PETA Says HMS Lab Abuses Animals

Harvard made its way onto another top-ten list last week, this time ranking sixth among the “ten worst” university laboratories in the country, according to a national animal rights group.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) pinpointed the New England National Primate Research Center at Harvard Medical School (HMS) for what the organization sees as the center’s abuse of non-human primates.

PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk described the University’s laboratories as “an animal Abu Ghraib” in a press release.

“With Harvard, one of the big points for us is that they imprison about 2000 primates at the New England National Primate Research Center,” PETA Research Associate Matthew Mongiello said. “They claim that their primate center is used for AIDS research et cetera but their main purpose is turning monkeys into cocaine and heroin addicts.”

According to Mongiello, about 40 percent of any of the primate lab’s research funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) are cocaine and heroin studies. This includes research on drug withdrawal symptoms and reactions to drug combinations, Mongiello said.

“We don’t believe that animals are ours to exploit and research, but we realize that not everyone agrees with us,” he said. “And we are willing to focus on those experiments which we feel are the cruellest and the most useless.”

But the University denied charges of abusive practices.

John Lacey, associate director of public affairs for media relations at HMS, said that although the center’s “broad and diverse” portfolio of research might include drug experimentation, the primate lab did not addict its animals to drugs.

The primate lab is “currently working toward an HIV vaccine and other critical human health advances,” according to a statement released by HMS, as well as exploring health concerns of “non-human primates at the center and elsewhere, which is part of the center’s core mission.”

PETA also accused the HMS lab of subjecting its animals to “stress stemming from confinement, boredom, loneliness, and the common practice of separating babies from their mothers” and claimed that “federal Animal Welfare Act violations,...painful and invasive experiments, and an unwillingness to make humane improvements” were rife at the center, according to a press release.

Primate Specialist for PETA Debra Durham described the “prevalence of abnormal behavior” at the lab due to the stress caused by these factors as “just stunning.”

Research data shows that 90 percent of the primates at the primate lab show instances of this “abnormal behavior,” including “pacing, spinning, flipping, and pulling their hair out,” as well as 20 to 30 percent that self-mutilated, Durham said.

“This is a problem at all large primate facilities,” she said. “One doesn’t have to be a scientist or veterinarian to know there’s something very wrong.”

But Lacey said that animal rights organizations like PETA “distort” data collected by laboratories in order “to inflate their numbers.”

“Do you ever tap your pencil?,” he said. “We have people who watch the animals very closely and if an animal is tapping its foot or biting its nails these things are recorded.”

“I think that what [PETA] are doing here is that they are categorizing these behaviors in certain ways that they want to, but really they are things people do every day,” he added.

Lacey denied that the HMS lab systematically separated young animals from their mothers or violated welfare regulations.

“I don’t know where they’re getting that,” he said. “We are regulated by federal and state guidelines and reviewed often.”

Two animal welfare organizations, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animal Rescue League, as the designated agents of the Department of Public Health of Massachusetts, carry out “unannounced inspections” which “have found no irregularities or mistreatment of the animals at the facility,” HMS said in a statement.

“These are common accusations that we see and they are distorted,” Lacey said. “I think that overall people see through these statements that are being made and realize that these organizations are not reliable sources of information.”

—Staff writer Alexandra C. Bell can be reached at acbell@fas.harvard.edu.