Debating Animal Research in Australia

The Ethics Centre, an independent not-for-profit organisation in Australia, held its second IQ2 debate on the motion: “Animal rights should trump human interests“. Supporting the motion was shark attack survivor, Paul de Gelder, animal lawyer, Ruth Hatten, and philanthropist Philip Wollen. Opposing the motion was ethicist Dr Leslie Cannold, Commissioner at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, and primate researcher Professor James Bourne. See more about the speakers.

A vote was taken before and after, with a huge swing of over 30% of the audience switching over to “against” the motion, in part due to the wonderful speech by Prof Bourne. 

Opinions of audience at IQ2 debate on animal rights
Click to Enlarge

As an animal researcher, Prof James Bourne focused on the use of animals in medical and scientific research. He is the Group Leader at Monash University’s Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute and a Senior Fellow with the federal government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). James’ work with NHMRC is exploring regenerative therapies for babies with brain injuries. 

Below we produce a transcript (with permission) of his speech, which contributed to the massive swing in audience opinion.

Thank you, good evening.

Like many of you I am appalled at our age of factory farming, our wilful blindness to exploitation, our rampant self-interest as a species and the seemingly inevitable destruction of every sphere of our environment.

But like all scientists I am also an optimist.  I hold true that medical research using animal models, and let me be clear – experimenting on animals themselves – is necessary in many areas of medical research if humanity wishes to improve life – life for both humans and animals.

There are two points I am grateful to convey tonight:

  1. The use of some animals in medical research remains necessary. Remembering for every monkey in research over 4 million are used in the food and dairy industry.
  2. Medical research on animals should only occur within a regulated ethical framework directed at the welfare of the animal.

I find myself here tonight after a relatively sudden and unexpected journey that began recently when the scientific community in Australia heard of a Green’s private member’s Bill in the Senate seeking to ban the importation of non-human primates for research purposes.

As a scientist whose work utilises monkeys I knew that a ban on importation would lead very quickly to a level of in-breeding in Australian facilities that would render valuable research impossible and force it into countries known for their unregulated practices.

James Bourne at the IQ2 debate. Image from
James Bourne at the IQ2 debate. Image from

I was motivated to enter this political debate because despite the woes and wrongs of our contemporary age, reason is still the best chance humanity has to right those wrongs and improve our world.

Reason always comes off second-best in the face of fear and suspicion. Fear and suspicion characterises much of the debate about animals in research and is cloaked in deliberate and wilful misinformation.

Images of horrific animal experiments undertaken in the 50’s regularly feature today in animal rights literature, even though these experiments have been outlawed for many years.

The Bill, defeated as it was, recycled many myths about animal experimentation… dangerous myths that computers and petri dishes can replace animals, that experiments inflict unnecessary cruelty and suffering, that baby monkeys are every day being ripped out the arms of their dead mothers in the jungle by poachers and then traded through unregulated corrupt profiteering to end up being tortured by mad scientists addicted to outdated scientific models.

The fact that a proposal of this kind can even be seriously considered today is evidence that the scientific community has not only been cowed into burying its collective head, but as a body-politic we are only a few steps away from reverting to a darker age where the quality of life – for both humans and animals – will be considerably lessened.

Indeed, while humanity is making ever more incredible scientific advances, regular polling shows a growing and alarming public disagreement about basic scientific facts, including human evolution, the safety of vaccines and whether human-caused climate change is real.

But let me indulge here in some very recent examples of why I believe non-human primate research is important.

Recently researchers infected monkeys with the Zika virus because it is the closest scientist can get to understanding in real time what is happening when humans are infected with this virus.

In 2015, the world witnessed the worst epidemic of the Ebola virus to date. Monkeys were treated with an antibody isolated from a human Ebola survivor and developed almost complete protection against a lethal dose of Ebola.

And yet opponents of animal research argue that knowledge gained from monkey research is inapplicable to humans.  This claim is utterly and dangerously false. Anyone that argues that insights gained from animals are meaningless, is either poorly informed or knowingly untruthful.

The political reality, however, is that the imagery and language peddled by animal research opponents is utterly confronting.

The facts, if you care to accept them, are:

First, non-human primates used for research in Australia are sourced from regulated breeding facilities overseas. They are not taken from the jungle.

macaque monkey animal research israel
An example of an overseas primate breeding facility.

Second, All animal research in Australia is conducted under the strictest scrutiny and follows the principles of reduction, refinement and replacement known as the 3Rs. Under these principles, animal-based research is only approved by a qualified animal ethics committee, which includes members of the lay public, welfare organisations and veterinarians.

Third, Non-human primates are used only in exceptional circumstances – when no other model is possible – as a last resort – when finding an answer simply cannot be provided by another animal model, cell-based system, computer modelling or human experimentation.

While we make incredible advances every day in computer technology, there is currently, and unfortunately, no alternative approach that can replicate the vast complexity of human disorder and disease.  Researchers are, however, continuously looking for non-animal based alternatives and this has already led to a significant reduction in the number of non-human primates used in research in Australia.

Furthermore, every researcher understands the great duty of care they must apply. Minimising the risk of pain and distress is of utmost importance when designing a study.

However, researchers remain hesitant to speak out as history tells us that this can have significant repercussions on the individual and the research program. I fear with recent activist developments in Europe, global scientific advances in health have been retarded.

You might find my work abhorrent, but it is framed in the highest possible duty of care to the animal and it seeks to address critical challenges in global health. If we proceed down a path to banning animal research – it is not only the science that will suffer but also, more importantly, the patients who would have benefitted from the outcomes.

I believe in a utilitarian sense, much like our speakers tonight, that in suffering the animals are our equals.[1]

So I cannot, and never will, defend factory farming, zoos and circuses or horse and dog racing, but ask you to please consider that in the face of this determined movement to stop all animal experimentation to remind ourselves that animal based medical research is driven, in Australia, by compassion and that the motivation to understand and improve our world – for all life – should always triumph over suspicion and fear.

Thank you.

James Bourne

[1] Eminent Australian moral philosopher, Peter Singer (Animal Liberation, 1975), paraphrasing utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1802)

6 thoughts on “Debating Animal Research in Australia

  1. Dr Howard, not sure of our qualifications on nutrition but I am guessing, virtually none. Also your comment above suggests that you lack knowledge on other important basics in this critical debate. Firstly, the leading dietetic associations around the world, based on the best science available, are clear in their positions that animal products are not necessary to live a healthy life. The ADA even specifies clearly that this applies to all stages of life, including pregnancy. They also state the obvious, if you are familiar with the science, albeit with due care not to upset the exploiters, that avoiding animal products may be helpful in avoiding many common diseases. Further your specific comments about vitamin B12 seems to very focussed on making a point in your favour, without considering many other important facts. . Perhaps you would like to comment on the following: B12 deficiency is very common in the meat eating population, the majority of B12 supplements manufactured are fed to farm animals, vegans can easily get their B12 needs with certain enriched foods, and a supplement if necessary. I think it would be also beneficial if you take a look at how animals are farmed in factories, transported and slaughtered, and at least listen to your emotions when forming your view on whether this is right. I suggest you watch a wonderful film called Lucent, which provides the necessary accurate film footage. I would have said the same thing to slave traders back in the day. They managed for centuries to justify and keep the practice going, with rational arguments based on economic and other seemingly sound reasoning. Showing an reasonable amount of empathy for other sentient beings (as well as your own kind) may seem overly emotional to you but for me, that defines a decent rounded human being. Simply suggesting that you care about your children, does not justify your active support for the rampant exploitation of animals. Nor does it justify turning a blind eye to the millions of humans starving, while you feast on animal products which the science clearly tells us are excessively wasteful of resources, disproportionately damaging to the environment and the leading cause of climate change.. May I suggest that it is you that is missing the point on this huge potentially game changing issue for our evolution and future?

  2. I am entirely dismayed that animal rights trumps my child’s right to live. If this so called philosophy was rampant in the early days of medicines there would be no children today and people would be starving. I find that many animal rights acolytes espouse that there should be fewer human beings to the point that we should all spay and neuter ourselves until there are no more human beings on this planet (Peter Singer). It is unfathomable that we have come to this point that one has to debate facts that have been proven to be correct and replace them with myth and supposition. So far all these animal rights cult members have done is to march science back into the dark ages with lies. They have caused the rare species in Africa to be closer to extinction by supplanting their paid protectors with just say no to poaching. They do not even acknowledge that the human brain requires active VB12 which is only found in meat products. Inactive VB12 which does nothing to help the human brain and it is the only VB12 found in plants. Without ACTIVE VB12 the human brain becomes irrational and overly emotional and you see the results of this diet in these irrational people who push to put animals above the needs of their own children.

  3. James,

    As a fellow scientist and researcher, I was disappointed to listen to your narrow debating views on the IQ2 panel.
    In this day and age, and as scientists we should be seeking progressive methods and alternatives to animal testing; In Silico Methods, High-Throughput Screening, Cellular Models for avoiding animal tests, Microphysiological Systems and Isolated human organs as an alternative to animal tests to name a few.

    Perhaps following in pioneering footsteps should be on your agenda. Pioneers whom for example are backing the American Senate passage of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (S. 697) requiring alternatives to animal tests to be considered.
    Perhaps it is time to be a leader rather than a follower. Who knows, this might put Australia in the leading front of scientific research.

    and by the way….your reply to Phil Wollen regarding Penicillin was quite disappointing. Sure Penicillin was tested on animals and is used until this day, but it was discovered in the 1920s where super computers and massive technological advances where mere speculations in science fiction books. We need to move forward.

    Dr Reem Lascelles, PhD, BSc
    Co-Director and Researcher at EVER

  4. James I was at the event and rather saddened at the speciesism and superiority of the human species that believe our interests should trump those of animals. Also, intrigued at your statistics and maybe the audience was a little skewed on the night. If we look at the online poll on the Ethics Centre website, it seems that 90% of people say Animals Rights SHOULD trump human interests.

    Clare Mann
    Psychologist, Author and Editor in Chief of Ethical Futures: Conversations that Matter.

    1. Online polls are notoriously poor indicators as they are (normally) self-selecting. In my experience animal rights activists are good at getting together to vote on online polls.

  5. Good day, Assoc. Prof. James Bourne made various claims in regard to animal experimentation in a recent IQ2 debate and I and many others believe that the public would benefit from a debate on the topic “Animal Experimentation”. If he, or any other person, preferably with a high formal qualification, would be prepared to debate this in a standard formal debate, one for and one against, this may edify the public on an important issue requiring more transparent public discussion. This is an opportunity for animal experimenters to publicly defend their position directly against their opponents. A time and place convenient to the person speaking in favour of animal experiments can be arranged and some compensation for expenses if incurred can be provided and they can present via skype if needed. It is anticipated that the debate will be recorded. This challenge will be presented elsewhere, including directly to Assoc. Prof. Bourne. Thanks

Comments are closed.