Last month, Oregon Health & Science University turned over 74 videos of an experiment scientists have been conducting on Japanese macaques at Oregon's National Primate Research Center.
In April, OHSU was ordered to turn over the videos to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals after a Multnomah County circuit judge ruled they were public records. WW first reported on the ruling, which was a significant victory for government transparency.
But what do the videos show? PETA has provided them to WW and they can be seen here.
The videos portray an experiment conducted at ONPRC by Dr. Elinor Sullivan since 2011. In Sullivan's experiment, scientists feed pregnant Japanese macaques one of two diets.
The control group of mothers is fed "standard monkey chow" while the other group is fed a "Western-style diet designed to mimic the average American diet," according to a statement released this month by OHSU. This diet consists of "ground oat hulls, casein and wheat flour, which contain a higher content of fat and sugar."
Then, when the baby macaques are born, they are tested to see how they respond to human and nonhuman intruders. Scientists study the monkeys' response to "novel stimuli" and observe their "temperament, anxiety and stress response."
The purpose, according to OHSU, is to better understand "mental health disorders" that can be attributed to an unhealthy maternal diet. Sullivan received $5.2 million in public and private funding for the study between 2011 and 2019.
In the videos, caged monkeys are approached by a lab assistant who makes a variety of threatening moves, testing how the macaques respond to stress. These actions include making eye contact with the monkeys—an aggressive gesture for macaques, according to The Macaque Website managed by the U.K.’s National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research. The macaques respond by running around their cage, flinging themselves at the bars, making loud noises, and exhibiting submissive facial expressions. These are understood to be fright responses.
Dr. Alka Chandna, vice president of laboratory investigation cases for PETA, says the group became aware of Sullivan's work in the fall of 2017 and has been fighting for public release of video of the experiment ever since.
"OHSU is a public university, so they are beholden to people who submit public records requests, but they refused to give us the videos," Chandna says.
After Circuit Judge David Rees ordered OHSU to turn over the videos, Chandna says she can see why the university wanted to keep the footage under wraps.
"ONPRC may be unethical, but they are not stupid," she adds. "They realize that this footage is pretty upsetting. The public understands that these monkeys are suffering."
Not true, says OHSU spokeswoman Tamara Hargens-Bradley.
"At OHSU, we employ hundreds of dedicated staff committed to providing humane, respectful treatment and the best possible veterinary care for every animal," Hargens-Bradley tells WW in a statement. "OHSU believes that knowledge gained through biomedical research in relevant animal models is essential to developing new ways to identify, prevent, treat or eradicate disease and to improve human and animal health."
PETA opposes any type of animal testing. The organization is calling for Sullivan's experiment to be discontinued and the primate center to be shut down.
Not only does PETA take issue with the way the experiment was conducted and that public money was spent on the experiment, Chandna also disagrees with the purpose of the study. She argues researchers have known for a long time that healthy foods are better for pregnant mothers and their unborn fetuses than unhealthy foods and that mothers-to-be already know their unborn children eat whatever they eat.
"Elinor Sullivan is not adding anything to our understanding of what we should and shouldn't be eating," Chandna says. "What she is doing is adding to the amount of misery in the world, the amount of suffering in the world, causing all manner of pain and taking taxpayer dollars to do that. It is absurd and egotistical for Elinor Sullivan to come skipping along…and say that she has discovered that high-fat diets are bad for you."
Dr. Michelle Sang, a leading Portland obstetrician-gynecologist for Legacy Health, also questions the necessity of the experiment: "There is a lot of data in the medical world that would support that a junky diet would affect the health of the mother and has a direct impact on the fetus long term."
But Sang adds that more research is important: "The nutrition knowledge is limited. Our training is not focused on that when we are trained as a physician or as an OB-GYN. Because it's really not possible to do human studies, we have to use animals as a way to at least get an idea of what we might expect."
Dr. Amanda Dettmer, a primatologist at the Yale Child Study Center, has been studying nonhuman primate models for over 20 years. Dettmer emphasized the value of animal research because it allows scientists to study causal outcomes that cannot be studied in humans. As for Sullivan's work, Dettmer said, "we cannot assign random mothers to eat particular diets during pregnancy. This is where the value of studying animals comes in."
In its response, OHSU says Sullivan's research offered key findings.
"Study findings published to date reveal behavioral changes in offspring of mothers that consumed a high-fat diet, including increased anxiety, which is associated with impaired development of the brain's serotonin system, which influences mood and well-being," the university said. "The study also showed that placing the offspring on a healthy diet at an early age failed to reverse the effect."
Elinor Sullivan was not available for comment.