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We Must Resolve to Get Animals Out of Laboratories

25/04/2014 10:52 BST | Updated 23/06/2014 10:59 BST

This time next year, we'll be in the midst of election frenzy. Politicians from all sides will be making promises. Last time, the coalition pledged to reduce the number of animals used in experiments, but the latest Home Office figures show that more animals are being used in experiments now than anytime in the past generation (4.1 million in 2012), and this figure has been increasing year after year. Despite the promises of politicians, we seem to be moving backwards - both ethically and scientifically - on the issue of animal experimentation.

Perhaps the most disturbing trend is that the number of macaques, marmosets and other monkeys used by experimenters has risen by 50 per cent. Primates are extremely intelligent animals who form intricate relationships. They also experience the same wide range of emotions and exhibit the same capacity for feeling pain and suffering that we do. It is always unethical to confine and kill animals for experimentation, and condemning these smart, social animals to a lifetime of misery in a concrete-and-steel cage is especially egregious.

In their natural homes, monkeys spend their days travelling for miles through lush forest terrain and affectionately grooming one another. In laboratories, they are imprisoned, often alone, in barren metal cages that are scarcely any bigger than their own bodies. The cheap plastic toys and scratched mirrors commonly given to them as "environmental enrichment" are poor substitutes for the companionship of another living being.

It's little wonder that 90 per cent of primates in laboratories exhibit abnormal behaviour resulting from the psychological stress, social isolation and extreme confinement that they are forced to endure. Many slowly go insane, pitifully rocking back and forth or spinning inside their cages. Some mutilate their own bodies.

The abuse starts when they are just babies. While some primates are bred and born in laboratories, many are abducted from their forest homes. Investigations have revealed that trappers shoot mother monkeys from trees and snatch their panic-stricken babies. The terrified infants are crammed into small wooden crates and transported inside the dark cargo holds of passenger planes - just below the seats of unsuspecting passengers - to laboratories around the world. Almost every major airline now refuses to take part in this violent trade, except for Air France, which continues to ship monkeys to their deaths.

Once they arrive at their destination, these animals can be forcibly restrained, drugged, surgically mutilated, intentionally infected with diseases or poisoned with toxins that cause them to convulse, and it's all perfectly legal. If your neighbour drilled holes into animals' heads in the basement, he or she would be arrested, but an experimenter who does the same thing to monkeys inside a laboratory earns a salary for it.

Reducing the number of animals used in experiments is not just a popular policy because it is morally the right thing to do. A growing number of scientists agree that animal experiments are largely irrelevant or even dangerous to human health. Unfortunately, this concern has not yet led to a reduction in the use of animals in UK labs, in large part because the law allows the oversight system to be insulated from public input and scrutiny. In other words, money that we pay to the government funds these experiments, yet we are denied the basic right to know what our money is paying for. Animals' physiology differs significantly from that of humans, and substances that benefit one species can be useless or even fatal to another. Penicillin kills guinea pigs and is inactive in rabbits; aspirin kills cats and causes birth defects in rats, mice, guinea pigs, dogs and monkeys; and morphine, a depressant in humans, stimulates goats, cats and horses. It's hardly surprising, then, that more than 90 per cent of drugs that pass animal tests fail in human trials, and the few that are approved sometimes need to be relabelled or pulled from the market after they sicken or kill human patients. Decades of HIV/AIDS experiments have failed to produce effective vaccines for humans, even though dozens were successful in primate studies.

This past summer, the former US National Institutes of Health Director Dr Elias A Zerhouni admitted that experimenting on animals to help humans has been a major failure. He told his colleagues, "We have moved away from studying human disease in humans. ... The problem is that [animal testing] hasn't worked, and it's time we stopped dancing around the problem. ... We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans".

There are better ways to conduct scientific research than by intentionally injuring animals or making them sick. Scientists can replicate human organs on microchips to test the effects of potential drugs. Sophisticated computer models can simulate the progress of developing diseases and accurately predict how drugs will react in the human body. Advanced brain-imaging techniques - which allow the human brain to be studied safely down to the level of a single neuron - can replace archaic experiments in which animals are intentionally inflicted with brain damage. Such validated non-animal testing methods are directly relevant to human health, and they're available now.

We must resolve to get animals out of laboratories - for their sake and ours.