Baboon Escape: Australia sees result of silence about nonhuman primate research

March 4th 2020

As reported in The Guardian, “the escape of three baboons involved in research has sparked renewed calls for greater transparency in medical testing on animals in Australia.”

The three baboons, one male and two female, were being transported to a veterinary facility associated with a Sydney hospital where the male was to undergo a vasectomy. The two females, part of his social group of seven, were accompanying him per standard procedure, as he is the leader of a troop. The presence of members of your social group, similar to one’s family, can have a “calming” effect during a stressful time, such as having surgery.

The three animals were re-captured, unharmed, within an hour and transported back to the nearby breeding facility. The cause of the escape has been identified as a faulty lock within the caging system. The facility will be re-evaluating the equipment to reduce the likelihood that a future incident occurs.

The story made headline news around the world and caught the local community by surprise. Part of the issue here stems not from the fact that there was a breeding facility near Sydney, nor from the fact that equipment can fail naturally over time, but with respect to transparency about what the facility does, and why.

The rapid media coverage—and the perceived cloak of secrecy around this issue—appears to have had policy consequences. Late last week, a motion passed in the Australian Senate to recognize that “the three baboons made a bid for freedom” and to “highlight the harm and suffering caused by animal testing.”

Speaking of Research urges leadership in Australia to engage with public, providing facts and information about animal research in their country

Much of this public surprise, and the resulting misinformation, might have been avoided if Universities and Research Institutes in New South Wales had been more transparent and proactive in engaging the public from the outset. Why is it that the public had no idea that there are baboons in Sydney that are bred for research? Why did the public not know prior to this event, that there is a separate veterinary surgery clinic for animals attached to the hospital, and that it is standard practice for animals to be transported here for routine surgeries such as this one?

Perhaps equally concerning, why didn’t more Australian scientists come to the public to explain the reasons and benefit from the research that is being carried out, and the reasons for using non-human primates? This is an evergreen issue: if scientists are not encouraged to discuss their work in an open and transparent way, only one voice is heard by the public, that of anti-animal research groups. Research institutions have a moral obligation to speak up for their research, including providing their scientists with the means to do so.

As we’ve written previously and repeatedly, openness, transparency, and proactive actions are the best way to prepare for events like these. A lack of such outreach, education, and engagement efforts results in fertile ground for the spread of mis/disinformation on animal-based research, and makes it very difficult to mount effective counter responses when the media inquires.

~Speaking of Research