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The UFAW 3Rs Liaison Group Research Studentship

Verity Bowell, Stirling University

Assessing the practicalities and welfare implications of training laboratory primates

Photo credit: Jean McKinley

Verity Bowell became the third UFAW 3Rs Scholar in 2003. Verity was interested in primate welfare, specifically primates used in laboratory research, and how their welfare may be improved through positive reinforcement training. Verity undertook her PhD work at the University of Stirling, under the supervision of Dr Hannah Buchanan-Smith.

Ms Bowell noted that in 2001 there were nearly 4000 licensed scientific procedures carried out on primates in the UK (this figure was 3600 in 2015 according to Home Office Statistics). Procedures such as capture and blood collection have been, and still are, carried out using force and restraint, which is stressful for the animals involved. This not only compromises welfare, but also affects the results of the data collected due to physiological changes. One means of decreasing the aversiveness of laboratory procedures is to train animals using positive reinforcement training (PRT). PRT may be used with laboratory primates to encourage cooperation of the animal with laboratory staff by training animals to, for example, offer a limb for blood collection, give urine samples on request, or to co-operate in capture.

Verity found that although laboratories were increasingly interested in using positive reinforcement training for laboratory-housed primates, there remained a reluctance to put into practice training programmes. Much of the reticence seemed to stem from lack of expertise in the running of training programmes, and a perception that training required a large time investment, with concurrent staff costs.

The aim of Verity’s PhD work was to provide practical recommendations for the use of training programmes in laboratories, providing primate users and care-staff with background information needed to successfully implement training programmes whilst improving the welfare of the animals in their care.

Training was carried out with two species, cynomolgus macaques (Macaca fascicularis) – also known as long-tailed or crab-eating macaques - and common marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) in three different research laboratories to ensure practicability was as wide ranging as possible.

Figure 1: Marmoset holding target whilst in transport box

Training success and the time investment required were closely related to the primate’s temperament, most notably an individual’s willingness to interact with humans, in both common marmosets and cynomolgus macaques. Age and sex however had no effect on an individual’s trainability. The training of common marmosets was more successful than that with cynomolgus macaques, possibly due to differences in early experience and socialisation. Positive reinforcement training helped both species to cope with the stress of cage change or cleaning, with the monkeys showing less anxiety-related behaviour following the training programme than before. 

Involving two trainers in the training process did not affect the speed at which common marmosets learned to cooperate with transport box training, but behavioural observations showed that initial training sessions with a new trainer led to animals experiencing some anxiety. This, however, was relatively transient. Whilst the training of common marmosets to cooperate with hand capture was possible, there seemed little benefit in doing so as the monkeys did not show a reduced behavioural or physiological stress response to trained capture compared to hand capture prior to training. However, strong evidence was found that following both training and positive human interactions the marmosets coped better with capture, and stress was reduced.

On the basis of her findings, Ms Bowell recommended that an increased use of early socialisation would benefit laboratory housed primates, and would also help improve the success of training. Further, the time investment required showed that training is practicable in the laboratory for both species, and that positive reinforcement training is an important way of improving their welfare, likely through reducing boredom and fear.

Dr Bowell obtained her PhD in 2010.

Published papers arising from Verity’s work supported by UFAW:

Prescott MJ, Bowell VA and Buchanan-Smith HM. 2005. Training laboratory housed non-human primates, Part 2: Resources for developing and implementing training programmes. Animal Technology & Welfare, 4: 133-148.