Let My Monkeys Go

Rita Anderson has a message for the University of Colorado: Let my monkeys go.

 Rita Anderson

It's thirty degrees and dropping at seven o'clock, and the thick gray clouds that cap the sky in all directions look about ready to dump. Rita Anderson knows this could be bad news for the monkeys.

"We have to remember that when we're out here suffering a little bit in the cold, the monkeys are just down the block suffering, too," she says. "A little bit of cold won't hurt us. It's nothing compared to what they've been through."

At 59, with a platinum bob and bright blue eyes, Anderson is the leader of Free the CU 34, a group that opposes the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center's testing on a colony of bonnet macaque monkeys, who are kept in an outmoded underground lab on the Denver campus. A year ago, when Free the CU 34 held its first candlelight vigil in front of the center's main entrance, on Eighth Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, more than a hundred people were there. But at tonight's vigil, the crowd has dropped with the mercury. Wearing red gloves and a floor-sweeping wool coat, Anderson grabs a megaphone to address the forty supporters who turned up to light candles, sing songs and wave hand-lettered signs at passing cars.

"We have to send a message to CU that we are not going to go away, and we are not going to give up, and we are serious," she says. "It sounds hokey, but the animals know what we're doing."

Anderson has been serious about animal activism since 2000, when she successfully lobbied the Boulder City Council to pass an ordinance that recast pet owners as "guardians." The following year, she joined People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' campaign to close a canine-research lab at the UCHSC; citing a lack of funding, the university suspended dog research in January 2003. Later that year, Anderson turned her focus to monkeys, co-founding the Committee for Research Accountability to monitor primate use at UCHSC, which has housed a macaque colony since the 1960s. Primates have been used for research on everything from maternal deprivation to alcohol abuse. When it formed, the Committee for Research Accountability called for the termination of a seventeen-year study conducted by Dr. Mark Laudenslager that tracked the physiological and psychological effects of maternal separation by depriving monkeys of their mothers' attention.

Activists cheered when Laudenslager's project concluded in October 2003, and Anderson was lobbying to move the monkeys out of the lab and into a primate sanctuary in Oklahoma. But last January, the group learned that a new federally funded study was to begin -- one that gives ethanol to adolescent monkeys in an effort to determine the neurobiological roots of alcohol abuse in adolescent humans. The researchers theorize that young primates with bad or absent mommies will be more likely to hit the sauce.

In Anderson's view, it's bad enough that the monkeys are deprived of sunlight, freedom and a mother's love. Must they also be drunks?

"It's very dubious research," she says. "How can this possibly relate to human alcoholism? Human adolescents are subjected to many contributing factors, including peer pressure, television and alcohol advertisements. Do they believe this experiment will help alcohol problems on the CU campus or save student lives? Surely there are plenty of humans out there they can test this theory on."

Anderson has conducted her own study of the goings-on in the animal lab, and the results of her hundreds of open-records requests fill two filing cabinets. But because records related to animal research -- and the meeting minutes of the school's eighteen-person Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee -- are protected under Colorado's Open Records Law, many of the documents are redacted and hard to comprehend. (By contrast, minutes of meetings of the Institutional Review Board, the body that oversees protocols for experiments and research involving human subjects, are available to the public.) However, Anderson has found some odd things in between the thick black redaction lines, including references to macabre-sounding activities such as gender-change operations and embryo harvesting.

"There's this wall of secrecy behind everything that goes on in that animal lab," Anderson says. "You don't keep things secret unless you're hiding something. Why won't they be accountable to the public and respond to us when we have questions? There are some very unorthodox things mentioned in these reports, and no one has explained what they are. That's all I'm looking for -- an explanation."

Last August, she went looking for answers at the University of Colorado Regents meeting -- accompanied by a woman in a monkey costume. The media was there as well, and Regent Tom Lucero granted Anderson two minutes of extemporaneous speaking time. In March, Anderson was finally given five minutes to formally address the regents. Backed by nine college-aged kids in black T-shirts embossed with an image of a monkey in jail, Anderson peppered the panel with questions: Why isn't the public allowed to see photos of the monkeys or tour the facility? Why does CU allow such secrecy surrounding such controversial research? Why are monkeys getting hammered in the name of science?

"At a time of declining enrollment at CU," she asked, "how many students will be attracted to a school where they conduct alcohol research on monkeys?"

In his response, Dr. John Sladek, vice chancellor for research at UCHSC, assured the regents that Anderson's group had the wrong idea about the university's primate pursuits. "We are not doing sex-change gender operations on monkeys," he said, shaking his head. "That's an example of the kind of exaggeration that can occur when one takes information out of context."

Sladek also emphasized the need to protect the safety of UCHSC scientists and researchers from animal-rights extremists and "terrorism." He says the university has received threatening letters and has been the subject of action alerts by PETA and the Animal Liberation Front, an extremist group with a history of violence.

"The importance of primates in the development of new treatments and prevention of disease is well established, despite what is said by animal-rights activists," Sladek wrote in a letter to Westword. "Without non-human primate studies, we would not have a polio vaccine, cochlear implants or genetic definitions of tumor viruses, to name just a few.? These animals are normal in all respects and continue to enjoy a high quality of life in social groups."

At least one regent has expressed an interest in seeing that high quality of life for himself. Last week, Regent Michael Carrigan penned a letter to Sladek asking for more dialogue between animal researchers and the public. Carrigan also wants a tour of the primate lab, which has been cited as unsatisfactory by the United States Department of Agriculture. (The facility is scheduled to move into a new, approved lab by July 1.)

"People presume the worst," Carrigan says. "That's why openness and transparency have got to be a true part of the process. The public deserves a degree of openness. And I do believe that the more information the public is given, the less misunderstanding there's likely to be."

As the evening light fades at the CU 34 vigil, supporters cup candles, and Anderson gestures in the direction of the building where the 34 live. "I picture the day that the monkeys are released and they're loaded into a sanctuary," Anderson says to the crowd, smiling. "I can just see them put into those enclosures with indoor/outdoor access. They could feel the sun, feel the dirt. To see their reaction would make it all worth it for me."