Despite years of activist-prompted lab raids, smuggled pix of sad caged animals and endless pickets and press releases, it turns out that only a tiny percentage of research in Canada now dispenses with the use of live creatures. Scientists in this country lag far behind Europe's, where labs routinely use human cells or tissues from biopsies, post-mortems, animal placentas, waste from surgery and computer simulations to replace live-animal studies.
Why Canada ranks so low on the humane index isn't readily apparent, though lack of federal legislation may be one reason. Unlike many other countries, we have no laws protecting species in labs from pain, or punishing researchers who use animals when there are other options.
"There is no overall movement to promote alternatives,' says Animal Alliance director Shelly Hawley-Yan. "We don't have a grant system helping people work in that area. There's no motivation to try.'
Consequently, she says, less than 1 per cent of the $678 million doled out annually for research by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada typically goes to alternatives to animal experiments. (NSERC funds about two-thirds of all academic research in natural science and engineering in Canada.)
Of all the projects funded by the agency, NSERC spokesperson Francis Lionnet is able to point to only a few - one of them a five-year $585,000 in-vitro study in Waterloo by eye-care giant Bausch & Lomb - that are currently looking at more humane ways to test products.
Lionnet says somewhat defensively that funding for alternatives looks so paltry only because the total amount of grants is so high. "What do you expect?" he asks, then adds, "We're interested in discovery. We fund people researching and getting into new ground, while also reflecting society, which has become more aware of animal needs and consciousness."
According to the data of the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC), the government agency overseeing the use of animals in research, only one-quarter of experiments being funded in Canada are for medical purposes.
"It has nothing to do with cures for diseases. It's anything a researcher can ask and get funding for," says Troy Seidle, science policy adviser to the Animal Alliance. The group is pushing what it calls the three Rs: reduce the numbers of animals used, refine the procedures, or replace the use of animals altogether.
The CCAC's annual report tells the tale of suffering (see table above), but activists warn that these figures don't tell the whole story, since CCAC's stats are based on numbers provided by the labs themselves, not an independent watchdog.
As this debate continues, meanwhile, so does the use of pound animals for research. In 2000, both dogs and cats from random sources such as pounds were much more likely to be used in experiments than "purpose-bred" animals. Guelph University is the biggest user of pound animals, mostly cats and dogs. University spokesperson Lori Bona Hunt says research involving animals is reviewed by a committee "to ensure it is necessary and done humanely and in the least invasive way possible. The research must show a reasonable prospect of yielding new, important knowledge."
Though Bona Hunt says costs are "rarely" a determining factor when considering alternative research methods, activists point out how enticingly cheap pound dogs can be. While animals from a "purpose-bred" facility, usually in the U.S., can cost up to $500, a pound dog sells for as little as $6. Such cheap access, they say, does not encourage innovative thinking.
Under the provincial Animals For Research Act, pounds are legally obligated to turn over to researchers, on request, animals that have been in a pound for more than 72 hours and are scheduled to be euthanized. Toronto city council adopted a policy last February forbidding researchers to acquire animals from city pounds, although animal rights activists agree the provincial law would take precedence if legal push ever came to shove.
While this move is encouraging, other surrounding municipalities have yet to follow Toronto's lead.
It may be true that researchers are looking for the simplest route. U of T has decreased its use of cats and dogs in research. As for moving away from animal testing toward alternatives, however, "We're not there yet," says university veterinarian George Harapa.