October 24, 1996

Protesters march against animal research

Members of the Concordia Animal Rights Association on their way to a protest outside the McIntyre Building last week.

by Paul Gott

The march by Concordia's Animal Rights Association on the McGill campus last Friday marks the beginning of a campaign against animal testing at the University by the group.

Approximately 30 students marched from Concordia and ended with a noisy rally in front of the McIntyre Medical Building.

"At first, I was a little disappointed at the turnout," says Rebecca Aldworth, spokesperson for CARA. "But they were loud, they were angry, and they really felt it in their hearts and minds."

A window was broken during the demonstration, but Aldworth says her group is simply trying to raise awareness of an issue, not destroy property.

"This first event was about anger, it was to let people know we were enraged," she says. "But we're angry at the issue and trying to make people aware of what's going on, not trying to damage things. I guess that's why I was so upset when the window was broken."

Concordia also uses animals in some of its research. But Aldworth says McGill was singled out for protest because of the scale of its use of animals and because of its profile in the community.

"We targeted McGill for several reasons," she says. "First it was the abhorrent level of animal testing that goes on at the university and the fact that they use a lot of primates, a lot of cats and dogs. The other is that McGill is a world-renowned institution and we want to expose it for the cruel and sadistic practices which it allows and supports."

Dr. Richard Latt of the McGill Animal Resources Centre--the main target of CARA's protest--met with Aldworth in the days before the demonstration, but no common ground was found.

"I tried to make the point that the centre itself doesn't do research. We have veterinarians, veterinary nurses and animal-care workers and it's their job to ensure the well-being of animals on campus," says Latt. "Our staff are on call 24 hours-a-day in order to make sure that animals are well-treated. One of the best ways to support the research effort at the University is by ensuring the humane treatment of the animals used in research."

Latt explains that the University must work under strict guidelines set out by the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC).

"The council carries out inspections on a triannual basis, and they also do surprise inspections. And if we were in violation of the council's directives, our funding from the Medical Research Council could be terminated. This is such a significant threat, institutions wouldn't want to risk it," he says. "Organizations such as the Canadian Humane Society have representatives in the CCAC, so animal rights groups are already involved in the monitoring of our research. These representatives participate in the inspections of our facilities as full-fledged members of the assessment team."

The University itself submits every request to use animals for experiments to a rigorous analysis, claims Latt. Researchers receive one-year permits to do specific types of research with specific sorts of animals. Any proposal that involves potential pain or stress for an animal is immediately sent to be vetted by a professional ethicist.

Latt points out that McGill has been reducing the number of animals it uses in its research in recent years.

"There are less animals used today than there were in the past, but it isn't the result of any protests," says Latt. "The primary factor is economics: It's simply very expensive to carry on animal-based research and with the recent cuts in funding to post-secondary institutions, research has had to be scaled back as well. The scientific community is looking for alternatives because the alternatives are less expensive."

Adds Latt, "It's a lot less expensive to use a cell culture than it is to use a rat or a mouse. But you can only derive so much information from a cell culture. Let's say you're looking at kidney stones in a cell culture, that doesn't tell you what's going to happen to the liver or the heart or the brain. Very often, researchers need the whole animal.

"The animal rights movement says that computer simulations and cell cultures are the way to go. The scientific community, by and large, agrees--[as long as] those technologies permit the appropriate responses to the questions scientists ask."

Aldworth is skeptical about the benefits science derives from animal research. According to her, the World Health Organization once suggested that if everyone stopped eating meat, cancer rates would likely fall by 50%. "That's a conservative estimate from a conservative organization." She thinks if the money being used to support animal experimentation was spent on public health campaigns instead, disease rates would plummet.

Latt says animal research can have very tangible benefits.

"In 1994, a woman awaiting a liver transplant was kept alive at the Royal Victoria Hospital with a pig's liver. She recently gave birth to a child."

The exact number of animals used for research is not public knowledge.

"One of the issues when I was talking with Ms. Aldworth was the number of animals and I said it was University policy not to divulge that type of information," says Latt. "And the numbers are irrelevant in any case. McGill is a large institution with a large medical faculty so we would do more testing than smaller or less-specialized institutions. But that doesn't mean we use proportionally more animals for the type of research we're engaged in."

Aldworth isn't impressed by this line of reasoning. "I'm really sick and tired of going to a public institution and being told that what they're doing inside is a private matter," she says. "We're paying for that research, we're paying their salaries."

Aldworth says the demonstration was just the first step in a campaign to stop using animals for research at McGill. CARA plans on doing more research into McGill's practices and hopes to organize a public debate in the near future.