For two weeks in March of 2020, McGill shut down in a scramble to transition to remote teaching activities; this entailed a pause in animal research, along with other on-campus activities. Likewise, institutions across the country temporarily suspended animal research to comply with public health directives. As such, the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) distributed a “Disruption to Animal Ethics and Care Programs Due to COVID-19” tracking form, intended to record reductions in the number of animals held by research institutions. While the CCAC wrote that “every effort [would] be made to avoid euthanizing animals due to disruptions related to COVID-19,” the Council acknowledged that euthanasia may still occur, and requested that institutions report how many animals they euthanized. Additionally, the number of animals transferred to a different protocol (i.e., animals who were moved from one scientific study to another) and animals who were removed from the research institution (for instance, by transfer to an animal shelter or private adoption) were to be disclosed to the CCAC. All three of these situations – euthanasia, a change in protocol, or removal from the institution – count as disruptions in the data reported by the CCAC. In an email to the Daily, the Council wrote that “the CCAC always encourages methods other than euthanasia to certified institutions,” and explained that collecting data on disruptions to animal care “is in keeping with [their] commitment to transparency and public accountability.”
The Daily acquired McGill’s tracking form* for euthanized animals via Access to Documents Request. The form details the number of animals euthanized at McGill’s animal care facilities at the Downtown Campus, Macdonald Campus, and the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) in March and April 2020. Mice constituted the largest population of euthanized animals, with 11,808 euthanized at the Downtown Campus, 27 at the Macdonald Campus, and 60 at the MNI – adding up to 11,895 mice total. Additionally, 256 rats were euthanized at the Downtown Campus facilities. 3,000 chickens from the Macdonald Campus Farm were euthanized; the form clarifies that laying chickens had been offered to a commercial processing plant, but the plant could not accept the chickens due to staffing shortages. As such, these chickens were euthanized and sent to an animal food processing plant.
These consequences of animal research disruption are not unique to McGill – according to the CCAC’s February 2022 report “Impacts of COVID-19 on Ethical Animal Care and Use Programs,” euthanasia was the most common fate for animals disrupted by COVID-19, with about 83.73 per cent of these animals having been euthanized. As was the case at McGill, mice made up the largest population of disrupted animals by far, at 119,798 disruptions total, or 63.22 per cent. Rats came in a distant third place, making up just 2.02 per cent of disruptions reported to the CCAC; birds followed in fourth place at 1.11 per cent. While the report spans from January 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021, the vast majority of disruptions – 72.99 per cent – occurred in the first three months of 2020, with 138,298 total animals disrupted during this time.
However, there is a discrepancy between McGill’s animal tracking form and the CCAC report: the 3,000 chickens euthanized at McGill are currently not accounted for in the CCAC’s data, which notes that just 2,102 birds in CCAC-certified institutions were disrupted. In an email to the CCAC, the Daily pointed out this discrepancy and attached McGill’s tracking forms for reference. The Council’s Director of Public Affairs and Communications initially responded that “[t]he documents [the Daily] included belong to McGill and therefore we cannot comment on the information reported within them. However, I believe you have been speaking with the University in regard to this question, and you have received the necessary information.”
In fact, the discrepancy was due to an error made by the CCAC. Two days after their first response to the Daily, the Director sent a follow-up email to explain that “the CCAC took another look at the numbers reported within the document […] We determined that the CCAC did received [sic] [McGill’s] report, but there was a calculation error made on our part.” As such, the Council is working to correct the error and verify all other data in the report. “I do apologize for the oversight and want to assure you that the CCAC is doing everything we can to ensure the accuracy of our data,” she concluded.
In an email statement to the Daily, McGill’s Media Relations Office (MRO) clarified that regardless of the COVID-19 disruption, these animals would have been euthanized at the end of the relevant research – they were simply euthanized earlier than scheduled due to government mandates to halt on-campus activities. In the case of the MNI, mice grew too old during the pause in on-campus research to be used in the experiments to which they were designated: the tracking form notes that these mice were euthanized because they “needed to be scanned/behavioural testing at diffent [sic] age.” Although McGill’s tracking form indicates that the chickens were euthanized “due to cessation of research,” the MRO statement says that chickens “were to be involved in teaching and were destined to integrate into the food market.” The statement also stresses that McGill adheres to “the high standards established by the CCAC,” and that the university has strict rules and regulations in place to ensure that the use of animals is ethical. “Researchers and everyone involved in research with animals […] are sincerely concerned about the welfare of animals that are part of the research process,” the statement continues.
Nonetheless, McGill’s choice to euthanize animals drew criticism from animal rights activists. In a May 2020 letter to Principal Suzanne Fortier, Shalin Gala – a vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) – wrote that the reported euthanization of 15 per cent of McGill’s rodents “begs the question of why taxpayer dollars are being used on experiments that can easily be ended or delayed.” Gala also asked the university to publicly release information pertaining to the disruption of animal research activities, including “if, when, and how many of [McGill’s] animals have been and/or will be euthanized.”
In an email to the Daily, Gala said that the university never provided PETA with this information. He also reasoned that much of McGill’s animal research must have been considered non-essential if it was abruptly ended or postponed: “PETA is questioning why any of these animals are being bought, bred, trapped or experimented on in the first place since they’ve been so easily disposed of and since experiments were ended or delayed.”
Research institutions often characterize animal research as essential – the MRO statement says that without animal research, people and animals “would simply not enjoy the quality and length of life they do today” and points out that the development of insulin, recent cancer treatments, and other major medical advancements have involved the use of animals. However, Gala argued that the drastic, abrupt reduction of animals in laboratories suggests otherwise: “more than 80 universities and research institutes in the US alone went on a killing spree due to the coronavirus […] That’s how quickly these animals went from purportedly being ‘essential tools to cure human diseases’ to instead now becoming simply disposable garbage.” According to the National Institutes of Health (an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Services that is the world’s largest source of funding for medical research), 95 per cent of new drugs considered safe and effective based on animal testing fail the subsequent human clinical trials – rendering animal experiments “cruel and wasteful,” per Gala.
The CCAC has not published the names of institutions affected by COVID-19; as such, the Council was unable to answer the Daily’s inquiry as to which institutions experienced the greatest disruptions. Data collected from the animal numbers tracking forms will “inform the development of future policies and improve emergency preparedness,” the CCAC told the Daily. “The COVID-19 pandemic brought incredible challenges and taught us many lessons,” the Council added. “The CCAC is committed to applying this new knowledge moving forward as we continue to improve animal care and use programs in institutions across Canada.”
*The Daily has redacted portions of the tracking form which name specific researchers and administrators.
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