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The bid to halt air transport of lab animals poses an imminent threat to biomedical research.

This week, the campaign group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) will take another step forward in its long-running, and increasingly successful, campaign to halt the transport by air of animals destined for the laboratory. It will announce that FedEx and UPS, the world’s two largest cargo carriers, have written to it to affirm existing policies restricting the transport of most lab animals (see page 344). On the face of it, this seems pretty inconsequential. After all, neither carrier moves many research animals, and there are plenty of cargo firms that could make up any shortfall caused by PETA’s pressure.

But appearances are deceptive: there could yet be an immediate and highly problematic effect. UPS has also said that it plans to change its policy soon to restrict the transport of amphibians, insects, crustaceans, molluscs and fish — all of which it allows at present. This could disrupt everything from the availability of the important frog model, Xenopus — three of whose major US-based suppliers rely on UPS next-day delivery — to the provision of the fruitfly Drosophila to international clients by the Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center at Indiana University.

And with PETA increasing the pressure, who is to say whether FedEx would not follow its arch-rival’s lead and halt the transport of insects and other lower species? As with UPS, the effect would be huge. To name just a couple: FedEx currently ships fruitflies from suppliers including the Drosophila Species Stock Center at the University of California, San Diego, and Carolina Biological Supply in Burlington, North Carolina. The latter uses FedEx to ship Drosophila, along with crayfish, mussels and many other non-mammals, to science teachers.

If this is not enough to make scientists sit up and take notice, they might consider the use of lab rodents, now under threat in India from a PETA campaign to halt the transport of all research animals by Air India. The National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad, a major government supplier of specialized mice, relies on the airline. As PETA undertakes a systematic push to target all major cargo carriers, scientists in any country who rely on air freight to deliver rodents should be on notice that their turn may be next. Of course, in the increasingly global world of science it is already, in many senses, everyone’s turn.

The pronouncements by FedEx and UPS, together with similar bans on animal movement made previously by airlines and ferry companies, are especially worrying because they indicate that biomedical researchers in many different countries, through reticence and passivity, are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the public when it comes to the need for, and legitimacy of, animal research. Why else would high-profile companies be willing to indicate, however implicitly, that they want no part in a transportation infrastructure that is crucial to global biomedical science?

If individual scientists wait until they are personally affected — until the day when that mouse carefully bred in Shanghai or Singapore or Stockholm cannot be had for love nor money in San Francisco — it will be long past too late to mount the vigorous, public campaign in defence of animal research that is so sorely called for at this moment.

As researchers join this battle — and join it, they must — they should, as a first step, work through their institutions, academic societies and umbrella groups to make an urgent, articulate, unified case to UPS and FedEx that the shipping of animals, mammalian and other­wise, is essential for both biomedical research and scientific education.

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Return to sender. Nature 489, 336 (2012).

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