Use of all species but macaques appears to be declining
NORMAN, Oklahoma––The University of Oklahoma’s Health Sciences Center baboon research and breeding program is to end by 2019, university president David Boren announced on September 8, 2015.
The University of Oklahoma thereby became the most recent of a growing number of U.S. academic institutions to decide that the dwindling prestige and grant money associated with operating primate research programs is no longer greater than the cost of keeping facilities up to date and in compliance with the federal Animal Welfare Act.
“Animals died in droves”
“The program, which included a large breeding facility in El Reno that housed hundreds of baboons in a colony setting, has drawn the attention of government regulators and animal rights groups in recent months, and pathology reports show the animals died in droves in 2014, many of them violently,” summarized Andrew Knittle of The Oklahoman.
“The Health Sciences Center is working closely with the National Institutes of Health, researchers and other stakeholders on a transition plan that will honor its existing contractual obligations to ensure that current biomedical research projects are completed with the least possible disruption,” University of Oklahoma baboon program spokesperson James Tomasek told media.
Begun in 2001, the University of Oklahoma baboon program reportedly received more than $1 million per year in National Institutes of Health funding.
But 23 baboons died in 2014 at the El Reno facility, leaving 676 survivors.
“Driving this decision,” said Tomasek, “is the goal of the university to carefully prioritize and assign limited funds to mission-critical research endeavors.”
Translated Stop Animal Exploitation Now cofounder Michael Budkie, “They have seen a large amount of negative news coverage on animal research issues, especially relevant to baboons.
When they examined the situation they realized that the baboon program wasn’t really a big part of their future.”
Elaborated PETA senior researcher Alka Chandna, “There were issues where the welfare of the primates was much compromised, sometimes because of neglect, sometimes because of incompetence, because there wasn’t enough care given or oversight with what was happening with these animals.”
“Some of these baboons may have suffered less if they were monitored and treated for trauma, but in each incident,” said SAEN spokesperson
Stacey Ellison, “they were not found until they were already dead,” including in an incident in which a newborn baboon was partially cannibalized.
Wrote Norman Daily Transcript staff writer Sarah Kirby, “Norman resident Robert Ingersoll, who graduated from OU and serves as an adviser to Mindy’s Memory Primate Sanctuary in Newcastle and to the Center of Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida, expressed concerns about their placement of the baboons, adding that sources had initially estimated that the baboon population was about 300. Ingersoll said that North American Primate Sanctuary Association members,” eight sanctuaries in all, “cannot take 650 baboons. He estimated that it would cost $20 million to $40 million to house 700 baboons at sanctuaries longterm,” extrapolating from Mindy’s Memory’s annual budget.
SAEN has had a role in closing four university nonhuman primate research programs since 2012, beginning when the Pennsylvania State University Medical School announced that it had “studied the primate research program and determined it was not feasible to continue making the investment of resources and infrastructure to maintain it.”
SAEN had publicized the December 2010 death of a macaque used in Parkinson’s disease research, allegedly from incorrect care provided by an improperly trained research assistant.
New England Primate Research Center closed
The New England Primate Research Center, operated by the Harvard Medical School, closed in May 2015.
“The closure, at a cost to Harvard of $10.8 million so far, has meant the relocation of some 2,000 monkeys, mainly to other centers, layoffs of staff members, loss of faculty, and the end of roughly $25 million a year in research funding,” assessed Boston Globe staff writer Carolyn Y. Johnson.
The New England Primate Research Center had housed about 1,500 rhesus macaques plus colonies of cotton-top tamarins and squirrel monkeys, when the decision to close it was announced in 2013. About 200 scientists and primate caretakers worked at the center on approximately 130 funded projects.
Located in Southborough, Massachusetts, 30 miles from the main Harvard campus in Cambridge, the New England Primate Research Center was among eight regional primate breeding and research facilities funded by Congress in 1960. Opened in 1962, it was among the first in operation, reportedly received the most federal money over the years, and became the first to close.
Harvard Med School primate lab remains open
In addition to the original eight regional primate research centers, the NIH funds nine other major primate breeding, research, and retirement colonies.
“A Harvard Medical School animal facility with 42 primates in the Longwood Medical Area will continue to operate,” mentioned Johnson of the Globe.
The Harvard Medical School decision to close the primate center, like the Penn State decision, appeared to represent a decision to stop throwing good money after bad. The New England Primate Research Center in recent years had been put on probation by the Association for Assessment & Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International, and was fined by the USDA for incidents including the June 2010 discovery of a dead cotton-top tamarin in a cage that had been run through a sanitizing machine resembling a giant dishwasher; repeated discoveries in 2012 of severely dehydrated tamarins and squirrel monkeys in cages with malfunctioning water bottles, some of whom were euthanized as irrecoverable; and an October 2012 monkey escape that ended in the animal’s death.
SAEN had publicized each incident.
Cuts & misconduct
“Harvard invested significant resources to correct the care and oversight problems that resulted in the monkey deaths,” reported New York Times science writer Henry Fountain. “The school said it had decided that ‘winding down’ the laboratory’s operations ‘was more beneficial to the school than investing further resources.’”
Elaborated Johnson of the Globe, “This year, the primate center projects it will receive $27 million in U.S. funding,” Johnson added, “but universities are bracing for reductions in federal support because of recently enacted spending cuts. The medical school estimates that over the next five years, the primate center would demand an investment of $20 million to $25 million from the school.”
In addition to the animal care deficiencies, the New England Regional Primate Research Center was embarrassed by the September 2012 disclosure that an NIH investigation had found eight instances of scientific misconduct by former Harvard primate cognition researcher and psychology professor Marc Hauser.
Summarized Johnson, “A three-year internal university investigation that concluded in 2010 found six cases in which Hauser engaged in research misconduct in work supported by the National Institutes of Health. One paper was retracted and two were corrected, and other problems were found in unpublished work.”
Hauser left Harvard in mid-2012. He no longer does non-human primate research.
Imports & breeding
Wooster College, in Akron, Ohio, in July 2014 retired the last three members of a capuchin research colony to the Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary in Gainesville.
The numbers of nonhuman primates used in U.S. laboratories rose gradually from the 1971 introduction of tracking requirements under the federal Animal Welfare Act to 62,392 in 1987, dipped to 54,927 in 1999, peaked at 69,900 in 2007, and then tailed off about 65,000 in 2012.
Whether the present trend is up or down is unclear. More recent numbers have not yet been published, but the International Primate Protection League learned in January 2014 that “After four straight years of decline, the number of primates imported into the U.S. unfortunately increased,” from 17,448 in 2012 to 18,934 in 2013––an 8.5% jump.
Of the primates imported in 2013, 17,300 were crab-eating macaques. Many were delivered to U.S. facilities that breed macaques to supply labs, like the controversial trio operating in Hendry County, Florida. (See Factory-farming monkeys is A-OK with Hendry County brass, Forced abortions raise alarm over Florida lab monkey breeders, and Florida lab investigated for neglect that killed a monkey.)
Chimp use near end
But chimpanzee use in labs is not only markedly down but close to ending. Explained Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle in a recent blog post, “As September 14, 2015, all chimps are listed as endangered under U.S. law––both wild and captive chimps. This marks the official end of unrestricted invasive experiments on chimpanzees in this country.
“There exists the possibility that a laboratory might seek to secure a permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in the future to conduct invasive research,” Pacelle acknowledged, “but it is highly unlikely that labs would meet the legal requirements for such permits. Such experiments would have to demonstrate that they are benefitting chimpanzees in the wild, and we don’t see the labs motivated to reorient their work, given that they have been focused on human health and not chimpanzee conservation.
745 chimps left at five labs
“Today there are approximately 745 chimpanzees living in five laboratories,” Pacelle continued. “Of those 745, approximately 330 are owned by the federal government and the remaining 415 are owned by the laboratories themselves,” namely the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico; the M.D. Anderson Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine in Bastrop, Texas; the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas; the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana; and the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
Pacelle called for renewed effort to ensure that the chimps remaining in labs are transferred to sanctuaries as rapidly as possible. But there are very few sanctuaries equipped to handle former laboratory chimps. The largest are Chimp Haven, of Keithville, Louisiana, with about 300 chimps at present, and Save the Chimps, in Fort Pierce, Florida, currently with 266 chimps. (See Review: Opening Doors, by Gary Ferguson.)
“Our eyes in the very short run are set on the 20 government-owned chimpanzees at Texas Biomedical Research Institute,” Pacelle said, “a facility where we conducted an undercover investigation and that has been the site of unexpected animal deaths and various violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Every one of those 20 chimpanzees has been infected with disease and is unsuitable for any research the labs may be interested in trying to conduct.
New York Blood Center
“Meanwhile,” Pacelle added, “HSUS continues to highlight the plight of more than 60 chimpanzees living in Liberia who were abandoned by the New York Blood Center. We have led a coalition of organizations and stepped in to fund continuing care for these animals, but this is a responsibility of the Blood Center, a wealthy non-profit organization, which used them in experiments for decades and then pledged to provide lifetime care after retiring them. Now it has reneged on that promise.” (See Abandoning Vilab II chimps in Liberia, New York Blood Center did it before in Ivory Coast, SAEN charges.)