Macaque business puts airlines on back foot

Mark Honigsbaum and Alok Jha
May 28, 2005

One night last February animal rights extremists invaded the Surrey home of an executive with airport operator BAA, poured paint stripper on three cars parked in her driveway and spray-painted a chilling message on a nearby wall." You are now a target for us," it read. "You will not win." Police never discovered the identity of the assailants but their message was not lost on Margaret Ewing, BAA's 49-year-old finance director. Nor was it lost on other senior BAA executives whose cars were paint-stripped that night or on executives of British Airways.

Two months before a group calling themselves Gateway to Hell had launched a campaign to protest about the trade in live animals to British medical research laboratories. The campaign kicked off with demonstrations at Heathrow and Manchester airports in December followed, in January, by Gateway's announcement that it had singled out BAA, British Airways, Air France, Air Mauritius and the Dover Port Authority because of their role in the trade of long-tailed macaques and other primates from the rain forest. Air France and Air Mauritius have long been involved in the transport of macaques - highly intelligent monkeys that experience pain and distress in similar ways to humans - but ceased flying them to the UK several years ago after high profile campaigns by the British Union Against Vivisection and the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals. British Airways also claims it has not carried live animals on its planes for several years. However, in December, it discovered the policy was not being enforced and took the unusual step of writing to activists to ensure assure them it would not accept the carriage of primates, wild birds or other live animals "for use in any laboratory or for experimentation or exploitation".
    That announcement sent shock waves through the medical research establishment, concerned that it sent the wrong message to pharmaceutical companies who were considering pulling investment from Britain because of the high profile campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a medical testing company based near Cambridge.
    "How could you explain your decision to members of your own staff who suffer, or who have relatives who suffer, from diseases and disorders for which research on animals offers the only hope of a cure?" wrote Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, to the BA chairman Rod Eddington in February.
    The science minister, Lord Sainsbury, was equally concerned. He led the calls for an increase in police powers in an effort to stop the targeting of HLS directors at their homes and harassment of the company's suppliers by Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty's (Shac). He was also instrumental in persuading the government to sponsor a new law of economic sabotage, due to come into force this summer.
    Gateway to Hell was thrilled with BA's announcement and posted the letter on its website. But it was not convinced by Air Mauritius's claims that it was no longer flying macaques into Heathrow, and pointed out that monkeys flown by Air France to Paris were continuing to be trucked into Dover by ferry. Then in April Gateway called for a global boycott of Mauritius and its tourism industry. "Air Mauritius's major shareholder is also the government of Mauritius," read an announcement on its website." Mauritius depends on sugar and tourism ... if we all work together we can bring this country to its senses."
    Within days, Gateway activists arrived at travel agents in Bristol that sell charter flights to the tropical idyll and distributed leaflets calling attention to Mauritius's role in the "appalling" trade. Next it unveiled a huge banner outside the Air Mauritius office in London and began visiting branches of Thomas Cook, the largest agent for charter flights to the island, berating customers and employees on megaphones.
    The tactics were a mirror of those employed by Shac - hardly surprising, say police, who claim Gateway and Shac are two halves of the same organisation. However, Gateway's campaign was even more audacious. "Can we take on an island thousands of miles away?" the activists asked rhetorically. "You bet!"
    This week Gateway's boast came true, much to the alarm of the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (Netcu), a police body that monitors the animal rights movement. Despite previous denials Air Mauritius admitted flying monkeys used in animal testing to Paris for onward distribution to British and other European research labs.
    However, a spokesman for the airline told the Guardian it had now issued a no tice to Mauritius' leading primate exporters - Bioculture and Noveprim - saying it was no longer prepared to transport their macaques off the island.
    Calling Gateway's campaign "commercial terrorism", the spokesman said that macaques were not native to Mauritius and were regarded as a pest. He also denied reports, cited by Gateway, of monkeys dying on Air Mauritius flights to the US.
    Nonetheless, he said the airline felt undermined by BA's December statement, pointing out that it appeared to run contrary to the government's official support for animal transports. "Your national carrier appears to have given up on this. We feel that until the British parties decide what to do we we have no choice but to suspend our flights," he said.
    It is a frustration shared by medical researchers and ministers. Tests on primates are vital for development of vaccines and for medicines to treat such conditions as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. But in recognition of the suffering involved in their transport and experimentation, official policy has been to restrict and reduce the trade.
    Gone are the days, say the Home Office's animal procedures committee, when macaques trapped in the wild and packed into tiny, airless crates endured arduous journeys to the UK lasting up to 72 hours. Nowadays, only primates raised in certi fied breeding centres are allowed into the UK, and importations are down to 1,861 in 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, compared to 2,226 in 2002.
    However, the RSPCA argues that breeding centres in Mauritius, Israel, the Philippines, Indonesia and China - the principal sources for macaques - frequently augment their stocks with animals trapped in the wild. Gateway activists say this is particularly the case in Mauritius, where the monkeys run wild on sugar plantations and are considered a nuisance.
    Frequently injured during the trapping process, the macaques then endure gruelling journeys in the holds of Air Mauritius and Air France planes bound for Paris and Frankfurt. From there they are often brought by road and ferry to Dover for onward delivery to UK research centres.
    Gateway's critics argue its anti-airline campaign may be worsening the monkey's welfare by forcing exporters to turn to short-haul flights and longer overland journeys. "It is often the unloading and reloading that is the most stressful part of transport," says Mark Prescott of the National Centre for the Reduction, Replacement and Refinement of Animals in Research.
"Each stop creates the opportunity for mishap and sometimes animals die."
    What dismays medical researchers and Department of Trade and Industry officials is that BA's decision may have exacerbated this process. BA insists its policy is long-standing and similar to that of other British carriers. Indeed, now that Air Mauritius has indicated it is withdrawing from the trade, the only significant player left is Air France.
    An Air France spokesman said the airline did its "utmost" to ensure that live animals were transported in the "best possible conditions". That is not an assurance activists are likely to accept.
    Shac's website announces that tomorrow is billed as Real World Day for animals. Police believe they are planning protests at various sites, including - possibly - the Dover terminal. "You have stirred up a hornet's nest," warns a banner. "Now prepare to be stung."

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