Over 200,000 animals were used in scientific research in 2010 at the University of British Columbia, according to official figures. An information release on Oct. 28 includes the types of animals used and is the first such disclosure from any Canadian university.
Animal advocacy activists campaigning for details on the research say UBC has not gone far enough.
“The number of animals is shocking, because [UBC] maintained for over a year that they were using about 100,000 animals per year,” said STOP UBC Animal Research director Brian Vincent.
“Were they telling the truth when they said that before [or] in 2010 did the number of animals just dramatically double?” he asked.
Under BC’s current privacy laws, universities are not required to release certain information regarding ongoing research. But VP Research and International Dr John Hepburn said UBC has set itself up as a “guinea pig”.
“There needs to be consensus among the universities as to what is the correct level of disclosure; however they’re not under as much pressure,” he said. “I think they’re waiting to see what happens with us, and that’s fine, we’re happy to take a leadership position.”
The 211,764 animals used in research at UBC in 2010 represent 6% of the Canadian total. The vast majority of those, 91%, were rodents and fish. Hepburn said this was indicative of the move away from conducting research on larger animals.
1,570 of what are termed “large mammals” were used at UBC last year. STOP’s Vincent would like to see this number broken down by species.
“There’s probably some animals on that list that are going to cause the public to get really squeamish,” Vincent said.
UBC officials said that no dogs were used in experiments at UBC last year, and had not been used for decades, but acknowledged the use of macaque monkeys in Parkinson’s research.
The release has also raised questions about the level of suffering of the animals used in some research procedures at UBC.
The Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) has five “categories of invasiveness”, and 31 animals at UBC were subjected to the most severe category. The category specifies that animals are not given any pain relief, and can involve methods such as burning unanesthetized animals.
UBC said that the methods used in its research were those that included anesthetic.
“We can’t do experiments that are deemed to be cruel to animals. We can’t cause unnecessary suffering,” said Hepburn.
“If you’re engaged pain research, it may be necessary to have the animal have some sensation, but we simply cannot get experiments approved where there is perceived to be cruelty to the animals.”
UBC and STOP have been involved in an ongoing legal battle over Freedom of Information requests submitted by the advocacy group.
On Nov. 3, STOP submitted a legal brief to the BC Office of the Information Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) detailing their complaints.
Briefs from both STOP and from UBC are being reviewed by an OIPC officer assigned to the case.
STOP argues that more information about the methods and funding of animal research at UBC should be released to the public, and challenges UBC’s refusal to answer Freedom of Information requests on these topics.
UBC maintains that releases of information need to balance the goals of openness and privacy; to allow some transparency, but also to protect individuals and their research.
“We’ve been having a lot of discussions internally for some time now about what is the proper level of disclosure,” said Hepburn.
“There are always concerns expressed by animal rights activists as well as people internal to the university, about what we’re doing and how we can justify it. We are carefully considering what else we should be discussing.”