Research with nonhuman primates in laboratory settings is a tiny fraction of both laboratory research and nonhuman primate research. The topic is of disproportionate interest, however, for many reasons, and is reflected by a recent symposium at the joint meeting of The American Society of Primatologists and International Primatological Society. The session was titled “Use and care of captive non-human primates: Evaluating and improving ethical requirements.” The session was notable for a number of reasons.
- Despite its inclusion in the scientific program of scientific societies, the session presented little evidence and little balance.
- The panelists were tied to organizations and/or campaigns opposed to laboratory research with nonhuman primates, yet did not disclose these ties upfront and failed to provide their basic starting assumptions or to acknowledge their positions.
- The fact-less rhetoric did not provide a basis for productive discussion about captive primate care or changes to existing regulations, as would have been provided with evidence-based presentations.
We wrote yesterday about why providing basic starting assumptions is key when entering any dialogue, particularly when that dialogue involves conversations about the ethical and moral considerations related to the use of animals in biomedical research. If basic starting assumptions are not put forth at the start of a dialogue, then potential areas for agreement cannot be identified – if they in fact exist at all.
Unfortunately, this tenet was not practiced during the symposium. The organizers, anthropologists Drs. Barbara J. King and Marni M. LaFleur, wrote that the symposium was intended to“invite IPS and ASP members to come together and discuss how we may best manage the care and oversight of captive-living nonhuman primates.” At face value, this invitation seemed like a safe haven for “discussion and collaboration amongst researchers, veterinarians, technicians, and caregivers.” (In fact, data-driven sessions like these occur regularly at ASP meetings amongst the experts who care for and study captive primates.) However, the organizers and panelists failed to disclose their basic assumptions upfront, namely that they oppose the use of nonhuman primates in biomedical research.
Several speakers in the symposium have affiliated with campaigns by PETA, an organization that very clearly offers an absolutist position stating that animals should never be experimented on. The Vice President of Animal Research Issues at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Kathleen Conlee, was also featured. HSUS’ position is less clear, though one of Conlee’s slides stated that the organization’s aim is to “Promote 3R’s but push for replacement of invasive research as quickly as possible.”
As many attendees of the session attested after it concluded, the panelists’ failure to establish positions upfront resulted in a session with a very narrow focus that did not actually result in constructive discussion. Although the speakers’ stances on biomedical research were not stated upfront, they became readily apparent in each presentation.
The symposium followed a roundtable format, with the 6 speakers each presenting for about 5 minutes and a Q&A session for about an hour and a half afterward. Notably, the speakers did not include information on the well-established regulations and processes that are in place to balance research objectives, animal welfare, and public interests in scientific advances. (In 2015, ASP held a roundtable that thoroughly addressed these topics with evidence-based material.) Some presenters did show historical timelines of a few pieces of legislation enacted to address and ensure animal welfare (e.g., the passage of and amendments to the Animal Welfare Act), though nearly all presentations were lacking in evidence-based arguments. Instead, they often relied on outdated and out-of-context photographs (some from undercover investigations, which Conlee proudly acknowledged to the audience that HSUS had undertaken). Granted, the 5-minute time-slot for each speaker precluded the ability to delve into details, but one has to wonder if this format was a means to deliberately exclude the evidence-based regulations and processes that exist for laboratory animals.
Who should evaluate primate research?
The first speaker, LaFleur, wrote in the abstract of her presentation: “Ethical standards and cost-benefit analyses of non-human primates in research must continually be evaluated and reevaluated, by a diverse range of experts (including those without vested interests).” By “vested interests,” LaFleur presumably meant those working in primate research. What wasn’t clear is whether the panelists believe that they themselves and organizations such as PETA and HSUS also have clearly vested interests. For example, PETA has an extremely vested interests in this issue, yet nowhere during the session was it disclosed that panelist King has worked actively on campaigns organized by PETA (for other panelists’ ties to PETA; see below).
Most important though, from the perspective of beginning with fact: The analyses of non-human primates in research to which LaFleur refers already routinely occurs by experts in the field: the trained scientists, veterinarians, and colony managers, including many members of ASP, who work with primates in captive settings on a daily basis and dedicate much of their research programs toward understanding and improving their welfare (see, for one recent example, this special issue of the American Journal of Primatology, dedicated solely to the well-being of laboratory nonhuman primates).
LaFleur also wrote in her abstract, “I argue that experimental procedures which cause permanent and irreversible harm on individual non-human primates should not be deemed ethically permissible.”
Yet, LaFleur failed to make a clear case for exactly why her position is justified in a way that is more appropriate than the position held by others who were part of the multi-level review that weighs scientific objectives and animal welfare and grants approval for research projects.
Furthermore, the slides that LaFleur presented at the conference showed data-free descriptions not of experimental procedures broadly, but of a single research topic. Her focus was on studies of infant development in monkeys (work she termed “maternal deprivation”) at the NIH and the criticism that she, King, and others leveled at ASP in regards to the society’s open support for research at the NIH. For example, in one of her slides, LaFleur stated that 54 members of ASP had signed a letter she co-authored to ASP asking for a reconsideration of their support letter for an NIH research project. In fact, in reading through the list of signatories, it is not at all clear to long-time members of ASP whether many of the signatories had ever been members of the society. One must question why this misinformation was presented at such a large meeting and also why this single research topic was the focus.
Another slide asked the question, “Can we not have differing opinions from our friends and colleagues?” Of course differing opinions may exist. What we strive for, however, are regulations and policies that are based in scientific evidence in order to provide for animal health and well-being. In the context of dialogue and the supposed focus on the symposium, the larger question is whether focusing on differing opinions about one research project and one area of study is a good substitute for serious and thoughtful consideration to identify core principles that can guide continuing changes in practice and policy.
Dr. Stacy Lopresti-Goodman came closest to laying out her basic assumptions upfront in her abstract, in which she wrote, “the primate research community should consider whether retirement of all NHP from biomedical research to sanctuary is warranted.” Lopresti-Goodman provided a few slides that cited research studies to back her written statement that “many individuals who experience…adverse conditions exhibit abnormal and/or stereotypic behaviors, and develop symptoms of psychological distress that mirror those of psychopathology in humans,” though it is notable that she did not disclose at any time during the session that she has co-authored articles with PETA employees and others staunchly opposed to animal research.
Moreover, several in the audience questioned her direct knowledge, experience, and expertise on the topic given her training and publication record in human perception and cognition.
Evaluating a claim from HSUS: What is the evidence on environmental enrichment for nonhuman primates in captive settings?
In the US, all facilities registered or licensed to house nonhuman primates by the federal agency charged with oversight and enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) are required to have a plan for environmental enrichment for those animals. Evidence-based evaluation of practices aimed at meeting the goal of maintaining animals’ health and well-being, in balance with scientific objectives, is the subject of research by many ASP members and those scientific results are on display at most ASP meetings. The findings inform practices across the range of settings in which nonhuman primates live in captivity.
Conlee’s symposium presentation took a very narrow view, focusing on an analysis that her organization (HSUS) completed of enrichment plans from 38 universities and 18 federal facilities. Those plans were obtained, in part, via use of open records laws. The analysis was aimed at evaluating whether the plans were compliant with federal law. The abstract made a startling claim: “Plans were scored according to compliance with the minimum Animal Welfare Act standards … The analysis revealed a majority of plans (44) were not adequate.” To be clear, what that claim suggests is that 44% of the facilities — facilities that are regularly inspected by a federal agency, the USDA– are failing to comply with federal law.
Serious claim – can it be evaluated? Unfortunately, not well. The analysis is unpublished and unavailable for public view or critique. Conlee provided no details about the methodology, including critical definitions of coding schemes for “plans [that] were scored according to compliance with the minimum Animal Welfare Act standards” and the subsequent data analysis.
The results Conlee presented were confined to bullet points on one slide rather than actual data with accompanying statistical analysis. Collectively, the “study” did not meet ASP’s (and other societies’) criteria for scientific presentations, but was nonetheless was presented as though it were an empirical study. While that is disappointing enough, the fact that the presentation and abstract made serious claims potentially misrepresenting a large number of dedicated research centers is even more reason to hold presenters to a standard of evidence.
Finally, Conlee presented a slide stating, “USDA requirements for all regulated facilities: no change in 30 years.” However, this statement is misleading. As Justin McNulty, IACUC & IBC Manager at The University of Texas at Austin, pointed out in the discussion following the presentations, “The Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals was just revised in 2011 and was reviewed by some of the people in this room. The recommendations contained in the Guide were based on published data, scientific principles, and expert opinion.” As described in the preface to the 8th Edition of The Guide, “The Guide is intended to assist investigators in fulfilling their obligation to plan and conduct animal experiments in accord with the highest scientific, humane, and ethical principle.”
Lack of evidence for the benefit-risk ratio in laboratory primate research?
LaFleur also gave King’s presentation in her absence. In her written abstract, King wrote, “I will discuss case studies that are lab-based and involve maternal-deprivation and other invasive experiments on cercopithecines; peer-reviewed scientific material from both the cercopithecine and also the comparative chimpanzee literature will provide context for discussing the benefit-harm ratio of such research on monkeys.” However, this presentation also lacked evidence-based claims and relied on references from the news media, as in one slide that touted the primate facilities that closed, or are in the process of phasing out, in 2015. In giving the presentation, LaFleur incorrectly stated that, with respect to the phasing out of the NICHD’s primate research, “those 300 monkeys [were] from the maternal deprivation work.” This is false: only a small percentage of the colony at this facility each year has undergone nursery-rearing. Furthermore, as noted above, the actual process in place for evaluating balance of potential benefit and scientific objectives with animal welfare was not well addressed by the panelists.
Collectively, the session left much to be desired for those seeking data-driven suggestions for improving the captive care of non-human primates. As Dr. Karen Hambright, Professor of Psychology at the College of Coastal Georgia and long-time ASP member, stated during the discussion period, “As an educator who has worked with and is familiar with the conditions of animals in both zoos and labs, it my job to teach people to think critically and to base their views on evidence and not on emotional responses to polarizing rhetoric.”
King and LaFleur’s symposium abstract ended with the question, “How specifically can productive discussion about ethics be furthered among primatologists who work primarily on lab science and primatologists who work primarily on animal welfare, always acknowledging that these two groups may overlap?” A good start would be to enact practices that are foundational to any honest dialogue: namely, spelling out basic positions upfront and disclosing any potential conflicts of interest. Productive discussion could then ensue with evidence-based comments and suggestions.
Amanda M. Dettmer, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Her writing does not reflect the opinions of the NICHD or the NIH.