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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