Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Monsters: The University of Wisconsin, Madison

[D. Devaul. “Vilas Monkeys Not Forgotten” 2008. Taken on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Vilas monkeys being shipped to Tulane University to be tortured to death.]

In many of the preceding Monster essays, I’ve leaned heavily on denizens of UW Madison’s primate labs, the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and its older but smaller evil sister just across a narrow street, the Harlow primate lab, started in 1932.

UW Madison’s gang of monsters isn’t comprised of monsters more evil that those elsewhere; at some point, on some scale of monstrosity, rank order stops meaning very much. But nevertheless, UW Madison is a standout because of its historical significance and the relatively good documentation that has built up over time regarding its practices.

When it comes to hurting those most like us, the legacy of Harry Harlow stretches across the country. I’ve already mentioned Harlow students Stephen Suomi in Maryland, still reporting on the effects of maternal deprivation on monkeys, and Gene Sackett in Seattle writing about rearing monkeys in a way that keeps their hands out of their sight. But Harlow produced many PhDs who spread across the country like metastasizing cancer cells. Another one is William Mason at UC Davis. Mason has written about the differing effects to monkeys raised in either social isolation with only a hobbyhorse, or in semi-social isolation with a dog. Can you guess which monkeys turned out to be the most normal? He’s now burning out monkeys’ emotion centers in experiments similar to Kalin’s and Davidson’s. Harlow’s many students in turn trained their own students, and so the pestilence has spread.

The immediately past director of the Wisconsin Primate Center, Joseph Kemnitz, who I also mentioned earlier, has stated that his primate center operates just like all the other primate labs, so Wisconsin is an exemplar for the industry. He said this when the primate center got caught publicly in a series of violations and lies about monkeys it had at the local zoo.

I also lean on Wisconsin because I simply know more details about them than I do about the other labs around the country. I have personal experience with Wisconsin because I was involved in the events that followed the whistle blowing about the violations concerning the zoo that exposed the university to the searing light of day.

I also know from firsthand experience, the power the university exerts to shield its moneymaking-monsters from those stinging rays of daylight.

In 1997, I began learning details of publicly funded experiments on monkeys. The experiments, like many of those I’ve mentioned above, were so disturbing to me that I walked away from a job I loved and a home my wife and I built by hand, because not speaking out about what I had learned seemed to me to be no different than staying quiet during the Holocaust.

Once I had the facts and had my letters to my representatives in Congress dismissed out of hand, I got active. The first thing I did was to visit each of the then-seven NIH then-Regional Primate Research Centers and set up a camp outside their gate to protest and call attention to the atrocities occurring inside. I sat in front of each of the labs for nine days at a time, nonstop, beginning on a Saturday and through to the following Sunday. There were lots of protests and marches in every city I visited.

Coincidentally, it was around the time that I was sitting in front of the Harlow lab that internal documents got leaked to the local animal rights group, the Alliance for Animals. And, also coincidentally, a death in my wife’s family resulted in us moving to a small town just outside of Madison, so I became deeply involved in the resulting local news storm and public outrage. Before this though, I knew that the vivisectors were doing horrible things to the animals; I believed that they were honest scientists using research methods that I disagreed with. But the documents themselves, and events that unfolded after they were leaked, blasted the scales from my eyes. The dishonesty and calculated and misleading manipulations of public opinion that the university engaged in made me look more carefully at the claims being made by the industry at large. Suddenly, as if I had slipped on a pair of those truth-revealing glasses from They Live!, I could see the enterprise for what it was and could see what was shrouded behind the vivisectors’ white coats and their defenders’ business suits.

The Wisconsin Primate Center became fully operational in 1964. This included the operation of a primate display cum holding/quarantine facility at the Dane County Henry Vilas Zoo. In 1972, India halted the export of rhesus macaques after learning that some of them were being used in weapons testing rather than medical research. One of the last groups of monkeys to be exported ended up at UW-Madison and was housed as a group at the zoo facility which had became known locally as the Round House because of its circular design.

The university put together a second group of rhesus monkeys a few years later. The Round House eventually housed two groups of approximately 50 rhesus monkeys each and a similarly sized group of stumptail macaques. The building was divided into four pie-slice sections, one each for the rhesus monkeys, and two given over to the stumps. At the top center of the building was an observation room that looked down on each of the sections. Each section had a sloping floor made of small limestone slabs that stair-stepped up to just below the observation windows. Hidden behind the slopping walls were a lab and animal holding and sleeping rooms. At the bottom, mesh covered windows separated the monkeys from zoo patrons. The Round House was by far the perennial most popular attraction at the zoo.

The monkeys were watched and their social interactions recorded for many years. By 1997, they were the most studied and written about intact captive colonies of monkeys in the world.

In the late 1980s people began criticizing the zoo and university for using the popular display as a breeding farm. People watching the young monkeys playing with each other couldn’t help imagining what might be in store for them. There were protests and letters written to the newspapers, but these concerns were ignored. Then, over a period of months, graffiti critical of the zoo and its willingness to allow researchers to harvest monkeys appeared on and around the building. Apparently, the zoo officials were embarrassed enough that they asked the university to stop. This resulted in an agreement between the university and the zoo:

June 15, 1989

Dr. David Hall
Director, Vilas Park Zoo
702 S. Randall Ave.
Madison, WI 53715

Dear Dr. Hall:

I want to inform you of the Primate Center's policy regarding our monkeys that reside at the Vilas Park Zoo in a building we refer to as the “WRPRC Vilas Park Zoo Facility”. This building was constructed with funds provided by the federal government to the Primate Center. Thus, despite its somewhat ambiguous designation, the facility is owned and operated by us and, accordingly, the University of Wisconsin.

More than a few of the monkeys housed at this facility have lived their entire lives there, and animals are removed from their natal groups only to prevent overcrowding. The groups have been established for the principal purpose of studying social organization and social dynamics in stable primate societies. Accordingly, on those infrequent occasions when animals are removed from a group, the removal is guided by procedures aimed at ensuring the least disruption of the group and at preserving social stability.

The research performed on troops housed at the zoo is purely observational in nature. As a matter of policy, no invasive physiological studies are carried out on these animals. In addition, the Center's policy regarding animals removed from these established groups ensures that they will not be used in studies at our facility involving invasive experimental procedures. Such animals will be assigned to the Center's non-experimental breeding colony, where they are exempt from experimental use.

This policy on the uses of monkeys at the WRPRC Vilas Park Zoo facility has the endorsement of my administrative council as well as the staff veterinarians and animal care supervisors responsible for the care and humane use of all Center animals. As evidence of this, their signatures are also affixed.

Let me take this opportunity to point out that the Center has long taken a leadership role in the humane treatment of research animals. Our housing meets or exceeds all applicable standards. Our 12-person animal care staff has an average length of nearly 20 years of dedicated service to the Center and its animals. In addition, our chief veterinarian is one of just a handful of veterinarians in the state to be certified as a Diplomat of the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine, and our assistant veterinarian has developed a highly regarded program of pairing caged monkeys to enhance their psychological well-being.

Yours Truly,

Robert W. Goy, Director

Administrative Council

William E. Bridson
Associate Director

Robert K. Watson,
Assistant Director

Animal Care Unit

Wallace D. House
Chief Veterinarian

Viktor Reinhardt
Assistant Veterinarian

Stephen G. Eisele
Breeding Supervisor

Milford Urben
Vilas Park Zoo Facility Supervisor
This agreement was one of four written statements over a period of years reiterating the new policy and promising that any monkeys taken from the zoo would be exempt from “invasive experimental procedures” or other “experimental use.”

But in 1997, internal documents were leaked to the Alliance for Animals that demonstrated unequivocally that only months after the above letter was signed, monkeys taken from the zoo were again being experimented on in the university labs and were being sold for invasive and deadly experiments to other labs around the country.

Almost immediately after the leaks were made public, the NIH announced that no federal money would any longer be allowed for the monkeys’ care or for upkeep of the facility. The university quickly announced that it would get rid of the monkeys and began secretly trying to find labs around the country willing to take them.

After a year of public meetings and county government’s efforts to secure a safe home for the monkeys, monkeys that many community members, including the Governor’s wife, knew by name, the university succeeding in undermining all and every humane effort and shipped the rhesus monkeys to Tulane University, home of Wisconsin’s sister NIH facility, the Tulane National Primate Research Center. At Tulane, the monkeys were separated and eventually used in deadly and invasive experiments, yet a final violation of years of written promises.

Throughout the year leading up to this dark finale, at every turn the university worked to circumvent the county’s and citizens’ efforts. One of their more distasteful but enlightening maneuvers centered on the death of a young lab worker at Yerkes named Elizabeth R. Griffin that occurred at the same time that the university was trying to sweep this festering problem into some dark hole.

Beth, as she was usually referred to in the press, had the unfortunate experience of becoming one of the very few people ever to be infected and die from the Herpes B virus. According to the CDC:
B virus, or Cercopithecine herpesvirus 1, is an infectious agent that is commonly found among macaque monkeys, including rhesus macaques, pig-tailed macaques, and cynomolgus monkeys. Monkeys infected with this virus usually have no or mild symptoms. In humans, however, B virus infection can result in a fatal encephalomyelitis. B virus disease in humans is extremely rare, but often fatal -- an estimated 80% of untreated patients die of complications associated with the infection.(1)
Apparently, since the time the virus was first identified, in 1932, there have been 26 documented cases of B virus infection in humans and 16 of those people died as a result of the disease. The last one, as of 2009, was Beth Griffin, in 2002.

This has to be put in context in order to understand the rarity of the disease. Literally millions of rhesus monkeys, thought to be natural carriers of the virus, have been imported into the United States and have been handled by many thousands of lab workers. Many hundreds of thousands more have been bred and experimented on in the United States. In India, people have lived in close and intimate contact with rhesus monkeys for many centuries, maybe for millennia, without concern. Many people around the world keep rhesus monkeys as pets.

Beth was carrying a baby rhesus monkey in a cage when a drop of fluid -- saliva perhaps -- flew from the cage and into her eye. Her supervisors and the medical staff at Emory University, the home of Yerkes, were unconcerned since similar things must happen all the time given the large number of human/macaque contact hours every day. But they were incompetent or malfeasant as well when she began developing symptoms and didn’t treat her appropriately.

In any case, Beth died while the future of the Vilas monkeys was being debated in various Dane County government committee meetings. Upon her death from this very rare disease, University of Wisconsin officials told Dane County Supervisors that the zoo display was putting the public at imminent mortal risk. They told the county supervisors that an air-tight barrier would have to be constructed between the monkeys and viewing public. They waved Beth’s death as a talisman to frighten the public, exploiting their young colleague’s death in an attempt to dispose of what had become a very large embarrassment. Not only had they lied for years about their treatment of the monkeys at the zoo, but they also lied about the public’s risk.

I was at the committee meeting when Kemnitz and his crew first told county supervisors this new lie. Fortunately, I had also been out to the zoo to see the monkeys that very afternoon. A short time earlier, the university had stupidly elected to remove all the birth control implants from the monkeys, sending all the females into sudden estrus; the result was the pandemonium I witnessed.

While I watched, the university-employed caretaker was using a broom to try and separate the males who were fighting with each other. Blood was being liberally sprayed around the enclosure. Stress -- thought to be a trigger for the B virus becoming suddenly active and transmissible in a monkey -- was high throughout the colonies. Monkeys were screaming and running around trying to stay out of the big males’ melee.

And, with all these fluids flying, and Kemnitz’s dire warnings later that afternoon, the university caretaker was not wearing safety glasses or a mask. He was as bare faced as I was.

When I stood up and asked about this at the committee meeting immediately after the primate center staff had mongered their fear-inspiring warnings, you could see that both they and the county supervisors knew that the vivisectors had been caught in still another lie.

But the resources of the University of Wisconsin, like the resources of every government-supported institution, are as deep as the collective pockets of every taxpayer in the country. At the end of the day they can do as they please, essentially exempt from local concerns. And so, they sent the monkeys to Tulane, even as citizens were literally standing by, kept at a distance by police, with money in hand and a sanctuary willing to take them.

Never again have I been confused about what these people are.

Scandals over animal care have been common at UW Madison. I know personally, three people who were forced out of the primate labs because of concerns they voiced about the way the animals were being treated. Another person who was fired, but that I didn’t know, was a veterinarian named Jennifer Hess.

The story was brought to light in a February 20, 2004 news story in Madison’s weekly newspaper, Isthmus, following her settlement with the university for more than a quarter of a million dollars after she sued for a wrongful termination:
In her depositions, Hess said her suggestions for proper animal care were sometimes “met with derision.” Researchers pushed her to change veterinary records and “on more than one occasion” altered the records themselves. She also felt pressure to approve “inherently unethical” experimentation on ailing animals.

Once, when Hess wanted a monkey to regain some weight “before it went back into experiment,” she said a researcher snapped, "If you don't let me put her into experiment, I'm going to headcap another animal,” from the center's colony of 1,300 non-human primates. “Headcapping,” Hess explained, is a “nasty procedure” in which the monkey’s “skull is removed and the headcap is put in place of a skull and there’s a hole in the top of the head.”
Shortly after the Hess settlement was made public, another ex-employee of the Wisconsin Primate Center posted a message to an Isthmus comment page:
I worked as a work-study student for a Post Doc from 1995-1998. I worked with infant rhesus and mothers. We also had an offshoot study in geriatric females. It was horrible. Hellacious. I can't even begin to tell you what went on. Unsupervised undergrads losing their tempers and beating on monkeys while they were in a metal squeeze restraint. Monkeys with prolapsed uteruses waiting for hours for vet attention. Insane stereotypy that resulted in monkeys balding, chewing themselves and injuring others.

All the while, the PhDs had the most insanely petty battles going on, to the point where our research group was mocked and taunted in the hallways.
All of this is but a tiny glimpse into the shadows. I could write at length about Ei Terasawa’s violations of the Animal Welfare Act and her hideous push-pull brain perfusion experiments on elderly monkeys, or Chris Coe’s stress experiments on pregnant monkeys and its effect on the immune systems of their babies, or David Abbott’s androgenized female monkeys, treated in utero with testosterone and born with deformed reproductive systems and impaired endocrine systems, or the obscene financial waste and suffering of David Watkin’s simian immunodeficiency virus experiments, or Yoshihiro Kawaoka’s influenza experiments on ferrets and monkeys that could be putting the entire planet at risk… the list seems to go on and on.

In 2005 a young friend of mine decided to emulate my 1997 protest tour of the NIH primate centers. Coincidentally, when he was in Madison, sitting in front of the Harlow lab, I was traveling from Florida to California, and on the way I stopped off to sit with him. While there we discovered that a small parcel of land literally squeezed between the primate center and Harlow lab was privately owned. I had always assumed it was owned by the primate center and filled with old cages or bags of monkey chow.

When I learned it was privately owned, I immediately sought out the owner and asked him to sell it to me, which he agreed to do. He had been trying to sell it to the university for years he said, but they had never seriously discussed the property with him. The parcel was assessed at about $65,000, but the owner agreed, after some negotiations, to sell it for $675,000. Given its location, I considered it a bargain.

As I’ve already said, monsters don’t like the light of day. Daylight, or in this case public understanding is like a death ray to them. They believe that an informed citizenry would be at their door with pitchforks and torches. Why else destroy hundreds of videotapes, censor entire pages of documents, and keep the details of their actual work hidden?

When I learned of this property, and found a way to finance it, I envisioned it being a lens for public education. Kemnitz claims that all the primate labs operate in the same way, so where better to build a primate research public education center than between the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and the Harry Harlow Primate Psychology Laboratory? But I shouldn’t have been so hopeful.

When I learned of the property and figured out a way to pay for it, I contacted a realtor acquaintance in Madison and explained what I needed. I told her that I needed a very good real estate attorney who would draw up a bulletproof contract. I had no illusions about the university trying to quash the deal. I was referred to a prestigious firm in Madison, right across the street from the Capitol Building, Murphy Desmond S.C. On their website they say:
When you seek legal advice, choose lawyers who are dedicated to legal excellence, integrity, and our community. In matters involving business law, real estate, estate planning or other areas, Murphy Desmond S.C. are committed to exceeding your expectations.

I began speaking with attorney Vernon J. Jesse who is described on their website as a “shareholder of Murphy Desmond S.C., Vern has substantial expertise representing clients on a wide variety of real estate transactions including purchase and sale of real estate…”


I explained to Verne that I needed him to draw up an option contract, and that once the university learned what I was up to, that they would do everything in their power to block my efforts. No problem, he was an expert in the area of real estate contract law, and since I was buying a house and moving to Madison to work on the project, wouldn’t I like him to also review the contract for my new house as well. Thanks, but no thanks, I told him; I would trust the realtor I was working with.

So, Verne drew up the contract, and eventually turned the project over to one of his associates at Murphy Desmond, Dean Stange who has since become a partner in a different law firm, Michael Best and Friedrich LLP. At least Stange doesn’t claim to have any expertise in real estate transactions on his new web page.

When the university learned that I was planning on moving in next door to the primate labs and shining a big bright public spotlight on the industry, they freaked out and offered the property’s owner a cool $1,000,000 for the parcel that they had no prior interest in. And he took their offer, and reneged on his negotiated, notarized, and duly recorded contract with us.

Subsequently, we went through a courtroom trial, which we won, a reconsideration motion, which we won, and then an appeal to the Appellate Court which we lost, and a denial to hear our appeal by the State Supreme Court, to finally be told that the contract drawn up by Murphy Desmond was invalid. An attorney friend of mine who I spoke with during the four-year-long, $200,000 legal ordeal, told me, when she heard the details of the case that the error Verne made was something that is learned in Contracts 101. So we lost the property, and the monsters at the University of Wisconsin breathed a sigh of relief. They had avoided the death ray of public understanding, the light of day, once again.

So that’s why I write with some knowledge of the practices of vivisectors at Wisconsin and why I know a little about the history of their monkey labs. I had intended to use Wisconsin as a lens for looking at the entire industry. Human beings and innocent victims lose to the monsters once again.

(1) Center For Disease Control. National Center for Infectious Diseases. B Virus (Cercopithecine herpesvirus 1) Infection. Updated December 18, 2007.

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