OVERVIEW OF HISTORIC CRIMINAL ANIMAL CRUELTY CHARGES FILED AGAINST NIH CHIMPANZEE LAB OPERATOR
On September 7, 2004, Otero County, New Mexico District Attorney Scot Key filed multiple criminal animal cruelty charges relating to the deaths of the chimpanzees Rex and Ashley, and the near-death of the chimpanzee Topsy, at the Alamogordo Primate Facility (APF). The APF, located on Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico, is owned and managed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The D.A. charged Charles River Laboratories, the NIH's contractor operating the lab, for multiple counts of cruelty relating to the abandonment and institutional neglect of Rex, Ashley and Topsy. Veterinarian Dr. Rick Lee, Charles River's director of the APF, was also personally charged by the D.A.
District Attorney Key's action marks the first time in U.S. history that criminal animal cruelty charges have been filed against an entire laboratory, and only the third time that criminal charges have ever been brought for cruelty to animals in a lab. In 1981, an NIH-funded researcher, Edward Taub, was charged by Maryland prosecutors for cruelty to animals in what became known as the "Silver Spring Monkeys" case. Taub's conviction on one count of cruelty was eventually overturned on a technicality. In 1995, a low-level employee of the Michigan-based Hazelton Research Products was charged with cruelty to animals.
The prosecution at the Alamogordo Primate Facility by District Attorney Key is crucial, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act (the only federal law covering animals used in laboratories and other forms of commerce), has no jurisdiction over this chimpanzee lab. The Animal Welfare Act specifically exempts "federal research facilities" from USDA jurisdiction, leaving the only "oversight" of this NIH-owned facility in the hands of the NIH. Since this is an obvious conflict of interest, the D.A. is the only legitimate law enforcement officer who can protect the chimpanzees at the APF.
Approximately 270 chimpanzees are held at the APF, which has a complex and controversial history. After serving in the 1950s and 1960s as an Air Force space research center (home to the famous space chimpanzees who pioneered space flight in advance of the human astronauts), the laboratory was leased out to civilian contractors for biomedical research beginning in 1970. The last of these contractors was the now-defunct Coulston Foundation, headed by the late toxicologist Frederick Coulston.
In May 2000, the NIH took "ownership" of 288 chimpanzees from the Coulston Foundation, citing concerns about the lab's financial stability and animal care. One year later, the agency contracted with Charles River Laboratories to manage the lab, which the NIH renamed the Alamogordo Primate Facility. Charles River has operated the APF since June 2001, under an arrangement which has left the NIH legally responsible for the "day-to-day management" of the APF, according to the contract between the two entities.
The NIH has been at the center of the controversy over this lab for more than a decade. Between 1993 and 2001, the NIH funded The Coulston Foundation with millions of tax dollars for research and maintenance of chimpanzees. The funding continued despite the Foundation's negligent record of animal care, including an unprecedented four sets of formal administrative charges filed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for multiple instances of negligent chimpanzee and monkey deaths. The Food and Drug Administration also took action against Coulston for serious transgressions of data integrity regulations. The federal actions against Coulston were prompted by information provided to the agencies by In Defense of Animals, which maintained a network of whistleblowers inside the Coulston lab.
In supporting The Coulston Foundation, the NIH ignored statutory prohibitions that mandated that the agency "suspend or revoke" public funds to facilities that are continually noncompliant with federal law. Throughout the controversy, the NIH's continued malfeasance, misrepresentations and illegal funding of the Coulston lab became the subject of intense Congressional scrutiny and media coverage, and were also the catalyst for a broad Congressional investigation, launched in March 2003, regarding the NIH's management and oversight of all grants.
In June 2001, the NIH - after years of escalating pressure from Congress and the public - was forced to end its illegal funding of Coulston. When Charles River Laboratories took over the care of the NIH-"owned" chimpanzees, many of the same employees - including veterinarians - who had been at the noncompliant Coulston Foundation remained on staff.
The ongoing chimpanzee abuse at The Coulston Foundation revealed a severe lack of accountability in the state's animal research labs for criminal animal cruelty. In response, in March 2001, the New Mexico legislature amended the New Mexico cruelty to animals statute to remove the blanket exemption for research facilities and established criminal penalties for violations. Without this amendment - which was strongly supported by Animal Protection of New Mexico - District Attorney Scot Key would have had no jurisdiction to file the historic criminal charges against Charles River Laboratories and Dr. Rick Lee.
Given The Coulston Foundation's long history of negligence and the resultant public scrutiny of the laboratory, one would expect that the NIH would have been that much more careful in choosing a contractor, especially since the agency was now legally responsible for the "day-to-day management" of the chimpanzee lab. However, IDA's network of whistleblowers revealed that the conditions were now far worse than anything ever documented at the Coulston facility, including what IDA alleged was willful, intentional cruelty to multiple chimpanzees.
In August 2003, IDA presented District Attorney Key with information related to three such cases of alleged cruelty involving the deaths of the chimpanzees Rex and Ashley, and the near-death of Topsy. IDA eventually provided the D.A. with sworn affidavits from two veterinarians, including an ex-Coulston Foundation vet who swore that the allegations presented by IDA's network of whistleblowers were far worse than anything she had ever witnessed or heard of at The Coulston Foundation.
The D.A.'s criminal charges filed on September 7, 2004 corroborate revelations from IDA's network of whistleblowers.
It appears that the NIH and/or Charles River may have refused to cooperate with the District Attorney in his investigation of this case. This includes what appears to be an attempt by Charles River to evade responsibility for the alleged criminal cruelty and hide from the charges by claiming that District Attorney Key does not have the jurisdiction to prosecute this case.
There are many heroes in this historic exposure of criminal animal cruelty at this lab owned and managed by the NIH. These include Animal Protection of New Mexico, whose crucial lobbying to remove the blanket exemption for research facilities made the D.A.'s prosecution possible. Otero County District Attorney Scot Key had the commitment and tenacity to prosecute this case, despite his murder-filled caseload as well as the apparent refusal to cooperate by Charles River Laboratories and/or the NIH. Perhaps most importantly, the criminal animal cruelty allegedly committed by Charles River Laboratories and veterinarian Dr. Rick Lee - which was the ultimate responsibility of the NIH - would never have come to light without the courage and conviction of IDA's network of whistleblowers. We and the surviving chimpanzees owe these heroes an enormous debt of gratitude.
Given the NIH's direct legal responsibility for the management of the APF, Dr. Rick Lee's status as a recognized leader in the field of chimpanzee research, care and veterinary training, and the insular, interconnected nature of chimpanzee experimenters and experimentation - as evidenced by the fact that pillars of the chimpanzee research community sit on the APF Advisory Committee - the egregious nature of the multiple counts of cruelty allegedly committed at the APF raises grave questions about the entire field of chimpanzee experimentation. Although the research industry wants the public to believe that instances of abuse are rare, the fact that multiple instances of criminal animal cruelty have allegedly occurred under the direct ownership and management of the NIH - after years of NIH-funded animal welfare violations at the same lab under the private operation of The Coulston Foundation - clearly indicates otherwise.
Over 1000 chimpanzees are held by five NIH-funded research centers: The Alamogordo Primate Facility, University of Louisiana New Iberia Primate Research Center, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at Bastrop, Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta and the Southwest Foundation National Primate Research Center in San Antonio. "Oversight" of these facilities is provided by the NIH, whose policy of "trust[ing]" institutions to police themselves is a well-documented debacle, and the USDA, which is lacking in resources and has been historically reluctant to press charges against any research labs, especially those considered "prestigious."
IDA believes that the animal cruelty that has taken place at the APF under the direct ownership and management of the NIH, combined with the fact that top figures in the field of U.S. chimpanzee research are involved (either directly or indirectly), make this absolutely clear:
The welfare of chimpanzees in federally supported laboratories is far from assured.
IDA hopes that the cruelty and gross mismanagement that has taken place at the APF will serve as a catalyst for a successful movement to end all biomedical research on chimpanzees,
IDA will not rest until experimentation on chimpanzees is permanently ended and the NIH is held accountable for its gross malfeasance and duplicity in its management of chimpanzee and other animal research programs.