A Hidden World Working behind a self-imposed, legally debatable
cloak of secrecy, CU's Health Sciences Center withholds from the public
virtually all information about its animal-research programs.
By Clay Evans, Camera Staff Writer
December 5, 2004
If you had to pick a terrorist out of a police lineup,
Rita Anderson would surely be the least likely candidate. The 58-year-old
grandmother and Gunbarrel resident laughs frequently, is magnanimous and
polite even with adversaries, and if she's prideful about anything, it's
her children, grandchildren and pets.
But because of her tireless, non-violent work as an animal
advocate — including an effort that helped persuade the University of
Colorado Health Sciences Center to stop performing surgery on live dogs
for its physiology courses — some find her irritating, perhaps even
"Ms. Anderson supports PETA (People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals), and PETA supports the legal defense of individuals
in the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) who have committed crimes," says Dr.
John Sladek, vice chancellor for research at the Health Sciences Center.
"And we can't assume that (terrorism) won't happen here."
Anderson, who since last year has focused her efforts on
winning the release of a small colony of bonnet macaque monkeys at the
Health Sciences Center, is amused that she is viewed by anyone as a
threat, and notes that she has no connection to PETA.
"To put me in the category of a terrorist, as somebody who
would do something violent, is absurd," she says. "I want things to be
ethical and nonviolent. ... I have concerns for the lives of the animals."
Anderson may annoy the powers that be at the Health
Sciences Center with her persistent requests for documents and occasional
peaceful demonstrations — but if she weren't looking out for the welfare
of animal research subjects, these days it's not clear who else would.
Like all other institutions that use animals for research,
the Health Sciences Center is required by the federal Animal Welfare Act
to appoint an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, or IACUC, to
ensure the ethical treatment of animal subjects, approve research
protocols and inspect animal facilities, among many other duties. But also
like many institutions, the Health Sciences Center has shrouded its IACUC
in secrecy, refusing public attendance at meetings, withholding even the
identities of committee members and censoring virtually all information
about animal research from public documents.
Sladek and others argue that the IACUC is essentially
exempt from Colorado open-records and open-meetings laws, because of
alleged threats from activists: "I would rather resign my position than
reveal our IACUC members," Sladek says.
"I'm amazed that the public accepts the secrecy," says Dr.
Christopher Kuni, one of the chairs of the Health Sciences Center's
analogous board governing treatment of human subjects, the Institutional
But former IACUC members and staff — all of whom requested
anonymity, because they still work in biomedical research and fear
retaliation — say that Sladek and other administrators have used that veil
of secrecy to conceal actions in violation of widely accepted ethics
regarding animal use, including: keeping the macaque colony, even when the
animals were not being used for research, and using public money to
maintain it; a plan to breed the monkeys and sell the embryos to outside
institutions, for revenue, not research; firing a well-respected
veterinarian and dumping IACUC members who raised objections to those
plans; and failing to adhere to a U.S. Department of Agriculture timeline
to move the monkeys from a facility deemed to be "in poor condition."
"I can't understand what the hell got into these people,"
one former IACUC member said. "They had an exemplary program. Then the
whole thing went to hell in a handbasket."
The story begins with the small colony of macaques, used
by researcher Mark Laudenslager in "maternal separation" experiments since
1986. With Laudenslager's National Institutes of Health grant slated to
expire, his active monkey research ceased in October 2003.
That's when Anderson began urging the school to release
the monkeys to a sanctuary. During a Denver visit, famed primate
researcher Jane Goodall seconded Anderson's notion.
But Sladek sent Anderson a letter indicating that the
Health Sciences Center would be willing to release the monkeys only if the
school received an estimated $10,000 to $15,000 per monkey (there were 34
at the time) to replace them.
Some think that's outrageous.
The monkeys "were part of federally funded research. ...
CU is now holding them ransom when they have never paid a dime for their
upkeep," says a former IACUC member.
Sladek says the figure he cited has been misunderstood.
"It's been described as a demand on our part, which it
never was," he said during a Sept. 9 interview at the Health Sciences
Center's new Fitzsimons campus. "It was just realistic: If we were to
release the colony and replace it ... that is approximately what the (new)
animals would cost."
Yet former IACUC members say that an "exit strategy" for
the monkeys was an explicit condition under which Laudenslager's research
was approved by the IACUC in early 2002. IACUC minutes support that
"The primates are not euthanized at the end of these
studies. Previously primates that were no longer used on studies were sold
or transferred to other investigators. At the present time, there is no
market for these animals," read the minutes from the Nov. 12, 2001, IACUC
The IACUC was primarily concerned that the institution not
have to pay to keep monkeys that were not being used in research. It
approved Laudenslager's protocol on Jan. 14, 2002, only after receiving
assurances that the monkeys would be transferred to a research facility in
California when his research ended.
Despite that, the monkeys were kept by the Health Sciences
Center — and even bred — between the time Laudenslager's grant ran out, in
January, and July, when he obtained a new one. Laudenslager himself sent a
series of increasingly frantic e-mails to the National Institutes of
Health from January to July, begging for money.
"(A)t the end of the current fiscal year, there will be no
finds (sic) to cover these monkey's (sic) per diems and the university
will be forced to put them up for sale," he wrote on June 14.
Laudenslager also wrote that, "The vice chancellor's
office (John Sladek) has covered the per diem expenses for an extended
period of time (over a year)."
Asked if the university had paid to support the monkeys at
any time, Sladek said he thought Laudenslager's "new grant" had been
awarded in late winter or early spring — in fact, it wasn't until July —
and that there was therefore no "gap" in funding.
But records indicate otherwise. And that makes some IACUC
members who approved the Laudenslager protocol angry.
"We didn't want to approve the protocol until it was clear
what the ultimate dispensation of the monkeys was going to be," says one.
"At the time, I'd have rather they been euthanized humanely than allowed
to live on forever doing research experiments."
So why violate your own rules to keep such a relatively
small colony of macaques on hand? Both Sladek and Health Sciences Center
spokeswoman Sarah Ellis told the Daily Camera that the monkeys were a
"magnet" for further grant money.
But some former IACUC members argue that Health Sciences
Center administrators have an even more mercenary goal in mind: Breeding
the monkeys, not for research, but so the Health Sciences Center can sell
embryos to other institutions and raise money.
In April, May and June 2003, the IACUC mulled over, and
finally rejected "protocol #67003703" — also known as the "Sladek
protocol," after its principal investigator — because the committee was
unable to discern a "research element."
Sladek says the research element was there for all to see:
"The research involved the use of embryonic tissue ... used to replace
cells lost to Parkinson's disease" in a colony of older bonnet macaques in
at the Chicago Medical School, on a project where Sladek is listed as a
However, four people involved with rejecting the Sladek
protocol say that it also included a proposal to breed the macaques and
sell embryos for stem-cell research, to financially support the colony.
"I was assigned to review the protocol. It was to create
embryos for sale," says one former IACUC member. "I had some concerns
about just creating (embryos) for sale, so I asked questions: What is the
use going to be, how many are we talking about? Are we just trying to make
money for the research program? All we were looking for was scientific
But neither the IACUC, nor then-staff veterinarian Ron
Banks, could tease out any such justification.
"The Sladek protocol came out of the blue ... and it
struck me as kind of weird," says a former IACUC member. "I thought, 'Oh
my God, are we now going into the monkey embryo business?' Was this
something we really wanted to be doing? I did not think this was a good
A bad idea, if for no other reason than public relations:
If the Health Sciences Center became known as a place where monkeys were
kept, caged and bred primarily for money, not the advancement of science
or human health, the school would no doubt become a target for vigorous
protests. But more importantly, IACUC members felt the benefit — money for
the school — wasn't worth putting the monkeys through repeated breeding
and what amounts to surgical abortion.
Sladek denies that he intended to turn the Health Sciences
Center into an embryo factory: "Oh, God, no. That's a total
The Health Sciences Center legal office extensively
censored the IACUC minutes from April, May and June 2003 meetings, at
which the Sladek protocol was discussed. Sladek says he "wouldn't have a
problem with the public knowing the details," but refused to show
uncensored copies of the minutes or the protocol itself to the Daily
Camera. He also sent e-mails to Health Sciences Center employees warning
them against cooperating with reporters.
In fact, Chancellor James Shore — who last month announced
that he is resigning — told CU Regent Jim Martin that he could not have
uncensored minutes, even though the regents were scheduled to discuss
issues surrounding the monkey colony at their Dec. 8-9 meetings. (Regents'
chair Tom Lucero took the item off the published agenda last week, citing
a need to address issues surrounding the CU-Boulder Athletic Department.
He told Anderson that the issue would be placed back on the agenda in the
next month or two.)
"Nothing undermines the confidence in a public institution
more than a failure to produce evidence or documents that are requested by
the public," Martin says. "On issues like (animal research), reasonable
people can disagree. But if one side refuses to provide the information
necessary to have a meaningful discussion, that's not good-faith
So why all the secrecy, if the protocol is as innocent as
described, given that Sladek has been very public about his work with
monkey embryos and stem cells? It's not animal advocates he's worried
about, he says, but people opposed to human abortion and stem-cell
Meanwhile, the flaps over the Laudenslager and Sladek
protocols allowed Sladek to retool a previously recalcitrant IACUC. He
refused to reappoint a dissenting member and fired Banks shortly after his
protocol was denied (the USDA is currently investigating alleged
violations of the Animal Welfare Act surrounding Banks' firing) which
inspired several IACUC members to resign.
"The credibility, independence, and neutrality of the
IACUC are critical to the university's standing among government agencies
..., private citizens, and investigators both here and at other
institutions," wrote former member Ethan Carter in a Sept. 10, 2003,
resignation letter to Sladek. "Your actions have undermined the very
foundation of the committee on all of these fronts."
Laudenslager's new grant money finally arrived in July,
paving the way for research into the way alcohol use may determine
aggressive or impulsive behavior among macaques.
Not everybody considers it vital research.
"Some 60 years of offering alcohol to animals has produced
no fundamental insights into the causes of this self-destructive behavior
(in humans), or even a convincing analogue of pathological drinking," says
Vincent P. Dole of the Laboratory of the Biology of the Addictive Diseases
at New York's Rockefeller University.
As for Sladek's work, he won't say whether the
reconstituted IACUC approved a new version of his once-rejected protocol.
But he acknowledges that the macaques were taken off birth control in
January and have been breeding since.
Which presumably means that the Health Sciences Center,
having ignored previous protocols, will keep the macaques at least until
Laudenslager's current grant runs out in May 2009. But just where they
will live remains to be seen.
The current primate facility was found to be "in poor
condition" and had problems "maintaining appropriate temperatures" for
tropical macaques, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal
and Plant Health Inspection Service report dated July 29, 2003.
In response, the Health Sciences Center came up with a
plan to move the monkeys to an existing building on the Fitzsimons campus.
In a Nov. 21, 2003 letter, R. Ridenour, DVM of the USDA/APHIS Western
Region gave the Health Sciences Center "until October 1, 2004, to complete
your planned renovations of, and relocating animals into" that building.
The letter advised Sladek that, "Should complications arise that may
interfere with your ability to meet this timeline, please contact us
Health Sciences Center spokeswoman Sarah Ellis denied a
reporter's August request to tour the new, as-yet-unoccupied facility,
because the school didn't want to tip off animal-rights "terrorists" — her
word — to its location. (Ellis says she doesn't "know specifically of
threats," but says that Laudenslager and other researchers had received
"death threats" by phone.)
But in a Sept. 9 interview, Sladek and Ellis gave a very
different story: There is no new facility to tour. Sladek pointed at a
vacant lot on the Fitzsimons campus where a primate vivarium is expected
to be built by 2008. In the meantime, the school plans to move rodents out
of facilities at Ninth Street and Colorado Avenue in Denver, and renovate
them for primate use. Sladek said "I hope" the monkeys will be moved by
Asked if he had notified the USDA of the change in plans,
Sladek said, "We will advise USDA that the plan has been delayed and
modified." He sent a letter dated Sept. 30 — one day before a deadline set
in 2003 — indicating that "Complications have arisen," and asking for an
extension to Jan. 1, 2005.
The fate of three dozen research monkeys — an admittedly
small colony — may not concern many people. But the extreme secrecy around
CU's animal research should.
From within its self-imposed, legally debatable cloak of
secrecy, the Health Sciences Center has cut the public off from virtually
all information about its animal research programs.
Do the people of Colorado want the Health Sciences Center
to maintain a perpetual "boutique" colony of small primates for the sole
purpose of keeping a single researcher in grant money, or as "embryo
factories" whose oddly circular purpose is to provide for the keeping of
They may, or they may not. But for now, administrators at
Colorado's only comprehensive medical university aren't even willing to
engage them in the conversation. Instead, they have drawn a curtain around
all animal research, rid themselves of dissenters, and announced that it's
nobody's business but their own.
And Rita Anderson says that's not right. Health Sciences
Center officials can tar her with whatever label they want, she says, but
somebody has to look out for the animals.
"I simply want to obtain the release of the monkeys
through legal, ethical means," she says. "I have been up front with
(Health Sciences Center officials), and I would appreciate their being up
front with me."
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