Expert Voices

Monkeys at Risk as Harvard Terminates Center: Op-Ed

Cottontop Tamarin
Impressive hairdo! The cottontop tamarin is a native of Colombia and is critically endangered. (Image credit: Eric Isselée, Shutterstock)

Brian Hare studies the cognitive abilities of primates and dogs as associate professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University and received his Ph.D. from Harvard. He recently co-authored the New York Times best-seller "The Genius of Dogs" with Vanessa Woods. He contributed this article to LiveScience’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Nothing is more controversial in the realm of animal research than medical testing on primates. So when a primate center that is run by the Harvard Medical School announces that it will close, the world takes note.  

Last Tuesday, Harvard announced that the New England Primate Research Center in Southborough, Mass., will be shuttered over the next two years. All of the current research projects will be moved or shut down. The 1,500-individual-strong rhesus macaque colony and the collection of critically endangered cotton-top tamarins will need to be relocated (or potentially euthanized).

Both the Boston Globe and the New York Times ran articles that were structured similarly: The center had a troubled past because of mistreatment of animals in its care. But, Harvard is claiming that the center is being closed down for economic reasons. A journalist looking for an angle must wonder — which is it? Both papers covered "both" sides of the story by interviewing researchers and what the Boston Globe dubbed "animal rights activists." [Image Gallery: Monkey Mug Shots]

The answer, of course, is that both likely played a big role in the decision. Improving welfare conditions to meet federal standards can be expensive in many cases — this type of research is expensive to start with — and there is now less funding due to federal budget cuts. With fewer projected funds and more expenses, it was unlikely Harvard could meet welfare standards and conduct research without burning millions in cash. It seems they made a very rational decision. Closing the center has the added benefit of preventing future bad PR for Harvard.  

Given how clear this seems, a couple of things bothered me about how the papers covered the story. First, the Boston Globe's casual use of "animal rights activist" to characterize an employee at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is inaccurate. HSUS is an animal welfare organization that works to prevent cruelty to animals by helping encourage enforcement and improvement of existing welfare laws. These are typically laws regarding food, water, space and provisions for psychological health. This is a very different stance than someone who is an animal rights activist who fights for animals to have humanlike rights that would prevent any form of research.

In fact, all federal employees are legally obligated to take a welfare stance when working with federally owned research animals. Too often, welfare and animal rights are being confounded. As a result, nongovernmental organizations and researchers striving to improve the lives of animals in their care are being branded as animal rights activists instead of being celebrated for finding new ways to protect both human and nonhuman health and well-being. 

Second, both papers failed to note that cotton-top tamarins are critically endangered in the wild but are used in research at Harvard's center. It seems the National Institutes of Health and Harvard should find housing for all the monkeys, but Harvard likely can euthanize the monkeys with no legal consequences. This is known as a "humane endpoint" in biomedical research. Legally, there will be nothing to compel Harvard to move the endangered primates to a sanctuary, or even another lab. The only protection the monkeys have is an informed press that can alert everyone to Harvard's actions. 

Supreme hypocrisy would be on display if the richest university on the planet cannot find a suitable sanctuary for a colony of endangered monkeys while they preach the importance of biodiversity to developing countries. Sadly, the journalists were so busy trying to polarize the wrong issue they missed blowing the giant whistle in the room.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.  

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