Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Vilas Monkeys (Part Five)

The Vilas Monkeys (Part Five): The Ten-Year Anniversary of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Most Blatant Instance of Animal Cruelty and Lying to the Public. A Story of Cover-up, Conspiracy, Adultery, Battery, Disdain for Public Sentiment, and Crimes Too Unbelievable and Hideous to Discuss in Polite Company

Part Five

Wielding a Death

From June through December 1997, I protested for ten days at a time at each of the (then) seven (then) Regional Primate Research Centers. (There are now eight National Primate Research Centers.) In December, the Vilas monkey scandal was well underway and the University of Wisconsin spin-doctors were busy presenting a cacophony of random and unsubstantiated reasons to various Dane County committees arguing that they should not endorse an introduced resolution regarding the care and protection of the monkeys at the zoo.

In early December, I drove to the last stop of my eight-month-long ordeal, Emory University, in Atlanta, home of the infamous Yerkes Primate Center.

One evening, a reporter showed up at my encampment and ask us if we had heard that a research assistant had been hospitalized following her exposure to a monkey virus.

Elizabeth R. Griffin had been splashed in the face with fluids while transporting an infant rhesus monkey. She reported the incident and was told to wash her face.

A few days later, she called in sick with flu-like symptoms, felt so sick that she went to the Emory hospital and was given some aspirin and told to rest in bed. A short time later she developed encephalitis and died. She had been infected with the so-called simian B-Virus, also known as herpes-B, or Cercopithecine Herpesvirus-1. The virus is considered to be common and widespread in macaques.

Yerkes wrote the OSHA requirements for workers handling macaques and the standard procedures following any possible exposure to the virus, none of which were followed in Beth Griffin’s case. She was not wearing the required protective eyewear and follow-up to her exposure was non-existent. OSHA fined Yerkes over $60,000 for its failure to provide the proper training and safety equipment needed to protect workers from B-Virus infection.

The B-Virus, though potentially fatal in humans, and widespread in macaques, is also very rare in humans. In Asia, macaques and humans live intimately with few if any apparent infections; in the US many people keep macaques as pets. As of 1999, of the 22 known cases in the US, 20 infected individuals developed encephalitis and 15 of these patients died as a result of their infection.

When I returned to Madison, I visited the Vilas zoo monkey house and observed an unusual event. Apparently, the primate center had elected to remove a contraceptive device that all the female monkeys had implanted. It might have been Norplant. Exactly why they chose to end the contraception is unknown – stupid and/or calculating of course – but unknown.

Once removed, all the females spontaneously went into estrous and the males went berserk. As I stood watching, the primate center staff zoo monkey keeper was in one of the large monkey rooms in his lab coat with a broom. He had no face protection on of any kind. There was blood everywhere and male monkeys continuously charged each other screaming and biting. He was using the broom to try and keep them apart. The melee continued until he was able to get some of the males separated and isolated from each other. It was a regular riot.

Coincidentally, yet another Dane County committee was meeting that very evening to consider the resolution. I attended the meeting as did primate center staff. Acting Director Kemnitz and some of his staff spoke in opposition to the resolution.

I don’t recall all the committees the resolution had to get through, but it seems like it must have been at least four or five, and this was one of the last ones prior to the resolution going before the entire Dane County Board of Supervisors. Up to this point, the university had been saying that caring for the monkeys was just too technically challenging for the county, that the expense would be too great, that unless the county allowed the monkeys to breed that no one would be interested in them, and other various and spurious claims.

But at this meeting, they pulled out a new shiny big gun: If Dane County took over the care of the monkeys they would be putting every zoo patron at grave risk of contracting the deadly B-Virus, and then they launched into the most vile fear-mongering that one could imagine. Overnight, monkeys who had been at the zoo for over 30 years had become a public health hazard on the order of an open pit nuclear waste site. Beth Griffin’s name became their club and they used her death to try and beat down any idea of some modicum of concern for the monkeys.

They went on at length about the extreme danger of the monkeys and the careful and grueling training and safety procedures used by all the primate center staff.

Afterwards, I stood up and recounted the scene I had viewed at the zoo: lots of blood, pandemonium, and no face protection.

Like every other of the County Board of Supervisors’ committees that had considered the resolution, this committee endorsed it unanimously. They saw through the university’s theatrics and lies once again.

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