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United Airlines stopped transporting nonhuman primates in 2013.

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Airlines fight effort to force them to carry lab animals

A last-ditch attempt by biomedical science advocates to force airlines to transport nonhuman primates and other research animals appears to be facing stiff headwinds. Last week, four international carriers strongly urged the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to summarily reject a plea from a leading research advocacy organization to order the airlines to resume flying animals to research facilities around the world. The request is “misguided,” “far-fetched,” and contrary to laws that allow airlines to decide what kinds of cargo they will carry, the companies argued. DOT has not said how it will respond.

“The prohibition on the carriage of research animals will slow down the progress of essential and life-saving biomedical research that is necessary for drugs, treatments, cures, and the prevention of disease,” wrote Matthew Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) in Washington, D.C., which filed the complaint in August, in an email to Science. “It also violates several provisions of federal law.”

But Kathy Guillermo, a senior vice president at Norfolk, Virginia–based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which for years has been putting pressure on airlines to end these flights, calls NABR’s complaint “an act of desperation.” She doubts it will have any impact on airline policy.

Commercial air carriers have increasingly refused to fly research animals for more than 2 decades. Animal rights groups in the United Kingdom first began campaigns in the 1990s, protesting at airports against the transport of monkeys and other nonhuman primates. PETA began its own offensive in the United States about 8 years ago, staging airport protests and asking its supporters to bombard airlines with calls and emails. “If you do research on nonhuman primates, it’s easier and cheaper to get these animals from places like China,” Guillermo says. “We wanted to shut off that supply line.”

The tactics appear to have worked. United Airlines, which stopped transporting research animals in 2013, has stated it did so because it became the target of animal rights groups and was worried about the safety of its passengers. And one of the last holdouts—Russian carrier AirBridgeCargo—stopped transporting nonhuman primates in July, after 200,000 people emailed the company as part of a PETA campaign.

Today, almost every major airline has a policy against transporting nonhuman primates—and in most cases, any animals—for scientific research. Air France appears to be the lone exception, citing its strong support for biomedical research. Within the United States, labs and companies must transport nonhuman primates by truck, because airlines refuse to ship them domestically. In Spain’s Canary Islands, researchers in were forced to use military planes to get their lab mice. And last year, the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius began to invite researchers to come there to study its large population of macaques so that they wouldn’t have to deal with issues transporting the animals. (Guillermo says she knows of no cargo ships that transport nonhuman primates.)

The situation has made it harder and more costly to get these animals, as some suppliers now have to rely on chartered aircraft to import them, says Cindy Buckmaster, chair of the board of directors of Americans for Medical Progress, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that promotes the need for animals in labs. “Some people are being priced out of being able to do this work. Some is being outsourced to other countries, where they don’t have the same level of animal welfare regulation.”

Currently, more than 1700 U.S. National Institutes of Health grants rely on nonhuman primate research, according to the NABR complaint, which notes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration often requires these animals be used in the testing of human drugs. Approximately 23,000 nonhuman research primates were imported to the United States in 2014, the last year for which figures are publically available.

NABR’s complaint alleges that four air carriers—United, British Airways, China Southern Airlines, and Qatar Airways—“illegally discriminate” against customers who transport research animals because these companies transport the same animals as pets and for zoos. NABR has called on DOT to investigate these companies, force them to resume transporting lab animals, and levy penalties against any commercial airline that does not lift its ban. 

Several companies have joined the fray, including the Bar Harbor, Maine–based Jackson Laboratory, which supplies research mice to labs around the world. “Limited airline transport options have made it more challenging for the Jackson Laboratory to meet global demand for critical research resources,” the company wrote in a document uploaded to DOT’s website.

More than 8000 members of the public have also chimed in on the website, mostly in support of the bans. “Monkeys should never be torn from their families … stuffed into the dark and terrifying cargo holds of commercial airplanes, and flown thousands of miles to certain suffering and death in laboratories,” wrote one commenter, Elaine St. Leger.

The four named airlines all contend that U.S. law allows them to refuse to transport any cargo they wish and that there is nothing discriminatory about their policies. “None of the allegations has any legal merit,” wrote British Airways in its response.

It’s unclear what will happen next. According to United’s response, NABR filed a similar, but informal, complaint with DOT last year and the agency took no action. As for the current complaint, “DOT will determine [the] appropriate action to take after full review of the documents,” a spokesperson tells Science.

Bailey says he is hopeful “DOT will pursue and investigate” NABR’s complaint. His organization plans to respond to the airlines’ comments next week. “We stand ready to provide whatever additional information the agency needs.” PETA plans to file comments with DOT as well, Guillermo says, making arguments in favor of the airline bans.

Whatever happens, Buckmaster says, monkeys and other animals will be required for biomedical research for years to come. “The need for research animals doesn’t end just because people don’t want to fly them.”

*Correction, 2 October, 4:25 p.m.: Cindy Buckmaster’s statement has been updated to clarify that she was talking about all research animals, not just monkeys and other nonhuman primates.