Tuesday, November 26, 2002

A CLOSER LOOK AT PRIMATE RESEARCH

WELCOME TO THE MONKEY HOUSE
Seattle is home to 800 nonhuman primates, but the University of Washington won't let anyone see them. Here's why.
BY PHILIP DAWDY

...Nationally, there are pressure groups on both sides of the cold war. The National Association for Biomedical Research and the Foundation for Biomedical Research, both pro-research groups, try to influence public opinion through educational outreach and advertisements. The former group also lobbies Congress to not tighten restrictions on the use of animals in research.

PITTED AGAINST THEM are groups like the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The Humane Society, a moderate group, focuses its efforts on incremental legislative change. PETA, a more radical group, agitates for an immediate end to animal research.

Researchers are largely winning the war by dint of the fact that, each year, they are doing more research on more primates.

But earlier this year, In Defense of Animals, a California-based animal-rights group, won an unprecedented victory--it essentially forced the closure of a primate research facility in New Mexico.

Known as the Coulston Foundation, it was home to several hundred chimpanzees and had been fined three times by the USDA for violations of federal regulations. For example, a chimp had died after being left outside in desert heat. Still, NIH continued to fund Coulston. In Defense of Animals applied so much pressure through Congress that, in 2001, NIH finally pulled its money out of the research facility. Early this year, the foundation's bank called in a loan, putting the facility out of business. A Florida sanctuary acquired the last of the Coulston chimpanzees in September....

There is some evidence that the research community has begun to soften its stance.

Until recently, if researchers were finished using a primate in AIDS-related work, they would simply kill the animal, even if it had shrugged off the illness. It was infected with a form of HIV and that made it a time bomb around other primates. That put researchers--and particularly NIH--in a bind. Many of the animals infected with HIV were chimpanzees, and they didn't progress to full-blown AIDS, making them lousy research models from a scientific perspective. Still, the chimps were infected with HIV. Could NIH justify killing these highly intelligent creatures?

A National Research Council panel found that the agency had a moral obligation to keep the animals alive in recognition of their high intelligence and intricate social lives. In 2000, Congress passed the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act, which set up a system of sanctuaries for the 1,300 retired chimps still in NIH's hands. The first 200 chimps will be retired to a sanctuary in Louisiana in 2004.