The protesters next door
Activists plan to exhibit opposition near UW's monkey research labs
By MEGAN TWOHEY
July 23, 2005
Madison - Aside from the faint smell of monkeys, the large building with an "Authorized Personnel Only" sign on the outskirts of University of Wisconsin-Madison betrays few signs of life.
A passerby would have little reason to suspect that inside its brick walls, hundreds of researchers in white lab coats, facemasks and goggles are busy experimenting on more than 1,500 primates. Or that some of the experiments involve injecting the animals with the monkey equivalent of human immunodeficiency virus, better known as HIV. And that others require syringe needles to be pushed through the animals' skulls.
But what happens inside the National Primate Research Center and a university lab next door that also uses monkeys may soon become much more public.
In June, a former middle school teacher turned primate defender signed a contract to purchase a cluster of buildings between the labs. He and other animal rights activists plan to create an exhibition hall on the site that will showcase what they say is the torturous reality of primate research. As a sign of what's to come, they have posted on the front of the biggest building a photo of a brown monkey with metal rods protruding from its head and a pained look on its face.
Needless to say, the researchers are not happy.
"It's aggravating to think that they could have a presence outside our door," said Joseph Kemnitz, director of the research center, one of eight such labs across the country supported by the National Institutes of Health and affiliated with a university.
Monkeys an attractive subject
Kemnitz, 58, began working at the center after he completed graduate studies at UW-Madison. As a student, he had worked with rats. But he was eager to experiment with monkeys.
Monkeys bear a strong genetic resemblance to humans, making them an attractive subject matter for researchers. The federal Food and Drug Administration requires most drugs to be tested on primates before they can be approved.
UW-Madison's National Primate Research Center was responsible for the first test tube Rhesus monkey, which was born in the 1970s. It helped improve the technology used to assist women to become pregnant through in vitro fertilization.
Decades later, Jamie Thomson, one of the center's researchers, earned acclaim when he developed the techniques that allowed the inner cell mass of human embryos to stay alive in a culture dish without developing into individual cells, essentially providing an exhaustive source of stem cells. Thomson developed the techniques after years of work with monkey stem cells.
"What appeals to me is the sense of immediacy you get working with monkeys, of discovering or proving something that would have application to human health," Kemnitz said.
Today, the lab is using monkeys to test the theory that a low-calorie diet will slow aging. It is experimenting with new therapies for Parkinson's disease and with possible vaccines for HIV.
These experiments are among those that have inspired wrath in animal activists. They oppose the idea of injecting monkeys with disease and are angry that all the monkeys in the HIV tests are eventually killed.
For decades, the activists have been targeting the center and the Harlow Primate Lab of UW-Madison's psychology department that sits next door. But none of their actions come close to the plan that Rick Bogle has hatched.
Bogle, a bearded man who wears blue jeans and Converse All Stars, converted to the cause of monkeys at an environmental conference in Eugene, Ore., in the 1990s. He heard a veterinarian give a speech about a researcher at the Oregon National Primate Research Center who was studying the neurological effects of depriving baby monkeys of a particular nutrient.
Bogle, 52, was upset to hear that holes were drilled in the monkeys' heads to remove brain samples and that the research was repeated multiple times on different groups of monkeys.
He scanned the Internet to learn more about the federally funded primate research centers. Most disturbing to him were descriptions of monkeys whose backs were fitted with monitors and those whose skulls were punctured in order to insert metal wires with electrical tips in their brains. At the most basic level, he objected to placing the animals in captivity.
"I realized that there were hundreds of researchers doing similar things," Bogle said. "It became clear that there were a lot of animals suffering."
Like Kemnitz, Bogle was inspired by the similarities between humans and monkeys. But instead of seeing the similarities as reason for research, Bogle saw them as cause for protection.
Bogle had already planned to take a year off from teaching. He decided to spend the time protesting at all the national primate research centers around the country - including the one in Madison. He spent 10 days outside each, holding a sign that read "Millions of Taxpayer Dollars Wasted Torturing Baby Monkeys."
After that, Bogle became a full-time primate defender. He and a dozen other activists bought a bus and went on a "Primate Freedom Tour" that took them to dozens of other primate research labs. He also launched the Primate Freedom Project, a group that distributes information about the research through pamphlets and a Web site.
His cause brought Bogle back to Madison last year. The American Society of Primatologists, an organization of primate researchers, had selected the city for the site of its 2004 conference.
It was while protesting outside the primate research center and the Harlow Primate Lab that Bogle first noticed a 30-by-60-foot warehouse sandwiched in between them.
Warehouse owner approached
The building belonged to Roger Charly. He owns numerous bike stores in the neighborhood, which is sprinkled with university buildings and private property. He had been using the building as a warehouse and happened to be standing nearby.
Bogle turned to him.
"Will you sell?" he asked. If so, the activists would turn the building into an exhibition hall, one that would showcase the techniques used in experiments on monkeys.
Charly, who wears faded overalls and a bracelet made popular by Lance Armstrong, had never been swept up in the animal rights movement. But he had been annoyed by the smell of monkeys that drifts from the labs.
"That sounds like a good idea," Charly said.
Within weeks, Bogle persuaded an activist who wanted to remain anonymous to donate $700,000 with the expectation that he would be paid back. The donation allowed Bogle to sign a contract with Charly. The warehouse and several smaller buildings surrounding it are his if he can raise the money to gut the warehouse and operate it as an exhibition hall.
He has nine months. By Bogle's estimates, the cost will be $100,000. As of last week, he had raised $35,000 through the donations from activists who had heard about the exhibition hall by word of mouth. Bogle expects to get the rest through a nationwide direct mail campaign he just launched.
In the meantime, Bogle and the Alliance for Animals, a Madison-based group, have begun planning for the National Primate Research Exhibition Hall. They want to display photos and videos of monkey experimentation and have already made up pamphlets.
One pamphlet shows monkeys in what appear to be painful experiments. A monkey in one photo peers out from a mask. His head is squished in a metal contraption. A tube juts from his mouth. Bogle claims the photos came from a former researcher who worked at one of the primate research labs.
"The suffering in the labs is endless and intense," the pamphlet says. "The National Primate Research Exhibition Hall will showcase this national disgrace and help citizens get involved."
Kemnitz worries that even if it's not the intent, such an exhibition hall could inspire violence against the researchers. Kemnitz is married with two young children. The behavior of certain activists has already given him cause for concern.
"The activists have been making a very public presence around our buildings," Kemnitz said. "They have photographed the building; they've driven around the block and videotaped from a car. They actually measured the buildings with a tape measure. One interpretation is that they're trying to intimidate the people who work here."
At Kemnitz's urging, UW-Madison officials are trying to get Charly to sell the warehouse to the university. But Charly appears set on selling to the activists.
"I like the idea of a peaceful protest building that will show their side of the story," he said. "I think that's American. I think that's fair."