Protesters picket primate provisions
By Sharon Stello
July 18, 2005

An animal rights group protested Friday outside the California National Primate Research Center at UC Davis, claiming the university has covered up negligent treatment and deaths of test animals.

Campus officials deny these allegations, saying animals are treated humanely and the research facility continues to pass inspections by oversight agencies that often make unannounced visits.

Stop Animal Exploitation Now, a research watchdog organization based in Cincinnati, led protests at UCLA and UC San Francisco laboratories before ending the week at UCD.

Protesters chanted and held signs reading, "Stop your animal torture," "Animal research is scientific fraud" and "Better ways exist" in front of the primate center west of the main campus, at Hutchison Drive and County Road 98.

"Animals at this laboratory are sick and suffering needlessly," said Michael Budkie, executive director of SAEN.

Jennifer Wohfron of Woodland holds a sign Friday near the entrance to the UC Davis primate center as part of a protest organized against the center's work.

Budkie said he believes the $81 million in federal grants received by UCD's primate center in 2002-03 should instead be applied to cellular research, human clinical trials and statistical studies of disease in existing populations.

"We don't need to waste any more money on this animal torture," said protester Michelle Tsai, who graduated from UCD in 1993 with a bachelor's degree in zoology.

UCD's primate center is one of eight across the country funded by the National Institutes of Health. The center houses almost 5,000 primates, primarily rhesus monkeys. Scientists at the center are carrying out research on diseases and conditions including HIV/AIDS, asthma, autism and Alzheimer's disease.

John Capitanio, associate director of the primate center, said animal research is "fundamental and critical to solving human health problems." Animal models are used in attempts to understand various diseases in humans before potential treatments can move on to human clinical trials.

"Non-human primate research is a critical component ... but it's just that, a component -- a small but very necessary component," Capitanio said, noting that medical research also includes cell culture and rodent and human studies.

Aside from ongoing arguments over whether animal research is necessary, SAEN alleges staff negligence leading to stress, suffering and death of test animals at UCD's center. The group examined necropsy reports for 583 animals that died from May 2002 through April 2003, obtained through freedom of information requests.

Budkie said many of these reports simply list the deceased animal as "found dead in cage" with no clinical history, "which tells me they didn't even know the animal was sick."

Capitanio said allegations of staff negligence are "categorically false," noting that the center has six full-time on-site veterinarians, two veterinary residents, one clinical fellow, 13 animal health technicians, four enrichment coordinators and 85 animal care workers focused on the health and well-being of the animals.

Capitanio said necropsy reports only include a pathologist's observations during an exam of the deceased animal and SAEN has "drawn a series of inferences based ... on a lack of information."

In one example of alleged neglect, SAEN cited a January 2003 necropsy report of a primate that lost 40 percent of her body weight in 22 days. However, Capitanio said this animal's quick weight loss can be attributed to giving birth. He said the animal then developed intestinal problems that were unresponsive to treatment, so she was euthanized to end her suffering.

"It is not the primate center's policy to let animals die in their cages," Capitanio said, adding that animal deaths in the outdoor breeding colonies can be due to stillborn births and fights between animals at night.

He said virtually all primates give birth at night, meaning a stillborn baby wouldn't be found until a routine health check the next morning. He also said that these primates are aggressive animals living in complex groups that fight in nature as well as the outdoor cages, sometimes resulting in death.

The majority of deaths at the center are scheduled to end an animal's suffering humanely or to study the affects of a disease or treatment on the animal's organ's and tissue, Capitanio said. The number of deaths are about the same from year to year, he said.

Capitanio said discrepancies in the number of deaths, as cited by SEAN, is simply a difference between calendar year and fiscal year totals.

"It's basically a timing window issue," Capitanio said. "They (animal rights groups) use whatever means they can to try to discredit researchers and in some cases, harass researchers."

A difference in the number of animals reported to various agencies including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health, he explained, is due to those agencies' requirements. Only the number of animals involved in studies funded by a particular agency are supposed to be reported to that agency, he said.

-- Reach Sharon Stello at sstello@davisenterprise.net or 747-8043.