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March 31st, 2010 James Pitkin, Mark Zusman | News Stories
 

This Monkey Died For You

OHSU animal researchers fire back at their critics.

     
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MARTYR COMPLEX: A rhesus macaque with its ID number tattooed on its chest chews a cage at the Oregon National Primate Research Center.
IMAGE: Mike Perrault

Earlier this year, about 30 protesters gathered outside the main hospital at Oregon Health & Science University.

Some held signs reading “Stop Breeding Suffering,” with a picture of a baby monkey in a cage. Others chanted through bullhorns:

Primate research should be banned
So let’s rise up and take a stand
Find a way to do your part!
Show the world you have a heart!

For nearly 12 years, displays like this have been a fact of life for OHSU. The reason? Besides training doctors and healing the sick, the school is also in the business of breeding a colony of more than 4,000 monkeys for medical and behavioral experiments—one of eight such centers in the nation.

Since OHSU took over the Oregon National Primate Research Center in 1998, the 237-acre facility in Hillsboro has been a flashpoint for the national animal rights movement. The center has been infiltrated by animal rights activists posing as workers. Its scientists’ homes have been vandalized. About twice a year, protesters descend on OHSU’s main complex on Marquam Hill or the school’s Richmond clinic in Southeast Portland.

Until now, OHSU’s response has mainly been to ignore the protesters and instead try to promulgate positive publicity about research at the center.

But after the Jan. 21 demonstration by In Defense of Animals, OHSU decided to fight back. In an hourlong interview with WW in March, OHSU spokesman Jim Newman laid out the school’s justification for animal research while blasting both the tactics and beliefs of animal rights activists. Newman also brought Ilhem Messaoudi, a Cornell grad engaged in animal research at the center, and C.J. Doane, a former manager at Charles River Laboratories, the world’s largest supplier of lab animals. She now serves as head veterinarian at the primate center.

Their offensive comes at a critical time for both the primate center and its staunchest enemy, the Portland-based Northwest branch of the nonprofit In Defense of Animals.

The National Institutes of Health is now in the final steps of deciding whether to give OHSU $14.8 million to replace an aging building at the primate center with a new facility able to hold more caged monkeys.

And this week, In Defense of Animals is launching a nationwide campaign highlighting examples of what IDA calls wasteful investment and wanton cruelty in animal research across the country.

Whichever side of the debate you stand on, the facts on the ground in Hillsboro are these. The vast majority of the center’s primates are rhesus macaques roaming in open enclosures or outdoor pens with other monkeys. OHSU does not track the number of monkeys that have died in its experiments. (But, for the record, the monkey in the photo above is still alive.)

The center has been criticized by world-famous primate researcher Jane Goodall, who was shocked by a video smuggled out by IDA activist Matt Rossell in 2000 (see “The Spy Who Loved Monkeys,” WW, Jan. 10, 2001). A psychologist hired by OHSU to review conditions that same year was critical of the way some animals were treated. And in 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture hit the center with its first-ever warning for violating the Animal Welfare Act.

In our interview, OHSU officials staunchly defended the center and its work. Here are the highlights from that conversation, edited for clarity.

Willamette Week: You wanted to discuss how animal rights activists don’t see the bigger picture. You believe they’re just wrong. So let’s start there.

Jim Newman: There is a tremendous amount of data that shows animals are an important part in the research process. If you look at our life spans as human beings, a tremendous amount of that has to do with the fact we have better medications.... A lot of that has to do with biomedical research, and that’s been generated through animal studies. If we didn’t have primate centers or the ability to study animals as a whole, a lot of things would just come to a halt.

Ilhem Messaoudi: We’ve made some amazing breakthroughs in vaccine development, and vaccine development requires animal models. You cannot begin to build a vaccine if you do not understand the virus. You cannot understand the virus outside of its normal life cycle, which is inside a host—be it an animal or a human. So biomedical research, and especially animal research, is extremely important to understand that basic biology of the pathogen that we’re studying.

Aren’t there also a number of scientists who have formerly performed animal experimentation who have now come out against that and argued that it’s not as useful or as crucial?

JN: It’s a pretty rare thing. Of course, you’ll see the opposition is very good about finding people who have done that. One of those people was a guy named Jerry Vlasak, who is an emergency room physician, but Dr. Vlasak also likes to promote the murder of scientists, so you have to listen to everything he’s saying.

Murdering scientists?

JN: We don’t want to paint all activists as having that point of view. Not everybody believes scientists should be murdered, but that is actually something that we’re seeing more and more—especially at UCLA, where scientists have been threatened—their homes have been fired on.

Does that make them terrorists?

JN: You know, “terrorist” is a sticky word. I think we all get kind of caught up in the definition of terrorist. But if somebody’s goal is to frighten somebody away from an activity, I think so, yes. But I wouldn’t say all animal rights activists are terrorists. As we know, the vast majority of scientists believe animal studies are important. The [American Medical Association] supports it, the largest physicians organization in the world.

IM: As a scientist, I don’t look at the experiment like, “OK, how can I fit an animal into this experiment? I got this great experiment, I’ve got to make some use of a mouse or a nonhuman primate.” That’s not at all how we do things. You have to also remember that there are a lot of things we can do that most of us try to utilize.... [We] try to do things in a very responsible and ethical manner before we jump into an animal model.

Is the goal to reduce the amount of animal experiments?

C.J. Doane: It’s the law. It’s a legal requirement that all protocol be reviewed.

IM: It’s the right thing to do.

CD: It’s the ethical thing to do.

But is the goal to reduce—actively reduce—the amount of animal experimentation?

IM: Every time you write a protocol that requires animal use, there are the golden three R’s: replacement, refinement, reduction. So, why do you need to use an animal? Do you need to use this species? I’m not going to propose an experiment that requires me to use Bengal tigers. Somebody’s going to be like, “Is that the only animal you could use for this experiment? Could a mouse be used?”

If reducing animal use is the ethical thing to do, does that mean it’s unethical to experiment on animals?

CD: I came here as an animal welfare-ist, as somebody who cares deeply for this particular species, and also for the fact that biomedical research is important. I see myself—and I think many of us see ourselves—as in the middle. So when you’re asking the question about reduction, for us it’s how small a cost can we make it to maximize the benefit? That’s what we’re all trying to do—we’re trying to say, “Well, let’s make this cost as low as possible because that’s the right thing to do, it’s the ethical thing to do.”


CHOW TIME: A worker tosses carrots to Japanese macaques roaming an outdoor pen at the Oregon National Primate Research Center. IMAGE: Mike Perrault

The cost being the pain you cause the animals—their discomfort?

JN: Pain is an interesting one because very few studies actually involve pain. Pain is kind of a red herring because there are very few studies that are studying pain. So, most animals, like if an animal undergoes surgery, they get the same kind of [treatment] as a human being.

Less than 100 years ago, the debate was whether human experimentation was ethical or not. Would you experiment on humans?

IM: No, because I value human life a lot more. I care very much for my animals. I’ve rescued two cats. I have a Labrador. I love animals, I work at shelters, I foster animals.... I’m sorry, you could fault me for that, but I actually care about your well-being. And if I could make a vaccine that would save your life, and in the cost of making that vaccine I have to use eight little purpose-bred animals—and I have to emphasize this, because people out there think that, you know, I take a dart gun, go out there, capture some monkeys out in the wild that were happily living together, bring them to my lab and torture the shit out of them. That’s not what I do. We have purpose-bred animals that I would rather use to save your life.

You wouldn’t experiment on humans, but you would experiment on monkeys?

IM: Same thing—purpose-bred animals. Absolutely. It’s a purpose-bred research facility.

What’s the difference between those monkeys and the humans you wouldn’t experiment on?

IM: Human life. I would save a human life—that’s worth to me a lot more than a purpose-bred animal.

This seems to be a major difference between you and the activists.

IM: I agree. My cat just swallowed a needle, and the vet told me that the operation would cost $1,200 to save her. I didn’t blink. I wrote the check, saved my cat. She’s a big member in my family.

Would you experiment on your cat?

IM: My cat is kind of a special case. I rescued her, I brought her up. It’s different. She wasn’t bred for research.

JN: As a society, the vast majority of us are meat eaters. As a society, we’ve agreed that the use of animals for a food source is acceptable. At times I’m actually puzzled—why is research held down as being something less important than food? Health and food are two key things that human beings need. I’m always shocked that people place research on a—I actually think it’s a higher plane than a hamburger. Having a cancer treatment is more important than that.

Your primate center has faced criticism from people who believe the way you treat animals is less than ideal. Was there ever a point when the conditions at the primate center were less than optimum?

CD: Our job on a daily basis is to continually seek for best practice. What we did a year ago is not as good as what we’re doing today, which is not going to be as good as what we’re doing next year.... If you look at the evolution of animal welfare, especially in lab animals, it’s been dramatically impacted by the animal rights movement. They’re the ones that are pulling it in different directions.

You got your first warning letter last year from the USDA. It was for three different things: a surgical sponge left in a monkey, surgery done on the wrong monkey at one point, and one monkey was having a difficult labor and ended up dying because no one realized what was going on. Were you around?

CD: Those were two years ago.

JN: It was reported by us when it happened two years ago.

CD: And the USDA saw those things, but they didn’t fine us the first time; they fined us when [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] directed them to us and said, “What about these?” They had already seen that, they had already reviewed those things, and yet they came back with double jeopardy and hit us the second time because PETA directed them to it.

In a separate incident, there was a company back in Boston that hired you to do some experiments, and seven of the nine monkeys that were involved had to be euthanized—they got bladder complications as a result of the experiments. A company called InVivo sued the lab last fall. You settled in December. For how much?

JN: We’re not allowed to discuss that case [as part of the court settlement].

IM: How many sponges get left in patients at OHSU hospital? How many surgeries do we do in a day? What is the percentage of ones that have sponges left in them? We do a lot of procedures that go really, really well. I bet that’s less than 1 percent of the cases.

How many procedures do you perform?

IM: A lot. Just today, I had 18 animals as part of my studies.... And I am a junior faculty member, so I do not have large vaccine studies going on. Everything went great today. I went back, checked on my monkeys, and they looked fantastic. So you can’t get caught up on the one report of the one thing that went on when you have no idea how many things went right.

In 2000, an activist who worked undercover at the primate center released evidence of what he described as animal abuse. Shortly after, you hired a pathologist to report on conditions at your lab. Her report was critical of some practices, in particular electroejaculation, a method of obtaining semen that in some cases caused injury to the penis. Do you still use that method?

JN: A changed version of it is. That was one of the things, a machine that needed to be replaced.... If you ever want to do it, I’m happy to put it on your finger so you can see. It’s a vibration. It’s just like putting a vibrator on your finger. It’s also been used on human patients.… Of course, when somebody like [activist] Matt Rossell talks about it, they’re going to say, “Oh, the electrocution is enormous,” and they try to draw pictures of what happened in [Abu Ghraib].

In January, In Defense of Animals held a protest outside OHSU’s main hospital on Marquam Hill. You told us that was inappropriate, but isn’t their job to put pressure on OHSU?

JN: They were literally protesting outside a hospital, screaming through bullhorns. I think that perhaps they could be a little more respectful. They have all the right in the world to protest. I have no problem with protest. But to scream outside of our emergency department, where somebody just came out with a gunshot wound, or our ICU [is inappropriate]. They’ve also put on white coats to sneak into the hospital to put fliers in there.

One criticism of OHSU is that your primate center in particular has not had much success.

JN: There was a big sign a few years ago that the activists used to hold up: “No Cures for 40 Years.” In a way that’s true, because the reality is that we’re not developing a drug that is going to be marketed tomorrow. But we did the part of the work that led to a drug.

What’s some of the recent work at your facility?

IM: There’s been work looking at preserving ovarian tissue for women who are of reproductive age and who are going through chemotherapy and radiation and are now losing their ovarian tissue and probably will not under normal conditions be able to have a baby. That’s all come out of nonhuman primate research. I’m working on a model for a vaccine for shingles. Currently, there is medication that reduces the incidents of shingles by 15 percent. And we finally have actually the only animal model where we can go in and actually develop a vaccine that will be 90 percent efficacious.

JN: West Nile virus—there is no vaccine for it for humans right now. We’ve received a contract to literally start from the beginning and create a vaccine, which is kind of unusual. Normally, you get a piece of the puzzle, but they asked us to do the entire process.

IM: Why do this kind of research in a nonhuman primate? Yellow fever, for example, is a virus that really likes to infect primates—humans and nonhumans. It doesn’t infect mice. You can shoot up a mouse with tons and tons of yellow fever—it will develop absolutely zero disease.

What happens when you go to a party and someone asks what you do for a living?

IM: I say I’m a biomedical researcher, and I work on this, and I’m trying to do this, this and that. But there’s always the risk of having that person turn around and not want to talk to you.

CD: Or you’re on the MAX, and I’m talking to my husband. Maybe we’re talking about our day. I worry about what I’m saying out loud.

Do you feel a little bit like doctors who perform abortions—performing a kind of medicine that you believe in strongly but others find reprehensible?

JN: Those extreme [animal rights] activists have adopted those exact same tactics [as extreme pro-lifers].

The movement they would more likely associate themselves with is the abolitionist movement—trying to end a practice that the majority of society is OK with. Would that be fair?

JN: No.

The abolitionists freed humans that were kept in captivity, and you’re talking about animals. You see a fundamental difference there.

IM: You have to go back to the research [being performed on] purpose-bred animals.

Slave owners could argue their slaves were purpose-bred.

JN: I’ll pick an even stickier one. I’ll pick global warming. There has been a tremendous effort in the last 10 years to pick apart the argument—to say there’s no such thing as global warming. It’s the same sort of thing that we’re facing. There’s this mountain of evidence of what animal research has brought to us, and yet there’s heavily funded organizations such as PETA, the Humane Society [of the United States] and other animal rights groups which have slowly but surely started to chip away people’s understanding of what this research is. That’s the analogy that I offer. The opposition is hijacking science. People don’t understand how science works, so they don’t understand how important animals are.


To learn about the new campaign against animal research, go to idausa.org/ridiculousresearch
 
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