Canada’s Research Animals Need National Legislation
Unlike many other industrialized nations, Canada doesn’t have centralized, national legislation overseeing the use of animals in science and research. Although sections of the country’s 19th-century Criminal Code and the recent Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act are meant to protect the welfare of certain animals, neither applies to animals used in science experiments.
However, while Canada lacks legislation to protect animals used in science, it does have an agency called the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) that sets out standards and guidelines for animal welfare in a research setting. But, as the authors of this paper reveal, there are many problems with the CCAC system.
Before exploring these problems, it’s important to note that the CCAC is a non-profit organization, and to an extent, it’s also voluntary. Created in response to a number of animal research exposés in the 1960s, the council is largely funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Only institutions that receive funding from the CIHR and NSERC are required to join the CCAC. In turn, members must set up committees to oversee the use of animals in research. The CCAC also calls for veterinary care and trained staff to care for research animals, in addition to conducting inspections and compiling reports on their members.
The authors outline a number of key challenges posed by the CCAC system:
As mentioned above, one of the key problems with the CCAC system is that participation is voluntary for companies that do not receive funding from the CIHR or NSERC. While all Canadian research universities are CCAC members, private institutions that do not rely on federal funding have no incentive to join. As a result, there is no proper way to hold private pharmaceutical corporations, research institutions, and companies to account for animal welfare abuses.
The Sanctions Aren’t Strong Enough
The only offense in the CCAC system is if an institution fails to comply with CCAC standards. The penalties for committing such a breach are grant-related, meaning an institution may stop receiving payments, be denied future grants, or they may be required to repay funding. However, the authors argue it would be better to hold individual researchers or labs responsible for violations by losing a license or the ability to practice animal research in the future. With national legislation, it would be easier to prosecute violators in the court system. Because the CCAC lacks the strength of legislation, the incentive to comply with it is much weaker.
Difficulty Spotting Animal Welfare Violations
Another problem with the CCAC is how it conducts inspections on premises where scientific procedures are carried out on animals. Before carrying out an inspection, which happens once every two years, it gives advanced notice to the institutions being inspected. This gives organizations time to cover up noncompliance, so that it goes undetected. And since most animal research takes place in private, the chances of it being discovered are small.
By contrast, the U.K.’s Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act states clearly that inspections may be carried out “without notice to the holder of the License concerned.” This ensures that organizations do not have the opportunity to cover up animal welfare issues.
A Lack Of Transparency
Although the CCAC gathers data and releases reports on the use of animals in research, it only provides brief facts and figures with anonymized information, and it does not produce detailed public reports on noncompliance with its guidelines. Furthermore, the reports do not allow members of the public to tell whether a CCAC member is reducing the number of animals used for science on a year-to-year basis. This makes it difficult to hold institutions accountable and to detect trends over time.
There’s No Uniformity
According to the authors, there’s no standard reporting methods or guidelines that institutions have to follow when reporting on their animal use to the CCAC. This means that institutions may interpret the CCAC’s rules differently, or use different methods for providing their information, resulting in inconsistencies.
On a similar note, because there’s no centralized coordination within the CCAC, it’s difficult to ensure that member institutions are not duplicating research studies. As a result, it’s possible that researchers are wasting animal lives to repeat studies that are already being done in other locations.
Problematic Ethical Standards
The CCAC asks its members to ensure their animal research is “ethically justified” by determining that the benefit to humans outweighs the cost to the animal subjects. However, there is no formal ethical review mandated by the council, and institutions are not required to formally chart or release their ethical assessments.
The authors argue that the ethical justification of animal research needs to be more complex, investigating issues including the precise benefits of the research and the results achieved. They also point out that a modernized ethical system would take into account whether certain animal species should be excluded from research, whether to rehome research animals, and other welfare topics.
No Political Oversight
There are no political officials who take direct responsibility for the policies and practices of the CCAC. So, although the public funds the CCAC through taxes, it has no way of holding it to account.
No Incentive To Reduce Animals
Finally, the authors also argue that the CCAC’s dependency on financial support from the NSERC and CIHR limits its ability to reduce the use of animals in science. This is because both the NSERC and the CIHR benefit from the use of animals in science so are unlikely to support more detailed assessments or a reduction in the use of animals.
A Solution: Moving Toward National Legislation
Considering the ways that the CCAC falls short in its responsibility to protect the welfare of animals used in science, the authors call for national legislation as the best course of action to bring transparency, uniformity, and accountability to the animal research sector. Among other things, this legislation should impose a centralized governing body responsible for overseeing animal research; more comprehensive ethical guidelines, and a commitment to the 3Rs of animal research; a licensing system and strict penalties for violating animal guidelines; and government support of alternative research methods.
While national legislation may not guarantee the replacement of animals used in science, this paper argues that it is a precondition to attaining that end. Animal advocates in Canada should push for this as a minimum standard to protect research animals moving forward.