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Animal Rights Group Alleges Medical School Caused Primate Death, Violated Animal Welfare Act

Harvard Medical School's Gordon Hall sits across the HMS quadrangle.
Harvard Medical School's Gordon Hall sits across the HMS quadrangle. By Justin C. Wong
By Juliet E. Isselbacher, Crimson Staff Writer

An animal rights group alleges Harvard Medical School caused the death of an experimental primate and filed “fraudulent” reports with the United States Department of Agriculture, according to a federal complaint the group filed with the United States Department of Agriculture Nov. 30.

Michael A. Budkie, co-founder of the activist group Stop Animal Exploitation Now, wrote the complaint, which alleges the actions of HMS researchers constituted violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

HMS administrators filed a report with the National Institutes of Health in September detailing the death of a macaque in an HMS lab.

"On July 28, 2019, the [principal investigator] discovered a dead juvenile macaque,” the report to the NIH reads. “The macaque had strangled herself on her hanging surrogate cover, which was being used for enrichment. The macaque had ripped a hole in the surrogate cover and stuck her head through it.”

The macaque’s death represents a violation of the Animal Welfare Act, according to SAEN. The complaint accuses researchers of failing to handle animals “as expeditiously and carefully as possible in a manner that does not cause trauma, overheating, excessive cooling, behavioral stress, physical harm, or unnecessary discomfort.”

HMS spokesperson Ekaterina D. Pesheva wrote in an emailed statement that the school is committed to high ethical standards in animal experimentation.

“We will continue to work to ensure that the important research will further medical breakthroughs, while being conducted in an ethical manner,” she wrote. “We recognize that it is incumbent upon us to continuously strive to improve our program and strengthen oversight in order to exceed the highest standards.”

SAEN’s complaint also alleges that the experiment entailed the social isolation of primates.

“Since this project involves socially isolating primates, including preventing them from even seeing human or primate faces, it is highly likely that this project caused these animals to experience unrelieved distress,” Budkie wrote in the complaint.

The complaint noted that, though the project began in 2015, neither of HMS’s last two annual reports — filed with the USDA — disclosed primates being subjected to unrelieved pain or distress.

The complaint cited USDA guidelines requiring researchers to report “the common names and the numbers of animals upon which teaching, experiments, research, surgery, or tests were conducted involving accompanying pain or distress to the animals.”

“HMS has therefore filed several fraudulent reports with the USDA,” the complaint reads.

The complaint concludes by calling upon the USDA to launch an investigation into the incident and punish the “criminal” laboratory with a fine.

Budkie said his organization believes the incident reveals significant issues with animal experimentation at Harvard.

“If Harvard can’t even keep the animals alive long enough to complete the experiments, then why should we believe they can do science?” Budkie said in an interview Monday.

HMS shuttered its New England Primate Research Center in 2015, after four primates died between 2010 and 2012. Jeffrey S. Flier, then-dean of HMS, said the center closed for financial reasons.

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @julietissel.

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