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Monkey Deaths Spur Anger Over Primate Research at Colleges
By Natalie Kitroeff,, February 5, 2015

Animal rights activists and students who oppose the University of Washington’s primate research center are campaigning against what they see as a new indignity: the university’s plans to construct a facility that would expand its cadre of monkeys.

“The majority of students don’t want the lab to be built,” says Sarah Olson, a junior at Washington and co-president of the school’s animal rights group, Campus Animal Rights Educators. After the University’s board of regents voted a second time to approve the expansion plan in November, activists turned their attention to Skanska, the Sweden-based construction company hired to build the facility. Protesters from Olson's group as well as a separate group, No New Animal Lab, plan to picket Skanska offices in more than a dozen U.S. cities this week. Skanska did not respond to a request for comment.

The activist and student groups join federal authorities in questioning the way these primates, and others used for medical testing at research institutions across the country, are being treated.  In 2014, the USDA, which enforces the law governing the proper treatment of animals in laboratories, cited Washington, the University of Oregon, and the University of California-Davis for failing to care properly for their animals. In April, the USDA found that the majority of monkeys at Oregon weresuffering abnormal hair loss, potentially caused by psychological factors. In a November 2014 report, the USDA reprimanded Washington officials for the deaths of three infant monkeys, who were attacked by older male primates.
A monkey used for research at the University of Washington, from photos obtained through a public records request.

Three monkeys have died under Washington's supervision in the past three years, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Activist group Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! says an additional four monkeys have died since 2012, according to documents they obtained through a public record request.

Animal rights groups say the centers mistreat animals, citing the example of “A11049,” a four-year-old rhesus macaque at UW’s center who in 2013 began to repeatedly injure himself, going so far as to chew off his own finger, and was euthanized by veterinarians after that behavior continued for a month. Michael Budkie, the president of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, says that self-harm may be a consequence of the small cages in which the animals are kept.

“The primates are severely stressed by captivity,” Budkie says. “I can’t conceptualize the actual mental state of an animal that is so disturbed and mentally abnormal to literally be biting off pieces of its own fingers.”

Proponents of the plans, and of animal research centers more generally, say they provide crucial scientific findings that lead directly to cures for human diseases.

“This building is designed to support the cutting-edge biomedical research that is going to lead to tomorrow’s medical advances, to save lives,” says David Anderson, executive director of health sciences administration at Washington. Anderson says the center helped develop an Ebola vaccine by testing on primates and is making headway on groundbreaking technology to restore heart function to people with cardiac damage, in addition to other work on treatments for diabetes, cancer, and kidney disease.

Anderson adds that the center is treating animals “appropriately with every means available to the industry right now.” The facilities currently have room for 650 primates, but the new building will allow for 280 more. Anderson says that animals acting irrationally are immediately placed in a veterinary treatment program.

Universities have been flogged for their handling of research animals in the past. In 2013, Harvard Medical School was fined and repeatedly warned by the USDA following the deaths of four monkeys, and it ultimately decided to shut its research center. Washington has also had run-ins with regulators, who fined the university more than $10,000 in 2011 for allowing a monkey to starve to death.

Olson, the Washington student, says being in favor of scientific progress means finding ways of achieving it that don’t involve testing animals in these conditions.

“We would like to be scientific innovators, but just in a more effective and humane way.” 

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