The general public tends to reject animal experimentation outright. Researchers are therefore particularly cautious when expressing themselves on the subject. “The press uses hard-hitting titles and adjectives that will create in the reader feelings of anger towards the laboratory, and of empathy concerning the primates”, develops the veterinarian Emilie Roussel, who devoted a thesis to the rehabilitation of the primates of laboratories.

However, we must not directly oppose the world of research and that of animal protection. Since it is still impossible to do without the “primate model” in biomedical research affecting humans, both claim to have in mind the well-being of laboratory monkeys and the desire to replace the tiny part of the survivors of the experiments. Their cooperation thus depends on mutual respect – and confidentiality agreements.

Two associations are in charge of making the link between the shelters and the researchers: the Graal (group of reflection and action for the animal), militant for the animal protection, and the Gircor, body supported by the CNRS, whose mission is to promote transparency in research. “We do not enter into the debate for or against animal experimentation”, specifies the founding president of the Grail, Marie-Françoise Lheureux. Since 2005, the group has been organizing retreats for dogs, cats, laboratory horses… And for “a few hundred” primates. “There are still laboratories that euthanize their animals without any need to do so,” says the activist. But I have never yet met a researcher who was happy to put an animal to death. »

A lack of communication

“The subject is taboo”, confirms the scientist Nicolas Claidière, who works in cognitive psychology for the CNRS with about twenty baboons from Guinea, near Marseille. His research is based on the psychocognitive activity of monkeys, assessed by non-invasive games, on screens, freely accessible in enclosures. “In recent years, mentalities have evolved towards more transparency, but scientists have struggled to communicate the importance of their research. The wave of Covid-19 should be able to demonstrate this. »

In fact, research on the SARS-CoV2 virus responsible for the disease represents a “good illustration” of the use of the primate model, confirms a spokesperson for the Commissariat for Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies, which uses in particular some four hundred crab-eating macaques in one of its facilities, Idmit (Infectious Diseases Models for Innovative Therapies). In France, the number of monkeys used in research has increased by 20% in one year for research on this virus. But in fact, the work does not make it possible to replace the animals “because euthanasia is almost always required”, in order to analyze the state of the vital organs or to prevent the spread of infections.

“We do not defend this model out of personal financial interest,” says Christophe Arnoult, director of the primate breeding platform near Marseille, who only participates in “academic and not private research”. “We believe in what we are doing because even today there are people dying of diseases. Without monkeys, a whole swath of biomedical research would collapse,” he said.

Behind the barbed wire, a semi-retirement

Before arriving in the laboratories, and sometimes after having worked there, some monkeys live in France out of sight. On the outskirts of Strasbourg, in Niederhausbergen, a path for walkers leads to Fort Foch. The multiple cameras and fences at its entrance attest to a well-guarded activity. This is where the Silabe of the University of Strasbourg is located, a primatology center where CNRS researcher Sébastien Bouret prefers to send his monkeys at the end of the procedure, so that they continue to “be used for something”.

Created in 1978, the Silabe platform multiplies activities related to laboratory monkeys and remains the main place of transit during their importation into Europe, before they arrive in research institutes. But they sometimes come back to it at the end of their career. Behind the barbed wire, a sort of semi-retreat is possible, organized independently of animal protection associations.

Martine Meunier, a CNRS researcher who worked for nineteen years with the emblematic Cannelle, a macaque now retired at the zoo refuge La Tanière, in Eure-et-Loir, has also sent two females there after their involvement in experiments. “Over the past five years, around fifteen monkeys have been recovered from laboratories to be scientifically upgraded here”, summarizes Pascal Ancé, director of the platform since 2018. Understanding, to diversify the genes of farms, or for studies non-invasive or moderate behavioral tests, “within the scope of the European directive [of 2013, which regulates animal experimentation]”.

The sun is setting and Pascal Ancé leads the visit to places prohibited to the public. He stops in front of an aviary. Fist clenched with osteoarthritis, an old long-tailed macaque is one of these “upgraded” monkeys. Installed behind the fence, he has been at Silabe for fifteen years. The hollow under his right eyelid attests to his investment in ophthalmological procedures. One of his fellows hangs beside him.

An opaque activity

Further on, a few cries of primates disturb the ambient calm of the fort. Accentuated by the snapping of their claws on the outer fence. A family of rhesus macaques quietly chew on branches found on the grass in their park. With several hundred square meters outside in the open, the setting would be almost idyllic – but photos are prohibited.

In 2013, Audrey Jougla entered a Parisian laboratory using primates. Under cover of a philosophy dissertation, the 28-year-old student secretly investigated animal research. “I’ve seen invasive and painful experiences,” she says. The researcher-primate relationship is very ambivalent. There was an attachment, the monkeys had first names, but at the same time they suffered teasing and abuse. »

The activist, “radically opposed to animal experimentation”, wrote a book where she recounts her experience, Profession: laboratory animal (Autrement, 2015). Before his eyes, monkeys would have been illegally deprived of water and food to resign them to having their necks stuck in restraint chairs (used to manipulate the monkeys without them being able to attack). She has since created the Animal Testing association, a “receptacle for whistleblowers” in the world of animal experimentation.

The activity related to laboratory monkeys remains opaque on several levels. Legally, they must come from captivity and come from approved breeders in China, Vietnam, Mauritius, Java, or France such as Strasbourg or Marseille. However, the latest mandatory statistical survey from the Ministry of Research leaves the boxes reserved for their origin empty. It also does not include, in its total figures for animals used in laboratories, the number of deaths from unforeseen diseases, surplus animals, or animals that did not correspond to the genetic profile sought. For its part, the airline Air France announced on June 30 on its twitter account its decision to stop the transport of primates.

Member of Gircor, Silabe signed, at the end of 2020, the association’s transparency charter for better communication with the general public. Because the lack of information on animal experimentation weighs on the employees of the platform. As with lab researchers, they have the “emotional charge” to respond to invective. The insults online fuse. “People come to your house to insult you. Psychologically, it’s complicated for people who work at Silabe and who love animals,” says Pascal Ancé.

To communicate about her primates, Martine Meunier has modeled her laboratory, it has been possible to visit it online since 2015 on the CNRS website.

A scientific interest group funded to the tune of one million euros, half of which by the State, should enter into service by the end of the year according to its director Athanassia Sotiropoulos. Among the objectives, the pooling of the results of experiments not published because they are inconclusive – called “negative results”. Disseminating these reports would avoid unnecessary experiments, even though they involve animals. “We work for the same purpose as the associations, continues the director, the replacement of monkeys [by alternative techniques]. »