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Texas Primate Lab With Welfare Violations Gets $40 Million From the Feds

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You may not realize this, but if you're the kind of person who pays federal taxes, you're currently paying scientists in San Antonio to teach aerobics to monkeys. 

You're paying for the monkeys — marmosets, specifically — in San Antonio's Texas Biomedical Research Institute to run on treadmills for 30 minutes a day, three times a week. They do this while ensconced in what's called a "marmoset exercise ball," which is simply just a monkey-size version of those transparent orbs you put hamsters into.

The scientists are fairly convinced that this research will lend credence to the controversial theory that exercise is good for humans, and it's this kind of groundbreaking research that is possible only with multi-million-dollar grants from the National Institutes of Health. 

So it's no wonder that researchers at the Institute are jumping for joy over a $40 million, five-year renewal of a grant that's earmarked for studies in "aging, regenerative medicine, experimental physiology and genomics, and infectious diseases," according to a press release issued last week. 

The institute is home to the Southwest National Primate Research Center, which boasts roughly 3,000 marmosets, macaques and baboons. The institute is also home to 20 NIH-owned chimpanzees who were recently retired from research and scheduled to be moved to a sanctuary in Louisiana.

Sometimes, those marmosets, macaques and baboons die at the facility in unintended, terrible ways that have nothing to do with the experiments they're a part of. But despite this history of Animal Welfare Act violations, the federal money keeps flowing.

As we previously reported — and as the San Antonio Current  noted — a June 2014 USDA inspection found that caretakers had neglected a juvenile male baboon who was "emaciated at time of death and had multiple scabs from bite wounds on the body and large abscess on the leg and ankle." Maybe a marmoset exercise ball would've helped.

That same inspection report noted that an adult female rhesus monkey's tail was partially skinned in a September 2013 incident, and that she, a month later, "sustained injuries that included multiple lacerations to the face and body." Part of that skinned tail was severed. 

The USDA did not fine the institute for the infractions, but the department's fines are historically toothless — six grand and change for performing a necropsy on a baboon who wasn't quite dead, for example. (An undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States allegedly turned up more instances of mistreatment, like stressed monkeys pulling out their hair, and underfed baboons resorting to eating rocks and feces.)

So we're not surprised that the NIH renewed the institute's grant — but we were a bit taken aback by the self-righteous posturing the institute's representatives displayed in a puff piece by San Antonio's Rivard Report. 

Robert Lanford, director of the institute's primate research center, said, "The people that work here have the same level of empathy for animals as the people who object to the research."

That struck us as odd, because we don't know too many animal lovers who think of lab chimps as library books sitting on a shelf, as Lanford's predecessor, John VandeBerg, once told a reporter. 

Lanford also claimed, "We want to engage the public, and we want them to understand how we do these studies. We are part of a public service to improve human health care."

This would be a welcome and astonishing turnaround from the stonewalling we encountered when trying to find out just that — how these studies were being done — in 2011. Back then, we were told that everyone was too "burned out" to talk to us.

Certainly, not all of the researchers at the institute are putting monkeys on treadmills; some of the work is substantive.

As Lanford stated in a press release, "During the past century, most major medical advancements and treatments involved research using animal models, and these models are still very much needed as we continue to learn more about how to treat and – one day – cure diseases like diabetes, the Ebola virus, heart disease, Hepatitis, HIV, Malaria, Parkinson’s, and so much more."

It's just that this important stuff is mixed in with the disturbing Animal Welfare Act violations and dubious research, like studying the temperament of rhesus macaques with alopecia. Maybe if federal money were restricted to the vital stuff, and tied to a modicum of accountability, we'd be more likely to share the institute's enthusiasm.  

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