Group to protest primate research

Jamie VanGeest

Animal researchers at the University have tried to stay out of the limelight for years after attacks by protesters, but today they are at the center of another controversy.

The Minnesota Primate Freedom Project was to protest today the use of nonhuman primates in research on campus. This protest isn’t the first time a group has had objections to animal research on campus.

In 1999 the Animal Liberation Front damaged a dozen of the University’s animal research labs while taking animals and causing more than $1 million in damage, said Cynthia Gillett, director of Research Animal Resources, the group responsible for caring for all research animals on campus.

Since then, animal research has gone undercover for the protection of the animals and the staff, Gillett said.

There are hundreds of locations on campus where animals are kept and used to test such ailments as heart disease and drug addiction.

According to the researchers and those who take care of the animals, there are many myths and misconceptions when it comes to the state of animal testing on campus.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that people can do whatever they want with the animals,” said Richard Bianco, the University’s associate vice president for research.

Bianco’s job is to make sure the animal research done at the University is in compliance with federal, state and University regulations.

Some examples of policies and organizations that oversee the University’s treatment and use of animals include the Food and Drug Administration, the Animal Welfare Act and the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care.

“We maintain a high level of (animal care) and that is acknowledged by the federal government,” Bianco said.

Any researcher who wants to use animals must write a proposal to be approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, a panel of University staff and community members that regulates the treatment of research animals on campus.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a mouse or a monkey to me; if you want to use a mouse in your research, you have to justify it,” Bianco said.

There are misconceptions about the types of animals used for research, he said.

“Ninety-five percent of the animals used for research are rats and mice,” Bianco said.

The other 5 percent include such animals as pigs and guinea pigs, Gillett said.

Bianco is researching plastic heart valves for children by putting them into sheep.

Bianco said he is able to find whether the valve works more quickly by putting it into sheep and has been able to find out whether a valve is defective before putting it in humans.

“Most of the things doctors do or know is because of (animal research) of some kind,” Bianco said.

The Minnesota Primate Freedom Project formed in March and its mission statement says the University should adopt a policy that it will not obtain or breed any nonhuman primate for any purpose.

Isaac Peter, founder of the Minnesota Primate Freedom Project, said in an e-mail research at the University is cruel and heartbreaking, and needs to stop.

Bianco said the University doesn’t use many primates because they are expensive and aren’t necessarily the best animals to use when researching drugs or medical devices.

When primates are used, it’s translational research and it directly benefits humans, he said.

“If something works in a monkey, we can be very confident it can work in a human,” Bianco said.

Neither Bianco nor Gillett said they object to the group’s protest as long as participants stay within legal means.

“People are welcome to their ideas,” Gillett said.

Gillett and her staff of 100, as a part of Research Animal Resources, are responsible for the care of the research animals. The staff cares for the animals 365 days a year, and she said the animals are treated better than most people’s pets.

Research Animal Resources charges the researchers for caring for the animals.

They make sure the animals are fed, given water and are comfortable.