Lab Gasses Monkeys as Volkswagen Rigs Results

“I feel like a chump.”

So said Dr. Jake McDonald, chief science officer at Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute (LRRI) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to the New York Times, after he learned that Volkswagen had rigged the Beetle used for his 2014 diesel fume tests on monkeys. The company had equipped the car with a “defeat” device that would produce artificially low diesel emissions when the software detected the car was being tested.

Of course, McDonald feels he is the victim here, not the 10 cynomolgus monkeys he placed into airtight chambers to inhale diesel exhaust for four hours. The inhumane tests were condemned by many, including the German government.

In the midst of its own massive fraud, Volkswagen apparently did not concern itself with LRRI’s less-than-spotless animal welfare record. In 2011, the lab was fined $21,750 for multiple Animal Welfare Act violations—including, but not limited to, a failure to ensure alternatives to painful or distressful procedures (specifically, a cardiac venipuncture) and a failure to provide adequate housing, causing a rhesus monkey to “[choke] to death struggling to free himself after a hook in [his] enclosure became caught on his jacket.”

Subsequent years brought more citations. In June 2014, US Department of Agriculture inspectors found that four rabbits had died needlessly because of their struggles in a nose-only inhalation restraint device; two had suffered spinal fractures, another was bleeding from the mouth and ear, dead from asphyxiation. A cynomolgus monkey suffered a compound fracture of his leg and facial trauma, requiring euthanasia, because the lab had placed him in the wrong cage/social group. A rhesus monkey suffered a skull wound, exposing his frontal bones, and was euthanized. His injury was caused by a substandard transfer tunnel. A cynomolgus monkey was agitated and screaming while restrained, and when returned to his cage would not put weight on his left leg. He had a spiral fracture, caused by getting his leg through a small gap in his enclosure, and was euthanized. Another rhesus monkey was found dead in his cage with the chain from the perch around his neck.

In October 2014, a mini-pig was found to have a fractured leg after the pig had repeatedly pulled the leg into the restraint device during a procedure, apparently causing the fracture. He was euthanized. LRRI was also cited for violations in March 2015, June 2015, July 2016, October 2016, April 2017, and December 2017. As of March 1, 2018, no USDA enforcement complaint has been filed against LRRI regarding inspections that occurred after the 2011 fine.

In 2014, however, Volkswagen cared only that LRRI had experience doing this type of study. A few examples from the lab’s research published 2013-2014: a nonhuman primate model of cigarette smoke-induced airway disease; inhalational anthrax in monkeys; influenza in monkeys (this paper was retracted); rats exposed to plutonium; rats and mice exposed to inhaled diesel and gasoline exhaust; effect on blood brain barrier in mice from exposure to inhaled vehicle emissions.

So many parts of this story are disturbing, but one truly chilling aspect apparently escaped poor, victimized LRRI: As Bloomberg Businessweek reported on April 2, “The experiments would have provoked outrage anywhere, but were especially horrifying in Germany, for obvious historical reasons.”