National Anti-vivisection Society


National Antivisection Society

Huntingdon Life Sciences Investigation

Posted: 22 January 2013. Updated: 22 January 2013


As part of our campaign to end primate experiments across Europe, our Special Investigations Department spent over a year inside possibly the biggest monkey laboratory in Europe – the primate toxicology unit in Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS).

The largest single area of primate experimentation in Europe is commercial, regulatory testing. One of the largest such laboratories is HLS in Cambridgeshire with a capacity for around 500 macaque monkeys.

In the late 1990s HLS was brought almost to the brink of collapse by an undercover investigation that exposed cruelty and falsification of data. The Government threatened to revoke their licence to experiment. Consequently, you would expect this to be perhaps a most heavily scrutinised facility.

Between 2006 and 2008 one of our Field Officers secured a position inside the HLS Primate Toxicology Unit. Our film, photographs and observations give a vivid insight into how these monkeys live and die behind closed doors.

HLS is contracted by pharmaceutical, chemical, industrial and other companies to perform toxicology (safety testing) and other tests on their products.

This is one of the most secretive areas of animal experimentation. Permits for regulatory tests are granted in ‘groups’ and so individual experiments are not scrutinised by regulators. The reports of the tests are the property of the customer and are rarely, if ever, published.

HLS had capitalised on negative publicity about some of their critics, rebranding themselves as victims. For years, any media interest in the company had focussed on “extremists” rather than what actually happens to the animals.

The police assist with checks on workers and our investigator reported that staff considered the laboratory “untouchable”. Profits had risen to £33million per year and the company wanted to experiment on more animals. They planned a huge increase of monkey capacity to 700 monkeys. Time to look again at what was happening to animals inside HLS.

How the monkeys live

All of the monkeys arriving at HLS during our investigation came from Nafovanny, a huge monkey dealer in Vietnam.

On arrival at HLS monkeys are placed in stock colony J06, with up to fifteen animals in a room little more than two metres wide and tall by three metres long, with a small catching cage, 1 metre by 2 metres tall. There is no natural light. Although these animals are not believed to be wild-caught, their parents almost certainly were. The HLS monkeys are just one or two generations away from monkeys that lived in trees, in large troops of fifty to one hundred monkeys, and might range over 1.5 kilometres in a day – and this is still in their nature. Their HLS home provides an average of one cubic metre per animal.

The monkeys are moved to Unit M12 for experimentation. Some are now confined in cages of roughly one cubic metre. Three of these cages may be linked, with three monkeys sharing the space. Their rich natural habitat now replaced by a single horizontal bar in each cage.

These are the conditions provided by European and UK regulation for over twenty years, where it is acknowledged that “Primates have high intelligence, most have arboreal habits and all need complex, stimulating environments.”

The failure of these regulations to uphold standards, and the gulf between how welfare is perceived inside and outside of laboratories, is apparent from our photographs.

It would be difficult to describe the housing at HLS as anything more than the bare minimum. This is a wealthy company, providing a service to multi-billion pound/euro companies, yet these highly intelligent animals are provided with just enough to sustain them before they suffer in tests for products.

A monkey was discovered with blood on its face and the ends of the animal’s toes were missing. Some staff suggested that the monkey had chewed off its own toes, however our investigator noted that the wounds were clean straight cuts, and concluded that the animal was more likely to have trapped its foot in some part of the cage, sliced its toes off trying to free itself and then put its foot in its mouth. Missing digits were not considered to be an uncommon occurrence.

Monkeys had a range of cuts and injuries from the cages, with several requiring veterinary attention. Scrapes and scratches from being removed from cages; a chain being used to secure a cage pierced the cheek of a female, leaving her unable to eat and having to be force fed each day. Others suffered diarrhoea, nose bleeds, or ate and then vomited their own excrement.

The experiments

Tests we observed used anything from 4 to 72 monkeys and all involved the physical restraint of the monkeys, which clearly caused them distress.

It takes three people to dose a small monkey by mouth. The ‘catcher’ pins the animal’s arms, the ‘legger’ takes the legs, and another feeds a rubber tube down the throat to the animal’s stomach and pumps in the test substance.

In other tests the monkeys are strapped down in chairs. It is hard to imagine the terror of these monkeys, torn from their cages and then pinned in these chairs, their arms and legs locked in place by velcro straps. For some the stress is so great that they suffer rectal prolapse, which is a known indicator of stress in restrained primates.

During the study of an incontinence drug, three of the monkeys being restrained suffered rectal prolapses, and one being used to test another drug suffered repeated prolapses.

During an oral dosing study, several monkeys suffered from vomiting and salivation on numerous occasions. Several produced black-stained urine on their cage floor. One almost chewed off its whole finger and continued to chew its hand after the vet had dressed it. Others showed a range of symptoms such as tugging at chest skin, pushing their fists into their mouths, trying to bite through the metal food hopper, pushing large amounts of sawdust into cheek pouches, chewing metal and dragging teeth along the bars of the cage.

Five days later, some showed signs of twitchy feet, indicating a kind of pins and needles sensation.

Several animals were clearly distressed, yet they were orally dosed as normal and returned to their cages. At around the same time, a study of the same product was started in rats and researchers had noticed the rats chewing their feet and eating sawdust. Almost chewing off a finger is a substantial clinical sign, so as a result the dose for one group was lowered.

An inhalation study provided another example of how the severity of a procedure can be misjudged:

Over a period of time three monkeys on an inhalation study died or had to be killed due to partially collapsed and blocked lungs. Three other animals also collapsed but were revived. After death, it was found that these animals had blackened lungs. Clearly they would have suffered a great deal.

Documents leaked from another contract testing laboratory, Inveresk in Scotland (see NAVS 2005 report), show that during tests for an asthma drug, monkeys suffered with liquid faeces; redness of face, lips, feet and hands; swollen penises and scrota; a loss of body tone; low heart rate; hernias; they had body tremors and a quiet, hunched appearance.

An additional fear and stress for laboratory monkeys is that they have the ability to anticipate what is going to happen to them. In the wild, these monkeys are intelligent, they innovate, learn from each other and pass on skills such as cleaning food or fishing. Yet at HLS caged monkeys were able to see other monkeys being strapped down and experimented upon.

Stress and anticipation are known to distort results and affect the outcomes of experiments, yet for some monkeys the tests continue for weeks, months, even a year. They will learn that every day for the rest of their lives, they will be subjected to some kind of distressing procedure. Some monkeys had an incontinence drug pumped into their stomachs every day for a year. Others were bled multiple times in a day, or day after day – enduring over eighty bleeds.

On the days when the animals were killed at the end of the experiment, the other monkeys would fall silent. The normal shrieking, chatter and rattle of the cages fell to an eery silence. The magnitude of the monkeys’ awareness of the nightmare they face could not be clearer.

The alternatives

Animal experiments are a poor predictor of human response. Remember the horrific side effects in the human trial of test drug TGN1412 – despite that doses were 500 times lower than for lab monkeys. Many agree that this disaster could have been avoided by microdosing. This involves giving tiny, safe, doses of new compounds to human volunteers with samples of blood or urine analysed by Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS).

AMS can show how compounds have been absorbed, distributed, metabolised and excreted by the human body. An EU microdosing study recently showed it to be 80% predictive of human drug absorption and distribution – significantly more accurate than primate, dog and rodent tests.

Primates and dogs come at the end of the standard series of regulatory tests. By the time the monkeys are strapped into restraint chairs at HLS, hundreds even thousands, of rodents have already died to test the same product.

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