Inside the Monkey House
Death and discovery, horror and hope
at the UW's primate research center
By Bill Lueders, the
The UW's primate center does significant work, but at what cost to its
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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
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
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."