Good Money After Bad: Primate Research Centers Seek Funds to Expand While Failing on Animal Welfare

In the early 1960s, the federal government established a network of National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs) to promote biomedical research on primates. Funded through the National Institutes of Health, seven such centers now exist, at Emory University, Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), the Texas Biomedical Research Institute (TBRI), Tulane University, the University of Washington (UW), the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the University of California, Davis.

photo by fontoknak
photo by fontoknak

In fiscal year 2024 spending bills, the NIH requested $30 million for NPRCs to “expand, remodel, renovate, or alter existing research facilities or construct new research facilities for nonhuman primate resource infrastructure.” Given the animal welfare record at NPRCs, this expansion plan is troubling. 

AWI analyzed US Department of Agriculture inspection reports for these facilities covering the past decade. These reports document long-standing, severe, seemingly intractable issues with Animal Welfare Act (AWA) compliance at NPRCs—resulting in needless suffering and death of primates. AWI, therefore, urged Congress to put this $30 million to better use: accelerating the development of promising non-animal research methods.

No consequences for noncompliance

Facilities regulated under the AWA are subject to USDA inspection. When USDA inspectors uncover an AWA compliance failure grave enough to have “a serious or severe adverse effect on the health and well-being of an animal,” the facility is issued a “critical noncompliance” citation. AWI’s analysis shows that all seven NPRC host institutions have received multiple USDA citations for critical noncompliances over the past decade related to primate injuries and deaths, sometimes for recurring problems. Furthermore, all seven have received citations for primate-related critical noncompliances just within the last year and a half.

These citations have often been related to staff carelessness or inadequate oversight. A 2021 inspection at OHSU, for example, found that the “root cause” of horrific monkey deaths and injuries was “insufficient training and/or supervision,” and USDA inspectors have documented a number of egregious primate-related situations at NPRC host institutions, including monkeys dying from botched medical procedures, being deprived of water and adequate veterinary care, and being strangled by chains attached to improperly installed enrichment devices. Such issues would not be resolved through building renovations or expansion.

Quite often, however, the USDA has failed to follow up with fines or other enforcement action. As AWI has noted numerous times in past issues of the AWI Quarterly, the USDA fails to prioritize AWA enforcement. Last year, the department’s allocation for animal welfare enforcement represented less than one-tenth of 1% of its overall $475 billion budget. Since December 2019, the 14,000+ entities currently regulated by the USDA have been assessed a mere 54 stipulated penalties (discounted penalties used in settlement agreements with violators). 

This failure to penalize AWA noncompliance is clearly evident at the NPRCs. Despite a decade’s worth of critical noncompliances at all seven, only four of the host institutions have been fined during this period. In some cases—including incidents in which monkeys died—the USDA took no enforcement action whatsoever, instead sitting idle as the clock ran out on the five-year statute of limitations. (Note: Fine records prior to 2019 are not included in the USDA’s public database. Information on pre-2019 fines was obtained from other sources.)

Cost of doing business

When the USDA does issue fines, they are often too meager to matter. A 2005 audit by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General warned that fines being assessed at the time were “negligible” for labs “with assets in the billions of dollars” and that labs view them merely as “a cost of doing business.” The audit concluded that larger stipulated penalties were needed.

UW (current annual budget: $9.4 billion) offers a prime example. Despite earlier fines ($20,000 in 2008, $10,893 in 2011), the university continues to collect primate-related citations for critical noncompliances—12 since 2014, the majority of which involved monkey deaths and injuries. In November 2022, UW was fined $3,750. Ten months later, it received a noncompliance citation after a macaque suffered a brain injury during improper placement of a recording device, and a critical noncompliance citation after a macaque died from being anesthetized with a faulty anesthesia machine—the third anesthesia-related primate death at the university since 2014.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison ($4.2 billion annual budget) paid a $35,286 fine in 2014 for primate-related issues. Between the 2014 fine and 2020, the university received four more citations for critical noncompliances that included multiple primate deaths, injuries, amputations, and escapes. In 2020, a $74,000 fine was levied against the university for these and other incidents. The settlement agreement indicates that three primates suffered from severe dehydration—including one who had to be euthanized—after their water was disconnected for at least four days. In addition, 20 times between 2015 and 2019, primates escaped their enclosures and were injured after personnel failed to properly transport animals or secure the enclosures. Since the 2020 fine, four more citations for primate-related critical noncompliances have been recorded. 

Similarly, OHSU ($4.9 billion annual budget) has received 10 primate-related citations for critical noncompliances since 2014. The university was fined $37,900 in October 2022 after a young primate got stuck in an enrichment device and had to be euthanized, a juvenile macaque was injured after getting trapped under an improperly secured drain cover, and two macaques died (one by euthanasia) after their cage was placed in a scalding hot cage washer with the monkeys still inside. Yet, nine months after paying its latest fine, the university received another citation for a critical noncompliance after a sliding door fell on an infant macaque during a capture attempt, resulting in a severe spinal injury and euthanasia. 

The fact that NPRC host institutions have continued to receive citations for critical noncompliances—sometimes for the same issues that previously resulted in fines—shows that the problem outlined in the 2005 OIG audit has not been resolved nearly 20 years later. For such large institutions with multibillion-dollar budgets, fines of this scale simply offer no deterrence. (For context, the cost of acquiring a single monkey for biomedical research was recently estimated at $55,000.)

In fact, the only “impressive” aspect of the fines paid by these institutions is how they stack up quantitatively against fines paid by all the other regulated entities. Of the stipulated penalties levied by the USDA over the past four years against any regulated entity—research institution, breeder, dealer, exhibitor, transporter—the two highest were levied against NPRC host institutions, largely for primate-related issues: the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s $74,000 fine in 2020 and OHSU’s $37,900 fine in 2022. Among research institutions fined over the past four years, two-thirds of the total dollar amount has been assessed against NPRC host institutions. Given the dearth of USDA enforcement overall, this record of fines speaks to the severity of the offenses. 

A better use of tax dollars

Because USDA fines have not prevented continued citations for critical noncompliances at NPRCs, the NIH’s proposed use of $30 million in taxpayer funds to renovate, remodel, and expand these facilities is problematic. The best way to enforce compliance with the law might have been to withhold funding instead. There is precedent for such a move: Congress did this with the Agricultural Research Service in the wake of a 2015 New York Times exposé regarding conditions at the agency’s Meat Animal Research Center. 

Thirty years ago, Congress directed the NIH to support research into non-animal models. More recently, a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee—convened in response to a request from Congress—stated in its final report that “continued development and validation of new approach methodologies” that do not involve animals, such as in vitro and in silico model systems, “is critically important to support further advances in biomedical research.” 

For such alternatives to be developed within a reasonable timeframe, continued support—and pressure—from Congress is paramount. This is because influential industry players stand to profit handsomely from a continued robust trade in primates for biomedical research. Some are even purchasing “futures” in unborn primates from Asia, according to a US government official. These financial incentives, described in the fall 2023 AWI Quarterly article “In Lucrative Primate Trade, Enforcing the Law Makes Industry Cry Foul,” render the research industry unlikely to prioritize a rapid shift to non-animal alternatives, no matter the promise such alternatives hold for a brighter future. 

When financial incentives to maintain the status quo stifle the development of innovation, allocation of funding is one of the government’s best levers to encourage change. Consequently, AWI wrote to leaders of the US House and Senate Appropriations Committees in November urging Congress to redirect the NIH’s $30 million request for NPRC facility upgrades toward further development of research technologies that do not rely on animals.

Channeling government funding toward non-animal alternatives and away from renovations and expansions at institutions with profoundly troubling histories of AWA noncompliance would address multiple concerns and signal Congress’s commitment to modern and sustainable research methods that do not rely on animals. Unfortunately, as wrangling over the fiscal year 2024 budget dragged on into March, we saw no evidence that Congress was willing to take this bold step. For now, it appears the NPRCs are set to enhance infrastructure while leaving the welfare of the animals in its current state of disrepair. 

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