Across Canada, people enthusiastically join walks and runs to raise funds for disease charities. It’s a feel-good thing to do, walking to “find a cure” for Parkinson’s and kidney disease, ALS and diabetes, strokes and cancer. Millions of dollars are raised, but how are they used? After administration costs, funds raised are destined for either research or services to patients. Research may be carried out on human subjects who sign consent forms, or on tissue samples and cell cultures, or on live animals who did not sign consent forms.
Some cancer research uses animals who don’t only suffer illness but have been genetically engineered to be born with the affliction being studied. In some spinal cord labs, researchers deliberately break the backs of rats in order to test which drugs might help repair the damage. While we share with animals a capacity for pain and fear, it is estimated that 90% of drugs first tested on animals later fail with human subjects. Many participants in fundraising walks are not aware that funds they raise go toward breeding animals as disposable commodities.
Disease charities describe research vaguely. They certainly wouldn’t say, “Your money will be used to tie down a monkey, surgically open his organs without anaesthetic, give him a syringe of chemicals until he vomits and whimpers, and then euthanize him when the experiment is over, or incinerate the body later found dead in a tiny, barren cage.” How many people who are aware of those specifics would continue to donate?
Each country keeps the statistics differently, but Canada is a major user of lab animals. The University of British Columbia, for example, used 185,692 animals in 517 research and teaching protocols in 2015. Many Canadian labs purchase animals from Jackson Laboratories in Maine, which produces 2.5 million mice per year in 4,000 different strains. Bred with diseases, disfigurements and malfunctioning immune systems, they are born to suffer. From Charles River Labs, based in Massachusetts with facilities in Montreal and Sherbrooke, QC, researchers can purchase mice with splenectomies or adrenalectomies, and guinea pigs with brain cannulations, olfactory bulbectomies, spinal nerve ligation or epilepsy.
Unsurprisingly, the pamphlets given to fundraising walk participants don’t mention the chamber of horrors lurking in the background. Our government also funds this research, but few taxpayers or members of Parliament have examined the Charles River catalogue themselves. It’s time they did. They can look to Europe for a higher standard in humane research: the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM) actively promotes “replacement, reduction, and refinement,” an approach known as the Three Rs that would decrease both the number of lab animal victims and the degree of cruelty involved. What can animals be replaced with? Simulations, models, computer imagery, tissue samples, stem cells, gene expression analysis and 3-D printing of human cells are alternatives promoted by the World Congress on Alternatives to Animal Testing.
There are glimmers of hope for animals in research. Even the Canadian Council on Animal Care now has a micro site within its website about the Three Rs. In the United States, the Nonhuman Rights Project headed by the lawyer Steven Wise has gone to court to argue that intelligent social animals like chimpanzees, with memories and the ability to make choices, are “persons” with a right to “security of the person.” Project lawyers aim to have laboratory chimps liberated into sanctuaries. They have yet to win a court case but the fact that their arguments are being heard at all shows a massive shift in attitudes toward animals’ needs, experiences and rights. The hearings focus not only on these abstract concepts but on Leo, Hercules and Tommy as individual chimpanzees imprisoned in labs to whom people relate as they do to cancer patients: with empathy. So far, the Canadian justice system has yet to hear a case arguing for chimpanzee personhood.
Here, the major route to reform is to reach the donors who wish to examine the destination of the funds that they raise in walks and runs. To a large extent, private donors hold the purse strings when it comes to medical research in Canada. To find out which charities allow donors to direct funds to non-animal research, it is an easy matter to contact them directly through their websites. By specifying when they raise money walking that their donation be directed to non-animal research or to patient services only, donors can raise funds and walk away from cruelty at the same time.
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