A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former primate caretaker at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s primate research center last week following allegations that the university violated the First Amendment.
The judge ruled that the university has the right to hide comments critical of the research center’s treatment of primates on its social media posts because the comments are not related to the topics on the posts.
Madeline Krasno worked as a part-time student caretaker at the Harlow Primate Laboratory, one of the university’s two primate research centers, from 2011 to 2013.
Krasno, represented by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, filed a lawsuit claiming UW-Madison violated her First Amendment rights by removing comments critical of the primate research center from the university’s public social media pages. The lawsuit argued that because the university receives public funding, censorship of the posts infringes on her freedom of speech.
Krasno claimed to have witnessed mistreatment of the primates at the center.
She said she saw monkeys clinging to each other in fear and overgrooming themselves out of boredom. In one case, she cared for a monkey who had a hole drilled into its head, causing it to become agitated.
Krasno also recalled regularly seeing mothers separated from their infants, including one mother who was forced to give up her dead infant that she was carrying around in her cage.
“The life these animals lead — we wouldn't wish upon anyone,” Krasno said. “Animal research is inherently cruel and it's time we have some serious conversations about it.”
Mike Heymsfield, the public relations specialist for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, told the Cardinal that when Krasno posted comments criticizing the lab on the university’s Instagram and Facebook pages, the university removed her comments.
“Her comments were hidden and her account was soon after restricted, meaning any comments she made on the university’s Instagram posts were invisible to any other visitor to the page,” he said. “Her comments criticizing animal testing were similarly hidden from the university’s Facebook account, removing them from public view.”
Sam Issleb worked as a part-time student caretaker at the Harlow Primate Laboratory from 2008 to 2011. She claimed the primates commonly engaged in atypical and sometimes harmful due to isolation.
“It was common for animals to develop stereotypies, abnormal behavior observed in captive animals,” Issleb said. “This includes behavior like repetitive behavior and swaying, but also things like over-grooming and in some cases ‘self-injurious behavior,’ which meant the animal would bite itself over and over again, to the point of drawing blood.”
Issleb also recalled the difficult process of restraining the primates in order to administer medications. She said the process involved removing them from a cage and putting them in an immobilizing cage known as a “table top restraint.”
“Everyone calls them squeeze cages,” Issleb said. “Think of one of those barrette claw-looking guys. The primate would enter the squeeze cage, and then we’d close in until the monkey was immobile. Then we could administer the injections.”
Issleb said she still struggles to process her experience at the lab.
“Just like the primates still stuck in that lab, I’ve taken these memories and shoved them into a box somewhere in my mind,” she said. “I truly believe that if everyday people witnessed firsthand how we treat laboratory animals – especially primates – they’d be horrified.”
Krasno said the experience eventually led to her being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Working in an environment where life is viewed as disposable led me to emotionally shut down and often dissociate,” Krasno said. “I quickly learned to be careful about expressing too much concern for the animals and fortunately all of the PPE that we had to wear seemed to hide my tears well. I knew if I was labeled an activist, something I didn't even consider myself at the time, I'd be fired.”
The university declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
Krasno’s lawsuit is not the first one the research center has faced.
In 2003, UW-Madison agreed to pay over $250,000 after a former employee claimed to have been fired for criticizing the lab’s treatment of the primates. The USDA also fined the research center in 2014 and again in 2020 for violating the Animal Welfare Act.
In 2020, PETA filed a lawsuit against the center after conducting an undercover investigation, claiming that it violated animal cruelty laws. The organization’s investigation revealed concerns about cruel treatment of the primates, including forced isolation and electroshocking genitals.
“The university has also shown itself unable to meet the most basic requirements mandated by the federal government for keeping primates within its testing facilities safe,” Heymsfield said.
Krasno said she would like to see the university acknowledge the unjust treatment of animals and treat the animals in its care more humanely. She believes that animal welfare advocacy is a crucial social justice issue.
“The Wisconsin Idea tells us that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom,” she said. “Is teaching students that certain lives are disposable the influence you want to have? Do you want students going out into the world understanding that some exploitation is okay, that some lives matter more than others?”