SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The recent deaths of two rhesus monkeys and the revelation that 50 rhesus monkeys escaped from an enclosure at the California National Primate Research Center at the University of California, Davis, in 2011, have prompted an animal rights group to claim that the university is not properly safeguarding the monkeys, or the public.
The university says it has followed strict guidelines set down by the National Institutes of Health for the care of laboratory animals in each incident.
In one case cited by the animal rights group Stop Animal Exploitation Now, a 6-month-old monkey was found dead with a stuffed animal wrapped around its neck. A letter reporting the incident to the NIH said the death may have been brought on by a cage mate who was found holding an end of the stuffed animal. The other death involved a 7-month-old juvenile that was trapped in a squeeze door mechanism.
Some of SAEN's harshest criticism of the primate center involves the escape of 50 rhesus monkeys from an enclosure on Dec. 17, 2011. That incident was never made public.
"We will file complaints with the USDA as these are serious violations of the Animal Welfare Act," said Michael Budkie, director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now. "We believe UC Davis should pay a price for this. It's a major issue because the primates we're talking about could pose a public safety risk and the public should know when there has been a risk like the escape of 50 primates."
The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture annual inventory of animals used for research and experiments at UC Davis shows 2,760 primates. There are 3,045 being bred or conditioned for experiments and research. The monkeys that escaped in 2011 were used for breeding purposes and not the study of diseases.
The 50 monkeys got out of their housing area when they manipulated gate latches and escaped into another corral area, according to a letter that the university sent to the NIH three days after the incident. None of the monkeys got off the research center grounds, but many of them had to be tranquilized before they could be returned to their enclosure.
"The escape is a situation where the rhesus monkeys clearly had improper enclosures. Animals were able to make their own way out, it is not like someone let them out," Budkie said.
UC Davis spokesman Andy Fell said that there was never a risk of the monkeys leaving the grounds of the primate center, which is on a 300-acre tract of land 3 miles from the main campus. He did not say whether the same gate latches are still being used.
Escapes are not rare in research facilities, including the one at UC Davis. In 2003, a 4-pound rhesus monkey escaped during a cage cleaning. The escaped monkey was being used for breeding purposes and did not carry any infectious diseases, but it was never found. The incident was cited as a reason when the university lost a bid to host a $150 million biosafety research facility for the study of highly infectious diseases.
As regards the recent deaths, Fell said that all such facilities have mortality rates.
"Many of these animals live in large family groups in half-acre corrals. All animals are checked twice daily and our staff strives to provide the best care possible to animals in their charge," said Fell. "The center is taking the extra step of investing in research that aims to further reduce mortality, especially among monkeys living in large groups outdoors."
This is not the first time that SAEN, which is based in Ohio, has lobbied for the USDA to fine UC Davis over primate deaths. Earlier this year, SAEN called for the agency to investigate and cite UC Davis for 19 primate deaths. In those deaths it was established that 14 of the monkeys were infants 2 months old or younger whose deaths were blamed on lack of nutrition likely due to nursing problems. The others were older monkeys that died from gastrointestinal problems. The university was not fined in those deaths.
Researchers often use rhesus monkeys for research because of their anatomical and physiological closeness to humans. Moreover, the monkeys are easy to maintain and breed.