On the Niederhausbergen hill, there is a center to study the behavior of monkeys. Discreet about his work for security reasons, rumors and doubts about his activities regularly arise. Your latest expansion illustrates this situation. Leaders respond.
In Fort Foch, the faces are closed. On the internet, in mid-November, a petition against its future extension appeared, although authorized by the city hall on July 4, 2014. This Monday, February 2, it has already collected about 48,000 electronic signatures. An impressive number, but stagnant after approaching that number very quickly. At the origin of the petition, the European association Pro Anima, which defends methods of medical experimentation other than those on animals.
Sylvia Hecker, member of the Scientific Committee of the European association Pro Anima, explains this emotion:
“We learned about the electoral decree recently. It’s the kind of public document that goes unnoticed very easily. Immediately, our networks were activated. They are scientists, lawyers specializing in environmental law, animal advocates. They are very motivated people. Now, we seek to take our actions to as many people as possible nearby. »
It is true that around Fort Foch there is a certain opacity. No website, no external communication, so many reasons to wonder about the activities that take place there. Measures considered necessary to protect the personnel who work there. “Given the context” the names of those responsible for the structure should not be disclosed in this article.
In Niederhausbergen, ethology and import/export
Fort Foch’s activities are managed by Silabe, an independent subsidiary of the University of Strasbourg, which takes care of the animals. They are divided into two distinct sectors: on the one hand, ethology, that is, the study of the behavior of monkeys in semi-freedom, on the other, a quarantine activity where primates are kept before being resold for export to the European Union.
The primates arrive from Mauritius and Asia for about six weeks before being exported to laboratories carrying out biomedical research. This is, at most, two thirds of the 800 anthropoids present in Niederhausbergen, although this number varies with activity. A healthy monkey sells for around 5,000 euros.
This commercial activity allows Silabe to be financially independent from the University and to carry out its main activity. The structure has 20 employees, including 3 veterinarians, 10 trainers and a welfare manager, “the animal advocate”, as he is nicknamed. In France, only Marseille and Rennes have a similar centre. Researchers, doctoral students or students who carry out scientific work are Unistra employees or associates.
How do monkeys behave? What sets them apart from men? Do they act differently when they know they are being watched or not? Why do some people follow game rules and others don’t? These are the types of studies carried out behind the walls of the fort. One of the touchscreen research methods given to developing monkeys could soon lead to a patent.
The president of the University for Transparency
If some people resist any kind of animal experiment, it is mainly the import/export activity aimed at medical experimentation laboratories that crystallizes the opposition. A facilitator role assumed by the director:
“We don’t do animal experiments here because we are not equipped, but we believe that medical experimentation is necessary and a good thing. Of course, the treatment reserved for the monkeys there is not pleasant, but it saves lives, we tend to forget that. Blood groups were also discovered. Considering the price of a monkey, labs think twice before making them take risks. Experiments are always done within the ethical framework. Here we also have a lot of very demanding controls. We follow up on how the monkeys we sell are welcomed and we can advise the reception structures. So far, we have not stopped working with any partner structure. »
In the face of criticism, the two leaders of Fort Foch, the director of Silabe and the director of the primatology center, agreed to welcome Rue89 Strasbourg, a little tired of the spotlight being on the structure only during the controversies and not for your job:
“We are always interested in accepting requests for information and explaining our activities that may seem opaque from the outside. This makes it possible to respond to the misconceptions that are circulating against us, that monkeys are being mistreated or that medical experiments are taking place there. »
A welcome that echoes the position of the President of the University of Strasbourg. Found a few weeks ago, Alain Beretz had wanted the necessary transparency on this issue:
“I want to convince everyone that animal research is useful. There should be no abuse here and the best way to convince people is to show them how we do it, explain to them why, how much it costs, that there is no suffering and that if we kill animals (in this case mice, not monkeys, editor’s note), is that we have a feeling it will save lives. That there are animal defenders does not shock me, although we can be attacked with exaggerated terms, badly thought out, or even in some cases, not yet in France, by real threats. That’s no reason to sweep him off the top of “academic Olympus.” »
An extension that would not be a
For the director of the primatology center, the petition opposing the expansion of the center stems from a misunderstanding:
“Just because we double the reception capacity doesn’t mean we’ll have twice as many monkeys. It is an arrangement so that the sheltered animals have more space and, therefore, better living conditions. It is a one-time investment, for 30 or 40 years, if activity increases one day. »
The directors also recall that, in addition to European legal standards, Fort Foch has imposed two additional approvals: Aaalac (quality of care given to animals) and ISO 901 (quality of management).
Management responds to accusations
The framework has a response to each of the twelve criticisms made in the online petition. Would this expansion contribute to an increase in the number of monkeys, but against a European directive? The director responds:
“Even if there were more here, you need to consider this number on the scale of the European Union and not in a center. Improving the quality of our jacks is therefore in line with this 3R directive (Reduction, Refinement and Replacement). Between 2008 and 2011, we went in Europe from 9,569 to 6,095 monkeys, or 0.05% of the animals, thanks to technical progress like the image”.
Nearly 140,000 hospitalizations and 13,000 deaths from drug side effects according to the health plan? This would come from drug misuse. According to the directors, there are always risks, no matter how small, in drug use. “And how many cases avoided? “Add one of them.
Would endangered species now be allowed? The Lemuridae were present at the site before the CITES convention, which prohibits them, and they breed there, while for the Callithricidae, it would be a nomenclature error in the prefecture decree, which would have used the old scientific name for the marmosets. “It wouldn’t be the first or the last time,” sighs the director.
A project for a large breeding center (3,000 monkeys) in Holtzheim was finally canceled in 1999, because the primate is not a biomedical model? “It was a political decision related to the establishment’s costs, but not to its interest or its dangerousness. “, we replied from Silab’s side. In the press archives, it is difficult to find a clear reason for this sudden reversal, but citizen opposition then pressed on.
What about suffering and discomfort? There is no food deprivation, the center says, but rewards to attract the animals. The pain associated with stings is similar to that felt by humans during vaccinations.
Would polluting waste be dumped into groundwater? Those of normal activity are dumped into sewers like humans and those considered particularly dangerous are sent in secure yellow boxes to waste treatment centers.
Answers that don’t convince Sylvia Hecker, who regrets that animals are compared to technological objects and considers certain answers “incomprehensible”:
“The problem of side effects comes from the unscientific assessment of toxic chemical risks in the animal model, which is not a model for humans. For a disease like Alzheimer’s, innovative technologies would allow us to better understand the human brain: positron cameras, magnetic resonance, non-invasive…”
“The more reliable the in vitro research, the less animal experimentation there will be”
The director also denies a frontal opposition with Pro Anima:
“After experiments with bacteria, in vitro research precedes animal experiments, which take place first in mice, then in other animals and even in humans. Monkeys are the last species tested, especially monkeys. Between the initial phase of research and the certification of a drug, there are now 90% losses. The more reliable the in vitro research, the less animal experimentation there will be, which is a goal. But stopping this step is, on the one hand, illegal, but today very dangerous. »
Former structure employees contacted also indicated that the fort was the victim of unfounded and regular rumours. Others also expressed disagreements with the administration over how to treat the monkeys, as well as where they came from, still on condition of anonymity. It is true that in 2008, an undercover investigation by the British NGO Buav accused Vanny Bio, a Cambodian supplier from Fort Foch, of capturing monkeys in the wild, which is prohibited and reduces their “reliability”. Works that are not considered seriously by Silabe, being the NGO considered subjective and with questionable information.
During a question to the government of the UMP deputy for the Upper Rhine Arlette Grosskost, the Ministry of Agriculture insisted on the texts and codes that govern the authorization. A meeting with two representatives of the Eurometropolis, Éric Schultz (EELV) and Christel Kohler, is also scheduled for the near future. Deputy Geneviève Gaillard (PS) also wrote to the Ministries of Ecology, Health, Agriculture and Research to “arbitrate” this dossier which she says she opposes. Silab’s argument is now ready.