Animal rights groups are claiming victory after Harvard University announced it will be closing the New England Primate Research Center by 2015, leaving seven National Primate Research Centers in the United States. Groups such as Stop Animal Exploitation Now and the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association now want the California National Primate Research Center, housed on the UC Davis campus, to follow Harvard's lead.
Scientists at UC Davis, however, say stopping primate research now could prevent the next great leap in modern medicine. They recently announced plans to expand the facility, which is already home to over 5,000 Rhesus macaque monkeys.
"The value of research we do is just superb," said Dr. Dallas Hyde, director of the California National Primate Research Center.
"Our campus has told us that there's a huge need for us to continue to develop additional models and to be able to test more products," Hyde said. "So for us, our institution is saying that won't happen here and we will continue to function."
Research at the primate center has led to a number of medical breakthroughs, Hyde said. One of its greatest success stories is the HIV drug Tenofovir, a daily pill proven effective in lowering the risk of HIV infection by up to 73 percent.
Hyde says the center has also made important discoveries in autism research, respiratory illnesses, and the development of infants. They also use the outdoor colonies for behavioral studies, including how monkey social systems can predict a future banking crisis.
Critics of the primate center say those advancements come with a steep cost: the health and welfare of the thousands of monkeys that spend their entire lives in captivity, some in cages just several feet wide. They also point out a series of animal welfare violations found by USDA inspectors over the years.
Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, wants UC Davis to move away from primate experimentation.
"Going in the direction of having more primate experimentation is simply going in the direction of a failed methodology," Budkie said. "Davis is not unique from Harvard in that they have had ongoing problems as far as simply being able to care for the animals at this facility," he said, citing recent animal welfare violations imposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Dr. Barbara Hodges is a veterinarian who studied under Hyde at UC Davis, but she also thinks it's time the university moves away from primate research. She's a member of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, an organization with 7,500 members, including veterinarians, veterinary technicians and veterinary students. Part of their goal is to challenge the perception that scientists can't also be advocates.
"There have been welfare infractions at most of these institutions," Hodges said. "They are often portrayed in the media as isolated incidents or by the organizations themselves. I would wager that they're more indicative of systemic issues. I think one or two incidents wouldn't cause Harvard to close their institution for example."
Some of those animal welfare violations were serious at the Davis primate center. USDA inspectors attributed the death of 19 monkeys in 2009 and 2010 to a lack of adequate veterinary care, saying "appropriate methods were not used to prevent, control, diagnose, and treat diseases and injuries of several non human primates being housed at the facility."
The university was fined by the USDA in 2004 for the heat-related deaths of seven monkeys after a failure in the facility's ventilation system.
A young macaque also died last year, crushed by a squeeze mechanism in its cage. In 2011, another monkey was found dead, a bungee cord attached to a shade cloth wrapped around its neck. There were also times when as many as 50 monkeys were able to escape their outdoor enclosures, though none of them left the grounds of the primate center.
As associate director of primate services, Dr. Jeff Roberts is the man in charge of animal welfare at the primate center. He says nobody cares more about the animals than the scientists who work there.
"I mean, I can say that without a doubt," Roberts said. "The people here really like the animals. At the same time, they understand for their families, for their relatives, for their loved ones that we have to advance medical research. The thing that people here are committed to is making sure that as we study the monkeys we do everything we possibly can to give them the best care possible."
Roberts says research done at the primate center over the last 30 years has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. Without Rhesus macaques, he said, Jonas Salk would never have discovered the polio vaccine.
"To abandon primate research now would be the biggest hindrance to individualized medicine, to genetic medicine," Roberts said. "We are on the cusp of a new era in medical care. We're on the verge of that and we need non-human primates."
Animal advocates like Hodges and Budkie say it's misleading to claim advances in science can't happen without primate research. Hodges remembers touring the inside of the primate center as a student at UC Davis, where News10 was not granted access, and says the experience sticks with her to this day.
"I've been in the primate center exactly once," Hodges said. "It was during my freshman year of veterinary school. Dr. Hyde was one of my anatomy professors. We had an opportunity to go on a tour. And even though I had a sense of dread, I took the opportunity because I felt like I needed to see what was there or what would be shown to me so that nobody could say, 'you have no idea what's going on there.' The best word I can use to describe what I saw was heart -wrenching."
About half of the monkeys at UC Davis are housed in outdoor enclosures, which look like something you might find at a zoo. However, more than 2,000 spend their lives in small cages inside the facility, which critics say is cruel and inhumane. Devices like primate restraint chairs are sometimes used to hold monkeys down during experiments. Some of the experiments are invasive and about 200 monkeys have to be euthanized every year, Hyde said.
"The biological system is so complex, and the more we learn, the more depth we have to approach a problem," he said.
A growing number of veterinarians, though, are rebelling against the notion that primate experimentation is necessary to advance science, Hodges said. Technological advancements in computer models and cell culture studies are the most promising alternatives to primate research.
"There's no doubt about the change coming," Hodges said. "It's just whether we can help move it along or not, keep our eye on the ball and on the future. Creativity often comes from pressure. If you're fat and happy you don't want to change anything."
Roberts and Hyde agree these advancements may decrease the dependence on primate experimentation in the future, but they're skeptical it will be eliminated altogether.
"Is this place perfect?" Roberts asked. "Does it do everything perfectly? No. But we do it so well that I would rather work here than any other animal facility in the country.