Humane Society says retire 26 New Iberia chimps

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 6, 2009

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Humane Society of the United States asked Gov. Bobby Jindal on Thursday to order a research lab in New Iberia to retire 26 elderly chimpanzees to a sanctuary in Shreveport.

In a related move, two Democrats and two Republicans in the U.S. House introduced a bill Thursday to outlaw invasive medical research on chimpanzees and breeding chimps for such research, as is done at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s New Iberia Research Center.

The Humane Society first aired allegations that the lab is mistreating primates at a news conference Wednesday, releasing a 6 1/2-minute videotape showing animals biting themselves, slamming themselves against the bars of their cages, and reacting in panic as people sedate them or haul them out of cages by neck-rings.

Email newsletter signup

‘‘Of course, any cruel treatment of these chimpanzees or any animals should not be tolerated,’’ Kyle Plotkin, Jindal’s press secretary, said in an e-mail Thursday. ‘‘The Humane Society should share any evidence of wrongdoing they have with USDA so that they can fully investigate these accounts.’’

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, part of the National Institutes of Health, have said they will investigate the allegations.

Lab officials have said that the facility exceeds all federal standards — and that the Humane Society video is misleading.

Officials at the lab and its parent, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, held a news briefing and limited tour Thursday at NIRC, screening four portions of the video and offering explanations for those incidents, according to The Daily Iberian.

For example, a baby monkey seen screaming while workers put a tube into its mouth was being fed because it wasn’t drinking from a bottle, and was not being mistreated, said Jane Fontenot, head of research resources.

Babette Fontenot, head of behavioral sciences at NIRC, said she did not know why some animals shown on the Humane Society video bit or otherwise injured themselves. Such behavior is usually the result of both environment and a specific animal’s biology — and is extremely rare, she said.

Babette Fontenot said one-half of one percent of the more than 6,000 monkeys at the lab and an even smaller percentage of the 325 chimpanzees show such behavior.

‘‘In some institutions it can be as high as 14 percent. So we actually have a very low rate,’’ she said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

Chimps or monkeys that injure themselves are immediately removed from their normal routine and given extra stimulation and care, she said at the news conference.

The Humane Society said Wednesday such behavior is a sign of stress caused in part by the lack of stimulation for intelligent animals kept in small, barren cages with very little to play with or look at.

University President Joseph Savoie said the Humane Society’s efforts are part of a campaign against primate research. ‘‘We’re unlikely to be able to convince people to look at things in a balanced way,’’ he said.

Officials at Chimp Haven, the national chimpanzee sanctuary in Keithville, just outside of Shreveport, have said they’re willing to take animals from the lab. The sanctuary, which was created in large part to house retired lab chimps, says it has enough land to eventually care for as many as 350 of the animals and currently has space for about 140.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Washington-based Humane Society, said the organization supports The Great Ape Protection Act, which would phase out invasive studies — any that could cause distress, pain, injury or death — on the 1,000 chimpanzees remaining in U.S. laboratories. It would also retire about 500 federally owned chimpanzees in those labs to permanent sanctuary, he said.

‘‘Our argument is that the federal government is spending money right now on these chimps, and the money should be transferred to facilities that provide sanctuary,’’ Pacelle said in a telephone interview.

The bill introduced Thursday would cover all great apes, but chimps are the only species currently being used for such research.

The chimps for which Pacelle is trying to arrange a quick retirement are among more than 300 at the New Iberia lab, which also houses 6,000 monkeys. Pacelle said Wednesday that a nine-month undercover investigation there turned up more than 300 possible violations of federal law.

University officials say the animals are vital to medical research.

Babette Fontenot said most of the lab’s work is vaccine development for hepatitis and childhood diseases, gene therapy and prevention and treatment for cancer. She said chimpanzees are critical for work on hepatitis C and that the hepatitis B vaccine was developed using primates.

University of Louisiana System President Randy Moffett said in an e-mailed statement that the animals are well cared for and that the research lab undergoes regular reviews of its procedures.

‘‘UL Lafayette takes their responsibility to care for animals housed at the New Iberia Research Center very seriously and will follow-up on these allegations with appropriate corrective action,’’ the statement said.

Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., is a former researcher and one of the sponsors of the Great Ape Protection Act.

‘‘As a scientist who worked with chimpanzees on research projects, I believe the time has come to limit invasive research on these animals and rigorously apply existing alternatives,’’ a Humane Society release quoted Bartlett as saying.

Kathleen Conlee, director of program management for the Humane Society, said that in hepatitis research a combination of test-tube research and trials on people who have the disease has been shown to be more effective than studies using chimpanzees.