ATLANTA - The long-waged war of words between animal-rights activists and medical researchers returns to Georgia this weekend as protesters gather for a demonstration outside Emory University's Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta.
The same event led to a riot in 1997, when more than 60 protesters attempted to storm the center. Police were forced to use tear gas and Mace before arresting the protesters.
While this year's event is meant to be peaceful in the physical sense, the protesters' thoughts on primate research centers are anything but subdued.
"They are nothing more than concentration camps for animals," Ingrid Newkirk, the founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said Friday afternoon at a rally on the Georgia State University campus in downtown Atlanta. "At least once a year, someone should remind the community that what goes on (at Yerkes) is not civilized."
Ms. Newkirk told an audience of nearly 100 that primate research is often unnecessary, inflicting pain and mistreatment on animals.
Yerkes staff, some of whom are working on a vaccine for HIV and improved treatment for sufferers of Parkinson's disease, were quick to dismiss the criticism.
Yerkes Director Stuart Zola said experiments with such animals as rhesus macaque monkeys are necessary for the advancement of modern medicine.
"We take considerable energy and care to make sure animals are both physically and psychologically in good shape," Mr. Zola said. "It's important for our research purposes to make sure animals aren't stressed or treated poorly, because that's going to affect the experiment's results."
Ms. Newkirk says research centers don't always keep animals from suffering pain, specifically in experiments related to pain-relief medications or the effect of pain or stress on biological functions such as reproduction.
But Mr. Zola said pain experiments at Yerkes allow the animals to remove themselves from the pain source.
"The animal has the ability to escape the pain by lifting its tail off of a warming plate," Mr. Zola said. "The question is simply, how long will the animal keep its tail on the hot plate? If the pain-relieving drug (being tested) is doing its job, the animal leaves its tail on there longer."
Animal rights activists, including members of the Primate Freedom Project, say many experiments on animals could be replaced by computer models or by working on mechanical human cadavers.
"Science is supposed to be about innovation," Ms. Newkirk said. "But they're doing the same things they were doing to animals 200 years ago."
Yerkes researchers say the work they have done on animals is producing results that could never come from a computer.
Harriet Robinson, one of the chief HIV vaccine researchers, said her staff learned a crucial lesson about administering the vaccine by performing experiments on some of Yerkes' 3,000-plus rhesus monkeys.
Vaccines given by needle injections provided much better protection than vaccines given with a high-tech "gene gun" that released the vaccine on a cellular level, Ms. Robinson said.
"We would have never known that if we hadn't done the monkey trial," she said.
Ms. Newkirk's Atlanta appearance coincides with World Week for Animals in Laboratories, an annual protest against alleged cruelties in primate experimentation.