On Wednesday 20th September 12 young and highly stressed baboons, who weeks before had ruthlessly been ripped from their families by controversial primate trapper and zoo (Eventiera) owner Erich Venter for heartless use in biomedical research (vivisection) at the University of the Free State, were released back into the wild.
This uncommon, but soul-stirring event came about as a result of cooperation between the CARE (Centre for Animal Rehabilitation), the EMS FOUNDATION, and Shambala Private Reserve. Only 2 days after their release, 5 of these baboons were already spotted with one of the existing troops on Shambala, and since then there have been several other sightings.
After a desperate email from CARE, and within a matter of hours, the EMS FOUNDATION, working closely with Shambala, was able to ensure that these innocent victims would once again taste freedom.
But there is also a very dark side to this story and many questions need to be asked by the public, of the government, the research laboratories (who are mainly part of universities) and the NSPCA.
Why did the Limpopo provincial government (through LEDET: the Limpopo department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism) sanction and issue permits to Erich Venter to remove wild baboons from their families and social group? Not only is this act of kidnapping very cruel, but it obviously severely, and negatively, impacts on the family members left behind and on the entire social structure of the baboon troop (which in turn promotes human-baboon “conflict”). Not to mention the extreme damage it has had on the traumatised trapped individuals themselves, who although now have a second chance at a life in the wild, they have to try and form new bonds in totally unfamiliar surroundings. LEDET’s primary mandate is to promote biodiversity and conservation not destroy it: their action is irresponsible and their lack of compassion inexcusable. The public needs urgent reassurances from government that this will never happen again and that they have policies in place to prevent baboons from being used in research.
The baboon trapper and supplier of wild-caught primates to universities in South Africa, Erich Venter is an extremely controversial figure and has a long history of brutality to our indigenous primates. Why are the universities and government supporting this man?
The role of the universities in actively perpetuating cruelty needs to become front and centre of public scrutiny. Universities core activities are knowledge production based on access to information – and they all scream out loudly in support of access to information. But the worrying truth is that if you are seeking information about their own activities, to put into the public domain, they are obstructionist and secretive. Ask for full disclosure on their vivisection and animal ‘use’ activities and you will get the door closed in your face. As publicly funded institutions, they need to be opened to public scrutiny. The EMS Foundation calls on WITS, UCT, UFS, UNW, UKZN, UJ, Monash, Rhodes, the MRC and all other institutions that practice vivisection to open their doors!
The lack of transparency and accountability in the vivisection industry in South Africa is aided and abetted by the lack of legislation to protect animals in laboratories and the clear lack of political will to deal with this issue. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that most animal research goes nowhere, animal research is still erroneously regarded as part of the research toolbox. It is a self-perpetuating industry and it is very difficult to get those whose livelihoods depend on doing research that involves animals, no matter how unnecessary or useless, to stop. University administrators are turning a blind eye to the moral and questionable scientific issues as long as the research money flows in.
Although this is a relatively happy ending for these particular baboons, we will never fully know the details of this case. This is because the NSPCA sits on so-called ‘Animal Ethics Committee’s’ only with the proviso that they sign confidentiality agreements with the research institutions. In this way everything is dealt with ‘in-house’ and vivisection in South Africa remains publicly unaccountable and the public therefore has virtually no idea about what is actually going on in this problematic industry. Under the watch of the NSPCA, non-human primates and other animals continue to be used in research in South Africa. This is why deals with NGOs, where ‘Animal Ethics Committees’ remain effectively closed to public scrutiny and which do not reveal to the public what is happening in labs in South Africa, are unacceptable. For an animal welfare organisation to participate in these committees on the basis that they will keep ‘violations’ and problems confidential and out of the public domain is counter intuitive and protects the industry and universities at the expense of public accountability. The extent of the vivisection industry and the suffering of the animals caught up in it remains secret. The consequence of all of this is that the public outcry is muted. Very convenient for the industry, its proponents, and protectors, no doubt.