Primate research center unsurprised by animal-rights complaint

Stop Animal Explotation Now (SAEN), a national animal-rights group, filed a complaint April 23 against the Washington National Primate Research Center (WaNPRC) located on the UW campus.

David Anderson, director of the center, said SAEN’s complaint was not only unsurprising, but also expected.

“The fact that SAEN made accusations against us comes as no surprise; it happens every year,” Anderson said. “For us, it’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when,’ and we are well accustomed to dealing with [the accusations].”

In the complaint, SAEN included several instances involving primates in the center, including monkeys escaping from their cages, one obtaining a pair of scissors, partial tail amputations, and deaths. The information about these incidents was obtained from public records.

One area in the complaint stated, “it is usually best if primates not be allowed to play with scissors.” Anderson said the monkey was not given the scissors, but rather grabbed them through the bars of its cage from a nearby staff member.

“These monkeys are incredibly fast, much faster than we are,” Anderson said, adding that the incident resulted in a small cut on one of the monkey’s fingers that did not require any medical attention.

Another type of incident cited frequently in the complaint involved monkeys escaping from their cages. These incidents prompted Michael Budkie, executive director of SAEN, to question the effectiveness of the center.

“The information demonstrates clearly that UW does not seem to be capable of basic animal husbandry,” Budkie said. “During a relatively short period of time, they had a significant number of primate escapes. If they can’t do basic things like keeping animals in the cages, why should we believe they’re actually capable of performing anything that’s scientifically meaningful?”

Anderson said when an animal escapes from a cage, it is usually due to lock failure. He also mentioned that any monkeys who escaped from their cages were still contained in locked rooms and that a monkey would have to break through a succession of locked doors to actually escape from the center.

The WaNPRC staff implemented a new procedure in response to the escapes. Now, a board, listing when each lock was last checked and by whom, hangs in the center for all staff members to see and monitor.

Ryan Dahlin, a senior who worked at WaNPRC for a year, said he enjoyed working at the center and never experienced any major problems while he worked there. He feels some people misunderstand why people pursue animal research.

“A lot of people just assume that if you work in a primate lab, you hate animals or something, but that’s the complete opposite,” Dahlin said. “Monkeys are my favorite animal. I wanted to work [at WaNPRC] to be close to a species I would never be able to have contact with otherwise.”

Budkie said he believes the center should move in the direction of eliminating the use of animals in research. He said he hopes the USDA will “levy the largest penalty allowable by law” against the center in response to the incidents mentioned in SAEN’s recent complaint.

“Realistically, [the USDA has] to levy a very substantial fine for it to be in any way meaningful,” Budkie said.

However, Anderson said he doesn’t think any action will be taken against WaNPRC from the USDA after the department investigates the incidents. Anderson said the center is “happy to comply” with the USDA, but he feels the complaint is undesirable because it takes time away from research and misrepresents the center to the public.

“The time we have to spend dealing with what are so often groundless accusations is a shame because that time could be better spent trying to help people, and animals, too,” Anderson said. “[Animal-rights groups] have been very up-front that their goal is to stop animal research by any means possible, and making [research] difficult and expensive and hard to do is one of the tactics they use.”

Dahlin said he feels it’s easy for people to jump to conclusions if they don’t know the details of what goes on in the center. He said the monkeys at the center behave in much the same way as they would in the wild, so occasional injuries or escapes from cages are normal.

“If every now and then a monkey gets a little hurt, that’s to be expected,” Dahlin said. “It’s not ideal, but it happens; it’s the real world. I don’t think there’s really a way to prevent it. Human error is going to occur; monkey error is going to occur.”

Anderson said he feels it is important to recognize that researchers are only allowed to use nonhuman primates in their research projects if there are no alternatives. In general, he said he feels requirements for animal care in a research setting have improved recently. He also said he wonders whether people who protest animal research realize how much it factors into many aspects of health care they may use.

“It always makes me want to ask people like the members in SAEN, ‘If you have a significant medical problem, will you go to a hospital?’” Anderson said. “I suspect they would. And if they do, then they are incredibly hypocritical, because there’s nothing that happens in a hospital that they should use if they’re in fact true to what they say.”

Reach reporter McKenna Princing at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @McKennaPrincing

Please read our Comment policy.