A campus action group seeking data on the number of animals used for teaching, research, and testing at Simon Fraser University is speaking out after being told that the university will not release any records.  

The Wild Salmon Creative Action group, under the umbrella of the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG), sent the request to the University Animal Care Committee in March. However, earlier this month, the group received the university’s decision that it is not required under the provincial Freedom of Information Act to create a public record of the data.

“I wasn’t entirely surprised. I wasn’t expecting the [University Animal Care Committee] to just hand over their records to me, but I guess the part I was surprised about was that I didn’t get anything back, not even a redacted response,” said Mia Nissen, who submitted the request for Wild Salmon Creative Action.

‘Not required to create a record’

In the decision obtained by The Peak, the university said that the database contains some of the information that was requested, but the data columns also contain “additional information” and the information pertaining to the request “would need to be extracted and tabulated from the other data in that column.”

“As a result, creating a responsive record would unreasonably interfere with the operations of the University,” the decision read. “Accordingly, in the circumstances of this case, the University is not required to create a record.”

Nissen asked that the data on the total number of animals used in research be broken down by species, category of invasiveness, and purpose of use.

In a statement to The Peak, Chris Kennedy, director of SFU Animal Care Services, explained that “SFU does not keep aggregate totals of the numbers of animals used in research as it fluctuates based on individual research programs over time.”

When presented with this information, Nissen was shocked that the university does not keep such data.

“To me, that just seems wrong,” she said.  

Taking action

The request came as part of the work done by the Wild Salmon Creative Action group, whose basic principles include a dedication to “the liberation of all beings.” According to Nissen, a group at Dalhousie University in Halifax was recently able to obtain a portion of the records on animals used in research from their institution.

“I think SFU’s kind of been under the radar in terms of their animal research, and with other universities like Dalhousie releasing some records, I just thought, well, maybe it’s time for SFU to step up and have some transparency around this issue,” Nissen said.

Nissen’s concerns around the number of animals used for teaching, research, and testing are two-fold: both on the level of institutional transparency and animal suffering.

“From our standpoint, Wild Salmon Creative Action would like to see the practice [of animals used in research] discontinued 100%. While we see animals used in research as an ethical issue, there are also very strong scientific arguments against animal experiments,” she said.

For the action group, obtaining the data held by the university is the first step to understanding the scope of the practice and the different uses for animals in research. Due to the fact that research done on animals varies in its level of invasiveness, Nissen would like to learn “what tests are being done and on what levels and [find out if] all of these studies [are] really necessary.”

“We’d like to learn more and possibly challenge the university once we have a better picture of what’s being done to these animals,” she said.  

Strict guidelines

Kennedy confirmed to The Peak that the faculties at the university that use animals in research include health sciences, applied sciences, environment, arts and social sciences, and science. The types of animals used at the university include mice, rats, guinea pigs, finches, chickens, fish, and amphibians.

“The research programs associated with the faculties are wide-ranging, including immunology, genetics, behavioral, observational, medical, physiological, and wildlife studies among others,” he said.

When using animals in research, the university adheres to guidelines set out by the Canadian Council for Animal Care (CCAC) as well as university policies.

SFU does collect some data which must be reported to the CCAC. According to the latest report by the council, over 3.5 million animals were used in certified institutions for teaching, research, and testing purposes in 2015.

‘Contaminated data’

In the Freedom of Information request decision, the university noted that it did gather information on species, category of invasiveness, and purpose of use — though the latter employed different terms than the request by SFPIRG.

However, the data was mixed with other information and records were inaccessible prior to 2013 due to a technical problem.

“The database used by Animal Care Services is not set up to search and pull specific species data, category of invasiveness etc [sic] and would have required modification to the software as well as significant additional staff time and resources to do this,” Paul Hebbard, coordinator of Information and Privacy, told The Peak in a statement.

“Additionally, it’s important to point out that the database contains proprietary research information which is outside of and exempt from being publicly released,” Hebbard noted.

“I think the important point is that there is information that can be released to the public, but they’re saying data cannot be manipulated in that way,” Nissen said of the university’s decision. “There [must] be someone who can extract this data.”

Wild Salmon Creative Action has 30 days from receiving the decision to make an appeal, which the group is preparing to do, according to Nissen.