What Is Virginia Commonwealth University Doing to the Animals?

Two pieces of legislation from Virginia lawmakers target animal research.


Last year stories about painful experiments on dogs conducted at the McGuire VA Medical Center came to light—prompting legislation at both the state and federal level. Researchers had induced heart attacks in the dogs, implanted pacemakers, and forced them to run on treadmills.

In response, Republican Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia introduced a bill to prevent the VA from conducting painful experiments on dogs, and Republican state Sen. Bill Stanley has introduced legislation to bar the use of state funds for painful and medically unnecessary animal experiments.

So you can understand why Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) would not be forthcoming about what it is doing with more than three dozen non-human primates in its care. Understanding, however, is not the same as excusing.

On a form VCU submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture this past fall, the university lists 38 non-human primates "upon which experiments, teaching, research, surgery, or tests were conducted involving accompanying pain or distress to the animals and for which appropriate anesthetic, analgesic, or tranquilizing drugs were used."

It also lists 10 dogs, 17 guinea pigs, 242 rabbits, and 46 pigs in the same category. VCU spokesman Michael Porter says the report is "accurate and is the most current accounting of animal research at VCU."

What sort of primates? VCU won't say. They could be rhesus monkeys, macaques, marmosets, chimpanzees—just about anything short of a silverback gorilla.

There's much more VCU won't say, either. For instance, it won't say what sort of experiments the primates are being used for.

At one point, a VCU web page boasted that "VCU maintains the only colony of primates physically dependent on opiates used to … evaluate the abuse potential of chemical substances."

Last month Porter said the web page "is outdated and unrelated to the report," and had been taken down. But he wouldn't say what the primates are being used to evaluate now.

VCU also has not said whether the primates are held in isolation or in groups, what routines VCU is following to ensure their well-being, the type of enclosures in which they are kept, what benefits VCU hopes to derive from the research, who is funding the research, and what will happen to the animals when the research ends.

The school's freedom-of-information officer, Michele Howell, says VCU could dig up such information, though it would probably charge more than $2,500 to do so—a suspiciously high figure. But even then, "much of the information you've requested may fall under the (Virginia Freedom of Information Act) exemption" for "proprietary" information gathered in the course of research.

Well. Even if the information is exempt from mandatory disclosure, VCU still could release it. FOIA exemptions don't require withholding information; they merely permit withholding. Turning the info loose is always an option. Why does VCU seem so reluctant to?

Let us pause here to note that the research (or teaching, or tests, or what have you) might be not merely defensible, but utterly laudable. It conceivably might lead to a cure for cancer or Alzheimer's or childhood leukemia. It conceivably could reduce the toll of human suffering by an astounding degree. And it conceivably might be no more uncomfortable to the primates than a mild headache.

Or it might be less innocuous. It could involve, say, repeatedly cutting them open to test the efficacy of new types of abdominal sutures, or inflicting mental anguish on young monkeys through startle tests, anxiety induction, and more, as the National Institutes of Health has done.

According to a report in Vice News, primates elsewhere have been infected with dengue fever and HIV, and held in small cages for extended periods. "Of course it's pitiful for the monkeys," one researcher told the news magazine. "Everyone feels the same—you see it and you don't want it. But the point is if you want something different then you have to make something different. It doesn't happen overnight."

A 2016 story in The Guardian reported that the USDA was investigating several research institutions (VCU was not among them) over allegations of mistreatment visited upon primates that animal-welfare advocates called "the stuff of nightmares."

It's nice to think VCU's primates face nothing like that. While the school would not make any researchers available for an interview, Porter claims its experiments are overseen by groups including the VCU Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and that the research "meets rigorous scientific and ethical standards set by the National Institutes of Health."

Perhaps. But are those standards adequate?

In any event, VCU is a public institution, so taxpayers should know how their money is being used. And concerned citizens should know what a government agency is doing to sentient beings that, in many cases, have sophisticated language systems with aspects of grammar and can even learn human sign language.

Controversy roils over the use of primates for research, and little wonder: Roughly 70,000 primates are used for experiments in the U.S. every year, even though the Institute of Medicine declared in a major 2011 report on the subject that "most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary." How necessary are experiments on other primates?

The National Institutes of Health has ended the use of chimpanzees in medical research. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently shut down a research program at the National Center for Toxicological Research in Arkansas after four squirrel monkeys being used for nicotine experiments died. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottleib said the "FDA's animal program may need to be strengthened in some important areas."

The Hastings Center, a bioethics institute, has published "The Case for Phasing Out Experiments on Primates," by Kathleen M. Conlee and Andrew N. Rowan, both with the Humane Society. Primates, they write, "have mathematical, memory, and problem-solving skills and… they experience emotions similar to those of humans—for example, depression, anxiety, and joy. Chimpanzees can learn human languages, such as American Sign Language. Primates also have very long lifespans, which is an ethical issue because they are typically held in laboratories for decades and experimented on repeatedly.

"The other category of ethical concern is how primates are treated. Each year, thousands are captured from the wild, mostly in Asia and Mauritius, and transported to other countries. For example, China sets up breeding colonies, and the infants are sold to various countries, including the United States and European countries. The animals experience considerable stress, such as days of transport in small crates and restrictions on food and water intake… [T]hen they face the trauma of research, including infection with virulent diseases, social isolation, food and water deprivation, withdrawal from drugs, and repeated surgeries."

One argument for using primates in research, despite all of that, suggests primates are helpful for studying human ailments because they are more like humans than rats or pigs. But the similarity between human and non-human primates cuts both ways: Almost nobody would dream of conducting painful tests on humans who are unable to consent to experimentation. So why is it acceptable to experiment on humans' closest cousins?

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.