pharma © Enriquecalvoal
© Enriquecalvoal

Live animal transport has been in the spotlight recently: the death of several pets in the care of airlines has been much reported.

And the airlines have responded with new products.

This week, Flydubai launched a live animal transport service and Delta Airlines announced it had teamed up with CarePod, a pet technology start-up that has developed “new standards of safety and care for pet air travel”.

However, far less frequently reported is the battle between airlines and the US National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR).

Over the past five years or so, airlines have come under immense pressure from organisations such as PETA to stop flying animals to medical research centres.

AirBridgeCargo appears to be the latest to succumb to the arguments, ending the practice in July (despite the limited backlash likely to be suffered by a freighter operator as opposed to a passenger carrier).

But now it appears the medical research industry is fighting back – putting the airlines in the unenviable position of ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’.

According to documents filed with the US Department of Transportation, the NABR, on behalf of its members, has claimed that four airlines are illegally discriminating against shippers that “seek to transport animals for purposes of live animal research undertaken at medical and other research facilities”.

It argued that the airlines would happily carry the same animals, when destined for a zoo or as pets, proving there is no transport or safety factors. Instead, airlines are trying to avoid “political criticism, regardless of legitimate customer needs”, it claims.

Which is clearly true. But not illegal.

NABR is seeking “appropriate remedies”, including cease and desist orders, civil penalties and “to end and correct this continued illegal refusal to transport animals that are destined for research facilities”.

It’s an interesting case, which appears to have caught the eye of many interested parties. NABR is backed up by numerous universities, schools and medical research organisations.

On the other side are more than 9,000 comments from individuals – not of course necessarily backing the airlines’ right to choose, but many criticising animal research itself.

And the airlines – British Airways (BA), Qatar Airways, China Southern and United Airlines – are fighting back, claiming that none of the four complaints has a legal basis and suggests that 27 other airlines which ban the practice are also named.

The first complaint, argues BA, that “an air carrier … may not subject a person, place, port, or type of traffic in foreign air transportation to unreasonable discrimination”, has already been fought in court. A ruling on a hunting trophy case held that: “Delta is free to hold itself out as a carrier of some, but not all, hunting trophies, even if the justification for that decision is the avoidance of adverse publicity.”

BA went on to argue that the law “does not prohibit all discrimination; it prohibits only ‘unreasonable’ discrimination. British Airways may discriminate in what it chooses to transport as long as it does not discriminate as to the shippers for whom it transports”.

The next NABR argument is more spurious: it points to the regulation stating that “a carrier may refuse to transport a passenger or property the carrier decides is, or might be, inimical to safety”.

BA argues that this is irrelevant: the law “does not impose an affirmative obligation on carriers and it most certainly cannot be construed as even remotely requiring carriers to transport animals for purposes of live animal research”.

The next count, that an airline “shall establish, comply with, and enforce reasonable prices, classifications, rules, and practices”, has only been enforced in cases of “invidious discrimination”, on the basis of race, creed, religion, age or sex.

The NABR’s final salvo is the rule that “an air carrier shall transport as baggage the property of a passenger traveling in air transportation that may not be carried in an aircraft cabin”.

BA rebuts with a request that, if that is the case, the DoT “should immediately initiate an investigation of Southwest Airlines, given that Southwest’s website displays the following Q&A: Q, will pets be allowed in cargo?  A: under no circumstances will we accept pets in the cargo bin. Southwest Airlines only accepts cats and dogs in-cabin.”

Or JetBlue, which states: “At this time, we do not ship live animals as cargo or in the bellies of any aircraft.”

BA’s filing concludes: “Accordingly, there is no basis for any further action … and the department should close this investigation immediately…  Alternatively … it should direct NABR to serve the complaint on all the other named carriers and provide an opportunity for those carriers to respond”.

It is, as Qatar Airways points out, unclear as to why these four carriers have been singled out.

Qatar’s response, similar to China Southern’s, also points out that it is  “neither a pharmaceutical nor a medical research company” and therefore cannot respond to the NABR’s six pages of arguments about the benefits of animal testing.

It’s an interesting conundrum. While there may, perhaps, be some personal beliefs influencing decisions at the airlines, the biggest argument for banning the transport of live animals for research is bad publicity. But conversely, these airlines are also jumping at the opportunity to carry pharmaceuticals, many of which have been tested on animals, as a legal requirement. And how do they get animals? They must be trucked, or shipped, at far greater risk to the animals’ welfare.

It’s a tough choice. But it must be a choice.

Airlines should get to choose what they carry, whether it’s lithium batteries or dangerous goods, pets or perishables, they have to be able to make that choice, dependent on their capabilities, their responsibility to passengers and crew and their ethics and ethos.

But what does seem a shame is that so many airlines have in fact been unable to choose; it could be argued that bullying by animal rights organisations has forced a whole industry to restrict the lawful carriage of some animals destined to help develop life-saving drugs.

And that’s where the NABR should place its focus; not on the airlines themselves.

Comment on this article

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  • Lucy Post

    October 05, 2018 at 7:16 pm

    I applaud airlines that refuse to have any part in the cruel business of transporting animals to laboratories to be caged, subjected to painful procedures, and killed. Not only is experimenting on animals extremely cruel, it’s derailing cures for human diseases, because reactions to various drugs and diseases vary greatly between species. Advanced, non-animal, human-relevant methods are where the real hope lies.

    • jim

      October 07, 2018 at 7:15 pm

      This comment in uninformed. Animals are used in a variety of ways, such as using mouse antibodies to make cancer drugs so in such cases animals literally are the cure, they’re not delaying anything. Non-animal alternatives can be used for simple tests and they are 4x cheaper than animal models, which is why they are used if they exist. You don’t see researchers burning through their grant money unnecessarily, any more than someone would pay 4x the going rate for a new TV.

      Interestingly in Europe it is illegal to use an animal if there is an alternative and there are still c10million experiments each year, so that’s clearly 10 million examples of where your ‘human relevant’ meme falls over.

  • Kim Marie

    October 05, 2018 at 7:22 pm

    Airlines should want nothing to do with the sordid business of shipping animals to their deaths in laboratories for useless experiments.

  • Jim Matthews

    October 07, 2018 at 6:45 pm

    Whilst agreeing with everything this article says, i am a bit mystified as to how biomedical researchers could stop a third party bullying transporters.

    • Alex Lennane

      October 11, 2018 at 4:21 pm

      Jim, agreed! I really meant to say that I suspect their focus is in the wrong place.