It's a Jungle in Here

By Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz

It's been some eighty years since primate research began at UW--Madison, bringing with it a hornet's nest of ethical debate. For the most part, the public ignores the vitriol, viewing the rhetoric on both sides as extreme and out of touch with our normal, everyday concerns. Meanwhile the monkeys--in Madison, thousands of them--continue to live and die in captivity. Is it high time humankind decided what we think about it?

WE'RE INSIDE. It's a windowless building the color of cold salmon, tucked in a rarely traveled pocket between Orchard and Charter on Capitol Court, only a block off one of the city's busiest streets. The small lettering etched on the locked glass doors reads "Wisconsin National Primate Research Center." Somewhere around fifteen hundred monkeys are in here with us or in the building across the alley. There are approximately two thousand on campus.

The WNPRC is one of only eight federally funded facilities of its kind in the United States. Between its two buildings, the adjacent Harlow Primate Lab, and a handful of spots throughout campus like the psychology department and the med school, rhesus and marmoset monkeys are the subjects of research spanning aging, reproductive health, HIV and AIDS, Parkinson's disease, fetal alcohol syndrome, behavioral studies and much more. These labs, where stem cell studies are underway, are a key reason the University of Wisconsin--Madison is a research powerhouse. And for as long as nonhuman primate research has been going on--here since the 1930s--so has the opposition to it.

It used to be that you--anyone--could walk in off the street and see the monkeys. Today, due to a complex combination of health and safety, security, liability and PR issues, you'll likely not get in without a very good reason. One of those reasons might be when a journalist comes knocking, and officials decide to gamble in hopes that the story will not be one-sided. That there might be a real opportunity for public outreach, because those opportunities are increasingly rare. For a long time now, researchers and animal rights activists have been bitterly embattled. Both sides have a lot to say, but neither knows whom they can trust.

To read the full story "It's a Jungle in Here" please pick up the June 2008 issue of Madison Magazine.

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