TWO YEARS AGO, Stephen Kelley was a central figure in one of the most explosive episodes in the recent history of animal research.
TWO YEARS AGO, Stephen Kelley was a central figure in one of the most explosive episodes in the recent history of animal research.
So why did the University of Washington hire him to become chief veterinarian at the Washington National Primate Research Center? The university says Kelley's troubles were the result of an internal spat in another state and that its center is trouble-free.
But local animal rights activists have declared Kelley Animal Enemy No. 1. They want him fired.
As things turn out, his hiring is bad news and good news for the activists. The bad news, they say, is that Kelley will do for Washington what he allegedly did for a primate center in Oregon—and that will add up to a sorry scene for research primates. But the good news is that his hiring gives them a perfect wedge to drive into the university's animal research complex.
"This is a jumping-off point for us to get into the horrendous vivisection issues at UW," says Che Green, an organizer of local animal rights activists campaigning to remove Kelley.
Kelley, after all, was openly criticized by his colleagues in Oregon, a crack rarely seen in the familial facade of research science.
But so far, the anti-Kelley crowd has been incapable of nailing down a victory, crucial at a time when animal rights issues have largely dropped off the public's radar.
In many ways, the dispute surrounding Kelley is another journey down the well-worn rails of the animal research debate, with everyone sticking to their primeval roles. Scientists react with a silent hauteur to accusations, while activists stick to a fist-in-the-air emotionalism—both tactics obscuring the facts behind the unusual tale of how one secretive primate veterinarian became a lightning rod for animal rights crusaders.
THERE ARE EIGHT national primate research centers, funded primarily by the National Institutes of Health. Harvard University runs one in Massachusetts and the University of California at Davis runs one near Sacramento, Calif.
The Washington Center has a $113 million a year budget and is located in the Warren G. Magnuson Health Sciences Building. It has satellite facilities in Belltown and Indonesia. Its two Washington facilities plus a breeding colony in Louisiana are home to 2,000 primates, mostly macaque monkeys. (Census figures for its Indonesian center were not available.)
Established in the early 1960s, the centers were part of America's answer to the former U.S.S.R.'s Sputnik, a way to close the basic science gap between East and West. The centers operate around the central dogma of animal research: Scientists can use creatures great and small to tell them about humans because, owing to evolution, lower mammals and humans share many of the same biological characteristics. Mice develop cancers, for example, making them a kind of living laboratory.
With nonhuman primates, such as rhesus monkeys and baboons, the dogma is even stronger. They are considered full-blown biological proxies for humankind. Each may share as much as 97 percent of its DNA with humans (estimates vary). What's more, their reproductive systems, brains, and immune systems are similar enough to humans that there is a central tenet of biomedical research: What's true in the nonhuman primate is also true in humans.
AIDS and HIV research have been a focus of primate research over the last 15 years, but the answers still elude scientists. One area where primate research has provided answers is human infertility.
The centers are controversial. It is not uncommon to see protesters lined up outside primate centers in Oregon and Georgia, for example. The animals are highly sentient, and there is evidence that some primates can use language.
To protesters, it's an outrage that researchers are able to take humankind's next of kin, stuff them in a cage, and vivisect them.
To researchers, it would be an outrage if they couldn't use primates as experimental vehicles to probe the mysteries of retroviruses and Alzheimer's.
No one is bold enough to claim that the life of an experimental primate is pleasant. Many live alone in cages, and some of the highly social animals do not thrive under those circumstances. Some become depressed, some go "cage mad," and some pull out tufts of their hair and bite themselves (some do just fine). As a result, federal law requires that the psychological well-being of research primates be tended to. That's the charge of the primate veterinarian.
The job is paradoxical, especially when compared with a typical small-animal vet. Besides looking out for primates' mental health, the vets are supposed to keep animals alive—stitching them up after fights and treating their chronic diarrhea, for example—so they may be experimented upon and, later, killed.
"This is the dilemma all lab animal vets face," says Viktor Reinhardt, a former primate veterinarian at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center in Madison, Wis., and a consultant to the Animal Welfare Institute.
Stephen Kelley is a well-known primate vet. He's worked in animal research for over 25 years, mostly at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, located in a stand of second-growth Douglas fir and cedar in a suburb of Portland.
At the Oregon center, operated by Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), Kelley rose to become the chief veterinarian.
He also became a key figure in a controversial episode at the center.
FOR TWO YEARS in the late 1990s, one of Kelley's underlings was a technician named Matt Rossell. Unbeknownst to anyone at the Oregon center, Rossell had once been an undercover investigator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA); however, he'd broken with the group before taking his tech job. But when he saw what he considered to be animals living in psychological distress and violations of animal care law, Rossell began secretly videotaping the scenes.
Rossell worked in a program at the Oregon center that monitored the psychological well-being of the animals. He says that he found repeated instances of singly caged animals pulling out their hair and biting themselves. Rossell thought that the center's program, overseen by Kelley, could do more for the primates.
Rossell hectored Kelley with ideas to occupy the animals. He'd found local merchants who would donate produce to the center. Rossell says the primates were happy whenever they were fed produce, as the center did on a minimal basis.
"They would squeal with delight when you fed it to them," he says.
Small wonder: Their usual diet was a twice daily feeding of monkey chow, similar in texture and smell to dog chow. In the wild, primates are omnivores.
Kelley opposed diversifying the animals' diet, Rossell says.
"He didn't consider it a good use of my time," says Rossell, who no longer works at the center.
"Every time I made a suggestion, he blocked me."
Rossell's fellow employees had troubles with Kelley, too.
In late May 2000, 25 of them joined Rossell in signing a complaint that was forwarded to the center's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).
In the complaint, the employees cited a "crisis- oriented work environment that cripples our ability to provide the quality of care the animals deserve." The complaint went on to state that there were violations of federal law, high employee turnover, and mistakes being made taking blood samples from research animals.
The IACUC took the unusual step of calling a special meeting at which the committee acknowledged that the complaint was "a vote of no confidence in the management" and that "the potential for significant animal care inadequacies" existed, according to Oregon primate center records.
An OHSU investigation followed. Kelley went on administrative leave. In July 2000, he resigned from the primate center.
But the story didn't end there.
Rossell went public with his accusations later that summer. He also made available videotapes of what appeared to be primates going crazy and living in what looked to be poor conditions.
Most dramatically, one of the tapes showed a male monkey undergoing what is called electro-ejaculation, a procedure used to gather sperm for reproductive studies. The procedure took place under Kelley's auspices and involved electrical current being applied to a restrained monkey's penis.
Some of the tapes appeared on the evening news in Portland. It was a public-relations disaster for the center and OHSU, its corporate parent.
Rossell later filed a formal complaint with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the regulatory agency for most laboratory animals. OHSU brought in an outside consultant, Carol Shivley, to review its psychological well-being program. In her report, Shivley, a well-regarded primate behaviorist, wrote that the center had produced "behaviorally aberrant" animals. It had also, she wrote, ignored the industrywide practice of housing primates in cages with other primates. In effect, she alleged that the center could have done more to ensure the psychological well-being of its animals.
What's more, Shivley found that the electro-ejaculation procedure "did not appear to be humane."
Her report was unprecedented: Never before had a primate researcher so openly criticized animal care at a primate center. There was good reason for the criticism.
During the last few years of Kelley's tenure at the center, monkeys in the electro-ejaculation pool were biting themselves, according to Oregon primate center records. And in a nutrition study, for example, center records show that many of the singly caged monkeys were biting themselves to the point of requiring surgical intervention by Kelley's staff.
Even the USDA was critical of the center. In early 2001, it ordered the center to re- examine its electro-ejaculation procedure. It also suggested that the center dramatically increase its social housing of animals.
In private, some primate center scientists and technicians laid the blame squarely on Kelley, saying his "old school" practices set the center up for trouble—and the most embarrassing episode in its 40-year history.
Now that new-school veterinarians are at work at the Oregon center, even Rossell admits that the institution has made many animal care improvements since Kelley's departure.
THE EVENTS AT the Oregon center were widely known within the primate research community, Susan Smith, director of the Oregon primate center, said in December 2000.
That same month, the Washington primate center hired Kelley to become its chief veterinarian.
It's a measure of how touchy the matter is that UW officials initially declined comment on why they hired Kelley. Craig Hogan, vice provost for research, did not return phone calls. Kelley declined repeated requests for an interview and did not respond to faxed questions. William Morton, director of the primate center, only answered questions after being intercepted on the UW campus.
He says that the center needed a new head primate vet, that finding qualified vets is difficult, and that Kelley was available. He dismisses what went on in Oregon as an "internal Oregon affair" and says he spoke with Smith before hiring Kelley.
"She was adamant that what they had was a good program," Morton says.
He says that Kelley has only been a boon to veterinary services at the Washington center.
"Steve has done a good job for us," he says. "I support him 100 percent."
The USDA inspected the center in December 2001 and found no violations of federal animal care law.
But animal rights activists are still outraged.
Matt Rossell, now an outreach coordinator for In Defense of Animals (IDA), a national animal rights group, says, "It's infuriating—the same guy who was the reason for all these problems has no trouble getting another job in his field. I'd like to see him lose his job."
Seattle animal rights activists are similarly incensed.
"Transplanting the offender is absurd," says Che Green, the organizer of Can Kelley, as the campaign is known. "It's one glaring example of how there's no oversight of how people take care of research animals in this country."
Green is 27 years old and has dark blond hair with a goatee and hoops in each earlobe; he works part time for the Northwest Animal Rights Network (NARN). The group has twin objectives: to get Seattle to go vegan and to end animal research at UW.
For the past year, NARN (along with a group called Action for Animals) has been going after the university and primate center by going after Stephen Kelley. It put up www.cankelley.com, which posts the complaint filed by the Oregon employees along with an online petition calling on the university to fire Kelley. Almost 700 people have signed.
It's a sign of how half-formed the campaign is that the site contains few of the details of what went on in Oregon, even though they were widely reported in Portland. What's more, despite Green's claim that NARN can muster as many as 50 activists for a meeting, a NARN student group could only round up three people for a protest at the UW in May.
The fact is that animal rights protests have died off at the UW. In 1997, for example, one raucous protest outside the primate center resulted in broken windows and two arrests. There was also a well- attended four-day protest in 1999.
The main outlet for animal rights advocates on campus these days is during monthly meetings of the UW's IACUC. After committee members have discussed and, typically, approved the research protocols before it, activists take the floor to criticize animal research.
Commonly, the exchange is cordial.
But matters took an ominous turn at the IACUC's March 21 meeting.
David Bemel, an activist with Action for Animals, had reportedly been taking pictures of committee members throughout the meeting. Then he rose and said, "We know where you live; you'd better watch your backs," according to several attendees. (Bemel did not return repeated requests for comment.)
The next meeting was held at the University Police station with two officers in attendance.
At it, longtime animal rights activist Wayne Johnson conceded that "desperation" was creeping into the movement. Nationally, after 15 years of winning many battles to improve the welfare of laboratory animals, the animal rights crusade has suffered some setbacks. In May, an attempt to have research mice, rats, and birds come under the same welfare laws as research primates and dogs was defeated in the U.S. Senate.
As marginalized as animal rights activists often feel, UW was willing to take their concerns seriously until the activists violated officials' comfort zone. Even Morton says he was ready to sit down with them and have an open exchange about primate research. But once the anti-animal research campaign targeted an individual, it was game over: The primate center would remain silent behind its locked doors.
Green doesn't appear fazed by the prospect of attacking an unseen target.
"I have no qualms about picking Kelley as the point person," he says. "His sole responsibility is the well-being of the animals. His employees in Oregon signed a complaint saying he wasn't taking care of the animals. That's reason enough right there."
BUT NONE OF the activists can offer any evidence that animals are being mistreated at the Washington center.
For his part, the primate center's Morton points out in a press release that the center has passed outside inspections by the USDA and other agencies. (The same agencies consistently approved of the Oregon center's conditions during the same period about which the employees filed their complaint.)
Instead of fighting to get inside the primate center, Green says NARN will take its campaign in a different direction.
"We're trying to find a home address for Kelley," he says. "We want to do a house demo. Those are effective because it makes him on edge."
Green also says there will be a message embedded for a university that, to date, has not responded to NARN's letters, petitions, and protests.
"It lets them know that we are serious, and I'm not sure that they do already."
As if to punctuate that point, NARN held a protest—seven protesters, eight UW police officers—outside the primate center on June 11 and, then, a haphazard march through the health sciences complex.
Green says he thinks NARN has picked a fight it can win.
"I think we're winning right now," he says. "We're reaching people with the message that primate research is not going to go on without some oversight from the community."
Oversight would be a small victory compared to the many large victories activists like Wayne Johnson and Che Green have already won. America is a kinder, gentler place for research animals than it was 20 years ago—no matter how hollow animal rights groups say the advances are. Lab dogs must be exercised, cage sizes are regulated, and nonhuman primates must have their psychological well-being tended to. And the cruelty-free guarantee is commonly plastered across eyeliner tubes and shampoo bottles on supermarket shelves.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) recently gave an award to personal products giant Procter & Gamble for championing alternatives to using animals for developing consumer products—both an award and an approach that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
And last month, Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the United States, agreed to abide by PETA's demands that its suppliers of animal products adhere to humane guidelines.
But those victories weren't won because the corporate giants gained a soft spot for animals; the wins came because P&G and Kroger were up against HSUS and PETA, both sophisticated PR machines that can make facts stick to their intended targets. NARN, with a $60,000 a year budget, hasn't marshaled the facts around Stephen Kelley to its advantage. Instead, by going after an individual with gossamer-thin threats, it turned a battle that should have been a principled fight into a quest about as likely to succeed as one to get Seattleites to forgo chinook salmon.