animals in scientific experiments

Why am I okay with invasive studies on rats and worms and fruit flies, but not chimps?

A chimpanzee named Ayumu at the Primate Research Institute in Kyoto, Japan, performing a memory test.

Tetsuro Matsuzawa/The Associated Press

A chimpanzee named Ayumu at the Primate Research Institute in Kyoto, Japan, performing a memory test.

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

George Orwell wrote that line in Animal Farm, his 1945 allegorical novel about an authoritarian animal regime taking over a barnyard.

He was right.

I thought of that line when I was reading about the United States’ saddest group of retirees – its 600 research chimps, who, but for bureaucratic delays, should be living out their golden years in animal sanctuaries as the country moves away from doing direct experiments on them.

The U.S. is a bit of a holdout in this regard. Although there’s no formal rule against it, no invasive, government-funded research on chimps has taken place in Canada since the 1960s, and there’s no private experimentation going on that anyone knows of either.

Thank goodness. Chimpanzees are part of our extended family, biologically speaking. They’re breathtakingly intelligent and psychologically complex. Some ex-research chimps exhibit symptoms that are strikingly similar to human PTSD. It’s wrong to keep them in cages and experiment on them like lab mice.

Except – what about lab mice? Why am I okay with invasive studies on rats and worms and fruit flies, but not chimps?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I’d love to hear your view by email. I’m struggling to decide what I believe about which species and practices should be allowed in animal research.

Thankfully it’s not my call. That’s the purview of Canadian Council on Animal Care in Science, a regulator that advocates for minimizing animal use where possible. The CCAC also states that primates – apes, monkeys and lemurs – should only be used when there’s clearly no other alternative.

One of the great Canadian research achievements of this century, the rVSV-ZEBOV Ebola vaccine, was developed through testing on rhesus macaques – whip-smart monkeys who possess some degree of self-awareness.

Ebola is a scourge on the Earth and I am boundlessly grateful to the scientists who developed the vaccine and the monkeys who made it possible. And I don’t volunteer to be the first mammal who gets to find out if an experimental vaccine will protect me from the next plague.

Yet I admit animal testing makes me uneasy. It just goes to show that science can shed light on moral questions, but it can’t answer them for us.

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