Air Canada, one of the few major airline companies that still transports primates for research, was given the go-ahead to stop moving macaques and other non-human primates bound for research labs, after a decision today from its regulatory agency, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA). The airline applauded the decision and said that, effective December 22, it will require all non-human primate shippers to sign a declaration that the animals are not intended for research or experiments.
The airline tried to abandon research primate transport more than a year ago, after the British Union Against Vivisection publicized the airline’s movement of monkeys from China to Canada. But Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, and the Public Health Agency of Canada both filed complaints with the CTA, arguing that the proposed policy change was discriminatory and unjust. Today, the CTA disagreed, freeing the airline to remove itself from the dwindling list of passenger carriers that still transport lab-bound primates, such as the long-tailed macaques pictured here in a cargo hold en route to a European lab. The remaining primate-transporting carriers include Air France and United Airlines.
(Nature took a close look at this issue earlier this year, in “Activists ground primate flights“. We also examined the pressure that activists are bringing to bear on cargo carriers such as UPS and FedEx, in “Lab animal flights squeezed“.)
The CTA decision says that Air Canada’s proposed new policy would not be discriminatory, because it would apply to all shippers, not just Queen’s University, or groups like them. Admittedly, the agency writes, the rule change is bound to affect certain shippers, like research universities, adversely compared to others. But it says the airline has a “rational basis” for the proposed change: continuing to transport lab-bound primates could hurt Air Canada’s reputation and commercial interests.
Martin Pare, a professor at the Centre for Neuroscience Studies at Queen’s University, says he is “shocked” by the transportation agency’s decision. With available airline carriers dwindling, he says, obtaining research primates could become a problem in Canada, which lacks a breeding colony of macaques. Canadian scientists may now need to discuss establishing such a colony, says Pare, who uses Rhesus macaques to examine side effects of drugs such as Ritalin.
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.)
Goodman says his organization will continue to focus its campaign on United Airlines. United’s global media relations unit did not immediately respond to a request for comment.