Why Does the University of Washington Still Surgically Experiment on Baby Monkeys?
It sounds like the plot of a grisly horror movie. Holes drilled into skulls so recording cylinders can be attached with electrodes feeding directly to the brain. The victim, terrified, sits secured to a restraint chair for behavioral experimentation. Hydration is denied so desperation for a drink can be used as motivation to complete the experiment.
No one really does this, right? Wrong. We do this to non-human primates (NHP) regularly at places like the University of Washington’s (UW) National Primate Research Center. We do it in the name of research, your tax dollars fund it, and it’s not really producing any helpful medical advances. For the animals, it’s a living hell.
Those are the charges leveled by a number of animal activist groups, including the People for Reason and Science in Medicine (PRISM). PRISM activists Britt Lind and Pam Pulver intend to do something about it.
PRISM is especially concerned about what’s going on inside UW’s Infant Primate Research Laboratory. They say the cruelty begins from day one, when researchers take newborns from their mothers immediately after birth, tattoo them with an ID number, and leave them alone in incubators never to see their mothers again. “This is devastating to both babies and their mothers throughout their lives, causing psychosis and self mutilation,” according to PRISM.
PRISM says current infant primate experimentation includes “surgically altering infant macaques to have misaligned eyes, impaired eye movements, and inability to hold a gaze.”
Watch PRISM’s video about UW infant primate research practices here:
“The baby monkey lab, because it is so gruesome, from time to time gets publicity in Seattle and then all the animal groups give up and go away and the U of W keeps on with the same horrible experiments,” Lind told Care2. “We don’t want to go away. We want to be the irritating gnat circling around their heads that won’t go away until they close down that lab.”
What’s the reaction of the public and the students to PRISM’s demonstrations? Pam Pulver has seen it first hand and she’s encouraged.
“[W]e didn’t expect much from the UW [itself]. What we did get was a very positive response from students,” Pulver told Care2. “Many were horrified, had no idea what was going on. When we do demos at the main primate center on Western, a common response is ‘I thought they stopped doing that a long time ago.’”
No, it’s still going on and shockingly, some experts say it isn’t doing us humans much good at all.
Is it Right to Use Our Primate Cousins for Our Own Medical Purposes?
UW is one of eight National Primate Research Centers in the United States. NHPs are used in medical research into a wide variety of human illnesses including HIV, Parkinson’s disease, malaria, respiratory viruses, strokes and infectious disease. These animals are also the unwilling subjects of vaccine and drug testing as well as experimentation into drug abuse, behavioral problems, cognition, genetics and much more.
Is it morally or ethically appropriate to use our non-human primate cousins in this way? People have long been deeply divided on this question. Supporters say the advancement of care for humans must supercede concerns over the welfare of the animals. The opposition says this research is unnecessarily cruel and does not elicit information that’s particularly relevant to humans.
Years of Criticism of UW‘s Primate Experimentation
PRISM is not alone in leveling harsh criticism against UW for its animal experimentation practices. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM):
A UW primate-breeding center near Spokane was closed in 1995 after five baboons died of cold-weather exposure or thirst. In 2005, three rooms in a UW facility reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit, killing more than 500 mice. And in 2006, the university was put on probation after inspectors from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care found “serious deficiencies” in the facilities.
In addition, Stop Animal Exploitation Now! (SAEN), the Northwest Animal Rights Network (NARN) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have each railed against the practices of UW’s animal researchers for years. Michael Budkie, founder and president of SAEN, wrote in 2012:
The staff can’t keep the monkeys in the cages. They can’t keep the scissors out of the monkey’s hands. They don’t notice when bones have been broken. Traumatic injuries are not prevented. Monkeys are allowed to become so debilitated, in violation of the UW’s own policy, that they lose 30% (almost 1/3) of their body weight. Negligence, trauma, escapes, broken bones, botched procedures – does this sound like science?
If you’re doubtful that these protestors really know anything about what’s going on inside the UW labs, consider some of the official government reaction to several egregious UW practices in recent years. They reveal consistent, highly problematic animal welfare failures and overt violations of standards of care. In addition to the problems noted by PCRM above, ponder these recent verified incidents:
- March 2014 – A USDA report criticized UW for failing to provide adequate pain medicine to 30 rabbits and a guinea pig before they underwent surgery.
- 2011 – USDA fined UW $10,893 for allowing a macaque to starve to death in 2009. Researchers failed to weigh it regularly to ensure it was getting enough food while living in a group setting.
- 2008 – UW was required to repay over $20,000 in grant funding to the federal government that it used for 41 rather horrifying unauthorized surgeries on 14 primates to experiment with brain and eye movement.
Human and Non-Human Primates are Not the Same
NHPs are popular research subjects because in some ways the structure and function of their brains and bodies are like ours. This very similarity triggers an ethical dilemma, of course. If they’re so like us, they undoubtedly suffer pain, fear and anxiety much like we do.
Even if we put ethical considerations aside for a moment, some experts say this experimentation must stop because the similarities between humans and NHPs are far outpaced by the differences.
NHP experiments confound medical research because of fundamental genetic and biochemical differences between humans and NHPs:
- Human genes confer greater susceptibility to age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
- In chimpanzees, 20 out of 333 genes implicated in human cancer are different; 560 genes show differences that can affect the immune system; 169 genes in the cerebral cortex are expressed differently; and in the prefrontal cortex, 965 genes are expressed in humans but not chimps, and 344 in chimps but not humans. Of genes commonly expressed in the two species, 20 percent have a different expression profile, of which 52 genes are linked to neurological diseases.
- Eighty percent of proteins are different to some degree in chimpanzees compared with humans.
“Ending NHP research would benefit human medicine by halting the flow of unreliable data from it, and by diverting research funds to more appropriate and promising methods,” writes Dr. Jerrod Bailey at PCRM’s web site. Other methods do exist and can be more fully employed to reduce and eliminate animal use in research experimentation.
“Most responsible universities have stopped,” Pam Pulver told Care2. “UW gets the biggest grant in the country for live animal research. They’ve been doing the same experiments for 65 years without one cure. What other organization would you fund with over half a century of failure?”
Can Demonstrations Lead to Real Change?
“It’s our tax dollars that go to the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institutes of Health is what funds the research here, so we’re actually paying for this torture,” Pulver told The Daily, a UW newspaper, last April.
Actually closing down a primate research lab is not a pipe dream. Earlier this year, Harvard Medical School announced it would wind down the work being done at New England Primate Research Center by late 2015. While the university officially blamed economic causes for the center’s closure, it’s worth noting that the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited the NEPRC in 2012 for a number of animal welfare violations.
Is it unreasonable to believe PRISM might be able to influence a similar shutdown at UW? Anything is possible. However, UW recently announced plans to expand and consolidate its animal labs into a large new $123.5 million underground facility. UW clearly is not retreating from animal research, so the challenge still facing these activists is considerable.
PRISM will host two more protests at the University of Washington this summer. The first is slated for Thursday, July 31 and the second on Thursday, Aug 21. Both will run from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Further details are available on PRISM’s Facebook page. SAEN also plans a press conference at UW on July 30 to reveal new allegations, according to PRISM.
If you agree with PRISM and the many other animal organizations that oppose what UW is doing to infant primates, please sign this petition. PRISM has confirmed to Care2 that it will present all newly added signatures on this petition to Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.
When enough voices join together for a cause, public pressure can force change. You can be a part of it.
Photo credit (all images): People for Reason and Science in Medicine