Torturing small animals

I’ve always been a little bit ambivalent about the animal rights movement. On the one hand, I view all life as sacred. On the other hand, I’ve had a double organ transplant, was on dialysis before that, and before that I was diabetic for nearly 20 years. It’s safe to say animal testing saved my life a few times over, so I’m not too inclined to get self-righteous about it. Were it not for insulin—which comes from dead pigs and originated with animal testing—I would be dead. If I have to choose between me and the pigs, I hate to say it, but, well, sometimes ya just gotta be selfish.

The diabetes example also illustrates a strategic question I’ve often had with animal rights activists. For most of those 20 years, artificial insulin has been feasible, but hasn’t been made widely available because of the monopolistic practices of assorted drug companies. Animal rights folks tend to focus not on, say, health care policy—which might enable the (less profitable) artificial drug to be more widely used—but on the fact that pigs are dying and it’s got to stop.

All that was on my mind again earlier this month when some barnstorming activists—part of a “Primate Tour,” a summer vacation in which young protesters go and get themselves arrested at animal research facilities across the country—hit UW, occupying president Richard McCormick’s office. Demonstrations also occurred at various researchers’ homes and at the UW Health Sciences Center, where the Washington Regional Primate Research Center is located, and drew a lot of media attention to research practices that make many people squirm. Are the experiments worth it?

UW’s Primate Center is one of eight primate research centers nationally. The core budget is about $8 million a year. Its research focuses on biomedical issues, directed primarily to human health problems; particular focuses at UW’s Primate Center are neuroscience and AIDS research.

Some 3,600 primates, mostly baboons and macaque monkeys, live in the cages of UW’s Primate Center. They await often gruesome treatment: infants separated from parents to test their response, baboons with their heads bolted to steel posts while electrodes test eye function, and in the case of infectious disease study, 100 percent euthanization at the end of the study for pathology results.

‘Ours is an anti-research position’

Animal rights advocates participating in the demonstrations rattle off a long list of grants and projects they find objectionable at UW’s Primate Center, alleging duplicate grants and taxpayer fraud, scientific irrelevance, and especially the inhumane treatment of the animals. But this isn’t an issue of particular projects. “Our objection is to the research, period,” says Dr. Wayne Johnson, a former UW faculty member who works with the Northwest Animal Rights Network, local sponsors of the demonstrations. “Ours is an anti-research position.”

Protester Craig Rosebraugh delicately sums up the group’s goal as “a simple request for a public discussion about how these primates are exploited, tortured, and killed. The university won’t even do this.”

That’s sort of like asking the university when it stopped beating its wife. Sure enough, the director of UW’s Primate Center, Dr. William R. Morton, sees no point in dialogue. “We’ve sat down at various times in the past. Those discussions don’t result in a positive dialogue. [Animal rights activists] have a very set result they want to see which is not consistent with what we want to do.”

The UW hasn’t always had an ideal record for animal care according to animal rights activist Johnson. In 1994, Johnson claims, it was fined by the USDA, under the Animal Welfare Act, when a number of primates froze to death at a breeding center in Eastern Washington. But the Animal Welfare Act only covers how animals are treated outside the lab; once under study, many of them will, as Rosebraugh says, be exploited, tortured, and killed.

One can criticize the UW for specific incidents of animal care, or specific grants that, as critic Michael Budkie puts it, “only . . . accomplish . . . keeping UW faculty paid.” But it’s a giant leap from better regulation of primate research to abolition of it as inherently inhumane.

Morton defends the center’s research, acknowledging that not all of it is productive—that’s how science works—but it is essential work in finding, for example, which of the 20 or so currently proposed AIDS vaccines work, and which don’t. “How can you possibly evaluate all of the variables in a human setting, in a timely way?” notes Morton. “You can’t set up a controlled setting, or challenge the virus aggressively.”

You also can’t keep some of your human subjects alive, and that’s the rub. By abolishing animal research, you’d have to do the research on humans straight from the lab, and some would die.

Personally, I’m not willing to be one of those people who dies so that a macaque monkey can live. Most folks—I’m guessing here—aren’t. Unless animal rights advocates are willing to concede that rather key point, it’s hard to see how the very real need to treat animals better is served by roving bands of publicity-seeking activists.