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Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!
S. A. E. N.
"Exposing the truth to wipe out animal experimentation"

Media Coverage

Inside the Monkey House

Death and discovery, horror and hope at the UW's primate research center
By Bill Lueders, the Isthmus


Bill Lueders
The UW's primate center does significant work, but at what cost to its inhabitants?

We come upon the baby in an incubator in the corner of a typically stark and sterile room. At first he looks dead. Then he stirs and within seconds opens his eyes, squinting at the bright light and strange faces, perhaps the first he has seen.

My tour hosts, primate center spokesperson Jordana Lenon and colony manager Chris Luethy, explain that this rhesus macaque, number r04040, was probably born earlier this same morning. He's here because his mother for some reason refused to care for him, irrevocably.

Even in the wild, my hosts hasten to assure me, some monkey mothers reject their newborns. It's the same thing I'm told when I ask about other horrors known to occur within the walls of this facility, the UW-Madison's National Primate Research Center. Self-mutilation, cannibalism -- sure, these things happen. But they happen in the wild as well.

As part of my tour, I am shown the center's brightly lit, immaculately clean and currently empty surgery suites. We walk past a chute where dead monkeys are deposited so that necropsies can be performed. I am taken into rooms full of cages containing tiny marmosets and larger rhesus macaque monkeys. A sign on one marmoset cage attests to the animals' individuality: "508 escapes -- use caution."

The monkeys greet our presence with alarm. We are, in truth, a frightful sight, decked out head to toe in plastic coveralls. There are hoods on our heads, masks on our mouths, and shields over our faces. These precautions -- and the two-doctor-visit tuberculosis test I was required to take -- are meant to prevent the spread of disease. But the monkeys' reaction, I sense, is not just about how we look.

For the marmosets, the dissonant chatter grows louder the longer we remain in the room, until the monkeys seem on the verge of rebellion. The rhesus macaques begin reacting the moment they see us through the glass on the door, glaring back with mouths held open indignantly, like the letter "O." Inside, I try to take a photo of a mother with her infant; the flash frightens her and she cowers in fear, shielding her offspring.

All the rooms I see have 24 cages each. There are several marmosets per cage; each rhesus has his own cage, with an opening that allows visits with his neighbor next door. The cages, I'm told, are slightly larger than federal regulations require ("Just an example of how people are trying to improve things for the animals," says Lenon), but they're still small, less than four feet in any direction. The rhesus rooms are littered with grim rolls of processed food, which the monkeys have tossed from feeding trays to the floor. Luethy at one point shows me an Astroturf-like mat into which morsels of food are dropped, providing monkeys with hours of activity picking out the pieces.

There is nothing remotely natural about the environment at the primate center, home to nearly 1,400 monkeys. No trees. No vines. No sunlight. The baby that was born today and rejected by his mother (the center, I'm told, later found him a surrogate mom) will likely spend his entire life -- up to 40 years -- within these caged confines, except for when gloved hands take him out for various purposes.

The monkeys I am allowed to see, all of whom are used for breeding, leave their cages only when it's time to mate, or to be moved to another cage so the first can be cleaned, once every two weeks. Even the animals used for research, says center director Joe Kemnitz, spend "more than 95% of their time in their cages." He means this as a positive thing, as evidence that the center's research is mostly "noninvasive."

The National Primate Research Center, part of the UW Graduate School, is located at 1220 Capitol Court, a block off Regent Street. One of eight such centers across the nation, it employs about 200 people and annually brings tens of millions of research dollars into the UW.

For the latest fiscal year, which ended April 30, the center received $9 million in base funding and supported at least $42 million in grant-funded research, almost all from the National Institutes of Health. (Of the $1.9 million in private money, the largest share was from the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, which spent $435,763 to study menopausal hot flashes in rhesus monkeys.)

The center's scientists conduct studies in areas including AIDS, aging, neurobiology and reproduction. UW star researcher James Thomson initially used primates for his pioneering work with embryonic stem cells, which holds out hope of cures for Parkinson's, diabetes and even heart disease. There is ongoing work toward developing primate models for treating these afflictions.

Next week, the primate center is hosting the annual convention of the American Society of Primatologists, bringing in some 300 scientists from across the land to hear talks on topics like, "Sex Differences in Salivary Cortisol and DHEA in SIV-Infected Pigtail Macaques" and "Risk-Taking and Its Relationship to Alcohol Consumption in Rhesus Macaques." Coinciding with this event will be teach-ins and protests involving local and national animal rights activists.

Primate research is controversial for the same reason proponents say it's invaluable: the close biological and behavioral links between monkeys and human beings. Monkeys form complex social relationships, communicate, play, parent and display a range of emotions. They also serve as attractive proxies for experiments that no research committee would allow to be done on human subjects.

Madison has long been at the forefront of the debate over primate research. It was here that Harry Harlow, who in 1961 snared the federal grant that created the primate center, did his famous studies on the bond between primate mothers and their babies. While credited with producing important insights, this work turned dark if not depraved, as the hard-drinking Harlow subjected infant monkeys to psyche-destroying isolation and built mechanical "evil mothers" who stuck them with metal spikes when hugged, the ultimate in maternal rejection.

The Harlow Primate Lab, part of the UW department of psychology, is a separate facility located just across the street from the primate center, with its own colony of 450 rhesus macaques. Its primary focus remains infant development research, with an apparent emphasis on prenatal stress and disturbance.

Scientists involved in primate research insist they are doing critical work while treating animals humanely. Animal advocates say much of this research is unnecessary and the treatment of these animals appalling. Both sides tend to demonize the other, with the pro-research faction painting opponents as violent Luddites who would sooner see sick children die from horrible diseases than have mice subjected to an occasional pin-prick, and animal advocates pegging researchers as callous and cruel, engaged in work that has little point other than to generate funding.

"Animal experimentation doesn't have anything to do with science," says Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!, a 2,000-member advocacy group based in Ohio. "It has to do with bringing money into universities. Most of the studies that go on in these facilities don't have anything to do with diseases that are killing people."

Budkie, who holds a degree in animal health technology from the University of Cincinnati, has been monitoring research at the UW's primate center since 1990. In past reports, he's criticized the center for its high infant mortality rate -- purportedly 30% in 1999 -- and other problems. He plans to release a new report in Madison next week lambasting "high rates of disease due to conditions within the center." Generally speaking, he says, "The primates at the University of Wisconsin appear to be severely stressed."

Over the years, Budkie has collected necropsy reports involving the center's primates. One such report from 2000 describes a cannibalized marmoset monkey: "The bones of the face and forehead are shattered. The skin around the left mandible is missing. There are wounds around the mouth and on the neck, left ear, and at the base of the left arm." Another report, from a week later, tells of a marmoset with bruises and bite marks on her upper abdomen and arms: "The eyes are missing and the nose and mouth are partially missing."

The center has five full-time veterinarians and seven people under their supervision, and another 30 people whose job it is to care for the animals. All research must be approved by the NIH and reviewed by at least one campus Animal Care and Use Committee; some experiments involve two or three layers of university review. And, says Lenon, federal inspectors conduct "surprise spot inspections."

In 2002, according to a report obtained by Budkie, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited the center for violating its rules regarding "environmental enhancement to promote psychological well-being." It found primates housed singly and with "no additional enhancement other than a mirror" that some of them could not even see. "The inspectors were told the room had just been cleaned, so additional enrichment had not been added," the report reads. "The inspector returned to the room the following day, and still no additional enrichment had been added."

Last year, the UW paid $260,000 to settle a federal lawsuit brought by Jennifer Hess, who formerly worked at the center as an assistant research veterinarian (see Watchdog, 2/20/04). Hess alleged she was fired in April 2002 for complaining about "cruel and improper treatment" of the center's primates, saying in one deposition that some of the animals "really suffered."

Center researchers, Hess testified, altered records and pressured her to allow experiments to go on despite her concerns about animal welfare. They casually directed her to "kill" rather than treat a sick monkey, and once experimented on a restrained animal until it died. Her efforts to raise concerns about animal care with Kemnitz and other UW officials were often met with "hostility" and "derision."

Activists are never permitted to see the non-public areas within the primate center, ostensibly to prevent acts of criminal sabotage. "It would be irresponsible of me to allow opponents of our program to photograph the layout of our facilities," Kemnitz wrote last year in a letter to the Wisconsin State Journal. Reporters like me are sometimes granted limited access as "representatives of the public."

Still, I am shown only a small part of the facility, and far less than half of the total colony. None of the animals I see are involved in active research. The center forbids photographs of the most invasive research, like the six monkeys in a recently completed study that involved replacing part of their skulls with cranial pedestals, or headcaps, to facilitate access to their brains. Again, the center's opponents get the blame.

"Because of very real threats to research, people and animals by animal rights extremists," says Lenon, "we typically do not release photos of animals undergoing surgical procedures."

Just inside the primate center's main entrance lives a small group of marmosets in a glass enclosure. This is the one part of the facility, besides a 36,000-item primatology library, that's open to the public. The enclosure has cinderblock walls and a few chained-down logs, which the tiny monkeys traverse with astounding speed. They have enormous tails and intense, curious faces, with tufts of white hair jutting out from either side of their heads, like Einstein. (The UW runs an entertaining live webcam of these monkeys at www.primate.wisc.edu/pin/marmoset.)

The center boasts one of the nation's largest colonies of captive marmosets -- a total of 254 animals, according to a count taken in April. It also has 60 cynomolgous (or crab-eating) macaques and 19 velvets (African green monkeys). There are no chimpanzees, orangutans or other great apes. Most of the center's colony -- 1,048 animals -- are rhesus macaques, a highly developed species that has about 95% of its DNA in common with humans.

Of these rhesus monkeys, 300 are used for breeding and 500 for research. This includes 60 used for AIDS research and 50 in studies involving caloric restriction and aging. Another 300 rhesus, mostly juveniles, remain unassigned.

During the 2003-04 research year, which ended April 30, Kemnitz says his center recorded 239 monkey deaths. Most were due to old age or illness, but 98 animals were killed as part of research, often to obtain tissue samples. "The great majority of these," asserts Kemnitz, "entailed deliberate administration of anesthesia -- they were put to sleep."

Kemnitz says that by the time any experimental protocol obtains the necessary NIH and university approvals, "the science is usually pretty good and the justifications have been made." The researcher must prove he or she needs monkeys -- officially "non-human primates" -- as opposed to some species, like rats, lower on the phylogenetic scale. Kemnitz has never seen a primate experiment "that I didn't think had an important rationale." And he says "the bar of standards is continually being raised."

The center has about 100 active protocols for ongoing experiments. Most, Kemnitz assures me, involve noninvasive data collection, with the animals spending brief periods outside their cages for blood draws, biopsies, behavior observations and the like.

Primate center protocols are reviewed initially by the Graduate School's Animal Care and Use Committee. Some protocols, especially those involving more invasive research, are then reviewed by an All-Campus Animal Care and Use Committee.

Eric Sandgren, an associate professor of pathobiological sciences who heads the grad school committee, says virtually every experiment is refined and some are rejected due to his committee's concerns. But he declines to "talk in specific terms about any experiments" or even to identify his eight fellow committee members, including a veterinarian and a public representative: "There's no way I'm giving any names up."

While the UW's system of rating protocols is now being revised, the one formerly in place used a scale from 1 to 5. Category 1 experiments involve only minimal discomfort, such as injections and blood sampling, while those in category 5 might include "painful experiments on unanesthetized animals." Curiously, experiments "carried out on anesthetized animals which do not recover" fall into Category 2, not requiring upper-level review.

Neither Kemnitz nor Sandgren knew how many upper-level experiments are now conducted on the center's primates, although both felt there were none in Category 5. Tim Mulcahy, the UW's associate vice chancellor for research policy, thought there were some protocols in this highest category, but failed to follow through on his promise to provide numbers.

Further frustrating inquiry into this area, UW-Madison now considers all protocols to be proprietary, "the intellectual property of the researcher." Up until about two years ago, these were public information, readily available to animal advocates and others.

Joe Kemnitz's office looks like the environment of an especially intelligent primate. Reports and other papers are stacked a foot high on long tables. Against one wall is a tiny statuette of the three monkeys in the classic "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" pose.

Kemnitz, the center's director since 1996, came to the UW-Madison as a grad student trained in physiological psychology. His early research in body-weight regulation involved rats. One of his instructors pointed the way to the primate center.

"As soon as I started working with monkeys," says Kemnitz, "I knew that's what I'd stick with." He was fascinated by their individual personalities and the fact that they were so closely linked to humans.

How does Kemnitz justify doing sometimes painful, sometimes lethal research on such sentient creatures? "Our mission is to improve human health," he says. And that means prioritizing human needs over animal rights. "Some people on the extreme side of the animal rights movement," he says, refuse to draw this distinction, and essentially "grant personhood" to monkeys.

Kemnitz, like Lenon, is quick to suggest the center's critics are mainly people who regard monkeys as equal to humans and are prepared to use violence to advance this deranged worldview. Yet aside from 1999, when some locks were damaged and letters booby-trapped with razor blades were sent to several scientists, the center has not been targeted for attacks. Protests against it, concedes Lenon, have been "mostly peaceful."

Chief among the center's opponents is the Madison-based Alliance for Animals, which is planning an all-day conference June 11 at the Pyle Center, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (The title: "Primate Vivisection: What the American Society of Primatologists Doesn't Want You to Know.") The group, which this spring had a protester sit in a cage on State Street to dramatize primates' plight, opposes all captive primate research. "We support Jane Goodall's studies in the wild," says director Lori Nitzel.

One event the Alliance has tried for weeks to arrange is a debate between Dr. Ray Greek, an anesthesiologist and former UW Medical School instructor who heads Americans for Medical Advancement, a California-based group opposed to animal research, and a representative of the pro-research side.

But despite contacting more than 40 scientists and others attending the conference, the group has been unable to find a single research proponent willing to appear. Lenon declined the group's invitation to Kemnitz, saying UW participants in past similar events "have told me that they did not think the debates were very productive."

Greek is not surprised: "If I were them, I wouldn't engage in debate, either." He says the majority of the U.S. public still believes there's value in animal research, on which the NIH, he reckons, spends at least $10 billion a year. "If the truth about animal experimentation were revealed, they'd have nowhere to go but down."

Together with his wife, Jean, a UW Veterinary School graduate, Greek has written three books opposing animal research not on moral but on scientific grounds. They say most such research is not just unnecessary and unreliable, but dangerous: "We seek to demonstrate, through rigorous research and analysis, that the reliance on animal-modeled research...harms rather than helps humans, and prolongs human suffering by inhibiting medical progress."

The problem with animal research, says Greek, is that results obtained from animals, even primates, cannot safely be applied to humans. What matters isn't how many genes humans and monkeys have in common, but how they are regulated. "Genes are like keys on your computer," he says. "What matters is how they are pushed."

Greek notes that the most fervent support for animal research comes from people with a vested interest in seeing it continue. Proponents may sincerely believe in the value of their work, but "the sincerity of their belief is not indicative of the validity of their belief." There are other, better ways to advance the research causes for which animals are used.

Indeed, Greek says many of his fellow physicians doubt the value of animal research, and some smaller, cutting-edge drug companies are moving away from it, to the extent that they can. (The government still mandates using animals in latter-stage drug trials.) Among the more prominent critics is Sir Michael Rawlins, chairman of the British National Institute for Clinical Excellence, who has called the animal-study regime "utterly futile" and pushed for other methods.

Meanwhile, the scientists at the UW's primate center remain hard at work.

One key area of research involves diet and aging, which Newsweek highlighted in a major article this January ("Starve Your Way to Health"). Repeated studies have shown that restricting caloric intake appears to make monkeys healthier and live longer. Of course, Americans would never tolerate such drastic behavior modification, so one "potential long-term application" of this line of research, says the center on its Web site, may be "the development of drugs that slow aging by mimicking the biological effects of caloric restriction."

The center's AIDS research is focused on studying ways that the simian form of the virus (SIV) mutates to escape detection by the host body's immune system. The goal of this work, which involves deliberately infecting and later euthanizing animals, is to help design vaccines that attack the virus where it is most vulnerable. The center's latest annual report speaks brightly about the UW's part in "a multi-center quest to find a vaccine for HIV and stop the worldwide AIDS epidemic."

Primate center scientists are also involved in genetics research. In one noteworthy experiment, the gene from a jellyfish was spliced into a rhesus monkey's placenta, causing the latter to assume the former's fluorescent glow. The study is said to have implications for improving prenatal health. "They're trying to find out how genes in the fetus end up where they end up," explains Lenon, saying the ultimate goal is "to find what causes recurrent miscarriage."

Among the center's other studies are those to "evaluate primate brain activity associated with sexual arousal" and "study fetal alcohol effects and prenatal stress in monkeys."

One UW researcher, Ned Kalin, has for years been studying primate stress, anxiety and "fear-related psychopathy." For one study, published in 2001, he used acid to cause lesions in the brains of rhesus monkeys. Some animals were then killed "to verify lesions," and others presented with threatening stimuli, including live snakes. The finding: Monkeys with severe brain damage still got anxious, but "acute unconditioned fear responses, such as those elicited by exposure to a snake...were blunted in monkeys with >70% lesions." Now we know.

Budkie, the head of Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!, says "all of the money going into primate centers would be better spent on clinical studies and programs for people who already have the diseases" that researchers are professedly trying to cure. And the animals, he says, should be allowed to live out their lives in more natural environments.

Last month, Budkie visited a primate sanctuary in South Carolina, where he witnessed animals swinging from branches and interacting with their fellows in large enclosures. "The primates there are happy," he says. "I know that's going to sound anthropomorphic, but they are. You can interact with them and you can see they are not living with exaggerated stress, as they are in the primate centers."

In her seminal book The Monkey Wars, based on reporting for which she won a Pulitzer Prize, Deborah Blum describes the first time she toured a primate lab, in California, back when she was a science writer for the Sacramento Bee. Blum, now a UW journalism professor, was shown baby monkeys kept in glass boxes and subjected to toxic chemicals, to study the effects of air pollution. On seeing their wrinkled faces and tiny hands pressed against the glass, she recoiled, and asked to move on.

"[T]hat sensation of turning away," she reflected, helps explain "why the issue of animal research is such a haunting one. It forces us to see what we would rather not. Of course, we would rather have the drugs and surgical procedures and the wonderful medical advances without being told that so many hundred animals died for that information. And if we do know that animals are used, at least we would rather be spared seeing them bleeding in a medical test.

"Yet once you begin asking the questions, once you do know and see the animals, it's a hard issue to leave."

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