Activists protest new UBC research facility

Animal rights activists say the University of British Columbia-Okanagan is hiding the fact that the university is opening a new medical research facility next September, a move the university says isn’t uncommon.

Stop UBC Animal Research is an activist group that monitors animal testing and research at the university. The group’s director and spokesperson, Brian Vincent, said the university has been trying to keep a low profile on its new medical research facility in response to reports that question its animal research practices, resulting in misleading public relations campaign, Vincent said.

“Two days after we broke the story about UBC’s plans to kill seven endangered sea turtles that they had on campus, UBC unveiled its new animal research website, which is a lot like cotton candy. There’s a lot of fluff there, but not a whole lot of substance,” Vincent said. “It’s clearly geared towards perpetuating [a public relations] spin to do damage control to their image.”

Doug Owram, deputy vice-chancellor and principal at the UBCO campus, said until an editorial criticized the university for building the new medical facility, there was no indication of opposition from the community or local activist groups.

“It’s kind of surprising to us that it came out at all because we’re not doing anything that U of T, or Carleton or McGill or [the University of] Vancouver isn’t doing,” he said.

“We’re not doing any animal testing on campus right now, except for insects and fish, which we’ve been doing for years,” Owram said.

The opening of a new medical faculty at a university means that animal research will be practiced, Owram said.  The medical facility is being built in the basement of the university’s arts and sciences building.

“It is designed according to all standards of the national government and provincial government surrounding animal care and it will be operated at that level,” Owram said.

Bill Milsom, head of the zoology department at UBC, said animal research is very different from animal testing.  Animal research refers to figuring out why a species behaves and reacts in certain ways, due to their biological makeup, such as chemical responses in the brain that affect emotions or overall health, Milsom said.

Animal testing is the next step in the process and usually does not involve universities, he added. Testing indicates that researchers are building on what they have learned from their previous studies, by testing drugs on the animals in order to discover what can treat what ails them.

Milsom said that the university employs about six veterinarians who constantly monitor the well-being of the university’s animals.

Vincent said while the university should aim to stop all animal research, transparency is the next best course of action.

The activist group wants access to reports on procedures done on the animals, lab infection reports, research protocols and any reports of non-compliance to be made available to the public. The university is currently not required to make this information available to the community during ongoing research.

“They have not provided one scrap of documentation,” Vincent said.  “The only concern [of the university] is if they imply we’re trying to do something sneaky,” Owram said. “I mean, there’s nothing in the research itself that hasn’t been debated for decades within Canada and as part of the federal and provincial legislation.”

All procedures and research are published in peer-reviewed journals, Milsom said.

“Whenever you have animal research, there’s always some degree of controversy surrounding it, I suppose,” Owram said.

More than three million animals were used across Canada for “research, teaching, testing and production of biological products for scientific purposes” in 2009, according to the latest report by the Canadian Council on Animal Care.