In June 2022, the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a petition to a Dane County judge accusing Wisconsin National Primate Research Center staff of animal cruelty charges related to the mistreatment of two monkeys.
The female and male rhesus macaque monkeys in question, native to Central and Southeast Asia, were named “Princess” and “Cornelius” by PETA. The allegations blossomed from a 2020 operation conducted by PETA, which they say found evidence of animal mistreatment in video footage from an individual who worked in the lab for six months.
“It's within the constraints of the law to use these animals and invasive experiments, and to kill them when the experimenters are done with them,” said Dr. Alka Chanda, PETA vice president of laboratory investigations cases.
Controversy surrounding animal research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is not new. However, scientists who work in the primate lab say PETA’s allegations don’t tell the full story about their work, and UW-Madison maintains research at the lab studies human disease and biological processes to develop medications and surgical procedures.
Preethi Saravanan, a UW-Madison senior working in the pre-clinical Parkinson’s research program at the WNPRC, told The Daily Cardinal her work can be seen as “a little bit controversial,” but “there’s nothing crazy going on or anything behind the scenes.”
She has been working there since freshman year and said scientists “follow a lot of protocols and ethical considerations before even starting [research].”
Scientists at UW-Madison follow the animal welfare law and other guidelines created by campus committees and federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to UW-Madison.
What did PETA find?
Chanda, the PETA vice president of laboratory investigations cases, told the Cardinal a 2023 annual report for UW-Madison revealed 1,270 monkeys were used in experiments. An additional 1,090 monkeys were held at UW-Madison but not experimented on.
Chanda broke the animal cruelty allegations into three main categories: isolation, experimentation and breeding.
She said the primate lab is revamping experiments similar to controversial studies conducted by Harry Harlow, an American psychologist who worked at the primate center in the 1960s. He is best known for his “nature of love” findings, which concluded rhesus monkey infants have maternal dependency needs.
In Harlow’s experiments, infant rhesus monkeys were removed from their mothers and raised in a laboratory setting. Some infants were in separate cages, according to the Association for Psychological Science.
“In social isolation, the monkeys showed disturbed behavior, staring blankly, circling their cages, and engaging in self-mutilation,” the article reads.
Chandna said the two monkeys, Princess and Cornelius, were taken away from their mothers at the age of one. She mentioned the male, Cornelius, was largely caged alone and was “showing signs of depression” during their investigation.
She said the monkeys’ enclosures have a mirror hanging from the cage or one plastic ball.
Chandna also claimed the female monkey had no hair on her body, something she said revealed “extreme psychological distress.”
When Princess gave birth to an infant, Chandna said she started tearing out hair from her baby’s body.
“Primatologists tell us that this is something you’d never see in the wild,” she said.
A 1986 study cited by The National Library of Medicine found monkeys naturally pull out their own hair or that of others. However “limited enclosure space appears to have an additional effect on hair loss in group-housed rhesus monkeys,” the study reads.
Additionally, Chandna told the Cardinal the lab has practiced caloric deprivation experiments for nearly 40 years.
However, research from a recent experiment found lacking evidence that caloric deprivation shortens a monkey’s lifespan.
A 2017 UW-Madison study found rhesus monkeys, when fed a calorie-restricted diet that contained 30% more calories than a control group’s diet, survived to roughly 28 years for males and about 30 years for females. A National Institute on Aging (NIA) study found no serious effect of calorie restriction on survival.
“It really begs the question, why are animals being made to suffer so horrendously for decades for poor results that we don't even know if they're true?” Chandna said.
The practice of electro-ejaculation stood out most to Chandna, who said scientists “put electrodes on the penis of the monkey” to get the primate to ejaculate.
“We made the argument that because these animals, Cornelius and Princess, were being used in breeding and not in actual experimentation, they were not excluded from Wisconsin's state anti-cruelty statutes,” she said. “What happens to them matters to them. They're not inanimate objects, which is how laboratories basically treat them.”
Animal research develops treatments and vaccines, professor says
Dr. Michelle Ciucci, faculty director of the UW-Madison Animal Program and a professor of surgery at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, told the Cardinal the primate center addresses medical diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and works toward treatments for HIV, AIDS, COVID-19 and the Zika virus.
“The reason why we need animals in research is because when we're testing something like a disease, and you're trying to follow up [with] a vaccine, for example, you need a complex living organism to test the efficacy of it,” Ciucci said. “You can't do it in a test tube or a computer simulation.”.
Saravanan, the UW-Madison senior working in the Parkinson’s program, said the university uses the minimum amount of animals needed to do so.
“We're always looking to maintain the health of the animals,” she added. “No one is trying to just do a bunch of random experiments to see what happens.”
In order for research to begin, a protocol application is prepared by an investigator and submitted to the Research Animal Resource Center (RARC), which assigns the protocol to the appropriate Animal Care and Use Committee (ACUC) for review.
The ACUC can approve the protocol or require revision. The RARC staff communicates the IACUC's approval or request for further information or revision to the investigator.
Any adverse event at the lab is self-reported to the appropriate campus and federal agencies, and results of their consequential investigations are often public on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website.
“We report the mistake. Internally, we do a root-cause analysis. We try to prevent the mistake as much as we can, but it's just impossible to be perfect,” Ciucci said.
Ciucci said the female monkey, Princess, was humanely euthanized as part of a Zika experiment to study her tissue. Euthanization is the “typical flow of the experiments,” Ciucci added.
The research for Princess required analyzing tissue samples that could not be taken humanely without euthanizing the animals, Ciucci said in an email.
Saravanan similarly elaborated by saying the euthanization process is taken “extremely seriously” and that scientists “put a lot of respect into animal care.”
Ciucci also said breeding is an important part of “maintaining a healthy breeding colony” so new generations of primates can develop and explore new interventions to treat medical diseases.
“It's part of the whole primate center’s viability to breed,” she said. “Sometimes, they will be separated because they have to change the cage or somebody might be sick, or they're part of a protocol, but they really try to keep the animals together as much as they can.”
Electro-ejaculation is part of the breeding program as well and is safe due to the “small amount of current that’s used to stimulate ejaculation,” Ciucci said.
“It’s a standard semen collection procedure. It’s very common in research across multiple species. It’s even used on humans,” she said. “I wish [PETA] would stop using that or equating that with something that is torture to the animals because that's simply not true.”
Additionally, Ciucci said rhesus macaques monkeys are naturally territorial and aggressive.
And, in response to concerns about hair-pulling, she said PETA “continues to misrepresent” the macaques seasonally plucking their hair out “as a tactic to discredit the ethical, legal and valuable research” done at the primate lab.
Former lab employee had mixed experiences at primate lab
In November, Dane County Circuit Judge Nia Trammell declined to file charges against the lab or appoint a special prosecutor.
“Given the totality of the allegations made and evidence available, it appears it would be difficult for any prosecutor to meet their burden of proof and obtain a conviction on the alleged offenses,” Trammell said in her decision.
A former lab employee who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns of professional backlash told the Cardinal their perspective after joining the primate lab for four months to further their career in animal research. Their tasks were to make food and monitor the monkeys' behaviors.
“I think that my opinion on it has changed over time,” they said when asked if they saw animal mistreatment. “If you would have asked me this when I worked there I would have said ‘no,’ but now that I am out and I have thought about my experience there, I feel like the general concept of experimenting on animals is abusive.”
The former employee said they saw no animal welfare violations while working at the primate lab and “only [had] good things” to say about their co-workers.
Still, they said some researchers were not paying full attention to their job. “They warned me about checking the cages fully just to make sure that I'm not missing an animal who passed away,” the former employee said.
They also said the monkeys became aggressive if they did not socialize enough.
“I remember certain monkeys that I worked with didn't react really well to loud noises,” the former employee said. “There was one time that I closed the door too loud and they were mad at me.”
“I can't imagine living my entire life in a cage and being so sensitive to these loud sounds that are always happening around me,” they added.
And, given there was a staff shortage during their time at the lab, the former employee worried the primates were not always fed.
“I do feel like I heard a lot of stories about them dying,” they said. “And I also was offered to be able to sit in on an autopsy, which I didn't end up doing. But the fact that I was offered that makes me think that there are enough of them dying where you would be able to do that.”
Still, the former employee said they respected the medical information animal testing provides and had a good experience with their research partners.
“I think that they were very diligent people and they did good work for what they had to do. And anytime I had a question, they were always able to answer it,” they added.
Saravanan said she also has had a positive experience with her peers at the center.
“The community's really welcoming and they're always willing to teach you how to do new things and understand because the research process is so long,” Saravanan said.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on Feb. 1, 2024, Thursday, 11:00 a.m.
Ava Menkes is the state news editor at The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple stories about Wisconsin politics and written in-depth about nurses unions and youth voter turnout. Follow her on Twitter at @AvaMenkes.