Students have long flocked to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to take advantage of its nationally-ranked research programs, reputation for innovation and upgraded facilities.
Rachel, whose name has been changed to maintain confidentiality, was one of those students. As a freshman, she was offered a job as a student research assistant through the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research, working alongside the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center from the fall of 2017 through 2019. She demonstrated a willingness to work with primates early on, which led to her beginning and completing a majority of her training at the center.
What Rachel didn’t know at the time is that UW is facing a growing list of violations of federal animal research treatment standards against its primates.
The recent allegations made by PETA were not the first UW has faced for mistreatment of animal research subjects. WNPRC, which houses approximately 1,650 animals that are cared for by 225 employees including UW-Madison veterinary, post-doc, graduate, undergraduate and research trainees, has a long history of complaints against it. UW was also fined $74,000 in April of last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 28 violations of federal animal research treatment standards from 2015 to 2019.
In addition, the university has been accused of erasing critical comments regarding animal research practices from its social media accounts.
What was your experience like working in research on primates?
Rachel: It was interesting. I remember going into the job interview, and they asked if I was comfortable working with animals. I thought, like rats, or something like that; that's typical for student researchers. But then they said nonhuman primates it completely threw me off.
I didn't realize that we did that on campus. I was interested because I'd never touched a monkey before. They offered the job to me on the spot, once I said that I was okay with working with nonhuman primates.
Did you get the feeling that they don't often have people say yes?
Rachel: I think so, honestly. I was a freshman too, which surprised me because a lot of people who are in research, especially with nonhuman primates, it seems like they'd prefer someone with a little bit more experience. Maybe a junior or senior.
It caught me off guard that the first position I applied for in research, I got.
When you agreed to that, did you at the time know about UW’s long-standing history of complaints regarding how its research facilities take care of primates?
Rachel: I hadn't. And I was only made aware of that as of last year after I'd already quit my position.
Most recently, PETA filed a complaint against UW-Madison, claiming that WNPRC violated federal guidelines. They also released footage from an undercover investigation that was, essentially, a four-minute clip of what appeared to be primates kept in very small enclosures.
There was some footage of babies being torn away from mothers, and there could be lots of reasons for that happening, but there were also plenty of injuries shown. Very young primates with gashes on their heads, some animals self-mutilating, others bare-skinned from ripping out their hair.
Does that representation of how UW takes care of its primates surprise you?
Rachel: Not really. I guess I didn't really question what we were doing at the time, because I was like, ‘Okay, this is in the name of research. We're doing a good thing.’ I thought it was good.
I did see a lot of what you're describing during my time working there. But there was always justification for why we do it this way. There was always a justification for ‘Why are there plates in the monkeys’ heads?’ So… Yeah.
The reason that that footage was leaked from the primate center is because an employee took the footage and audio recordings themselves and handed them over to PETA. How do the center and hospitals handle employees working with animals while retaining confidentiality? Is there any kind of urge for privacy?
Rachel: I mean, it was pretty standard in how you do files and things like that. It’s generally recommended, don't take pictures of the monkeys. It's not professional — that sort of attitude. But I don't think that there was any need to be hush-hush about things. It was just a very professional environment.
UW did not contest that the recordings were taken on campus. Instead, UW responded to a lot of these complaints and allegations saying that the center was being misrepresented and that the clips were taken out of context. A press release pointed out that, you know, maybe at another point of the day the monkeys were moving around, behaving socially, et cetera. Do you think that's a valid response?
Rachel: I actually remember walking into one room that we had for older monkeys and younger monkeys, and they would play jungle sounds for them. There was a time period where they would have a TV going in there for the monkeys.
We learned when I did my training about how monkeys get stressed. And there are things that we did on the research side to kind of ease whatever stress was going on with them being sedated and things like that. So I think that we did implement a lot of things that helped to ease their stress.
Did you see evidence of stress?
Rachel: I mean, yeah. We used ketamine to sedate the monkeys, and that generally causes stress and hallucinations. They're really groggy and sleepy. Then when you're doing that multiple times throughout a day to the same monkey, it can definitely cause stress.
I saw it mentioned that UW undergoes regular impromptu inspections of all their animal-related facilities and records. How accurate would you say this is in regards to unscheduled inspections?
Rachel: I think it is pretty unscheduled. We get a little bit of advance notice. I remember my boss sending me in to clean the floors and things like that, saying ‘oh, someone's coming this week. We need to clean up and make it look nice.’
Did you ever see an instance of abuse yourself?
Rachel: I think there were moments where primates were maybe in uncomfortable situations, but the veterinary presence there made every effort to make sure [those] were more comfortable situations for the monkeys.
For example, when they're young they get paired with another young monkey to keep them company and to have a friend. Sometimes the situations wouldn't work out, but then they place them with another monkey and try to get them that companionship that's necessary when they're young.
Is it encouraged to report issues or neglect that takes place? Do you have the means to report something if you saw something that was wrong?
Rachel: I don't think we reported to any outside organization, but we would always make sure the monkeys were safe after sedating them and stuff like that. I remember being in there for hours waiting for monkeys to wake up. If anything went wrong at all, I was instructed to talk to a veterinarian.
How would you reflect on your experiences working in a research lab?
Rachel: I enjoyed the research aspect of it, being able to learn about the research processes and working with these types of things. But I don't think I'd ever do it again.
There were some scary moments. For example, the monkeys we worked with were herpes virus carriers, and so it was very strict. You don't want to give yourself an exposure to one of these monkeys if you accidentally stick yourself with a needle or something like that. It was very careful, very strict. You always double glove to make sure that those things don't happen.
There were some scary parts about working with the monkeys that put me under stress, to be able to independently sedate a monkey and make sure that it wasn't too awake when you were carrying a monkey. But it was a really good learning experience.
Would you recommend that as a first job to other students in research?
Rachel: I would recommend research, but I don't think I would recommend working with nonhuman primates.
People are obviously going to continue having mixed feelings about animal testing, but there's also a big difference between mice and monkeys. Do you see value in continuing research on larger mammals? Or do you think this is something that's going to slowly go away?
Rachel: I don't think it's going to go away. And I think it is important that research is done on nonhuman primates. For example, with studying the eyes for glaucoma, primates are the closest you will come to studying human eyes. And for developing drugs, it's super vital to have the closest possible sample.
Is there anything else you want to say about your experiences? Any takeaways from your time researching on campus?
Rachel: Everything is for research. Even when a monkey dies, they use other parts of the monkey, which sounds really bad, but they use parts to go towards other research. So when we use the monkeys for one sort of research, but then they died, they use the blood for another type of research. They then use the eyes for another type of research.
The monkey will be used completely for research.