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March 06, 2009

Primate Lab Plays Defense

On Wednesday The HSUS pulled the curtain back on the mistreatment of primates at the New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, making video documentation of the treatment of the animals publicly known—with ABC’s "Nightline" breaking the story on Wednesday. In response, several lawmakers in Congress introduced legislation yesterday to end invasive research on chimpanzees at NIRC and at the other eight facilities where chimpanzees are held or used for experiments. Yesterday, we also called upon Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to use his authority to promptly retire 26 elderly chimps from NIRC to Chimp Haven—as a first step toward addressing the issues we raised.

Watch our video and take action
Our nine-month investigation reveals routine abuse.

Our undercover video depicts the psychological distress and deprivation experienced by many of the monkeys and chimpanzees, recorded during an investigator’s nine-month stint as a lab worker at NIRC. Even NIRC brass conceded that our video is disturbing. But instead of acknowledging the scale of problems and pledging to correct them, its officials chose to excuse some of the images as easily misread by non-scientists and they indicated that much of what viewers saw on ABC was standard practice throughout the industry.

The HSUS video run on ABC shows several anesthetized monkeys arrayed on a counter as one slides off and slams to the floor. The undercover investigator hurries over to tend to the animal. As is common in such responses to other undercover investigations, an NIRC official, according to news reports, charged that the investigator herself was responsible for watching over those monkeys, so the incident was in effect her failure. Yet the HSUS investigator remembers the scene vividly. She told me that a number of workers were in the room, that no one was in charge of watching over the monkeys, that she was engaged in other tasks, and that she happened to see the animal begin to slip, so she hurried over to assist him.

In another scene, three monkeys are locked into restraining devices and a lab worker with a rod in his hand is trying to get one of them to open his mouth. The monkey is grimacing in fear and has his mouth firmly closed. The worker strikes the monkey on his front teeth three times. The NIRC falsely argued that the worker is trying to insert the rod into the monkey’s mouth to keep it open so that a tube can be snaked into the animal’s stomach. It certainly appears to me that this is a frustrated worker callously hitting an uncooperative monkey.

The troubling images also reveal an infant monkey screaming and struggling, his arms pinned behind him, as a worker is trying to thread a tube down his throat so a liquid can be pumped into his stomach from an oversized syringe. NIRC seeks to dismiss this as mere feeding of an infant who wasn’t drinking from a bottle. Of course, such infants in nature would be suckling from their mothers, but they've been denied that experience by being taken from their mothers. Some of these infants are so distressed that they won't drink from a bottle, so NIRC manhandles them and force-feeds the babies.

The video also shows animals who have mutilated themselves, opening up wounds in their arms and thighs. The HSUS narration identifies such self-mutilation as a classic sign of psychological disturbance in primates. NIRC officials euphemistically label this as “self-injurious behavior” or “SIB” and claim that such behavior, while more common elsewhere, is infrequent at NIRC. The fact is, just because it may be worse somewhere else, that doesn’t make it acceptable at NIRC. Any facility confining animals should provide an environment suitable enough that animals there do not resort to this extreme, self-destructive behavior.

The NIRC claims that animals who "injure themselves" are immediately removed from their normal routine and given extra stimulation and care. Our investigator told me that two particularly horrendous self-mutilating monkeys were left on study—one with huge gaping wounds in his shoulders and the other with similar wounds on his legs.

In several scenes, monkeys are rapidly circling within their cages, almost as if frantically spinning. NIRC claims this is little more than the exuberance of “anticipatory behavior” when, say, a worker enters an animal room. We and primate experts that we consulted interpreted this as stereotypic behavior, which is often induced by isolation and barren housing.

At the end of day, when you get beyond the rationalizations, NIRC may be right in one respect—that much of what is depicted is standard industry practice. If that turns out to be the case, then it’s an indictment of the industry as a whole, and NIRC is not absolved. It’s time for reform.

We've just released other investigative scenes, below, which augment the case that the incidents broadcast on ABC were neither isolated nor easily excused.

Chimps Injected with Sedatives

Chimp Sedation

Restraint Devices

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