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Scientists defend lab treatment of animals

Animal rights protesters have cleared from Seattle's streets, but the philosophical conflict between scientists who use animals for research and activists who oppose such study persists.

Research proceeded as usual at the UW's Washington National Primate Research Center (WNPRC) last week, which animal rights organizations dubbed "World Week for Animals in Laboratories." Groups including the Northwest Animal Rights Network (NARN) and Campus Animal Rights Educators (CARE) launched protests on campus and across the city alleging the UW mistreats primates it uses in research projects.

Donald Anderson, the primate center's acting director, said the public should take the claims of animal rights organizations with a grain of salt.

"They reduce the discussion to the lowest common denominator," said Anderson. "They say scientists are evil and that they don't care about animals, when nothing could be farther from the truth."

Primates' well-being is a top priority at the WNPRC, Anderson said. Each animal is monitored for health problems around the clock, with veterinarians on hand to give care whenever it is needed. The center also maintains a special staff that ensures primates experience as little stress as possible during studies.

"We recognize that it's important for non-human primates to play and have social contact with others," Anderson said. "They're given toys, mirrors and snacks, and allowed to perform species-specific behavior like grooming each other and foraging."

Some of the demonstrators' sharpest criticism was leveled at Thomas Burbacher, a professor of environmental health who studies the effects of thimerisol on the brain. Thimerisol was formerly used in vaccines as a preservative, and some scientists suspect it may contribute to the development of autism in children.

NARN Members claimed that Burbacher euthanized 41 infant monkeys in the course of his 2005 thimerisol study, but produced no concrete data on the chemical's effects.

"[The allegation] is very inaccurate," Burbacher said. "I've spoken to various autism groups and they think this was an incredibly important study that has changed people's minds about how mercury is distributed in the body. There were a lot of folks saying that the mercury in these vaccines does not distribute to the brain, but we showed that it readily goes to the brain and stays in the brain for a long time."

Demonstrators drew attention to themselves by displaying shocking images of animal experimentation, but Anderson said their materials do not reflect the research conducted at the WNPRC.

"The pictures presented are designed to provoke an emotional response," Anderson said. "Most of those pictures are very old, and they have little to do with what actually goes on in our facility."

Last week's protests were peaceful, but threats and insults from people opposed to primate research are a part of life for Anderson and his colleagues.

"It's something our scientists have to live with as a context of their research," Anderson said. "It takes substantial courage for them to do what they believe to be good and valid research in the face of threats to themselves and their families."

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