In front of University of California San Francisco’s Medical Center on Parnassus Avenue yesterday, animal rights activists gathered to protest the animal research being conducted inside the Center’s walls. With particular focus on non-human primate experimentation, they carried signs that read, “Animal research is scientific fraud,” and other signs with pictures of monkeys being restrained.
Organizing the protest was Michael Budkie, executive director of the nonprofit, Cincinnati -based group, Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN). According to information that Budkie distributed at the protest, approximately 96,000 primates are “imprisoned” in US laboratories.
“Isolation is very stressful to primates. In fact, 10 percent of isolated primates are so severely stressed out that they begin to engage in self-injurious behavior,” reads one document titled, “Primate Experimentation in the U.S. – The National Picture”.
They begin to pull out their hair and bite at themselves, Budkie said, adding that UCSF is unique among other laboratories in that there are more of the psychological problems seen in subjects at UCSF than at other facilities.
A prepared statement by Budkie indicated that internal records from UCSF show primates there are suffering from mental illnesses, most of which are pathological conditions resulting from invasive experiments and/or social isolation.
“These highly invasive experiments involve the use of restraint chairs, the bolting of restraint chairs, water deprivation, and the removal of the eye,” it reads.
The statement further indicates that “The practice of experimenting on animals that are suffering form pathological conditions and stress places serious doubts on the scientific validity of any procedures in which they are involved.”
This is not the first time that Budkie has doubted validity of UCSF’s experiments, or has flown here to express his concerns. He stood in front of the same building in 2003 after SAEN released a report finding UCSF to be the nation’s worst violator of federal animal welfare laws. The report listed 51 federal citations between 2000 and 2003 which were based on United States Department of Agriculture inspection reports (the USDA is required to conduct biannual inspections of research facilities).
“I believe they are currently in litigation over those violations,” Budkie sad.
The University’s Associate Vice Chancellor, Research, Ara Tahmassian, Ph.D., said it is not litigation but rather an administrative hearing that is being conducted. In defiance of UCSF he explained that the university has denied nearly every charge in a USDA complaint sent in the fall alleging violations of the Animal Welfare Act. In response to those allegations, UCSF cited inaccuracies and redundancies, as well as disagreements with most of them, he said.
“What surprised me the most,” he said “was that some of the citations were wrong, they were from another facility.”
According to UCSF’s response the complaint contains a number of inaccuracies, including allegations from a date when the USDA did not perform an inspection at the university.
Tahmassian further explained that in order to get any animal research funded, a comprehensive review must be done prior to consideration. There are two components to the review, one being scientific and the other being ethical. For the latter, a researcher must prove a number of points, including why animals are necessary, and if pain is administered to an animal, how it will be relieved, he said.
“It is not being done with the kind of thoughtlessness that some would make out,” Tahmassian assured.
Yet for many of the activists at the protest, the fact that animal experimentation is being done at all is enough to get them chanting, “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Animal Torture’s got to go.”
Georgiana Scott is a member of a handful of animal welfare organizations, including the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, who she said is strongly opposed to animal research because they feel it is bad medicine.
“It’s needless and cruel because there are other alternatives,” she said.
Sofia and Jeff Wells, who brought their baby daughter, Kun, to her first protest, agreed. Animals deserve respect, Jeff said.
“I feel as though animals are calling on us to speak for them because they can’t speak for themselves. We need to stop these insane, insensitive practices – especially when there are alternatives,” he said.
“But not everything done has an alternative solution,” Tahmassian said.
According to a UCSF statement released yesterday, the university considers the use of animals in research essential to the progress of medical science. “The University takes seriously the responsibility of working with animals, and is committed to maintaining the highest standard of humane treatment in animal care and use,” it reads.
Tom Conley, who brought his dog Sally along, begged to differ. After he explained that he had rescued Sally from a Sacramento shelter where a lot of experiment dogs are from, he said of the UCSF Medical Center, “It’s more of a money machine than a research machine.”
“It’s a huge system with a lot of money and a lot of egos involved,” Jeff Wells agreed.
According to Budkie’s prepared statement, more than 175 grants support neural information processing experiments in macaque monkeys, which is a main type of experimentation that researchers, including Dr. Stephen Lisberger, are conducting at UCSF.
“With the average grant amount from the National Institute of Health (the major funding agency for the experiments) reaching over $400,000, the potential for waste is staggering,” the document reads.
At the protest, Budkie said, “Many experiments at UCSF are replicated in labs across the country, with brain mapping being one of the most popular.”
For Budkie it begs the question, “Why are we doing the same thing that many times?”
Tahmassian said such repetition is necessary when it comes to science. “In science, he explained “you must replicate and confirm experiments until you get solid results.”
When the results come at the price of depriving animals of water or implanting mechanisms into their skulls and eyes, for Kate Danaher, the results are not worth it. Danaher, who went to Uganda in 2002 to “cuddle baby chimpanzees,” believes such behavior comes from anthropocentrism – humans doing everything for their own sake.
“We’re beginning to do things for the environment now,” she conceded. “But the environment only includes animals in the environment, not those in commercial farms, zoos, circuses, or our homes,” she said.
She added that those types of animals belong to the most marginalized group in the world and are excluded from all forms of activism.
“It’s not a liberal issue either, it’s a people issue,” she insisted. “All races, sexes, cultures, and classes abuse animals,” she said. “But if we start caring about them for their own sake, and the earth for its own sake, then I believe there will be equal balance in the world,” she added.
For Danaher it is simple, “What’s wrong with animal experimentation?” she chanted. “It hurts.”
Michelle Tsai of Burlingame protest UCSF’s animal testing. Photo by Kristina Barker