SAEN LogoBoren orders ‘full internal review’ of OU baboon program
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Demand a major fine against the University of Oklahonma for the continuing negligence which allowed an infant baboon to be hosed down and cages to be caked with excrement.


Boren orders ‘full internal review’ of OU baboon program
By Andrew Knittle,, August 2, 2015

Citing the public’s “interest” in the University of Oklahoma’s use of animal testing to further scientific and academic research, OU President David Boren has ordered a “full internal review” of a secretive baboon breeding facility in El Reno, a scientist involved with the program told The Oklahoman.

The news from Oklahoma’s largest university comes on the heels of a rash of deaths of young baboons at the sprawling breeding facility in Canadian County, which has drawn criticism from animal rights groups.

Inspection records maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service show that OU has been cited numerous times in recent years for not complying with the federal Animal Welfare Act, including one recent case involving university staff members who euthanized dogs by attaching a battery to the animals’ hearts.

The Fort Reno Science Park, which has been operating since 2001, is primarily funded by the National Institutes of Health, a federal agency, and sends baboons all over the country to other research institutions and laboratories, said program spokesman James Tomasek.

In addition to Boren’s awareness of the public’s “interest” in the baboon colony — and animal testing in general — other factors are playing a role in the program’s review.

Tomasek said university officials “are evaluating three topics related to the program.” They include the development of a new research plan at OU’s Health Sciences Center and an assessment to see whether the program is sustainable financially, especially with “declining or uncertain federal research funding.”

“The president recognizes the public interest in the baboon program and wants to ensure that OU maintains a compliant program,” he said.

Scores of baboons

Images captured last month by a local TV station’s helicopter pilot have renewed the public’s interest in the sprawling facility, which is home to scores of baboons that have been bred and lived their entire lives there in captivity.

University officials have been slow to provide information about the baboon breeding program, even though the facility is funded with public money.

Despite repeated requests by The Oklahoman, OU representatives did not provide several pieces of information related to the breeding facility, including copies of the program’s budget for the past five years, a list of universities or other entities that have acquired baboons from OU and population figures.

The university refused to provide a tour of the facility, claiming it would traumatize the animals but provided photos of the site late Friday.

Attempts to find out just how many baboons are currently living in El Reno were not successful, though USDA inspection reports do offer a glimpse. In January, inspectors with the agency reported that 358 baboons were living at the facility. In June 2013, there were 296. Roughly a year ago, in June 2014, the baboon headcount was 295.

Studies, experiments

Tomasek, who works for the Health Sciences Center, said no animal testing is carried out at the El Reno facility. Academic publications reveal the baboons born and raised in El Reno are used for a wide array of studies and experiments.

In one study, scientists wrote in reports that baboons were infected with the Ebola virus. In another, baboons were simply observed to see how they aged. University records also show that researchers would separate infant baboons from their mothers — which proved deadly on at least one occasion — just to see how the tiny primates would react.

All of this is done for the betterment of mankind, Tomasek said.

“The Fort Reno Science Park is an environment for baboons to breed and develop and where retired baboons may reside,” he said. “No biomedical research studies are conducted at the park … only observational behavioral studies take place at the park to improve the welfare of the colony.”

Advances in the medical field made possible through the use of baboons, at least in part, include “vaccine development for infectious diseases, organ transplantation and treatments for septic shock, cancer anemia, vision and aging,” Tomasek said when asked about baboon-related breakthroughs.

“Baboons share a unique similarity to the human immune system and have enabled medical advances to alleviate human disease and suffering,” Tomasek said. “Scientists at the Food and Drug Administration and the (National Institutes of Health) have recently published a study involving baboons that revealed new and improved methods to immunize and protect human infants and pregnant women from the threat of pertussis disease (whooping cough).”

Housing challenging

Despite all the advances in biomedicine, housing scores of intelligent, strong primates capable of violence can be challenging.

During the past few years, U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors have cited OU on a handful of occasions for violating the Animal Welfare Act.

The most recent violations came in January, when USDA inspector Debbie Cunningham noted that enclosures housing a dozen infant baboons had “an excessive build up of grime and waste debris ... on the bars and walls.” She noted vents covered with “dust, debris and cobwebs,” which she described as a health risk.

In years past, some of the infractions were more serious.

During a routine inspection on June 3, 2014, the university was cited for not providing a male baboon and a rabbit with pain-
relieving medications prior to medical procedures.

In August 2013, OU was written up for killing dogs by applying a “9-volt battery ... to the heart,” which is not an approved method for euthanizing animals, USDA inspector Jeffrey Baker wrote in a report.

Deaths ‘occasionally occur’

Tomasek said the baboons that live in El Reno “are maintained in the same social structure as occurs in their natural environment, as approved by the National Institutes of Health.”

“Similar to their natural environment in the wild, deaths occasionally occur in the colony, particularly deaths of newborns and infants due to accidents and/or aggressive adult baboon behavior,” Tomasek said in a written statement.

“The University takes seriously any death in the colony, with evaluation for cause of death by OU Health Sciences Center veterinarians, the OU Health Sciences Center Office for Animal Welfare Assurance, and, when appropriate, a Ph.D.-level baboon behavior expert.”

While USDA documents confirm that some of the university’s animals died in an unnatural way, little information is provided in the reports.

The animal rights group Stop Animal Exploitation Now alleges that roughly two dozen baboon deaths in 2014 were avoidable and could have been prevented with adequate supervision of the primates.

The group, which monitors animal testing facilities across the nation, claims some of the baboons — usually infants — were cannibalized after they died.

“Some of these baboons may have suffered less if they were monitored and treated for trauma, but in each of these incidents, they were not found until they were already dead,” said the group’s spokeswoman, Stacey Ellison.

Pathology reports

According to pathology reports detailing baboon deaths, the primates died in a variety of ways.

In one report, a “24-hours-old” infant was found dead on the ground, “partially cannibalized.”

Another tiny baboon that was “recently taken from (his) mother … did not make the adjustment well and appeared lethargic.” The baboon was later found comatose and died after revival attempts failed.

In February 2014, one baboon was essentially kidnapped by another adult in the colony, according to pathology reports.

“The infant was found being held by a baboon that was not his mother,” the report states.

“He was lethargic and appeared to have been abused. He died 30 minutes later.”

It’s unclear whether the rash of baboon deaths in 2014 has anything to do with Boren’s decision to evaluate the baboon breeding program.

The long-running program received grants from the National Institutes for Health totaling $1,260,949 during the recently ended 2015 fiscal year, and it’s received similar funding for nearly 20 years.

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