Rhesus monkeys flip obsessively in circles and pace back and forth alone in their metal laboratory cages at a Georgia Regents University research facility.
Several of their tails and sides are bald and blood red from plucking out their own hair. Another “is so psychologically distressed” that he cups his hands over his genitals and drinks his own urine.
The Humane Society of the United States alleged Friday that GRU is in violation of the federal Animal Welfare Act for not addressing clear distress shown by the majority of the roughly 50 primates in its research facilities. While federal law requires research labs to house non-human primates in social groups with certain exceptions, the Humane Society said all but two of GRU’s rhesus macaques are being singly caged 24 hours a day with little to no enrichment.
Kathleen Conlee, the organization’s vice president for Animal Research Issues, said a Humane Society undercover investigator observed five primates housed at the Carl Sanders Research and Education building and 48 at GRU’s Gracewood Facility during a three-month investigation this year. Conlee provided video footage taken during that time to The Augusta Chronicle on Friday.
Conlee said none of the primates at Carl Sanders were rotated into an “enrichment cage” with play activities. Although there is an outside enclosure at Gracewood, the investigator confirmed none were given time outside their cages, most of which are about 4-square feet in size.
GRU officials declined a request for comment on these specific allegations and instead released a statement.
“Research involving non-human primates is strictly regulated and those regulations are rigorously enforced to ensure humane treatment,” according to the statement from Director of Media Relations Christen Carter. “Georgia Regents University is inspected annually by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act are certainly a focus of those inspections.”
The AWA permits lab primates to be housed singly if they are too aggressive and fight, if they have a contagious disease, or if their participation in an active experiment requires them to be alone.
The Guide for the Care and Use of Animals, required for all federally funded projects, also states single housing should be the exception and animals should be alone for the shortest duration possible. It also states singly housed animals should have an opportunity for release into larger areas with additional enrichment.
During a Dec. 10 interview, Mark Hamrick, GRU senior vice president for research, said the majority of the GRU primates have been housed singly for most of their lives and became too aggressive during attempts to pair them.
“You can imagine just as in individuals who haven’t been around people before socially, when you try to group house them, often times they do fight and get injured,” he said.
According to documents obtained by The Chronicle, 17 have been bought by GRU in the last three years and eight have been housed there since the 1990s.
Although U.S. laws enacted in the 1990s created stricter requirements for social housing in research labs, less than half of macaques housed in indoor cages were grouped socially by 2007, according to a 2011 report by Louis DiVincenti Jr., senior instructor in the department of laboratory animal medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
DiVincenti wrote this is because of an “overestimation of the risks” and underestimation of the benefits. Although rhesus monkeys are naturally aggressive and might be incompatible when they are first paired, they can be housed in pairs with a high likelihood of success with minimal injuries, he wrote.
DiVincenti stated social housing can help animals better cope in stressful lab environments and can limit self-destructive behavior like hair-pulling and self-biting.
Conlee said apart from the psychological distress shown in most macaques caused by single housing, GRU staff does not appear to be properly trained in basic primate behavior.
In regards to the primate named Peanut who repeatedly drank his urine, a veterinary technician alledgedly told the Humane Society’s investigator that “nothing that monkey does is normal” according to Conlee.
One primate held at Gracewood named Bonzo is hairless from self-injurious behavior.
Conlee said GRU provides “busy boxes” filled with fruit for enrichment, but these same items have been used for so many years that they no longer provide any mental challenge for the monkeys and do not meet psychological needs.
She said a TV set blared cartoons for the primates, but the investigator did not see the primates engaged in watching and they appeared more disturbed than soothed.
Conlee said her organization has filed a complaint with the United States Department of Agriculture, which regulates the use of animals in research.
“At the very least they should be socially housing those animals and have a better environmental enhancement plan,” she said. “If they don’t have the equipment to socially house, they shouldn’t be allowed (to have the animals)... Sometimes we see that the plan was strong and the practice was terrible. In this case, the plan was lacking and the practice was lacking.”