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Two sisters, one in pink and one in purple, held a sign twice their size as cars passed by in Harvard Square. The poster showed two monkeys in a cage, holding each other tight, and a slogan demanding an end to animal testing.
“This is what they do to animals in laboratories,” their mother explained to the girls.
The family was participating in a protest against Harvard laboratories on Sunday. Other protesters held similar signs in Southborough, where Harvard Medical School’s New England Primate Research Center is located.
They claimed that negligence on the part of Harvard-affiliated researchers at multiple facilities has caused the deaths of a total of nine animals in the past two years. As a result, the protesters are asking the government to suspend animal testing at Harvard.
NEPRC was recently cited by the United States Department of Agriculture for multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act—most recently, the October death of a non-human primate. The animal died soon after escaping from its cage, being captured with a net by NEPRC staff, and undergoing an imaging procedure.
The report also cited unsuitable living conditions for non-human primates, noting signs of psychological distress among some primates like hair loss and unusual behavior.
A USDA citation can result in a warning letter to the offending institution or a fine of up to $10,000.
The Medical School offered a statement but repeatedly declined to answer additional questions for this article.
The statement said that Medical School researchers are working to “strengthen their processes” and ensure that they are compliant with animal treatment laws.
In the meantime, animal rights activists question not only the Medical School’s recent track record but also the necessity of some animals as test subjects at all.
AN UNCLEAN RECORD
In the last two years, a total of three non-human primates have died at NEPRC. In addition to the escapee, one animal suffered an anesthesia overdose which led to kidney failure, according to the USDA. The primate was euthanized.
For some protesters, the third death epitomizes mistreatment of animals at Harvard research labs.
On the morning of June 9, 2010, NEPRC personnel transferred non-human primates from their cage unit to a temporary one so that their permanent cages could be cleaned. During the routine cleaning, the cages were sanitized in a mechanical washer with water that reached up to 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
Following the cleaning that day, researchers found a dead animal on the floor of one of the cages.
NEPRC staff immediately performed a necropsy on the primate and found that it was dead before entering the washer, according to a statement from the Medical School. An inspection report by the USDA confirmed their findings.
The report stated that personnel failed to comply with multiple procedures. It claimed that no one noticed that the animal was behaving abnormally during the morning health check nor that the primate was “still inside the dirty quad cage unit when it was put inside the mechanical cage washer.”
The incident prompted Elizabeth Goldentyer, the eastern regional director of the USDA, to send a warning letter to the Medical School in
In a statement released after the incident, the Medical School said that it would take “immediate actions” to ensure that NEPRC employees are “fully trained and strictly comply with protocols to help ensure the health, well being, and safety of all [non-human primates].”
ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL
In addition to the three primates, deaths at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the McLean Hospital Corporation, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—all affiliated with Harvard but registered separately with the USDA—bring the total number of animal deaths in the past two years at Harvard-affiliated institutions to nine.
“Nine animal deaths is a significant number,” USDA spokesperson David Sacks wrote in an email.
Still, Sacks noted that “numbers don’t always give the clearest picture.”
In January 2009, a dog at Brigham and Women’s Hospital died due to an anesthesia overdose, according a USDA report.
That September, a USDA inspection team found a sheep at the hospital suffering from “anorexia, weight loss, labored breathing and signs of upper airway infection.” Notified of the sheep’s condition, hospital staff started treatment, but the sheep died the following day.
Afterward, the staff received training to prevent additional animal deaths.
But in the summer of 2010, two rabbits undergoing a short procedure at the facility died after receiving a dosage of anesthesia only approved by a veterinarian for “terminal procedures,” according a USDA report. All staff members received further training following the incident, the USDA said. There have been no additional deaths at the hospital.
Last summer, a goat under the care of FAS researchers died while recovering from an operation. A USDA report stated that researchers misread the dose for the goat’s anesthesia and administered four times the recommended amount. Personnel received additional training, and the report stated that no more incidents occurred.
“You begin to see a pattern of negligence and disregard for the animals,” said Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, an organization that focuses on preventing abuse of laboratory animals. Budkie helped organize Sunday’s protest against Harvard’s research facilities.
“If there had been one incident, you say, ‘Okay, this could possibly be an accident,’” Budkie said. “But when someone starts to show a pattern of repeated incidents, that’s when you start seeing major consequences.”
‘IT’S A BUSINESS’
Budkie and others focused on research ethics have said that the Medical School’s research license should be revoked in order to save the animals and taxpayer dollars.
John J. Pippin ’71, the director of academic affairs for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, wrote a letter asking the USDA to “consider suspending research activities at both Harvard Medical School and Harvard University.”
“Harvard continues to put animals at risk and even kill them while benefitting from hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding,” Pippin wrote.
His organization scored Ivy League institutions on the number and severity of violation of the Animal Welfare Act in their laboratories since 2008. It ranked the University of Pennsylvania as the worst offender, followed by Princeton and Yale, then Harvard.
Over the past three years, according to Pippin, Harvard has received $1.3 billion in funding for scientific research from the National Institutes of Health, a separate government agency.
In contrast, the USDA can issue a maximum fine of $10,000 per institution, according to Sacks, the USDA spokesperson.
“If the USDA did everything they could possibly do, they couldn’t really hurt Harvard,” Budkie said. “The entities that they are regulating have become so large and so wealthy…it’s a business.”
On its website, the NEPRC states that the animal research it conducts serves a variety of purposes, including creating drugs to treat cocaine addiction and developing gene therapy to further AIDS research.
But a December report released by the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit organization, said that recent scientific advances should make it possible to partially eliminate the use of chimpanzees, which are closely related to humans, as research subjects. The report recommended that NIH-funded experiments use chimpanzees only under “stringent conditions”—including an inability to ethically perform the research on people instead.
Pippin said that in light of the report, “We are on the cusp of a changing viewpoint of animal research. If it isn’t necessary to use chimpanzees, it isn’t necessary to use other non-human primates.”
The protesters that took to the streets on Sunday said they believed that scientific trends are on their side.
“If the University complex has had this many negligent deaths in this amount of time, there is clearly something very, very wrong,” Budkie said. “The public needs to be skeptical of what’s going on here.”
Pippin said that technology is paving a new path for research that does not include animals. Tissue engineering, stem cell research, and the administration of “micro-doses” of drugs to humans can all serve as alternatives to animal research, he said.
“I’ve been an animal researcher. I know the deal,” Pippin said. “These people who have been arguing against the use of chimpanzees all these years were right.”
—Staff writer Nathalie R. Miraval can be reached at email@example.com.
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