Following a high-pressure campaign from animal rights activists, the final ferry company that carried research animals between the United Kingdom and Europe has stopped the service, academic funders announced today. The news will complicate the sharing of animals between international research groups, which rely on the transit of live animals when shipping frozen embryos is not practical.
Passenger carrier Stena Lines enacted the policy change in January in response to a campaign by the National Anti-Vivisection Alliance, a U.K.-based group. Other ferry companies that serve the United Kingdom, including DFDS and P&O Ferries, also stopped carrying laboratory animals in recent months.
P&O Ferries spokesperson Chris Laming says that the company's handling of primates for research, which had been longstanding, "suddenly became of interest to the anti-vivisection groups" last year. Directors of the company received letters at their home addresses, and employees throughout the company received e-mails from around the world.
"All the while we had carried those animals discreetly without people knowing, but when the company's reputation comes under fire in an organized way, we felt it was time to take the decision to stop," Laming says.
Similar methods were directed at employees of DFDS. Spokesperson Gert Jakobsen says managers were sent abusive e-mails and campaigners threatened demonstrations at ports. Carriage of laboratory animals represents a minuscule income stream for passenger ferries, Jakobsen says, so DFDS judged it not worth the controversy.
U.K. government statistics indicate that three in every 1000 U.K. research animals comes from abroad. Most of the animals transported are mice, which sometimes cannot be shipped as frozen embryos. Researchers turn to shipping live animals when they cannot reconstitute genetically-identical animals using other techniques or when receiving laboratories don't have the necessary equipment to handle frozen material.
The new constraints on animal transport could hinder research and force institutions to duplicate efforts, including breeding more animals, warns a statement released today by academic funders, including the Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust, and Association of Medical Research Charities.
International animal transit relies mostly on airlines, in part because they offer shorter travel times that are easier on the animals. Ferries have been increasingly relied upon in the United Kingdom; however, since previous campaigns by animal rights activists have caused airlines and airports to enact restrictions on the trade.
Those past campaigns have been more violent than the present one. In 2004, vandals attacked the homes and vehicles of senior managers at firms they claimed were involved in importing animals. In the early 1990s, activists campaigning against the shipment of livestock mailed a letter bomb to a senior executive of Stena Sealink (the predecessor of Stena Lines), which exploded and injured a secretary.
Laming of P&O Ferries says that ferry companies have a long memory of such threats. "Because we have experience of this kind of protest we understand the implications, and have no wish to antagonize people like that, to be honest," he says. "The business wasn't worth that much."
An editorial by former Science Minister Paul Drayson, which appears today in The Times newspaper, argues that the companies themselves should accept some responsibility.
"Very few animals are transported into and out of the U.K. for medical research, so it's understandable that these companies conclude that the risk of protests outweighs the modest financial gain. However, these companies also have a wider responsibility to society," Drayson writes.
"Unlike previous animal rights campaigns, this attack against airlines and shipping companies has not been conducted in the public eye, but it has been no less damaging for the UK's global reputation," he added. "We need to support our transport industry in standing up to these people. The last ferry company pulling out of transporting animals must surely be the red flag that brings all sides together to sort this issue out. The time has come for the UK's scientists and politicians to make a stand."