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Australia is no place for monkey business

By Helen Marston - posted Monday, 27 April 2015

This week was World Week for Animals in Laboratories – a week to raise awareness of the millions of animals used in experiments around the world.

Australia is the fourth highest user of animals in the world, behind only China, Japan and the United States. We use around 7 million animals in research and teaching every year, including cats, dogs, rats mice, farm animals, wildlife and our closest relatives – primates.

Hundreds of primates are being used in Australia every year in biomedical experiments and many more are housed in breeding facilities awaiting a similar fate. These primates – macaques, marmosets and baboons – are sourced from three government-funded, research-specific breeding colonies located within Australia – and few Australians are even aware that their tax dollars are supporting this.


University of Melbourne fixated the heads of two male macaques to make them focus on visual stimuli.  This type of fixation when performing neurological experiments is called the “halo method” - a circular aluminium frame encloses the entire scalp and is fixed to the skull using 6–8 stainless steel pegs.  To record brain activity, 2.5 mm diameter holes were drilled in the skull and electrodes were inserted.  The monkeys had to release a lever to indicate whether one grating stimulus was different from another. They were later given lethal injections and their brains were sec­tioned and examined under a microscope.

The University of Sydney used the retinas from the eyes of eight marmosets.  The animals were killed, and their eyes were removed and dissected.  The eyes were then mounted on slides to be viewed under a microscope to investigate a distinct group of cells.  Prior to being used in this study the marmosets were used in an experiment that took electrophysiological readings from their visual brain centres.  To date that experiment has not been published, so the details of what the marmosets were subjected to are unknown.

In seeking an animal source of islet cells for Diabetes sufferers, baboons underwent an immunosuppressive regime before being infused with a culture of pancreatic cells obtained from genetically modified, 1 to 5 day old piglets.  They were monitored for one month to investigate the antibodies which developed and the rejection of the transplanted material.  This involved sliced biopsies taken from their livers.  At the end of the study the baboons’ livers were removed for further study and they were then killed.

A more comprehensive (but not exhaustive) list is available at

According to the last available statistics (for 2012), 253 primates were used in experiments in Australia. This represents 167 marmosets, 76 macaques, 3 baboons and 7 unspecified.

There are three government funded primate breeding facilities in Australia.


Despite this however, between 2000 and 2014, Australia imported:

  • 331 pig-tailed macaques listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) Red List of Threatened Species as vulnerable to extinction from Indonesia
  • 250 crab-eating macaques ) listed on the IUCN Red List, from Indonesia
  • 71 owl monkeys listed on the IUCN Red List, from the US
  • 38 marmosets from France

Primates are genetically the closest living creatures to humans.  Their sentient ability is thought to be very similar to ours as primates have complex social interactions.  They have the ability to form and remember relationships and behaviours, mirror tasks, and even make predictions about future interactions.  Like humans, primates have a communicative language, they use gestures, facial expressions and body language to interact with one another and their cognitive ability is thought to rival that of a young child.

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About the Author

Helen Marston is CEO of Humane Research Australia - a not for profit that challenges the use of animal experiments and promotes more humane and scientifically valid non-animal methods of research.

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