Primates confined, isolated and sometimes killed for medical research, RSPCA says

A baboon sits and looks out from behind security fencing at the National Health and Medical Research Council facility. Photo: Dallas Kilponen’Frankenstein-like’ experiments in Sydney hospitals

They are intelligent, social creatures but can spend decades in captivity – often isolated from their companions. They suffer pain and distress, and may be killed in the name of research.

Environment authorities have confirmed 370 monkeys and other non-human primates have been imported into Australia for medical experiments and other research over the past 15 years – a practice the RSPCA says raises “serious ethical questions”.

The animal welfare group says it is extremely difficult to meet the needs of the complex creatures in a research setting, adding that testing is often secretive and researchers are likely to be “entirely lacking” in the expertise needed to properly care for the animals.

It also questioned the need to import the primates when there are already three federally-funded breeding centres with four primate species available to Australian researchers.

A Senate inquiry is examining a Greens bill that would make it illegal to import primates into Australia for research.

The Department of the Environment said over the past 15 years it has issued permits for the import of 370 live, captive-bred primates for research.

They comprise 255 pigtail macaques from Indonesia, 46 owl monkeys from the United States, 59 common marmosets from Switzerland and France and 10 long-tailed macaques from France.

In a submission, the RSPCA said primates are “highly intelligent animals with complex behaviour and social structure” and their confinement and use for science “raises serious ethical questions”.

It said using primates for research inevitably causes them “pain, suffering or distress”.

Some research projects require the subjects to be killed, while other animals are re-used in multiple experiments, it said.

“Most primate species will live for more than 10 years in captivity [and] many can live for several decades,” the RSPCA wrote, adding they were often kept in isolation or in pairs, in conflict with their social needs.

Each primate species is different and Australian researchers lack expertise in caring for imported species, it said.

While primates imported into Australia are captive-bred, the RSPCA said some overseas breeding centres, such as those in Indonesia, replenished their breeding stock by capturing wild animals.

This meant Australia was contributing to “the ongoing capture of primates from wild populations”.

In a submission, the Department of the Environment said it issues import permits under the CITES convention covering the international trade of endangered plants and animals.

It said live primates can only be imported for eligible non-commercial purposes and permits can only be issued for scientific research that aims to benefit human health, increase knowledge of the primate species or conserve biodiversity.

A code of practice governed the care and use of primates in research, and facilities “must be suitable equipped to manage, confine and care for the animal”.

Permits cannot be issued if CITES authorities in export countries believe it would be detrimental to the species’ survival in the wild, the department said.

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