• Two doctors examine a sleeping monkey on an operation table at Rhone Poulenc health department toxicology lab, France. (Sygma/Getty Images/Yves Forestier)Source: Sygma/Getty Images/Yves Forestier
The broadcaster is among 21 signatories to an open letter seeking to end painful neuroscience experiments on primates.
Alyssa Braithwaite

9 Sep 2016 - 12:50 PM  UPDATED 9 Sep 2016 - 12:56 PM

Sir David Attenborough is among a group of leading scientists, academics, and animal welfare experts from around the world who have signed an open letter calling for an end to using primates for neuroscience testing.

The letter, which was published in UK's The Independent, calls for an end of support for certain neuroscience experiments, given the level of suffering caused to the animals and the availability of human-based approaches.

"We, the undersigned, are concerned at the level of suffering involved in many neuroscience experiments on non-human primates, especially where fluid deprivation and movement restraint is involved, and believe that there has now been sufficient progress in human-based alternatives to call into serious question whether further research of this type is necessary," reads the letter, organised by animal welfare group Cruelty Free International.

The broadcaster and naturalist said recent breakthroughs in the understanding of primates' capacity to suffer pain meant science should no longer subject monkeys to painful or cruel types of experiments. 

"The recognition that apes, certainly, and to an extent other primates, are so akin to ourselves, and can suffer so much, as we can, has transformed our attitude, or should have transformed our attitude, to using them for our own benefit," Sir David said after signing the letter.

"They are sentient beings that have mental lives comparable to ours, and sensitivities, and pain and deprivation mean things to them, just as they mean things to us."

According to Cruelty Free International, 3612 experiments were carried out on primates in the UK last year, and 6000 are used in research in Europe each year.

A spokeswoman for Humane Research Australia told SBS Science primates are "absolutely" still being experimented on in Australia, and their website lists recent examples of primate experimentation in Australia.

Among the other signatories are well-known primatologist Dr Jane Goodall, and scientists from Australian universities, such as Colin Groves, professor of biological anthropology at the Australian National University, who believes an end to neuroscience testing on primates is long overdue. 

"I signed that because I think that a lot of the neuroscience experiments on non-human primates does cause quite considerable suffering in a way that a lot of other biomedical research does not to nearly such a great extent," Professor Groves tells SBS Science.

"It restricts what they can do, and it restricts their ability to respond to the world and each other. It can sometimes cause them great pain as well, and frequently what they have to do to open up the skull is disabling in itself, as they try to move around their enclosures.

"You can see that it is distressing for them."

SBS Science has reached out for comment from scientists involved in this type of research work.

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