Cover Story

Cage Match

by R. Reese Fuller

UL Lafayette’s battle with The Humane Society of the United States over allegations of abuse at its New Iberia Research Center has turned into a public relations nightmare for the university. For now, neither side is backing down. In one corner, there’s an animal rights group contending that a university is inhumanely treating animals in medical research. In the other corner, there’s a university claiming it’s just doing what it was set up to do: conduct research under the guidelines of the federal government.

Both sides are throwing and taking punches in a public relations brawl that started long before ABC News aired its undercover video.

On Wednesday, March 4, the Humane Society of the United States announced it had conducted a nine-month undercover investigation of the New Iberia Research Center and that its findings would air on ABC News’ Nightline program that evening. From December 2007 until September 2008 an HSUS investigator went undercover, hired as an employee by the center, and shot covert footage of the facility.

Before the Nightline segment even aired, UL Lafayette issued a press release stating that the video was part of a larger campaign to ban the use of chimpanzees in research. “Nothing in the videos alter the fact that the New Iberia Research Center is in compliance with all federal standards and guidelines regarding the care and use of animals, as determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control.”

That evening Nightline aired its report with HSUS’ video. The segment painted a shocking image of NIRC and the treatment of the animals there. Some of the clips showed employees shooting chimps with dart guns only to have them fall and hit the ground, a sedated chimp tossed in the back of a van, and monkeys yanked from their cages by the neck.

Jane Goodall, the renowned chimpanzee expert, watched the Humane Society’s video footage and posted this reaction on her Web site: “The conditions in which the chimpanzees are confined are grim. ... From a psychological as well as a social perspective, the conditions of the chimpanzees in the video clips were not appropriate. Congress passed a bill that called on those responsible for the care of captive chimpanzees to address their psychological welfare. There was no evidence that I saw that this requirement is addressed in this lab.” At the conclusion of the Nightline segment, Terry Moran announced that the USDA would investigate the center.

Just after midnight, UL President E. Joseph Savoie sent out an e-mail to the university faculty, informing it of ABC News’ recent report and noting that it was part of HSUS’ campaign to ban the use of chimpanzees in research. Savoie wrote: “NIRC employees take very seriously their responsibility to care for the animals housed at the center and to carry out biomedical research according to federal rules and regulations. They are driven by high standards and ethics and believe the videos distort acceptable standard procedures and incorrectly imply mistreatment of nonhuman primates at the New Iberia Research Center.”

Roughly 6,500 primates live on the outskirts of New Iberia.

Photo by Robin May

The next morning, UL officials invited media outlets from across the state to tour the facility and to a press conference where NIRC officials gave their account of what occurred in the HSUS undercover video. The university also said it would cooperate fully with the USDA’s investigation of animal welfare practices at NIRC. The same day, the Great Ape Protection Act was re-introduced in Congress.

And all of that happened within 24 hours.

But the debate over chimps being used in medical research didn’t happen overnight, and NIRC’s role isn’t really new either. And by the looks of the swift and determined actions of both the Humane Society and UL, this doesn’t look like a debate that’s going to be resolved anytime soon. Some common ground, however, might be staked out in a resurrected piece of legislation aimed at ending the use of chimps in medical research.

UL’s New Iberia Research Center is the largest non-human primate testing center in the nation. On its 100-acre site, with 15 buildings and over 200,000 square feet of laboratory and animal facilities, there are 10 different species and over 6,500 primates. Of the 1,000 chimps used for medical testing in the United States, 327 of them live at NIRC.

NIRC’s budget for 2007-2008 was $19 million, with an annual payroll of $7.5 million, employing 240 fulltime personnel. Only 15 percent of the center’s support comes from the federal government. But through 2012, the center has about $30 million in grants and contracts with the National Institutes of Health.

Eighty-five percent of the center’s financial support comes from the private sector, from the pharmaceutical industry for the research it conducts, testing drugs designed for treating cancer, Hepatitis B and C and cystic fibrosis. As of press time, the university had not named the companies it conducts research for, citing “confidentiality issues dealing with proprietary information.” The Independent Weekly asked for the information early last week, and when it was not produced submitted a public records request for the names of each pharmaceutical company and the annual amounts paid to NIRC for the past five years.

Savoie says any money “generated in excess of what it costs to operate” goes back into the center. The real value to the university is that it attracts research dollars. “That allows us to be attractive to some faculty that we could bring in who can do work out there that don’t have access to some of these facilities elsewhere,” Savoie says. “But it’s not a business operation. We make more money off the bookstore.”

Of the 327 chimpanzees living in New Iberia, 134 are owned by the National Institutes of Health. According to Dr. Thomas J. Rowell, NIRC’s director, chimpanzees account for 5 percent of the total population of animals maintained at the center. In 2008, of all the studies conducted, only 16 percent used a chimp. “We don’t do any terminal research on the chimpanzees,” Savoie says. “None of them die as a result of this, and they’re all treated and monitored.”

There’s a National Institutes of Health moratorium on the breeding of chimps, but NIRC is still breeding them. During 2007 and 2008, Rowell says 21 chimpanzees were born at NIRC under a contract with the National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. Rowell says the ban doesn’t apply to all chimps and only extends to chimps supported by the National Center for Research Resources, one of the institutes within the NIH.

According to the Humane Society, the importation of chimps from the wild was restricted in 1975, which is when captive breeding in the United States began to pick up, becoming federally funded in 1986. The HSUS Web site states: “The chimpanzee is listed as ‘endangered’ under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, but unlike any other species, it is listed as ‘threatened’ in captivity. This ‘split-listing’ status permits certain types of biomedical and invasive research when chimpanzees are bred in captivity.”

On his blog, HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle writes: “Experiments on chimpanzees are under scrutiny for the financial obligations, not just our ethical ones. A large number of chimpanzees in laboratories today, like many of those at NIRC, aren’t being used but just warehoused. Our government spends up to an estimated $25 million per year on chimpanzee maintenance and research. NIH is funding chimpanzee breeding activities at NIRC, even though the federal agency has adopted a permanent ban on breeding.”

The term “warehoused” rubs some folks the wrong way, but the idea is that there is a surplus supply of chimps for the research being conducted. Savoie says, “There’s a claim that animals who are not used in research are ‘warehoused’ in unlivable conditions, like small cages, which causes depression and all kinds of mental health issues, none of which is true. It is true that the large majority of animals are not used in research.” Of the NIRC’s 327 chimps, about 20 at a time are used in active research.

So then why is all the focus on chimpanzees and not other primates used in medical testing? Pacelle says it’s because of the chimp’s close relation with humans and their cognitive abilities. “They have real physical and psychological needs,” he says, adding that chimpanzees are no longer used in medical research in other Western nations, and the U.S. should follow suit. “With only 1,000 chimps being used in research,” he says, “it’s a relatively small component of a much larger industry. So it’s not going to devastate biomedical research by any means.”

“If there was an alternative, we’d grab it,” Savoie says. “No one wants to use these animals. Chimpanzees emotionally have a stronger pull, but there is no alternative at this point.”

The Great Ape Protection Act was first introduced in April last year, but it never gained traction. This time around it still seeks to phase out the use of chimps in the United States for invasive research, retire some 500 chimps owned by the federal government to permanent sanctuaries, and make the NIH ban on breeding federally owned chimps permanent.

“The irony is we’re not sure that we have any problems with the Great Ape Act,” Savoie says. “The only professional question is: Is there a reasonable alternative to chimpanzees in certain forms of research? And right now, there really isn’t, particularly in hepatitis. But if they did find a reasonable alternative, I’m not so sure we would have an issue with the Great Ape Act.”

Last Thursday, in a letter addressed to Rowell, Pacelle urged the NIRC to retire 26 of its chimpanzees. UL says there are chimps at NIRC who are retired in place. “They’re expensive to maintain,” Savoie says. “So if somebody wants to pick up that, we’re all for it.”

The vast majority of experiments at nirc are done on monkeys, not chimpanzees.

Photo by Robin May

Chimp Haven in Keithville, just south of Shreveport, serves as the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Its president and director, Linda Brent, Ph.D., says 132 chimpanzees currently live at the private nonprofit sanctuary that opened in 2005, and most have been retired from medical research. More than 50 of them are retired from NIRC, now living in what Chimp Haven calls “large, naturalistic enclosures in complex social groups.”

There may not be immediate room for the 26 that HSUS wants to retire, but Brent says a second phase of construction at a cost of $2.5 million could accommodate 200 chimps. But a more pressing need of completing two enclosures, at the cost of $100,000, could bring the capacity up to 160-170 chimps, making room for the 26 New Iberia chimps.

Much hinges on the passage of the Great Ape Protection Act. But until that decision is made, the HSUS will spend its resources campaigning for it and rallying its supporters to contact their members of Congress. The NIRC will continue to be singled out, and UL will defend its work and image. But a quick look at the events leading up the Nightline piece could shed some light on how both sides will continue to operate if they stick with their current trajectories.

The way UL officials tell the story, the Nightline segment was a prolonged sneak attack, with the university kept in the dark about the allegations, fed scraps of information here and there, and never given an appropriate opportunity to address the charges brought against them. But an exchange of 21 e-mails with Nightline, from Feb. 11 through March 2, illustrates a cat-and-mouse game between the university and the ABC News program.

On Feb. 11, Nightline producer Arah Ghadishah requested an interview with UL officials to discuss standards and “claims of abuses of animals under NIRC’s care.” The university requested more information about the alleged abuses, and Ghadishah referred to “questions raised around the recent deaths of nine chimps at NIRC.”

Julie Dronet, UL’s director of public relations, says UL officials believed that Nightline wanted to talk about accusations made by the group Stop Animal Exploitation Now, which alleged that negligence and inadequate care led to the deaths of nine primates at NIRC. (The USDA has since investigated SAEN’s complaints and found NIRC to be in compliance.) UL declined an on-camera interview with Nightline, citing the ongoing USDA investigation. When Nightline stated that SAEN could be left out of the discussion, UL still declined. Nightline then sent UL a list of 20 allegations it wanted to discuss in the interview and added that it had also obtained undercover video shot from within NIRC. The university requested to see the video, and Nightline said it could be viewed during an on-camera interview. For the third time, the university declined to be interviewed.

ABC News camera crews still came to Louisiana for the story. Dronet says a crew showed up at the home of NIRC’s Rowell one morning after he had left for work. The crew never requested to visit the center and rented helicopters for aerial shots of the facility.

“We were fully expecting them to come here or to go the center, but they never did,” Savoie says. “That probably should have given us a clue that something else was up.”

University officials say they didn’t learn of the Humane Society’s involvement until the Nightline segment aired, and that HSUS never contacted the university or the center about the allegations. Pacelle says HSUS just handed the tapes over to Nightline. “We gave the tape exclusively to ABC,” he says. “I know that ABC reached out to [the university] on multiple occasions, and they declined to comment.”

Adds Savoie, “It’s pretty clear to us that this was a well thought out program, resulting from the failure of that federal legislation last year. And [HSUS] decided, ‘All right, how are we going to get it passed?’ I think they just came up with a good strategy to create some public interest and concern the day before they introduced this thing nationally. And it worked. I thought they did a great job with it, and they weren’t about to give us any chance to comment or analyze or to prepare any response until after they had gotten their message out. It was very well thought out.

“We just got blind-sided on Wednesday,” Savoie continues. In its press conference on Thursday, UL invited media from across the state to hear its side of the story. Reporters heard the NIRC’s version of the events in the HSUS video by its staff members. “We thought it important, that at least local and statewide, that we just didn’t roll over and that we tried to say, ‘Wait a second, you need to look at this thing from different viewpoints and make your mind up based on that, not just some version of what’s going on.’” Savoie says. “We just didn’t think it was appropriate to expose ourselves — without knowing what the charges were — to a national audience. But we did feel that it was important that the people we’re most responsible to had the opportunity to get a broader explanation than what they were receiving.”

Pacelle won’t say whether specific allegations were considered when targeting NIRC, but apparently size does matter. “What we wanted to do was to get a picture of how primates, and specifically chimpanzees are being treated in laboratories,” he says. “NIRC got our attention because it’s the biggest chimpanzee laboratory. It’s not the biggest primate laboratory, but it’s certainly one of the biggest. But the primary driver of the investigation was the size of NIRC and therefore the number of animals exposed to potential harm. We want the biggest impact for animal welfare, and obviously if you’ve got a larger group of animals in a single facility, then by definition, they’re more at risk if there is abuse occurring.” He adds: “You’ve got to start somewhere. You’ve got to pick a place to look at, and this was as good as any other in terms of an in-depth and inside evaluation of what was occurring.”

What is occurring remains a bit murky. There’s HSUS’ video and its explanation of events, and then there’s NIRC’s explanation of events. There’s also a 108-page document with at least 338 possible violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act alleged by the HSUS, which it says it has filed with the USDA. Savoie says UL has requested the document but hasn’t seen it. The Independent Weekly also requested the document from HSUS but was denied. “We want the USDA to have the information and to do their investigation without it being compromised in any way,” Pacelle says. HSUS also declined The Independent’s request for an interview with its undercover investigator.

“We’re not concerned about the USDA investigation,” Savoie says. “We’re going to try and focus on the formal, legitimate review processes of the federal government and to sidestep as much of this other stuff as we can. There are people who do not want you to use laboratory animals of any sort and any type in biomedical research. Period.

“It’s really a matter of whose opinion do you believe in these things?” Savoie adds. “Someone who has an emotional attachment or someone who is a professional in the area? I have to rely on our professionals. Do I like everything that’s out there? Not particularly. It makes you uneasy. I don’t like the process that it takes for me to get a steak at Ruth’s Chris either, but that’s just the reality of the way these things are done. The university’s interest is that we are abiding by — at least meeting, if not exceeding — all the expectations and regulations that go into this kind of research. And as long as we’re doing that, I think we’re providing an important public service. And we’ll just go with it from there.