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The Physicians Committee

Harvard Should End Primate Experiments

March 30, 2012

By John Pippin, M.D., F.A.C.C.

Imagine being locked in a cage with no access to water—and dying slowly of thirst. That recently happened to a cotton-top tamarin at Harvard Medical School’s primate research facility. The elderly monkey was found in such poor condition that staff decided to kill the animal.

He wasn’t the first primate to die at Harvard. He wasn’t even the first monkey to die of dehydration at the venerable Ivy League institution.

The New England Primate Research Center, run by Harvard, has a troubling track record of animal neglect and deaths. In less than two years, four monkeys have died of negligence at this facility. And the interim director of the center—who was appointed to address these problems and get the facility back on track—has just resigned.

As a Harvard graduate and former animal researcher, I think it’s crystal clear that Harvard cannot properly care for the thousands of primates used in its laboratories. The school has implemented new training practices, but Band-Aid approaches won’t fix this problem. Harvard needs to immediately begin to phase out primate experiments and invest in the development and use of alternatives to animal experiments.

Harvard administrators claim that the primate facility has improved standards—but monkeys continue to suffer in captivity and die painful deaths.

In June 2010, a monkey was found dead in his cage after it went through a mechanical washer. Such cage-washing machines use 180 to 200 F water with highly astringent detergents, delivered with the force of a vehicle-mounted water cannon. It is hard to imagine how such negligence could occur, since the cages are loaded into the machine manually. How could someone not notice a monkey in the cage? During the typical 15- to 20-minute wash cycle, the monkey would have sustained high-pressure third-degree burns on his entire body before dying.

In October 2011, a primate died after escaping, being captured, and undergoing an imaging procedure. In December 2011—just weeks before the latest death—a monkey was killed after suffering severe dehydration. Other primates at the facility have recently suffered a broken leg and injuries caused by escape.

Harvard’s neglect is not limited to the New England Primate Research Center. At another Harvard Medical School research center, a primate died in February 2011 after an anesthesia overdose resulted in acute renal failure.

It’s not a question of resources. Harvard pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars a year in federal funding for research projects—more than 1 billion dollars in just the last three years from the National Institutes of Health.

Yet in recent years, Harvard laboratories have racked up dozens of violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act for a wide range of problems, including untreated psychological distress in primates.

It’s rare for laboratories that violate the Animal Welfare Act to get more than a slap on the wrist from the federal government, so it’s hugely significant that Harvard now faces tens of thousands of dollars in fines, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Harvard is also the subject of an investigation by the USDA's Investigative and Enforcement Services, because of the frequency and severity of the university's Animal Welfare Act violations.

After the latest death, Harvard seems to be taking the situation more seriously. Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey Flier has called the monkey deaths “absolutely unacceptable, deeply regrettable and personally disturbing,” and he has suspended new research at the school’s New England Primate Research Center. But this isn't enough to resolve the suffering of primates from captivity and experimentation at Harvard.

The school must permanently halt new primate experiments and phase out existing experiments, replacing them with available alternatives and working toward developing new alternatives as needed. Harvard could start this process immediately by retiring its cotton-top tamarins—intelligent, critically endangered primates—to sanctuary.

As Dean Flier says, these deaths are absolutely unacceptable. The only reliable solution is for Harvard to remove its primates from harm's way. It’s time for Harvard to phase out primate experiments and to lead in a better direction.

John Pippin, M.D., F.A.C.C., is a Harvard College graduate, has been on faculty at Harvard Medical School, and is the director of academic affairs for the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


John Pippin, M.D., F.A.C.C.

John Pippin, M.D., F.A.C.C.

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