Animal research angers activists, but school calls it vital
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
BY ROBERT STERN
PRINCETON BOROUGH -- Somewhere at Princeton University, 18 monkeys
are kept in a mystery-shrouded lab.
It's a lab so secret that the university won't even reveal which
building it occupies or give a reporter a glimpse inside
University officials say the insistence on such secrecy is largely
for security reasons, based on worries that calling attention to the lab
could make it a target of animal rights extremists.
At a time when activists are pressuring scientists to allow test
animals to retire to nature preserves, Princeton researchers are
continuing to look to monkeys for help, as they have since the 1970s.
In June, an Ohio-based animal research watchdog group unsuccessfully
petitioned the university to halt aspects of its primate research it
alleged are unethical and inhumane, such as the use of surgically
attached skull restraints.
University officials, however, rebuff such calls, saying the monkeys
are sensitively treated and are part of important basic research.
"We work very diligently to provide the best care for these primates
that we can," Princeton spokeswoman Lauren Robinson-Brown said. "We have
many levels of internal controls, from strict guidelines in the
facilities to our oversight board. And then we have federal regulations
Inside Princeton's lab, neuroscientists study the brains, actions and
behavior of the monkeys to gain better insight into the human brain and
"Everything we know about the human brain is based four-square on
monkey work -- the visual system, the nervous system, how (neural)
circuits are put together really came from monkey work," said a veteran
Princeton researcher, who agreed to be interviewed on condition of
Nationally, the number of nonhuman primates used in research grew to
a record high 62,315 in fiscal year 2006, the most recent for which such
data are available, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The agency has tracked those numbers annually since 1973 and provides
a report to Congress on research animals each year.
But Princeton has reduced its nonhuman primate rolls from 71 to 18
since 2005, Robinson-Brown said. The retired primates were sent to a
sanctuary in Texas.
Still, research goes on at Princeton and elsewhere.
In some cases, a monkey under full anesthesia undergoes delicate
invasive surgery in which a tiny hole gets drilled through its skull,
the anonymous Princeton researcher said.
The hole gives scientists a pathway for inserting an ultra-thin
instrument called a microelectrode to stimulate, probe and measure
activity in different parts of the brain once the monkey recovers from
the two-hour procedure, he said.
Monkeys -- macaque monkeys in Princeton's case -- are ideal for this
type of experimentation because people and monkeys are primate cousins
with remarkably similar brain structure, he said.
The scientist said he does not want his identity disclosed because,
like the university, he wishes to avoid becoming a magnet for harassing
threats or violence from animal rights extremists.
CRUEL OR CRUCIAL?
The Princeton researcher agreed to be interviewed in the wake of
criticism directed at the university over its monkey research by Stop
Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN), an animal advocacy group in Milford,
He said that many prospective discoveries would elude neuroscientists
if they abandoned invasive animal research entirely.
For example, neuroscientists were certain that new brain cells don't
form in adult primates -- people and nonhuman alike.
But a pair of Princeton researchers studying adult rhesus monkeys in
the 1990s turned that established wisdom on its head with the discovery
that the monkeys do grow new neurons.
Experts said that revelation has sparked a massive new area of
research. It could lead to advancements on a broad range of issues, from
how we learn as we age to rehabilitating stroke victims to helping solve
the puzzle of Alzheimer's disease.
But SAEN's executive director, Michael A. Budkie, contends that some
of the methods Princeton and other research labs commonly use, such as
surgically attaching restraining devices to monkey skulls or otherwise
limiting their movement, are unethical and cruel because they cause
unnecessary pain and distress.
"Most people think this type of research simply isn't happening
anymore," Budkie said.
Budkie wrote to Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman last month
asking that Princeton ban any procedures that surgically attach
restraining devices to nonhuman primates, confine them to restraint
chairs while they are under observation or deprive them of water for
extended periods of time.
USDA spokeswoman Jessica Milteer said nonhuman primate research that
uses surgically attached restraints, restraining chairs and water
deprivation aren't prohibited by federal law, as long as they are part
of the authorized research protocol for a specific project.
Budkie pointed out that during a routine inspection in April 2006,
the USDA flagged Princeton for twice -- on consecutive days -- failing
to provide water for more than 23 hours to one of its nonhuman primates.
Princeton spokeswoman Robinson-Brown said that problem was an error
of administrative oversight that was not part of the research design and
the university corrected the issue right away.
Still, in an interview, Budkie questioned the justification for any
surgically invasive research on monkeys by Princeton because, he said,
many universities and research labs around the country conduct similar
The anonymous Princeton researcher countered that it's not the
research itself that is duplicated from lab to lab but the surgical and
"It is a property of basic research that you can ask a very large
number of basic questions with very similar standard techniques," he
However, this researcher said he hasn't done nonhuman primate work
for two years and doesn't expect to return to it, in large part because
technological advances have helped make a lot of -- though not all --
animal research unnecessary.
For instance, some previously invasive brain research on primates can
now be done using increasingly detailed and accurate computer modeling.
Also, improvements to brain-scanning equipment like fMRI (functional
Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines offer scientists opportunities to
study the brain in human volunteers who aren't subjected to any invasive
surgery, as well as in monkeys, he said.
Projects that use monkeys or other nonhuman primates, especially when
they involve invasive surgery, should be -- and at Princeton are -- a
last resort when computer modeling or other nonintrusive procedures
aren't viable alternatives, Princeton spokeswoman Cass Cliatt said.
Even Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, a trailblazer in the animal
rights movement who generally opposes biomedical research on animals,
doesn't argue for an all-out ban on surgically invasive research on
nonhuman primates -- either at Princeton or more broadly.
"In general, I am opposed to the use of animals in research because
the entire practice is based on speciesism -- that is, a prejudice
against taking seriously the interests of the animals involved," Singer
wrote in an e-mail.
"I would need to know more about what is happening to the monkeys to
offer an opinion on any specific research," Singer stated. He said that
"individual experiments may be defensible, depending on the care given
to the animals (including the way they are housed) and the purpose of
Singer said he has never called on Princeton to end use of nonhuman
primates in research but noted that in recent years most of his animal
advocacy has focused on another arena entirely -- factory farming.
"As compared with the use of animals in research, the numbers of
animals used (in factory farming) is vastly larger, and there is no
possibility of arguing that the close confinement and other forms of
animal abuse serve a useful purpose," Singer said.
The anonymous Princeton researcher said he is glad to have ended his
work on monkeys.
"Probably all researchers who do any animal research have a certain
sense of respect for the animal and the sense that this is something we
do because it's necessary to answer our questions," he said. "Wouldn't
it be nice to be able to move from that research? That's a thought
that's never far away."
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