Our Shifting Ideals for Primates: UC Davis Can Do Better



by Caroline Hagan Webb

I am writing in response to the recent articles in the Sacramento Bee, Davis Enterprise, and San Francisco Chronicle about the repeated violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) committed by the California National Primate Research Center in Davis (CNPRC). I applaud Diana Lambert, Tanya Perez, and Nanette Asimov for their coverage of the animal deaths and suffering being caused by the center. The 13 USDA citations the CNPRC has received in the last three years highlight the fact that they are simply not capable of housing and experimenting on thousands of animals without making mistakes, and these mistakes cost lives. In the most recent incident, the divider between two macaques was not properly closed, and the resulting fight ended in one monkey losing his life. Other cases have included failing to tranquilize a rabbit during a procedure, failing to secure a monkey during transport, and improperly caging a lamb during transport. All three of these cases resulted in the animals’ deaths.

Every time the CNPRC violates a regulation, it is not just a failed experiment or a bureaucratic mistake, it is another monkey’s life lost, another rabbit that suffers. The fines that may result from the USDA investigation are no guarantee that the abuse will end. Harvard University recently closed their primate lab following multiple AWA violations, and it is time for UC Davis to follow suit. The sun is setting on the world of primate research. We need to stop providing the CNPRC with its annual $32 million of taxpayer money, and progress towards humane methods of research.

In light of the reported animal deaths and injuries that sparked the USDA investigation, it is time to bring to light the deaths that don’t lead to citations. The animals that are killed as a routine part of experiments deserve as much attention as those who have died as a result of negligence. Four baby macaques will die during the current Zika experiment at the center. In 2011 alone, 6,385 animals at UC Davis underwent procedures that were painful enough to warrant the use of tranquilizers, anesthesia, or analgesics. That same year, 1216 animals underwent similar procedures without any painkillers. While we can and should mourn the loss of monkeys that have died in attempts to escape their cages, we should also remember the thousands of animals who still remain in cages.

Diana Lambert’s article detailed many of the escape attempts at the CNPRC and the resulting deaths and injuries. The fact that these monkeys were willing to risk their safety in an attempt to escape shows just how little they want to be there. The CNPRC would like us to believe that these animals are well treated and content with the lives they are given. Their escape attempts show their unhappiness, fear, and intense desire to leave.

The primary goal of the center is not to care for these animals. The CNPRC is not a primate sanctuary or a veterinary center. Its focus is to produce scientific papers. A fundamental flaw in the system of animal experimentation is that these creatures often cease to be seen as living, feeling beings. They become “models,” “specimens,” and “test subjects.” It is easy to inflict pain, to allow suffering, and to forget compassion when we see someone as little more than property.

Despite the treatment they receive, these animals remain loving, caring, intelligent, social beings. The sad irony is that primate labs like this one have spent years proving just how sentient their “models” are, through experiments on anxiety, depression, language, social behaviors, and even love. Yet the CNPRC continues to justify inflicting pain and suffering on them because they are somehow less than human. There is no excuse for this institution to ignore their own evidence of primate intelligence.

It is easy to see a monkey isolated from friends and family in a cage and think that he is happy simply because he is surviving. It is hard to put ourselves in his place and see those bars for what they are – a prison cell. No life in a cage can be humane. No life where surgeries are performed for the sake of human curiosity rather than animal well-being can be humane. No life where diseases are intentionally inflicted can be humane. The word humane itself invokes a plea to our humanity, our ability to empathize and put ourselves in the shoes of others. How can we call ourselves humane when we treat others as we would most certainly not like to be treated? Humane treatment does not mean using someone against their will, it does not mean using someone for science. Humane treatment means respecting them.

Over 90% of medicines fail either animal or human trials. Therefore, it is presumptuous and misleading of the center to imply that their work will be successful in treating diseases. In fact, that number is very telling of our current medical research system in general. If we have such a high failure rate, isn’t it time to rethink how we do things? Yes, occasionally animal experiments have helped to further human health, but usually they don’t. Animal experimentation is often continued more out of habit than a desire to produce innovative science. Maybe it is time to learn from our mistakes and move on from this outdated and cruel method. I truly believe that our insistence on continuing the centuries-old practice of animal experimentation is not moving medical science forward, it is holding us back.

Successful alternatives to animal experimentation exist. Current alternate methods include in vitro testing, computer models, stem cell research, virtual drug trials, population studies, and genetic testing. If we follow the example of Johns Hopkins and focus our research efforts on the development of truly humane, animal-free research, I am confident that we will discover many more.

The CNPRC, like many animal research centers, uses the threat of disease to persuade us that their experiments are necessary, saying on their site that “many serious diseases still threaten our well-being: AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and infectious diseases.” We need to stop letting them use the inevitable fact that is human mortality as a way to justify torture. Just like politicians have used the threat of terrorism to justify Guantanamo, these researchers have used the threat of diseases to justify the torture of innocent beings. Their success rates have been similarly miniscule. For every experiment that leads to a cure, there are thousands that do not. There will always be new diseases to cure and ways to improve. All of us will, no matter how much research we do, someday die. Would we rather die knowing that we lived a moral life and treated others with respect and compassion, or that we did what we could to hold on to a few more years regardless of who it hurt?

Medical progress is important, but not if we have to sacrifice our morality and our compassion in order to achieve it. It was wrong when we experimented on prisoners, it was wrong when we experimented on mental hospital patients, it was wrong when we experimented on enslaved women, and it is wrong now when we experiment on our fellow primates and other animals. They feel pain just as we do; they suffer just as we do; they feel anguish, loneliness, and sorrow just as we do. Let us not be the ones to inflict such suffering on our primate brothers and sisters.

Free Davis Primates is a local group of concerned citizens that calls for the CNPRC to be closed down. We believe that no one deserves captivity. We believe that as humans it is our responsibility to protect and care for our fellow animals, not to harm them in the name of science. We stand in solidarity with our fellow primates and all animals being harmed by the CNPRC. We believe that the thousands of monkeys, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, sheep, pigs, rabbits, and other animals being held there deserve compassion. They deserve freedom, they deserve respect, they deserve better. Free Davis Primates will continue peacefully demonstrating until the CNPRC and the abuses it inflicts on animals are stopped. Join us by visiting our website (freedavisprimates.org), facebook page (fb.com/ucdprimateprotest), or twitter (@davisprimates).

Caroline Hagan Webb is a Free Davis Primates Co-organizer and PhD Candidate, UC Davis Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

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43 thoughts on “Our Shifting Ideals for Primates: UC Davis Can Do Better”

  1. Davis Progressive

    i could never wrap myself this issue.  the primate center conducts critical research particularly on hiv.  maybe they are lax with their standards than they should be, but i know a few of those researchers and they are top notch.

      1. Kat

        There is no need GREAT ENOUGH to torture any animal for ANY reason. If there’s something we need to gain from doing this, then it’s something we need to go without… PERIOD!

  2. Anya McCann

    Thank you for a thoughtful piece. I’ve met a number of Animal Science and Vet students in the past few years and observed that just as medical schools have had to change the way they teach physicians to think about their clients less like subjects and more like humans, injecting more compassion into their process, it seems that veterinary schools have a long way to go to bridge the disconnect between the reasons most students sign up (because they care for animals and want to heal them) and the dispassionate way professors teach. There is a large focus on factory farming careers at UCD, focused on financial welfare of farmers, not animal welfare. There seem to be many more ways to teach and learn in this modern scientific era. Our thoughts about this are antiquated. Most testing does not need to be done on live animals. This is something our community needs to grapple with.

    1. Barack Palin

      This is something our community needs to grapple with.

      I’m sure our council will be more than happy to take this on being they’ve already taken care of the statue and Indian pipeline controversies and we as a community don’t have any other pressing needs.

      1. quielo

        BP, the council has still not given a definitive answer on the chicken/egg controversy though no doubt Lucas has it on the agenda for his “subcommittee on irrelevance”. I will also note that the White House denounced our planning policies but that has not made it either.

        1. Barack Palin

          I will also note that the White House denounced our planning policies but that has not made it either.

          LOL, was that another of the White House studies that have been surfacing lately?

        2. quielo

          “the White House has been putting out a lot of crap the last few months” Everyone who took a whitehouse job to “influence national policy” but instead spent their time doing damage control and toiling in the shadows has an opportunity to publish their pet policy now since it cannot make a difference now but they can put it on their CV.

          Here is a quote from your friend Al Sharpton “Don King had me fly with him and Trump to Atlantic [City] in Trump’s helicopter, and it was one of the most memorable things in my life to sit on that big, black Trump helicopter … both of them talking nonstop, not listening to each other,”

          The whitehouse Davis what to do and we tell the whitehouse and neither listens.

      1. quielo

        The article say “the primate center” the entire university has numerous animals. It is not clear from the article whether the injuries described came from the primate center or other, unrelated, labs.

  3. Anonymous11

    I completed one year of veterinary school as UC Davis and was appalled that a place like this still exists.  Animal testing may have been beneficial to us at one point, or we may not have realized how harmful it is, but we live in times where we have so many other options, it’s not necessary, and if we have learned one thing from the animals it’s that they deserve better.  No sentient being should have to suffer for humanity.  Illness can be avoided with preventative medicine and cured with plants, not with animal suffering.  I agree with Anya that there is a disconnect between animal welfare and veterinary medicine in general (not everyone), and that veterinarians must do a better job of advocating for animals, not testing on them or keeping them “healthy” in dire situations.  I would love to see this facility follow in Harvard’s footsteps and close once and for all.

    1. quielo

      “Illness can be avoided with preventative medicine and cured with plants” Are you referring to consumption of Hemlock? Not sure what other plant you may be referring to. With comments like that it does not surprise me that they made you leave after a year.

      1. Tia Will

        Hi quielo

        I do not feel as though Anonymous11 chose the best examples, but I do think the the overall message is at least in part correct. Current research techniques of which stem cell research, DNA splicing techniques and the ever growing body of knowledge surrounding genetic testing for risk assessment and individual design of the most appropriate treatment strategies are just three examples, making historic models of animal research obsolete.  I agree that we should be steadily moving away from the animal research model to one that utilizes these more advanced and more human techniques.

      2. quielo

        Hi Tia,


        This is an area where I have some experience. Animal models are in no way obsolete though the individual species depends on the disease. Stem cells, Reverse transcriptase viruses, SIRNA, CAR-T, are just methods of finding drugs, they do not change the basic nature of testing them.

        1. Tia Will


          Stem cells, Reverse transcriptase viruses, SIRNA, CAR-T, are just methods of finding drugs, they do not change the basic nature of testing them.”

          I understand your point. And yet, due to the limitations of animal testing with regard to applicability to humans, I believe that we could do far less animal testing and still have the same outcomes since human testing is the bottom line and must be undertaken in any event.

        2. quielo

          ” I believe that we could do far less animal testing and still have the same outcomes since human testing is the bottom line and must be undertaken in any event.”

          I expect you have spent limited time filling out Investigational New Drug (IND) applications or presenting a trial to an Institutional Review Board (IRB). In my experience neither will endorse your view which means there will be no human trial.


    2. hpierce

      For sure… we need to stop using animals as test subjects to figure out how to treat, avoid mortality for their species, as well… God forbid we use animals as test subjects to prevent mortality/morbidity within their species.

      By the same token we should immediately ban all human “studies” using human subjects to look for cures/treatments for disease in humans… just say NO to pilot studies!

      Using rabbits to test human cosmetics really, truly, should end… same for frivolous studies using any animal, including the human animal.  But banning research to figure out if a pig heart valve can fix/replace a human one that is defective?  Banning studies with mice to find genetic cures for cystic fibrosis?  Diabetes?


      1. Tia Will


        By the same token we should immediately ban all human “studies” using human subjects to look for cures/treatments for disease in humans… just say NO to pilot studies!”

        This is no where near the “same token” since human subjects can and indeed must give their consent to take part in medical experiments. Animals are paid no such courtesy, and I suspect that most of them would decline if they were capable of it.

        1. hpierce


          So, you support that concept that we should not look for cures nor treatment for cystic fibrosis, diabetes, unless they are computer based, or at most, based on human trials… got it… disagree, but got it.

          You must also be opposed to the Wassermann test, the Friedman tests, etc.  Your field is replete with animal tests/trials… reject all the data gained, and start over…  please completely ignore any data ever gained from ‘non-consenting’ animal research.  Good luck with that, and if you follow your instincts, will pray for your patients…

  4. Lindsay_

    “Ask the experimenters why they experiment on animals, and the answer is ‘Because the animals are like us.’ Ask the experimenters why it is morally OK to experiment on animals, and the answer is: ‘Because the animals are not like us.’ Animal experimentation rests on a logical contradiction.”  -Professor Charles R. Magel (1980)

  5. Lindsay_

    “What good does it do you to test something [a vaccine] in a monkey? You find five or six years from now that it works in the monkey, and then you test it in humans and you realize that humans behave totally differently from monkeys, so you’ve wasted five years.”   — Dr. Mark Feinberg, a leading AIDS researcher.

      1. hpierce

        You are absolutely right… we should rely on computer simulations, and stop all investigative studies on all animals, including humans… an alternate to computer sims that is acceptable is using a ‘philosopher stone’… God forbid we learn of cures/treatments for Down syndrome, autism, heart disease, cancers, diabetes, etc.

    1. Lindsay_

      It is only a matter of time until we evolve to see the experiments that these humas are conducting on animals are not ethically acceptable. Times change, minds evolve, technology progresses: “There are three statues in the United States honoring Dr. James Marion Sims, a 19th-century physician dubbed the father of modern gynecology. Invisible in his shadow are the enslaved women whom he experimented on….”  – http://www.npr.org/2016/02/16/466942135/remembering-anarcha-lucy-and-betsey-the-mothers-of-modern-gynecology

      1. hpierce

        Yeah, and the Nazis had Mengele… those are perversions… some animal studies fit those metrics… others do not…

        You forgot to mention the ‘grave robbers’ who desecrated the dead to learn about anatomy…

        1. Lindsay_

          I don’t think we can compare intensely-funded, institutionalized animal experiments (like at UCD) to grave robbers. Animal experimentation, especially on primates who are so closely related to us humans, is downright ethically unacceptable in 2016.

        2. hpierce


          Primates should not be subjected to random experiments… period.

          How do you propose to do tests/studies to save human lives?…

          Or, maybe we should not try to improve human life…

  6. Tia Will


    So, you support that concept that we should not look for cures nor treatment for cystic fibrosis, diabetes, unless they are computer based, or at most, based on human trials… got it… disagree, but got it.”

    No, as so often is the case with my posts, you do not seem to get it. I did not ever say that we should not continue to look for cures. You completely ignored that I said we should move towards other modalities for study. And none of the examples that I gave are solely computer based, although computers will be needed to process the data. All of the examples that I gave involve the study of biologic models, ( stem cells, DNA manipulation, and genetics all involve bench science on biologic models)  just not experimental animals.

  7. Marina Kalugin

    yes…..agreed ….very much so….and it is not needed..

    I would close the place down….shhh….did I really say that?   YES

    It is however a really  huge money maker for the UCD,….and many faculty would be appalled –

    I would support a shift to proving how homeopathics work, chinese medicine, and other eons old “folk therapies”….

    They can study the effects of marijuana on health and emotional wellbeing of primates….

    That I could support….

    of course where is the money to support that kind of research?

    Certainly not at the NIH< big pharma< big food etc….they have their own agendas…

    PS> Such research does go on in other countries….where they are looking for causes, not a pill to suppress symptoms….

    and where health and safety of the populace takes precedence over campaign contributions and keeping up the status quo and appearances like in the US

    1. Biddlin

      “I would support a shift to proving how homeopathics work, chinese medicine, and other eons old “folk therapies”…”

      Yeah, the middle-ages was a great time for alternative medicine. What a load of nonsense.

  8. Kat

    Thank you for this elaborate informative I opening piece. I enjoyed reading it very much and at the same time it made me sad. There is no need in this universe that is great enough for us to torture animals to achieve or to attain. No vital studies should include vivisection at all ever!

    It’s just time to do the right thing damn it, and you guys have my support FOREVER!!!!

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