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Response to accusations of poor animal welfare standards at IPR by British animal rights group, BUAV

In the recent past there have been adverse reports, published in a leading UK newspaper, on the welfare of animals used for research and kept in captivity at the Institute of Primate Research, Nairobi. The publication of the story in the UK Daily Mail was occasioned by a so called ‘investigation’ that was carried out by the animal rights group, British Union for Anti-vivisectionists (BUAV). According to them the basis of their ‘investigation’ was the collaborative work using primates (baboons) carried out by UK Neuroscientist Prof Stuart Baker of Newcastle University at IPR in recent years.

The use of animals to study human diseases and to test medical products for safety and efficacy before making them available for general human use in hospitals and clinics is a well-established scientific tradition, accepted and supported by governments and the general public. Scientists have subsequently accepted the obligations that come with this responsibility including the conduct of highly ethical and regulated scientific protocols involving animals. 

Allegations by BUAV:
We were contacted by the Daily Mail before publication of the story, seeking answers to specific questions and allegations made by BUAV on IPR animal welfare issues. However the story that was eventually published by the Daily Mail failed to adequately capture our response to the BUAV allegations of mistreatment and cruelty to animals used in research at IPR.

We wish to provide our partners, sponsors, collaborators and stakeholders, as well as the general Kenyan public who support our research work, with a comprehensive response to the issues raised by the BUAV and Daily Mail articles.

We wish to state categorically that BUAV did not contact the management of IPR or our parent organization, the National Museums of Kenya, before, during or after carrying out its so-called ‘investigation’; none of our staff was officially aware of their ‘investigation’; they did not contact us to provide any clarifications before releasing their reports. The IPR/NMK management is therefore unfamiliar with their objectives, investigational methods, or goals, and can only conclude that the entire exercise was meant to besmirch the reputation of a good public institution in Kenya that is on the verge of achieving international standards for its scientific and biomedical programs through a rigorous program of international accreditation.    

One of the allegations made by BUAV is that it is cruel to trap baboons in the wild.  IPR is a public organization whose policies, strategies and work plans are approved by various departments of the Government of Kenya. The removal of abundant animals from the wild is both a species management issue for the country, as well as a source of animals for much needed medical research on diseases that impose a high burden on Kenyans and globally. For our biomedical programs we only use abundant, non-endangered species i.e. baboons and African Green monkeys (as listed on the global IUCN list). These species are only removed from areas of the country where the Kenya Wildlife Service has received reports of human-primate conflicts, has determined that the animals are present in those localities in unmanageable numbers, the animals have become agricultural pests/crop raiders, and farmers/general public are already taking matters into their hands and are killing the animals to protect their crops.

One only needs to consult the Kenyan daily media publications to understand the extent of the human-wildlife/human-primate conflicts in the country. The decision of our policy makers is to make such animals available to research, rather than to allow the more extreme action by farmers who regularly take the law in their hands, or the Wildlife Service intervening and shooting them to secure farmers/community rights to livelihoods. We would ask the enlightened Kenyan public to be the judge of which is the lesser evil!

IPR carries out the trapping exercise using the highest levels of technical expertise and standards for animal welfare. The capture protocol requires that our animal experts camp in the bush for several months to train/habituate a troop of animals to enter and exit spacious group cages, before they are eventually confined. Every effort is made to take an entire troop of up to 20 individuals, as taking only a part of the group would disrupt the complex social structure of those remaining. These measures greatly reduce the stress associated with capture and there are scientific studies that bear this out i.e. maintaining group dynamics significantly reduces stress.

We want to emphasize the fact that of Kenya’s 13 non-human primate species, we are using only the two most abundant species baboons and African Green Monkeys for biomedical research. For the other species, we are involved in active conservation efforts in field settings all over the country because our studies show that they need active conservation measures as they are listed as either vulnerable or endangered (Mangabeys, de Brazza monkeys, Colobus monkeys etc).   

Another allegation was that the baboons are 'imprisoned' in bare cages with many being caged alone, despite them being highly sociable animals.  This is an accusation we feel tempted to dismiss contemptuously; it is unfair, and could only be made by someone with little familiarity with our current programs, or detractors who care less about the facts. Granted we are a country/institution with limited resources to invest in animal facilities, but the underlying insinuations in the BUAV reports that we care little for animal welfare, or have little understanding of the 'complex' issues of animal welfare is ....well, we struggle for the right English word....galling, patronizing and insulting even!. We have invested in group cages, and we dare suggest, some of our new cages meet and exceed UK/EU/international standards, in terms of group dynamics, space and enrichment. We would admit however that some of our old cages may not meet current standards for space and welfare, but that is the point we seek to emphasize. i.e. our strategy is to throw out the old cages that were put up in the 1980s, replace with new facilities, including a new experimental house currently nearing completion that will be a showpiece animal facility for Kenya and the region, and which has been built with advice and support of UK cage manufacturers and primate experts from UK and EU.

In the last four years the Institute has invested over 50million shillings to renovate and expand the animal facilities. This money has come from the government of Kenya and other local and external partners and confirms our commitment as a public institution to meet the highest standards of animal welfare for our research animals such as the requirement that paired animals occupy a space of at least 4 square meters.  However in an environment of limited financial resources and competing priorities for development, it might be apt to remind animal rights activists that huge numbers of our people in Kenya who live in the crowded parts of our urban centers have less than 4 square meters of housing available to them!

Another BUAV claim is that it is wrong to experiment on wild-caught primates. But how can it be wrong when the research addresses both human and animal welfare issues? We are seeking cures for killer diseases such as malaria, so how can it be wrong to use 20 wild-caught animals to test a malaria vaccine that potentially could save the lives of 600,000 children that die of malaria in Africa every year!! Or to investigate neural pathways in animals such as baboons that are close to us phylogenetically and 'wired' as we are, so that we can rationally design better remedies for stroke, Alzheimer’s disease etc.

Some might argue that the capture process interferes with their physiology which reduces their usefulness as optimum disease models, but as explained earlier we are confident that our humane capture techniques eliminate stress; there is hardly any transport stress as we move them only short distances from the capture sites to our facility. Compare this with moving animals from captive breeding colonies in one continent (Asia) to user facilities in another continent, which is how most UK organizations acquire their primates. Is it then the argument of the BUAV group that long distance travel for macaque monkeys is less stressful than short distance travel for African primates?; or why have they not mounted a campaign to stop importation of captive bred primates into the UK from Asian breeding facilities?  With regard to numbers, we are confident in making the statement that we are not denuding wild populations as baboons are extremely successful on the African savannah and numbers need to be culled to deal with the human-primate conflicts.  A strong scientific argument can also be made that wild-caught animals, when used as disease models, are better able to mirror human disease much more closely than highly in-bred, genetically confined, captive bred species.

The reports also wanted to establish the extent of collaborations between IPR and British researchers. The answer is that we have collaborations with British scientific groups and are eager to establish more. The input we have received from British scientists on various scientific and animal welfare aspects has gone a long way in shaping our current strategies and has opened new contacts such as those with the UK centre for animal welfare (NC3Rs) and Medical Research Council (MRC) that are providing direct positive contributions to our animal care and use programs. Our plan is to keep benchmarking our programs with those of international organizations that can contribute to our vision of becoming an African Centre of Excellence in preclinical research and animal welfare. UK and other EU organizations can help us achieve that, but our primary obligation as a public organization is to the Kenyan people who support our work.

Finally we would like to assure our partners, collaborators and the general public that we remain committed to our research agenda of developing interventions such as vaccines, diagnostics and medicines for our health care sector, and will continuously strive to be a responsible public organization; and that we will manage in a responsible manner the human, physical, financial and animals resources available to us for the benefit of Kenyan and global citizens.     

December 2013

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