Retired Lab Chimps Pressed Back Into Service

A San Antonio lab says primate research is necessary for curing diseases like AIDS and hepatitis. But what progress has really been made.

In 1999, Southwest was designated as one of only eight national primate research centers and awarded a five-year, $27.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Today Southwest boasts the largest baboon colony in the world and, in addition to baboons and chimps, has a sizable share of macaques, marmosets and tamarins.

Southwest counts among its accomplishments its role in developing treatments for pulmonary distress in premature babies, using premature baboons as a model. And Southwest researchers played a "critical role in developing the vaccine currently used to protect humans from the hepatitis B virus, using the chimpanzee model," according to its website. Research on the treatment of hepatitis C, done in conjunction with a Danish pharmaceutical company, led to a drug that is now in clinical trials with human subjects.

To scientist and Southwest director John VandeBerg, anyone who questions the use of primates in research is an extremist, and they're just freaking wrong. Which is why he wrote that "history proves animal extremists wrong" in a 2009 opinion piece for the San Antonio Express-News.

Former lab monkey Chappy, a crab-eating macaque was lucky to retire to Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary.
Photo by Michelle Reininger
Former lab monkey Chappy, a crab-eating macaque was lucky to retire to Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary.
Former lab monkey Dex, a stumptail macaque, was lucky to retire to Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary.
Photo by Michelle Reininger
Former lab monkey Dex, a stumptail macaque, was lucky to retire to Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary.

And it's not just that extremists are so completely and utterly wrong, VandeBerg pointed out; it's that their "distortions and propaganda" are "potentially more challenging than the disease burden itself."

Polio? You don't have it because of a bunch of rhesus monkeys, thank you very much. Hep A and B? Chimps. HPV? Yeah, that's right: monkeys.

He wrote that Southwest scientist Robert Lanford "recently reported promising results in chimpanzees with a drug using a new strategy to prevent the hepatitis C virus from replicating."

For all its prominence in the world of nonhuman primate models for research, Southwest doesn't get much attention outside San Antonio. But it was thrust into the national spotlight in 2011 after it was awarded the Alamogordo chimps. Suddenly, VandeBerg and Lanford were giving interviews to NBC's Rock Center and PBS's NewsHour.

Lanford came across as a scientist who has devoted his life to ending the scourge of hepatitis. VandeBerg came across as spookily dispassionate.

"I think of the chimpanzees in the same way that I think of a library," VandeBerg told Rock Center correspondent Lisa Myers. "There are many books in the library that will never be used this year or next year. Many of them might never be used again. But we don't know which ones will be needed tomorrow, next year or the year after." (It's possible that Southwest's communications department realized that VandeBerg, while an able procurer of federal grants, somehow appears less sentient than the rhesus macaques bouncing around the Southwest grounds: Citing media fatigue, Southwest's communications director said that everyone there was too "burned out" to comment for this story.)

And while VandeBerg warned in his opinion piece against so-called extremists, it appears that Southwest engaged in some of its own propaganda for the NBC story. Chimps have to be sedated and immobilized for even simple procedures like drawing blood, and the NBC cameras showed chimps willingly presenting their arms to veterinarians who injected them with sedatives. Quick, clean, no fuss. Myers reported that, according to Lanford, 75 percent of the chimps had been trained to do this. Yet Southwest's 2010 National Institutes of Health grant application for the research on and maintenance of the Alamogordo chimps states the opposite: "About one-third of the animals will present an arm or leg for injection, but the rest must be darted with a Telinject gun."

The grant application also indicates that the chimps are more than just library books; they're a much-needed revenue stream. Obtained by Laura Bonar of Animal Protection of New Mexico, the application states that the per diem costs the facility would receive would "balance the SNPRC budget, which is currently well in the red."

Southwest would get paid for each chimp, whether they're used for research or not. The application states that chimps would be assessed and labeled as healthy enough for general use, adequate for limited use or no longer suitable for use. The Alamogordo chimps currently at Southwest have all been labeled Category 1 — healthy enough for general use.

Here's an example of a Category 1: Katrina, a 30-year-old chimp, did most of her time in a private lab in Tuxedo, New York. She has been sedated or anesthetized at least 295 times, endured 36 liver biopsies, four rectal biopsies, three lymph node biopsies and a cervical biopsy. In 1994, after coming out of a ketamine daze, she mutilated her thumb. Between June 2001 and March 2002 (when she was retired), she lost 38.5 pounds — one-third of her body weight.

As a taxpayer, you will be paying for Katrina's renewed use at Southwest. You also will be paying, or have already paid, for the production of two-minute videos on Southwest's Web site that promote the use of chimpanzee testing; for search-engine optimization that will place the Web site among the top results for "chimpanzee and research" queries; and for tours for high-school students.

The per diem charge per chimp would be adjusted, according to the application, after every 20 deaths.

In September, the National Institutes of Health announced its intention to transfer 100 chimpanzees currently at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana to Southwest. All of the chimps have been made "permanently ineligible for biomedical research," according to an NIH spokesperson.

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15 comments
judyslove
judyslove

This is truly a tragedy. Testing on primates should be banned and made illegal everywhere. These primates should be released to caring animal sanctuarys that can provide a much needed change of lifestyle for these beautiful and intelligent animals, they have suffered for far too long.

Schitt.Rumpney
Schitt.Rumpney

Now thats a damn shame. If a po-ass monkey got to go back to work after retirement....what thuh...?

celinejoste
celinejoste

Hey people!  Don't be upset by this story.  THE HOUSTON PRESS is known for FAUX NEWS regarding animal abuse.  They did a story a couple of years ago about someone who was slashing cats then letting them out near where they were abducted, so the owners would find them dead.  It was a horrible story.  We called the numbers listed in the what turned out to be fictitious  story and spoke to someone who was supposedly the animal investigator in charge.  She said "wow, we got a lot of response to that story.  I'll call you back."   Of course she never did.  We had informed her that a group of volunteers in the area were willing to go house to house asking if anyone had seen anything suspicious in the way of catnapping going on.  After more investigating the details - turns out the story was BOGUS, just like this one.

stkittchick
stkittchick

That photo ... that gut-wrenching, heartbreaking photo.  An innocent, condemned.  Life in prison, sanctioned torture, all for nothing. Absolutely nothing.  Future generations will look back appalled by what we are doing to these animals.  Take a stand!  Speak out!  Take one minute out of your day to let others know what's going on.

jaspercat
jaspercat

Heaven help you if you catch a case of the hepatits, the primary symptom of which is terrible copy-editing.

 

How many decades will pass before we stop saying that torturing chimpanzees will cure AIDS in humans? This broken record-style approach to prevention, treatment, and a cure has gotten us nowhere, and people and animals have suffered because of it.

ramsey85
ramsey85

Chimpanzees, like all primates, are sensitive, intelligent beings. Beyond the torture and cruelty of being experimented on, they are confined to barren steel cages with no space to move naturally and no environmental enrichment. The testing that's really needed is on the lab workers who can do this to another living being: Where is their empathy?     

thedanimal
thedanimal

"Your money is good — but your questions aren't." - well said

jcmhoutx
jcmhoutx

Even if experiments on animals gave us useful information about human health -- which it doesn't* -- it's simply and unjustifiably cruel to cage thinking, feeling beings and torment them just because we can. After reading on PETA.org about the sickening ways in which primates are tortured and abused at SNPRC, Covance, Shin Nippon Biomedical Laboratories and other facilities, I will never support any business or charity that funds experiments on animals.  It just wastes money, endangers human health, and inflicts physical and psychological agony on its terrified victims.

 

*Even small physical/genetic differences between species make it impossible to successfully apply results from other animals to humans. For example, no chimpanzee has ever developed AIDS from normal exposure to HIV, despite SNPRC's eagerness to use them for AIDS research. How many "miracle cures" in animals have you heard about that never materialized for humans? And how many drugs that passed animal testing later proved to harm or even kill patients? You can thank experiments on animals for those.

jacknsue
jacknsue

Poor babies, lived in pain all of their life so resource doctors can meet at cocktails and pat each other on the back and brag about what greatness they have accompliced!!

 

 

terryx666
terryx666

@Hungryghoast I watched God Bless America last night and thought of you. It may not have been bleak enough for you, though.

Hungryghoast
Hungryghoast

@terryx666 remember wanting to see that though the plot seemed a little silly.....

terryx666
terryx666

@Hungryghoast I'd say more spotty than silly. In the same vein as Heathers, but with a different twist. On Netflix streaming.

 
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