The Washington National Primate Research Center (WaNPRC) has been the subject of much controversy, but in the recent deaths of juvenile monkeys, head officials at the center assured the public that negligence was not the cause.
Adult male macaque monkeys attacked three infant macaques in an Arizona facility overseen by the WaNPRC in 2013. One infant died from its wounds on site, and the other two were euthanized.
A veterinary medical officer (VMO) working under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a citation to the UW facility stating that staff members should have taken more immediate steps to prevent these deaths. The monkeys died in different locations at separate times.
The citation dates back to Aug. 1, 2014, a year after the three deaths occurred.
A little over a month after the Aug. 1 inspection report, the same VMO prepared another inspection on Nov. 18, affirming the WaNPRC’s compliance with the regulations of the Animal Welfare Act.
“[That] typically means that there wasn’t any new noncompliance issues,” said Michael Budkie, co-founder and executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! (SAEN). “We don’t know if those [previous] issues have been resolved until the USDA releases a statement or fines the WaNPRC.”
Budkie filed a complaint on Dec. 9, 2014 against the UW through the USDA to Dr. Robert Gibbens, director of the Western Region for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
In the complaint, Budkie advises the USDA to fine the UW a maximum of $10,000 “per infraction, and that this amount be added onto the potential fine relevant to the incidents in the two previous inspections of 2014.”
He also stated the deaths and aggressive behavior of primates may have been due to excessive stress and insufficient psychological stimulation.
“There wasn’t any negligence involved here,” said Michael Mustari, director of WaNPRC. “We followed the standard approach to socializing these animals.”
Socialization is the process of allowing species to become assimilated with their own kind in order to promote psychological health and encourage research animals to procreate.
A major component to raising a domestic source of research primates for the WaNPRC is properly socializing monkeys into breeding groups, Mustari said.
Even with an entire team of scientists who have dedicated their lives to the conservation and welfare of nonhuman primates, the heavily controlled breeding grounds can still produce unexpected outcomes.
“These animals are under observation seven days a week,” Mustari said. “In general, things go quite well, but you can have a surprise. In our efforts to provide the best socialization environment for these animals that mimics their natural world, we automatically have the possibility for accidents to happen.”
The first accident took place on May 2, 2013, when a 1-month-old male pig-tailed macaque had to be put down due to injuries.
According to the Aug. 1 inspection, “15-20 minutes after open contact was established,” an adult male monkey attacked the juvenile.
“The first time it happened, that male was pulled [and] his temperament re-assessed by behaviorists,” said Dr. Jeremy Smedley, associate director of the WaNPRC and head veterinarian.
According to Smedley, veterinarians have to first evaluate which monkeys are compatible with other monkeys before fully introducing them to a breeding group. That assessment can take weeks, months, or even longer.
Open contact is the final stage of socialization that allows research primates to fully interact with one another without a protective screen.
On May 30, a 6-month-old male macaque experienced a similar attack. This time, the monkey died from his wounds. Following the death of the first two monkeys, all adult male monkeys were temporarily separated for re-socialization.
“[Primates] are social animals,” Smedley said. “In order to give them that appropriate environment, you want to have them to have that social contact … you do not want an isolated primate; that’s not good for them.”
On June 12, one of the adult males managed to harm a 9-month-old female by reaching through the mesh of the protective screen that separated their enclosures; she too had to be euthanized.
The third incident prompted veterinarians to remove all males from females with infants, a step Smedley said most institutions would not take.
“We chose to take the extra steps to make sure this stuff doesn’t happen again,” Smedley said. “A year later, it hadn’t [happened]. When the USDA came in, they acknowledged we had successfully dealt with the situation. But again, animals had been injured and their policy is to cite.”
Although macaques are naturally aggressive creatures, cases of infanticides or violence amongst research animals are rare and unusual, Smedley said.
“I think the thing that has impressed me while working at the Primate Center for as long as I have is that we follow the rules,” said Tina Mankowski, director of community and media relations for UW Medicine and associate vice president for medical affairs for the UW. “We self-report anything [unexpected] that happens. … We do excellent care as it is right now.”
However, the WaNPRC’s less-than-stellar record has motivated organizations such as SAEN to scrutinize the research center’s activities.
“[The nonhuman primates] were not sufficiently observed, because if they had been, [staff members] would have been aware of the aggressive behaviors and prevented the deaths,” Budkie said. “If they weren’t breaking the law, they wouldn’t be receiving federal citations.”
SAEN is an animal rights organization based in Ohio. Since its founding in 1996, SAEN has worked to eradicate animal experimentation across the United States.
Its activism has mainly targeted university laboratories that sometimes use species such as canines, nonhuman primates, and other mammals for scientific or medical research.
Some of the complaints made by SAEN against the WaNPRC have caught the director’s attention.
“Nobody enjoys hearing that, because it is not true,” said Mustari, with regard to the efforts of organizations such as SAEN. “It is a distraction and it’s painful.”
Smedley, on the other hand, is undeterred by criticism. He said animal rights groups sometimes fabricate or patch different records together in order to defame the WaNPRC.
“We’ve had folks that actually distort things to the point that it’s not anything like reality,” Smedley said. “That bothers me, because that presents us in a light that’s not accurate.”
The WaNPRC has a history of federal citations: A string of reports date back years before SAEN had even been established.
In 1994, a federal inspector from the USDA cited the UW’s now-closed Regional Primate Research Field Station in Medical Lake for the deaths of five baboons that died from exposure.
In 2007, the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC) sent a nine-page letter to the UW, identifying several “deficiencies” in the facilities that could cost the school its certification to perform animal testing.
The case was so serious that at one point in 2006, the AAALAC had to put the WaNPRC on probation due to violations. The accreditation board lifted the probation after a couple more USDA checkups.
In 2009, three workers and one supervisor at the WaNPRC were disciplined after a USDA inspection reported that a male pig-tailed macaque had starved to death.
Just last year, USDA officials released a report on Feb. 28 criticizing the UW for inadequate care of research animals.
In addition to insufficiently providing pain medication to rabbits and guinea pigs, federal officials noted other irregularities in the WaNPRC’s care of macaque monkeys.
Despite its past, the WaNPRC has also been the birthplace of several major scientific and medical breakthroughs.
In Oct. 2008, UW researchers were able to rejuvenate paralyzed muscles by training monkeys to play simple video games. Scientists from across the country have deemed the phenomenon as a step toward curing patients suffering from paralysis and spinal cord injuries.
After two decades of experimenting, Dr. Chuck Murry and his team were able to successfully regenerate the damaged heart muscles of monkeys in 2014. The UW Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine transformed human stem cells into heart muscles and injected them into the hearts of monkeys.
This accomplishment has garnered the approval of experts from the Yale Cardiovascular Research Center and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
These incidents at the UW show the discussion over the ethics of animal experimentation, including primates and other animals like rats and pigs, is an ongoing topic that will surely spark debate into the future.
Reach reporter Seungkyul Park at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @seungkyul_park