Life After the Lab

Former UW researcher creates a sanctuary for retired monkeys

By Bill Lueders,
July 2017

Amy Kerwin, 40, a native of Whitewater, began working at the Harlow primate lab in 1999. The facility, named for the famed and controversial primate researcher Harry Harlow, conducts research into social behavior, learning and developmental psychology.

Rhesus macaques can live up to 40 years in captivity, typically longer than in the wild. That means at least some of the 97 monkeys that Kerwin worked with at the Harlow lab are still alive. She hopes sanctuary will someday be an option for them, and for the thousands of other research monkeys in Madison and some may be released to Primates Incorporated, founded by Amy.

Amy Kerwin
Amy Kerwin is still haunted by memories of the 97 monkeys she worked with at UW - Image by Linda Falkenstein

Not a day goes by that Amy Kerwin does not think about the 97. That’s the number of monkeys she worked with, the ones she got to know. Her role in their confinement, their use without reprieve, haunts her.

“Knowing I couldn’t help them,” Kerwin says wistfully, “that’s going to be with me for the rest of my life.”

For the last 14 years, beginning even before she left her job at the UW-Madison’s Harlow Center for Biological Psychology, Kerwin has been making up for it. She’s put in about 25 hours a week, almost all uncompensated, to give a few former research monkeys a better life.

Now she’s on the verge of success. This fall, Kerwin’s nonprofit group, Primates Inc., plans to open a primate sanctuary about 65 miles from Madison in Marquette County. It will be an indoor-outdoor facility on 17 acres of land, with professional staff. It will house a type of “old world” monkey called rhesus macaques, highly intelligent and social animals used widely in research. They will be socialized, acclimated and studied, with the goal of establishing benchmarks for what’s possible.

Perhaps most important, they will be visible, unlike the thousands of laboratory monkeys in Madison and throughout the nation. Some are used for noninvasive experiments, some for painful ones. They may be purposely subjected to trauma, so their reactions can be gauged. They live in tiny cages their entire lives, deprived of almost every aspect of a normal monkey life.

“It’s important to see the monkeys,” Kerwin says, “When people visit a sanctuary, they will start questioning: Where are these monkeys coming from? And why aren’t there more retirement programs to help as many monkeys as possible?”

The use of primates for research has long been controversial, for one overarching reason; Kerwin calls it the “Research Paradox.” Animal researchers want to use primates because of how similar they are to human beings. Opponents are against it for the same reason.

Madison, unknown to most residents, is a major center of primate research. The UW, as of early June, had 2,037 monkeys at its two research facilities, the Harlow lab and the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. Of these, 1,523 were rhesus macaques, with the remainder being cynomolgus macaques and common marmosets.

And Covance, a private research facility on Madison’s east side, went through 5,913 nonhuman primates in 2015, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. In all, 9,378 primates were used or prepared for use in research in Wisconsin that year, of about 105,000 nationwide.

Sanctuary has long been available for chimpanzees, which are no longer used in U.S. research. There are sanctuaries in Texas, Kentucky, Oregon and Oklahoma that have some rhesus macaques. But Kerwin’s sanctuary will be the first devoted to this species, according to Erika Fleury, program director at the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance in San Francisco. She says the need has never been greater, because research labs around the country are looking for places to retire these animals.

“Right now, sanctuaries are inundated with requests,” Fleury says. “Amy can make a big difference. She just needs a chance.”

Primates Inc. Monkey Sanctuary will open in October with the arrival of three monkeys from out-of-state laboratories, along with initial funding. By then, the sanctuary structures should be built and staff in place. The group has raised about $150,000 over the years for sanctuary infrastructure costs, and has enough credit to finish construction and operate for the first six months. But significant additional support will be needed to keep it going.

In the past, UW researchers have been cool to the idea of sanctuary, citing logistics and cost. One told Isthmus in 2010 that it runs counter to making “maximum use of a scarce and valuable resource.”

Allyson Bennett, faculty director of the UW-Madison’s animal program, says sanctuary is an option that has been used by the university in the past, including when it retired 75 cotton-top tamarins in 2009. But she stresses that any sanctuary embraced by the UW must meet certain conditions: that the animals are no longer needed for research; that appropriate facilities can be found to “assure high-quality care that’s stable over the long term and protects the animals’ well-being and health;” and that these facilities have public oversight through the USDA.

Kerwin, who has been following USDA guidelines and plans to seek its approval, deliberately located her sanctuary in Wisconsin to prove to the UW that it can be done. “We want to serve as an innovative prototype,” she says. “If the UW sees the successes of our working with other labs, I think its employees will want to come on board.”

monkey sanctuary
The facility is 40 feet by 40 feet with eight windows and skylights planned for the roof. The monkeys will be able to traverse four indoor enclosures and duck out of the building into basement greenhouses - Image by Linda Falkenstein

Kerwin, 40, a native of Whitewater, began working at the Harlow primate lab in 1999. The facility, named for the famed and controversial primate researcher Harry Harlow, conducts research into social behavior, learning and developmental psychology.

In a 2007 article for Isthmus, Kerwin recounted how she considered herself “lucky” when, as an undergraduate, she landed a job at this lab. She knew it would look good on her resume if she were to apply to veterinary school, as she was considering. But when lab managers urged her to stay on past graduation as a full-time research specialist, she put these plans on hold.

Kerwin’s late father was a primate researcher at a university research lab in Cincinnati in the 1970s. His work helped establish the danger of drugs like thalidomide for pregnant women. Her mother, Joan Vogel, recalls that Amy was a whiz with the family’s neurotic cat: “She has an ability to calm behavior down, whether it’s people or animals.” Amy is the youngest of three daughters, the others being a master carpenter in Whitewater and the vice-president of a Texas nonprofit devoted to international students.

At the Harlow lab, Kerwin assisted in collecting behavioral and cognitive data from monkeys given moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy. While this work was nowhere near as harrowing as that done by Harlow — who subjected baby monkeys to prolonged isolation and to cloth mothers who stabbed them with metal spikes when they sought hugs — it did raise ethical concerns in her mind.

Laboratory monkeys at the UW, consistent with federal regulations, are housed in cages that measure about 2 1/2 -feet in every direction; monkeys living in pairs have two adjoined cages. During Kerwin’s time at the Harlow lab, she relates, monkeys were fed once a day, plus an afternoon snack. They got a toy to play with, changed every two weeks. And they could watch cartoons on a TV/VCR rolled in front of their cages for one hour each week.

The monkeys, Kerwin saw, experienced stressful conditions. There were injuries caused by fights and escapes. She wondered if this trauma was compromising the scientific data being collected. Was a finding due to alcohol exposure or because a monkey was scared out of its wits?

Kerwin began training the monkeys through positive reinforcement (treats!) to cooperate with cage removal “so we wouldn’t have to use long metal poles, nets or leather gloves to scare them into entering a transport cage.” This involved working uncompensated hours at nights and on weekends.

She also started to think about giving monkeys a way “to live out the end of their lives in peace after years of use.” She enrolled in night school to obtain an MBA, to learn how to create and effectively manage a nonprofit organization. She began working on Primates Inc. in 2003. Initially, her colleagues at the Harlow lab were supportive.

But then the idea began meeting with resistance, with some lab staff worrying it might fuel anti-research sentiment. Kerwin’s lab manager made a crack about her becoming “an animal rights person,” which Kerwin says she denied and found offensive, given how the lab felt about “animal rights” people.

And then there was “Sam,” a 5-year-old rhesus monkey who suffered from ailments, including chronic diarrhea. Prolonged efforts at treatment failed. Sam was euthanized. Kerwin cried.

“This was used, along with the animal rights labeling, to regard me as an emotionally reactive person, and helped the supervisors discredit the concerns I was raising about primate-handling practices,” she recalled in the article. Kerwin was barred from coming in after hours or on weekends. “These new constraints, on top of the discomfort I already felt about my work in the primate lab, made my job unbearable.”

In the fall of 2004, after five years at the lab, Kerwin resigned to devote her energies to Primates Inc. Her article in Isthmus ended with an appeal to compassion:

“It isn’t the monkeys’ fault we humans can’t get enough money together to retire them — or that the idea of retiring them is deemed too controversial. Regardless of our feeling about primate research, I think most of us agree we should be providing these monkeys with a better life whenever possible.”

sign near monkey sanctuary
Marquette County residents have been mostly supportive of the sanctuary, except for one neighbor down the road - Image by Linda Falkenstein

Mari Buchholz, a McFarland resident, read Kerwin’s article when it came out in 2007. She hung it on her refrigerator. Buchholz had just left her job of many years as director of a local daycare center to be with her own three kids, and was interested in volunteer opportunities.

“I’ve always been a huge animal lover,” Buchholz says. When she was little, she dreamed of living on a farm. “My goal was to save all of the animals in the world.” Today she volunteers at Four Lakes Wildlife Center, fostering orphaned and injured squirrels and cottontails in her home.

But for more than two years, Buchholz failed to act on her inspiration to reach out to Kerwin; the article remained on her refrigerator. Then she ran into Anneliese Emerson, a member of the local Alliance For Animals, who put her in touch with Kerwin. Buchholz says she “felt her passion and couldn’t help but be pulled in.”

At the time, Kerwin was looking for a sanctuary location. Mari and her husband Patrick Buchholz, a partner at a company that provides medical imaging services to mostly rural hospitals and clinics, offered to let Kerwin use part of a plot they owned in Cottage Grove. But the zoning rules wouldn’t allow the property to be subdivided, so, Patrick says, “we kept working on it.”

In the end, the couple gave Primates Inc. $50,000 to buy land. They agreed this jump start was needed to get others interested in helping out.

“People need to see to participate,” Patrick says. “Build it and they will come.”

Kerwin’s search for land took a decade. She was always upfront with local authorities about her plans. Boscobel and Muscoda said no. She bought the 17-acre patch in Marquette County for about $60,000 in 2014. It’s near Westfield in the town of Springfield, a few miles from a federal prison in Oxford.

The land is beautiful, unglaciated, much of it apparent oak savanna. A nature trail encircles the grounds, with plant identification signs to come. There are 10 acres of butterfly habitat, to be maintained by volunteers. The first indoor/outdoor sanctuary, now being built, will occupy a half-acre, surrounded by a six-foot tall fence, Kerwin says, “just to keep the humans out.”

In August 2014, Kerwin appeared at a public meeting attended by several dozen local residents. She addressed their concerns about noise, traffic, monkey diseases and escapes. At the end, she says, a slight majority were in favor.

The family living closest to the project supports it. The homeowner mows the paths of the nature trail. His parents donated $1,000 to the cause; one of the six benches that adorn the nature trail bear the family’s name. (The benches and picnic tables at the sanctuary were built by volunteers from the First Unitarian Society in Madison.)

Another neighbor, just down the road, put up a crude sign proclaiming, “DO NOT WANT EXPERIMENTAL PRIMATES HERE, MONKEY’S.” Kerwin spoke with this neighbor at length to address his concerns. The sign has stayed up.

Even some animal rights activists, Kerwin says, have turned against her: “They think we’re a dumping ground for the monkeys, to clear the conscience of the researchers and allow the research to continue.” On the other side, she says, the researchers she once worked with “ruined my career by labeling me an activist.”

Both reactions disappoint her. Kerwin just wants to give some monkeys a better life. “I don’t want to make a controversy out of it.”

The hardest task and biggest remaining challenge for Primates Inc. is raising money. Bob Barker, the game show host and animal welfare advocate, gave $50,000 through his foundation. The Buchholzes have extended to the project what Patrick calls “an unsecured line of credit” — up to $250,000 — to allow the facility to open as planned.

Primates Inc. has a six-member board of directors, including the Buchholzes and Jeff Hoyt, who runs a homeless shelter in Beloit. Kerwin is the group’s president and executive director. In recent months, she and several others have been receiving nominal payments of about $200 a month for their time. This includes her husband, Michael Kerwin, a graphic designer responsible for the group’s visually exciting website.

Kerwin hopes to eventually draw a salary from the sanctuary. For now, she works two jobs, as a parking cashier for the city of Madison and as a server at the Green Owl restaurant.

The walls of the monkey structure are now standing. The facility is 40-by-40 feet with eight windows and skylights planned for the roof. It is built to withstand tornadoes. The monkeys will be able to traverse four indoor enclosures and duck out of the building into basement greenhouses, habitable year-round. They can use the outdoor structures in nice weather, giving them more space and foraging opportunities.

Each structure can hold up to 20 monkeys. Kerwin hopes to build additional structures as the sanctuary grows by five to 10 monkeys each year. The goal is to hit 100 after two decades. She says it may someday take in other old world monkeys including cynomolgus macaques, but no great apes. She hears from several primate researchers each year, asking about her progress.

Paid staff include a project manager, who is working with the contractor to complete the building project, an attendant who will live in a manufactured home onsite 24/7, an animal care manager who will work full-time, two part-time animal caretakers, and two veterinarians who will make regular visits.

Once the monkeys arrive, they must be assimilated to their new environment. They may have problem behaviors that will be hard to shake. But Kerwin is optimistic this can be handled, as it is at other sanctuaries: “It’s amazing how much their behavior changes when they are given more space.” Because the sanctuary is in the country, where gunshots from target practice and hunting are common, the monkeys will be trained to associate good things (treats!) with loud noises.

Sanctuary staff will document the process of rehabilitation, what works and what doesn’t. “We will see if there’s a decrease in abnormal behavior, write a paper on it,” Kerwin says, recalling a zoo director who once told her it wasn’t worth the bother. “He said lab monkeys are so psychotic they should be put out of their misery.”

The animal care manager is Fallon Mullen, a Sun Prairie resident with both primate laboratory and sanctuary experience. Mullen worked at Covance from late-2009 to mid-2011. There were things about her job she liked, and things she doesn’t want to talk about. She left for a job at the Chimp Haven sanctuary in Louisiana, where she worked for nearly two years.

At the time, that sanctuary had 160 chimps (now it has more than 200) and Mullen got to know them as individuals. She was thrilled to work with new arrivals from research labs. “I saw them be able to be with other chimps for the first time, to see the sky and touch grass for the first time.” One of the most remarkable chimps was named Grandma.

“She was really sweet, always in great spirits, really playful,” Mullen recalls. In 2014, a year after she left her position at the sanctuary, Mullen went back for a visit. “Grandma was so excited to see me, she was jumping up and down.”

Grandma died in 2015, a few days shy of 62. She was, Chimp Haven announced, “the oldest chimpanzee living in captivity with a known birthday.” She had spent about 50 years in research labs.

Mullen has been volunteering with Primates Inc. for five years. She can’t wait to step into her role as animal care manager. “I’m really thankful that this is finally happening. I feel that this is what I was meant to do.”

Another project volunteer, Madison resident Breanne Cyr, worked at the Harlow lab as a student from 2010 to 2013. She thought the researchers there genuinely cared about the monkeys and “worked to give them the best life they could despite being in the lab.” She also got attached to them: “You see their personalities and it’s hard not to.”

Cyr learned about Primates Inc. through a newspaper article and asked Kerwin how she could help. She was put to work researching positive reinforcement training and socialization techniques. She plans to be working with the Primates Inc. monkeys when they arrive, gathering data that can be shared with “other sanctuaries and even labs.” She calls sanctuary “a win-win situation for the monkeys and for the researchers.”

rhesus monkey
Most rhesus macaque monkeys used in research are eventually euthanized. Isthmus chronicled the life of r04040, a UW-Madison research monkey who was born in 2004 and killed in 2010 - Image from Wisconsin Primate Research Center

The first four monkeys for the new sanctuary are coming from out of state, along with $50,000 to cover their first year of care. Three of the monkeys — ages 14, 13 and 4 — will arrive in October; the fourth arrives next year. The money is an approved research expenditure.

While the lab has asked to not be identified, the lead researcher sent a statement for use in this story. “Our lab has applied for grants specifically for retirement and have budgeted some of the costs into scientific grants whenever possible,” it read in part. “As more labs consider retiring primates, we hope more foundations will allocate a portion of their contributions toward this important cause.”

Once the sanctuary is up and running, Kerwin says up to five people a day will be able to visit — by appointment only. Will groups of school kids be allowed? “Not all at once.”

Rhesus macaques can live up to 40 years in captivity, typically longer than in the wild. That means at least some of the 97 monkeys that Kerwin worked with at the Harlow lab are still alive. She hopes sanctuary will someday be an option for them, and for the thousands of other research monkeys in Madison.

Mari and Patrick Buchholz are supporting Kerwin’s sanctuary because it is something that can happen now. But they foresee a time, perhaps not so far off, when primate research may be phased out, replaced by other models and methods. Kerwin says that’s one factor driving her desire to create an innovative sanctuary prototype.

“The monkeys will need a home if animal research stops,” she says. “Animals always need a home.”

Return to Animal Rights Articles