It's a Jungle in Here

A look into the world of animal research at UW and beyond. Why the debate remains so heated.

(page 3 of 3)

Amy Kerwin knows intimately the deeply etched battle line between activists and researchers. In 2004, she began her long, lonely walk right down its middle. Before that, she’d spent five years inside the UW Harlow Primate Lab, first as a student and then as a full-time research specialist, studying the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. There were about 450 rhesus monkeys inside the building at that time, and during her stint there she worked with nearly a hundred of them, observing and charting effects, performing blood draws and thinking—puzzling out ways she might improve conditions for the monkeys and therefore improve data collection. This is the line of thinking that would get her in trouble.

Kerwin and her coworkers worked hard to perfect a blood draw in less than two minutes, because they knew that was the brief time window they had before cortisol entered the monkey bloodstream and tainted results. They would start a stopwatch outside the door before entering the room with pole and net, extract the targeted monkey from its cage while its fellow primates screeched warning calls, force it into a restraint apparatus out in the hallway, pull out a leg, swab it with alcohol, inject the syringe, and draw the sample. Complete the task in under two minutes, and the stress-free blood sample was your prize. Kerwin saw that many of the monkeys were showing signs of stress, pacing and twirling, self-mutilating. She began to wonder if there was a better way.

She started coming in after hours and training the monkeys with a clicker, a simple handheld rectangular device that emits a loud clicking noise popular in dog training and available at most pet stores. It was time-consuming, but it worked. Before long, Kerwin was getting monkeys to calmly enter the transport cages.

Kerwin saw many other areas for improvement, too. In the end, she concluded that a lot of the veterinary treatment required came not from the experiments, but from the methods. Her notion wasn’t all about making the monkeys more comfortable, though that was part of it. It was about controlling all the variables as tightly as possible, critical in scientific experiments. She wasn’t opposed to the research, she was looking for ways to make it better for everyone: calmer monkeys, improved data collection, increased longevity in employees who struggled emotionally in these stressful situations. Kerwin meticulously gathered her findings and in 2005 submitted a thirty-eight-page report to the National Institutes of Health. It took her a year to write, but by that time she was no longer welcome inside the Harlow Primate Lab.

Her spiral into unpopularity was frighteningly swift. There was a day in 2004 she broke down after her favorite monkey died. Not long after, the American Society of Primatologists held a conference and when Kerwin mentioned to her supervisor that she was planning to go, the supervisor asked if she was actually going to the counter-conference being staged simultaneously by antivivisectionists.

“We were trained to strongly dislike animal rights activists, to think they were ignorant and violent, so I was incredibly offended when she said that,” says Kerwin. “She said, ‘Are you turning on me?’”

Kerwin was forbidden to come in after hours to train the monkeys, and that’s when she resigned. That same year she started her own business, Primates, Incorporated, with a singular goal in mind: to create a refuge for lab monkeys to retire, a safe place research institutions and private drug-testing companies could send their monkeys to live out the rest of their days in a naturalistic setting.

These refuges are increasingly common across the U.S., but there is a waiting list, and animals are regularly turned away. Kerwin wants to provide one more resource to those on the wait list, and to encourage a culture of primate retirement in Wisconsin, where, according to a 2006 Animal Welfare Act report, 6,139 monkeys are currently living in labs throughout the state, mostly in Madison. The average age of a captive rhesus monkey is twenty-five, and Kerwin feels it’s only fair that if they do their time, they retire in peace. She is working steadily to gather support, but it’s not without resistance.

While primate physiologist Joe Kemnitz respects Amy Kerwin’s efforts, he doesn’t think she’ll have much luck around here.

Kemnitz has been at the university for more than thirty years and WNPRC’s director since 1999. He says UW–Madison has the world’s largest colony of geriatric rhesus monkeys, and his program receives considerable funding from the NIH for its work on aging, including caloric restriction, osteoporosis and glaucoma.

“We study the animals right up to the time that they would be near their natural death,” Kemnitz says. “But I understand where [Kerwin is] coming from. I think it’s an admirable thing to want to do.”

The primate labs also receive federal funding for work on issues like Dr. Abbott’s PCOS, and maternal fetal health in cases of diabetes and endometriosis. Scientists here are also working steadily toward a vaccine for AIDS. By injecting monkeys with the AIDS virus, researchers can study the pathogenesis of the disease at an earlier stage—you can’t study the same in people who don’t know they’re infected early on—as well as evaluate its therapies. There is also the Parkinson’s work, where a neurotoxin is injected into one carotid artery, producing Parkinson’s on half of the brain. When the primate is killed for study, its brain presents a perfect model of control on one side and experiment on the other. And, of course, there’s the stem cell research pioneered by James Thomson and his colleagues. Kemnitz estimates the WNPRC receives more than $50 million each year in federal funding for its work with monkeys.

“There’s no compelling motivation to use whole animals except where there’s no alternative,” says Kemnitz. “And when we use whole animals, we apply the principle of the three R’s: replacement, refinement and reduction. Use as few, use them as gently as possible, and then as soon as you can, replace them with another model. I would rather not use animals if I didn’t have to. But because of the compelling motivation for humans, I do it. I look forward to the day—I think it’s a long way off, but I think it will eventually come—when we don’t need to do animal research.”

Ray Greek feels that time has come already, that it’s long past, in fact. He is a board-certified anesthesiologist, science advisor to the National Anti-vivisection Society, and president of Americans for Medical Advancement, a 501(c)3 incorporated in Wisconsin, where he completed his residency and his AFMA co-founder wife graduated from veterinary school. They have both performed research on animals, and their position is that animals cannot predict human response, and therefore biomedical research on animals that claims to be predictive constitutes fraud.

“If you want to do research on monkeys to learn about monkeys, that’s very viable,” says Greek. “We don’t have a scientific issue with that. A lot of people have ethical issues with it, but we don’t.”

Operating on an annual grant of about $100,000 from the National Anti-vivisection Society, Greek pens articles for scientific journals and magazines, and he’s the author of several books on the subject, including Sacred Cows and Golden Geese, for which Dr. Jane Goodall wrote the foreword. AFMA asserts the animal model is both expensive and ineffective. Greek says penicillin is lethal to some guinea pigs and causes birth defects in rats. He says that dogs pumped with cigarette smoke don’t get lung cancer. That Albert Sabin, father of the polio vaccine, himself said, “The work on prevention was long delayed by the erroneous conception of the nature of the human disease based on misleading experimental models of the disease in monkeys.” That, according to a 2004 FDA report, ninety-two percent of drugs that pass animal tests fail when they go on to human trials. These are just a handful of examples.

“If you want to study animals for basic science, it’s great. Knock yourself out,” says Greek. “If you want to study animals to specifically try and find out what HIV does to a human body, you’re scientifically on very shaky ground.”

While this debate could go on and on, here on these pages and out there in the world, most research opponents simply want to have the dialogue publicly, because they feel shut out and lied to. Most research proponents are skeptical the debate can be fairly held; those who do dare speak out are worried above all that it will stop their research, even temporarily, and that medical advancements for humankind will come to a screeching halt—that people will die—while the world hashes things out.

David Abbott worries “that the enlightenment that we’re having will be diminished. And we’ll go through a darker period till we come out the other side again. So that’s why I’m having this conversation and hoping that it will spark debate, but nothing more.”

And what of the debate? What purpose does it serve? Is there any middle ground here between antivivisectionists and researchers? Any at all?

“Educating the public,” answers proponent Eric Sandgren. “We all believe that if the public really understands what things are like, they will choose our side.”

We do not see the sick monkeys on our tour, the ones involved in studies on AIDS and Parkinson’s. We see only the ones deemed safest to us, and, more importantly, at lowest risk to catch whatever it is we might be carrying. The monkeys we see, in room after room after room, look healthy and relaxed. We see no signs of stress, hear no warning calls.

The cages—twenty or thirty to a room and three feet square—are lined two-high in long rows, placed a body width or two apart. All the monkeys can see one another, and they manage to maintain a hierarchy despite little to no physical contact. Some of the animals have an entire cage to themselves, because they cannot be trusted with a companion, or because their food intake is being regulated as part of a specific study. Others are free to swing through an opening into an adjoining cage, typically with a buddy he or she has had since adolescence. Some are mother-baby combos. There are fiery monkeys and docile ones, crabby ones and curious ones. It’s not unlike I’d imagine a roomful of people to be, a random sampling of humanity.

A mother scoops her baby to her belly and backs to the rear corner of her cage. I can feel her eyes on me, suspicious, as I drink in her tiny offspring. I can’t stop staring at the exquisite details of his miniature hands, the chocolate fingers worrying the fine hair on his mother’s arm. The similarities between her and me, between him and my own children, are breathtaking. My eyes travel slowly upward and lock with his mother’s, and in a powerful instant the mirror between us shatters. She shakes her head in warning and opens her mouth wide, revealing incredibly large incisors. Animalistic fangs.

We enter another room, and the male rhesus closest to the door whirls around, pressing his impressive backside against the bars of his cage. I chuckle over having just been mooned by a monkey, and something secret and rising in me rejoices over his simple act of rebellion. But when I point this anarchy out to our guide, Buddy shakes his head. We have not been mooned. It is a sign of submission.

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine.

This article appeared in the June 2008 issue of Madison Magazine.

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