Animal activist groups often depend upon sensationalized and misrepresentative stories about laboratory animals to achieve media coverage. The response to these stories illustrates great public interest in how and why animal research is conducted. Unfortunately, these stories frequently perpetuate distorted views about the goals and conduct of the vast majority of animal research. As such, they are a disservice to the public, undermining well-informed, serious consideration and discussion about an issue that is important to all of us.
Activists take great advantage of the expectation that scientists are now understandably reluctant to offer themselves as public targets for harassment on highly politicized issues. As a result, media portrayals often fail to reflect the reality of the vast majority of animal research: that is conducted humanely by compassionate individuals engaged in ethical studies designed to advance scientific and medical progress and working under many forms of local, state, and federal regulation. Like the broader public, members of the scientific and animal research community believe that animal research is essential to scientific and medical advances, but also that ethical studies must be conducted humanely. They actively engage in work to develop continued improvements in animal welfare, identify alternatives where possible, and monitor the conduct of research. Thus, the vast majority of this community ensures that studies with animals are conducted with excellent care that minimizes any potential for suffering. They also stand against those rare cases of improper conduct.
One recent example of highly misleading coverage of animal research is found in a story about “leaked photos” <warning: AR extremist site> of monkeys in a Florida facility, Primate Products, Inc. The facility is one that is highly regarded for its commitment to laboratory animal welfare and conservation. Animal activists used these photographs to solicit attention <warning: PeTA site> for wild and poorly educated speculation about animal treatment. At the same time, the story was used to fuel a hostile campaign <warning: AR extremist site> that includes home demonstrations against the company’s personnel.
The photographs show monkeys that are sedated in order to safely and humanely receive veterinary treatment for serious injuries that are in the process of healing. In news reports the company president explained that the monkeys had been socially-housed, had engaged in fighting with each other, and had been injured. According to NBC Miami:
Company President Don Bradford said his vet staff was trying to care for the monkeys and that they were injured by other monkeys, not by experimentation or transportation.
The pictures are those our veterinary staff took to document the medical treatment to animals that were injured by other animals,” Bradford said in a statement. “They are completely healed, healthy, beautiful animals.”
In other words, the animals engaged in aggressive behavior that has been widely documented for this species, and that also occurs when they live naturally in the wild (1,2). Such fights usually occur when individuals within the group assert their rank dominance, or during overthrows where previously subordinate members of a troop challenge the dominance of others. Furthermore, the laboratory monkeys had been able to do this because they were housed socially, rather than individually.
Although not always possible in all settings and with all animals, social housing is clearly preferable from an animal welfare perspective. While housing primates socially is a preferred condition, it is also one that carries risk. In both the laboratory and the wild, primate social groups—even those that demonstrate long-term stability—can experience conflict that results in animals causing each other serious injury, or even death. Sometimes the aggression is predictable, but often it is not. What this means is that those charged with the actual care of laboratory primates must not only carefully manage and monitor the animals, but also know that both social and individual housing produce risks and benefits that must be balanced to produce the best outcomes for the animals and for the research.
What this also means is that on some occasions animals may be injured and that this can occur despite excellent, humane care and without any wrongdoing on the part of those responsible for the animals. Information like this is seldom presented in a balanced way by animal activists. What happens instead is that inflammatory and misrepresentative stories are pumped to the public in a way that is carefully designed to give them the impression that all animals in research are treated badly by people with little concern for animal welfare. Missing from these stories is consideration of all of the behavioral expertise, compassion, consideration and balance of risk and benefit by the teams of scientists, veterinarians, and staff who care for the animals.
Examples of misleading coverage of animal research presented publicly without essential background, context, or explanation from sources within the animal research community abound. More often than not, these stories are shaped primarily by animal activists who are unconstrained by desire to provide accurate information or a balanced view. Also notable in these stories is that not only do they rarely receive full consideration of all of the facts, but they also are rarely matched by widespread coverage when the results are in from the federal agency investigations that activists typically call <warning: AR extremist site> for in their press releases.
In the case of the Florida facility, the federal agency charged with oversight, the United States Department of Agriculture, has performed an investigation in response to the photographs made public by activists. The results of the USDA focused inspection regarding the allegations were “No non-compliant items identified during this inspection.” In addition, the National Institutes of Health Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare wrote a letter of agreement saying it “finds the institution to operating in accordance with the provisions of the PHS Policy on Humane Care and use of Laboratory Animals”. When the reports are made publicly available SR will post them here.
Although company officials have not yet commented publicly, the USDA report makes it clear that many of the allegations and speculation about the Florida company that were offered to the media and via extremist websites by various activist groups are untrue.
Speaking of Research does not expect that the activist groups that have promoted this story will provide coverage of the USDA report that shows their claims have no basis. Nor do we expect that they will discuss the real conclusion, which is that socially-housed monkeys engaged in behavior that is not uncommon for primates and hurt each other. In truth, many activists are not interested in the USDA’s conclusions, or in whether laboratory animals are socially or individually housed. Their objective is to end laboratory animal research. What they are interested in from stories like this one is their value for generating headlines, media coverage, and public support from those unlikely to otherwise support the agenda to end animal research.
A growing number of activists are very open about their goals and openly advocate for use of any tactics <warning: AR extremist site> – including fear, intimidation, and violence—to achieve an end to all use of animals. Others are less clear, particularly when seeking mainstream media coverage. One of the latter is an activist involved in this story, Michael Budkie, leader of Stop Animal Exploitation Now. Budkie is also known for previous misrepresentation of animal research and its rebuttal by federal agencies.
Budkie’s group is funded primarily by the Mary T. and Frank L. Hoffman Foundation <warning: AR extremist site>. According to its website, the Hoffman foundation is a “Biblically based organization” that believes “our call to mission is to restore God’s original creation intent of a plant based diet (Genesis 1:29-30).” In contrast to Budkie’s press releases, the mission of the Hoffman Foundation <warning: AR extremist site> is quite clear:
To promote through education the elimination of the use of animals in biomedical research and testing, their use as food, or their use for any and all commercial purposes…”
Budkie does not appear to have any expertise or first-hand knowledge <warning: AR extremist site> of either nonhuman primates or experimental research, which may have contributed to his misunderstanding of the Florida photographs. In his view <warning: AR extremist site>:
What these photographs depict is very crude, Frankenstein-type procedures masked as research. This looks nothing like science, and most Americans would agree this is wrong,”
“These photos clearly depict highly invasive and barbaric experiments which would cause extreme pain and suffering to the animals involved in them, as well as eventually taking their lives. The apparent crudeness of the procedures argues against any level of scientific applicability as well as compliance with federal regulations.”
Budkie also points to the animals’ red hindquarters as evidence of maltreatment. He says <warning: AR extremist site>: “some of the animals may have been kept in restraints too long, leaving their hindquarters red and irritated, as evidenced by the photos.” In fact, this pattern of coloration is typical of the species, something anyone with real knowledge of rhesus macaques would have recognized immediately.
To be clear, the photographs do reveal serious wounds. Without question, any of us with compassion feels sorrow that an animal experienced such injury. What is also clear to those who work closely with nonhuman primates is that the photographs illustrate the result of fighting between macaques, and do not reflect outcomes of any scientific procedures or experiments. And the USDA report provides further confirmation of this fact.
Episodes such as this serve as a warning that the claims of animal rights groups should be treated with extreme caution, and highlight just how important it is for scientists to respond swiftly and vigorously to such inaccurate and malicious allegations.
Addendum October 15 2010 : The USDA inspection report has now been published and confirms that no non-compliant items were identified during the inspection at Primate Products Inc. on September 20 2010. This was the inspection carried out in response to the allegations made by PeTA and other animal rights groups.
In addition Ed Silverman of the Pharmalot blog quotes USDA Spokesman Dave Sacks as saying:
It was a clean inspection report…there was nothing found that was against animal welfare regulations…Group housing of primates is allowed in the animal welfare regulations…with the mindset that’s more closely adapted to how they live in the wild. These animals do various fighting among themselves for hierarchy…so that will carry through to how they are housed…But if in those housing situations, if there is a monkey that gets injured, we require the facility to provide adequate care.”
So it’s clear that the USDA understands rhesus macaque behavior, unlike the animal rights activists who have made unfounded allegations against PPI.
1) S.L. Washburn & D.A. Hamburg. Aggressive behavior in Old World monkeys and apes, pp 276-296. In Primate Patterns, Edited by Phyllis Dolhinow, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc. (1972) ISBN: 0-03-085485-7.
2) Macaque Societies: A Model for the Study of Social Organization Edited by Bernard Thierry, Mewa Singh, and Werner Kaumanns, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2004) ISBN-13: 978-0521818476
The views expressed on this blog post are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, Wake Forest University Health Sciences.