SALEM, Oregon (AP) — An Oregon state legislator is using thousands of pages of redacted documents it has sought for more than a year to pass legislation requiring greater accountability and oversight of a primate research facility with a long history of complaints.
Related to Oregon’s largest hospital, incidents at the Oregon National Primate Research Center include one where two monkeys died after being placed in a scalding cage washing system. Other animals have died due to neglect. The documents show that employees have low morale, some have been drinking on the job and dozens have complained of dysfunctional leadership.
The problems at the facility in suburban Portland, Oregon, came to light during a fierce debate between animal rights activists who believe experiments on animals are unethical and scientists who say experiments save and improve human lives.
The US took a small step away from animal testing when Congress passed legislation signed into law by President Joe Biden in December that removed the requirement that drugs under development must be tested on animals before being delivered for human testing. Proponents want computer modeling and organ chip technology to be used instead, although the Food and Drug Administration may still require animal testing.
“Reasonable people may disagree about whether using animals for medical research is scientifically or ethically justified,” Oregon representative David Gomberg said in an interview. “But we have to agree that it’s not done very well here in Oregon.”
After the burn incident, Gomberg filed for public registration to learn more about the research center. He had to wait 17 months and pay a $1,000 fee to obtain thousands of pages of redacted internal documents.
The documents revealed that dozens of the center’s staff warned that a leadership culture that takes no shortcuts, shirks responsibility, and is not accountable is setting the stage for other tragedies.
Gomberg is now behind a bill in the Oregon Legislature calling for greater transparency, accountability and oversight of the Oregon Health & Science University-run facility.
When asked to comment on the issues raised by Gomberg, OHSU sent a statement from Peter Barr-Gillespie, director of state-of-the-art veterinary care, which comes with the privilege of working with animals.”
“While human error and the unpredictable behavior of non-domestic animals are impossible to completely eradicate, we try to do everything we can to apply best practices in engineering, training and supervision to protect ourselves against them,” said Barr-Gillespie.
According to a Jan. 19 InvestigateWest report, the Oregon facility was found to have more violations between 2014 and 2022 – with 31 violations of the Federal Animal Welfare Act – than any of the six other primate research facilities funded by the National Institutes of Health, a nonprofit investigative journalism based in Seattle.
Other NIH-funded centers are run by the University of California-Davis, University of Washington, Tulane University, Texas Biomedical Research Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Emory University.
In their petition, Oregon workers – whose names were redacted in the version received by Gomberg – said they were devastated by the deaths of two monkeys, named Earthquake and Whimsy, in August 2020. One of the monkeys died from boiling water after the cage they were in found was accidentally placed in an industrial washing machine. The other survived but had to be euthanized due to his injuries.
“Many of us are now struggling with doubts about our goals here and our investments in our careers. Our love for these animals leaves us torn between a deep sense of responsibility to ensure the welfare of these animals and a deep uncertainty about the willingness (leadership) to implement meaningful reforms,” the staff wrote.
Gomberg said Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) resisted outside scrutiny.
“In this bill, I’m just focusing on accountability and transparency and telling the public what exactly is going on at this facility,” Gomberg said.
When People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also sought public records, OHSU unreasonably withheld photos and videos, a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge ruled last July.
In addition, the university police used a contractor, Pennsylvania-based Information Network Associates, founded by a former FBI special agent, to provide information on the animal welfare group’s activities and political and social views. Judge Andrew Lavin ordered the university to remove the information, saying the practice violated a state law that prohibits police surveillance unrelated to criminal investigations.
In October, OHSU agreed to pay $37,900 to settle a federal fine for violations of the Animal Welfare Act from 2018 to 2021, including incidents where a monkey was euthanized after its head got stuck between two PVC pipes; voles that died of thirst; gerbils that starved to death; and the burn incident.
Barr-Gillespie said appropriate measures are being taken to prevent incidents from happening again, and animal testing is only carried out when other methods are inappropriate or too dangerous for participants.
Research at the Oregon Center has led to a compound that promotes the rebuilding of the protective sheath around nerve cells that is damaged in conditions such as multiple sclerosis, the identification of a gene that could lead to the development of drugs to prevent and treat alcoholism, and better brain damage and repair, among many other advances, said Barr-Gillespie.
However, Gomberg said that “there are systemic issues within the institution that need to be addressed.”
“I have not seen anything to indicate that there are no more problems on the horizon,” the MP said.