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Friday, April 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 53.0° F  A Few Clouds
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OPINION

Giving back to the monkeys
For five years, Amy Kerwin worked as a UW primate researcher. Now she's trying to create a sanctuary

Kerwin: 'My efforts to introduce changes to reduce the stress of animals in our care were
met with resistance.'
Kerwin: 'My efforts to introduce changes to reduce the stress of animals in our care were met with resistance.'
Credit:Michael Forster Rothbart
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In the summer of 2004, the American Society of Primatology held its annual conference in Madison. At the time, I was working at the Harlow Primate Lab, one of two major primates laboratories at the UW-Madison that together house nearly 2,000 monkeys.

I put in a request to attend the conference. One of my bosses, the lab manager, asked if I planned to visit the animal rights counterconference that was going on at the same time. The question surprised me and sounded like an accusation. I said I hadn't planned to do so, but if I saw protesters who were peaceful, I would have no problem talking with them, since my salary was paid by taxpayers.

The lab manager's response: "What, are you going to turn into an animal rights person now?" I replied defensively, "No, of course not!"

Later that week, I overheard the lab manager telling other people in the building what I'd said. It wasn't long before most everyone thought I was turning into an animal rights activist. Given that I had been trained to believe that animal rights people were ignorant, manipulative and violent, I was offended by this divisive labeling.

The principal investigator, my top supervisor, came to see me. "Look, Amy," the investigator said, "I just want to explain this animal rights issue to you. I know if you spoke with someone, they could manipulate your words and put it in Isthmus and you would feel very, very bad if you read about our lab in a bad manner."

I said, "I know, I will not speak about our research."

Shortly afterward, the lab manager apprised me that I could no longer come in on weekends or work after hours -- anytime I might be alone. These new constraints, on top of the discomfort I already felt about my work in the primate lab, made my job unbearable. Three months later, I resigned.

It was probably inevitable that I came to this end. During my five years at the Harlow Primate Lab, I had come to question the validity of the research and what I had come to believe was a callous attitude among many of the researchers. My efforts to introduce changes to reduce the stress of animals in our care were met with resistance.

But, perhaps most traumatic of all was watching what happened to a 5-year-old rhesus monkey I'll call "Sam." Of all I things I saw in the primate lab, that's still the saddest story.


Lucky me

My father was a scientist and primate researcher. I used to visit his office and stare at the jars containing deformed human and animal fetuses (his specialty was teratology, the study of birth defects). His love of science and biology inspired my decision to pursue a degree in veterinary medicine.

A job at one of the UW-Madison's primate laboratories looks good on an application to veterinary or medical school; competition for these jobs among undergrads is high. I considered myself lucky when I was hired to work at the Harlow Primate Lab in 1999.

After graduation, my supervisors encouraged me to stay on at the lab. The stable salary was appealing, so I decided to forgo applying for veterinary school and accepted a full-time position as a research specialist.

I assisted with caring for and collecting data from 97 rhesus monkeys involved in three studies -- two of which were federally funded by the National Institutes of Health. Most of the monkeys were the offspring of mothers who were given moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy, and I assisted in collecting their behavioral and cognitive data.

It was while I was working full-time with the monkeys that I first began to think about a sanctuary -- a way for them to live out the end of their lives in peace after years of use. I attended night school to obtain an MBA to learn the things I'd need to know, such as creating and effectively managing an organization.

Aside from the sanctuary idea, I became interested in refining procedures at the lab to reduce stress in the monkeys. I began to implement changes based on what I had learned from various articles. The refinement I found most successful was positive-reinforcement training -- getting animals to comply by using treat rewards.

After-hours and on weekends, I worked to train monkeys to cooperate in transport removal so we wouldn't have to use long metal poles, nets or leather gloves to scare them into entering a transport cage.


Getting stuck

Many lab procedures were (and still are) classified as "noninvasive," considered to not cause more than momentary pain or distress. One example of a noninvasive procedure is the timed blood draw.

This is a standard data-collection practice to collect blood within a set period of time. A researcher measuring levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) in blood doesn't want the cortisol from the stressful procedure to interfere with the cortisol being measured as part of an experiment. And so, within two minutes of the procedure, lab assistants had to walk briskly in the room with a pole and a net, separate the cage mates with a solid panel, coerce the monkey to enter the transport and transfer him or her into a "squeeze cage" (a type of restraining apparatus), position the monkey's leg, swab the site with alcohol, and draw blood.

For a while, I took pride in being able to perform these tasks in under two minutes. I could handle a monkey forcefully, which made me look good to my peers.

Yet I often wondered how the stress we were inducing affected the behavioral and brain chemistry data we were collecting. During blood draws, some monkeys would resist and try to scratch and bite the researchers. Some would shake and fear-grimace, while others did their best to remain calm and cooperate. Were these wide variations in temperament undermining the validity of the research?

In an effort to standardize reactionary behavior among the monkeys, I compiled the current literature explaining how a researcher could train monkeys to present their limbs for a blood draw rather than be restrained. The lab manager and principal investigator argued that changes couldn't be made in the middle of a study and that this training would take too much time away from research.

A more time-consuming and invasive procedure is the positron emission tomography (PET) scan. It involves sedating a monkey and threading a narrow tube filled with sterile saline through an IV catheter until it reaches the heart.

As it happened, however, the monkeys received multiple PET scans and IV lines over the course of their years at the lab, and some scans went better than others. One incident I documented took place on May 26, 2004, and involved a male rhesus monkey.

After we intubated the sedated monkey, one of the lab's limited-term employees, as part of his training, attempted to insert the IV but there was a blockage in the vein. The lab manager took over.

The first attempt showed a blockage as well, so the lab manager pulled the catheter out while I put pressure on the right saphenous vein to stop the bleeding. The lab manager moved to the left leg and tried again but ran into a blockage again up by the hip. The IV line was pulled out again, and blood dripped from the leg. When the tubing was inserted again, higher up, we all saw the same blockage.

It took numerous additional attempts -- not just on the monkey's legs but also his arms -- before the IV was successfully inserted.

Later, I told the principal investigator (who had not been present) that I thought we should have canceled the procedure and given the monkey pain medication. The investigator asked, "The monkey was knocked out, wasn't it?"

I said, "Yes, but what about when he woke up? I would think the multiple injection sites would've made his leg sore."

The investigator's response: "I think your problem is that you are thinking of these monkeys like they are human." This person explained that monkeys had a "different pain system" and a "higher pain tolerance," so I shouldn't be worried. It was my perception that was at fault, not the methodologies used in the lab.


A stressful life

When I trained incoming students, I said we had to do the best we could despite the constraints imposed by the lab environment. I was referring to things like small cage sizes. Most singly-housed rhesus monkeys occupy cages that are approximately two and a half feet in every dimension; monkeys living in pairs have two cages to share.

The monkeys assigned to my former lab's studies were fed once per day, received a treat in the afternoon (1/4 piece of fruit, peanuts or ice with dried fruit) and had a chew toy that was rotated for a different toy every two weeks. They got a water tub once per month and got to watch an hour cartoon played from the TV/VCR rolled in front of their cages once a week.

It was and is a stressful life. There were fights among cage mates, diseases, stress-inducing procedures, and injuries -- especially when monkeys escaped. I have chased monkeys down and put them back in their cages. Every time was different, and I usually had a good story to tell.

A room full of 40 monkeys -- with one on the loose -- is a dangerous place. A loose monkey will land on other monkeys' cages and they will bite at each other. Even pair-housed monkeys will fight with each other if a monkey is being chased around the room. Afterward, we would check for injuries and usually find tongue and finger lacerations in a few of the monkeys.

During my time at the laboratory, four monkeys assigned to two of the laboratory's research projects died. Two were found dead in their cages, while the other two were euthanized. The monkeys died from various ailments including chronic diarrhea, incurable infection and bloat (eating too fast).

Sam, a five-year-old rhesus monkey, had chronic debilitating diarrhea for about a year and a half. We treated him for shigella, parasites and irritable bowel; finally, the vet determined he had a gluten allergy. We tried to get him to eat natural, wheat-free foods, so I baked for him at home and brought in various types of food for him to try.

When I walked in the room, Sam typically sat up on his perch and walked to the front of the cage to see what I had. Sometimes, he would take the food, smell it, and then toss it to the cage floor -- most of it fell through to the drop pan. Then I would have to prepare something else.

If he wouldn't eat or drink, we would remove him and give him subcutaneous fluids in the squeeze cage. This happened day in and day out -- always trying to make him better. When I mentioned his debilitated state to the principal investigator, the response was, "He is a valuable research subject -- we need to keep him alive and get him better!" Later, I learned that keeping him alive had more to do with concern for research grant funding than concern for Sam.

In the end, we realized that Sam would not get better and had to euthanize him. When he died, I cried. This was used, along with the animal rights labeling, to regard me as an emotionally reactive person, and helped the supervisors discredit the concerns I was raising about primate-handling practices.


Why not a sanctuary?

When the principal investigator told me I was thinking of the monkeys as humans (anthropomorphizing), it was meant as an insult -- an example of how I had let my emotions taint my perceptions, contrary to the interests of science.

But I now realize that primate researchers are anthropomorphizing by inducing human-like illnesses or conditions in monkeys. The researchers believe an imitation human-like disease is a human disease. In their grant applications, they argue that monkeys make good research subjects because they are so closely related to humans. That's serious anthropomorphism.

I started the idea of Primates Inc. in 2003, while still at the lab, because I believed in giving back to the monkeys who are used in research. The plan is to create a sanctuary near the lab so the monkeys have a place to go and will not endure extensive transportation. When I was well-liked and trusted by my peers and supervisors, the idea drew a mostly positive response.

Later, the idea of a sanctuary seemed to get more controversial. One research veterinarian told me it was too "animal rightsy" for her tastes. A couple of out-of-state research veterinarians I spoke with worried the sanctuary might fuel anti-research sentiment. One student, a year after my resignation, said the lab had a meeting about me, and students were told they could not be involved in any "animal rights" organizations, including Primates Inc.

Now, three years after Primates Inc. was officially established as a nonprofit, I have heard all the criticisms and been told many reasons I shouldn't pursue this vision. Primate Center Director Joe Kemnitz, when asked about the sanctuary by a Wisconsin State Journal reporter last year, said the university "likely wouldn't be a client" of ours.

The idea of a primate sanctuary has also drawn criticism from animal rights activists. They fear Primates Inc. would serve as a dumping ground and just clear the cages in the labs for more monkeys. They feel their energy and money should go instead to resources that focus on the ethics of primate research.

But monkeys are already being rejected from retirement. I recently visited a sanctuary whose director had to turn away 20 singly-housed former research monkeys because she did not have the money or time to socialize them.

One of our goals at Primates Inc., while raising funds to construct an indoor/outdoor primate sanctuary, is to create an endowment to assist in retiring monkeys to our sanctuary or other sanctuaries that provide quality, lifetime care. I have been volunteering my time to get this project going, and have been amazed at the work of other volunteers. Many great people in the Madison community are willing to help.

I know there are UW researchers who care about the monkeys and would like to retire their primates. Many of them enjoy talking and teaching about monkeys in the wild; they exchange monkey-related gifts and display monkey artwork and statues. It must hurt them to know these intelligent creatures, who would otherwise be part of large social families, spend their entire lives in small cages, without any reprieve except death.

It isn't the monkeys' fault we humans can't get enough money together to retire them -- or that the idea of retiring them is deemed too controversial. Regardless of our feeling about primate research, I think most of us agree we should be providing these monkeys with a better life whenever possible.


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