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Thursday, July 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Virginia legislators express concern over medical school’s treatment of baboons

Records obtained by PETA show baboon's engaging in self-harm and mutilation, including at least one baboon who chipped her teeth from chewing on her metal cage bars.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A group of three state legislators sent leadership at Eastern Virginia Medical School a letter expressing concerns over the treatment of pregnant olive baboons used for experiments. 

"We are especially troubled by the school's history of repeated noncompliance with federal animal welfare regulations," the lawmakers wrote. 

The letter comes after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a complaint with the city of Norfolk Commonwealth's Attorney Ramin Fatehi, calling for a criminal probe on May 14. PETA obtained extensive records showing that school researchers subjected mother baboons to traumatic, invasive procedures without legally required adequate care.

The complaint focused on six mother baboons who carried a combined total of 25 pregnancies and underwent a combined 17 cesarean sections between 2014 and 2023. Professor Gerald Pepe, who began experimenting on baboons in the 1970s, controlled the experiments. 

PETA accused the school of failing to provide necessary shelter to prevent the animals from self-harm, allowing deterioration from stress and barren conditions and harm from cage mates or neighboring animals. The complaint also claims the school deprived the baboons of emergency veterinary treatment to alleviate suffering or prevent further disease progression. 

"Some of these baboons had to have fingers amputated from trauma that was caused either by distressed cage mates or during breeding, or self-inflicted," PETA Senior Vice President Daphna Nachminovitch said. "And there are studies that show that when animals are suffering, that degree of distress, that, of course, impacts the results of the experiments."

Tara, a mother baboon, was subjected to seven pregnancies in less than eight years, including four cesarean-sections at various stages of pregnancy, and had one live birth and two miscarriages or stillbirths. Tara had missing and chipped teeth from years of biting her cage bars, among other health issues.

"They are reacting by self-mutilating, by biting the cage bars, by picking at their own skin," Nachminovitch said. "These animals went through unimaginable terror physically and emotionally."

In 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited the school for illegally performing up to six cesarean sections per female baboon without scientific justification or approval, as required under the federal Animal Welfare Act. In 2022, the agency exempted the school from the law, allowing it to perform multiple cesarean sections if it followed basic experimental protocol. Federal animal welfare officials withdrew the special permission last year.

The letter sent by state Senators Jennifer Boysko and Bill Stanley, along with Delegate Sam Rasoul, Chair of the House Education Committee, emphasizes concerns over the killing of four of the baboons. According to the documents obtained by PETA, the school decided to kill the baboons after losing its permission instead of sending them to a sanctuary. 

Rather than agreeing to an interview, school communications personnel sent Courthouse News a link to an opinion article published in the Virginia Pilot by Alfred Abuhamad, the school's president, provost, and dean. In the opinion piece, the school contends that critical data from the research can only be obtained after the animal is euthanized.

The school killed five of the six baboons cited in PETA's complaint, while the sixth, Alissa, died after her second cesarean section. According to documents obtained by PETA, the school also killed baboons Raul and Joy on April 9, the same day school staff told PETA that no baboons remained at its facility. The school did not mention to PETA that they had killed the primates when responding to a request for records on all the baboons housed there. 

The school claims that the baboon experiments have yielded a better understanding of the cause of preeclampsia and its complications. 

According to John Hopkins, preeclampsia is characterized by persistent high blood pressure and other problems in people who are pregnant or who have recently given birth. Preeclampsia happens in about 5% to 8% of pregnancies, disproportionately affecting Black women, and complications include premature birth, fluid in the lungs, bleeding problems, and liver or kidney damage. There is also the risk of seizures, stroke and death of either the mother or the baby.

Baboons and humans share an almost identical process for developing the placenta and fetus from early pregnancy. The letter refutes the school's claim by pointing to the National Institutes of Health's iCite research portfolio analysis tool, which indicates that clinical researchers studying human pregnancy have less than a one-in-five chance of citing these experiments.  

The letter comes two days after a company that breeds beagles for experiments in western Virginia pleaded guilty to violations of the Animal Welfare Act and Clean Water Act. The guilty plea came with a $35 million fine, the largest ever in an animal welfare case.

In 2022, the school received more than $17 million from the federal government for research and development and almost $1.2 million from the Commonwealth and its localities. The school is in the process of merging with Old Dominion University.

Boysko submitted legislation in the 2024 session that would have required public universities to maintain a database on the animals under their care and make public records requests more accessible. PETA has paid $7,491 in fees since March 31, 2020, for EVMS and Virginia Tech investigations.

After pushback from universities, the bill passed but was changed to establish a task force to identify potential deficiencies in publicly funded animal testing facilities. 

The USDA reported violations in January of 2023 concerning the treatment of chinchillas and rhesus macaques. The school continued studying four chinchillas past their humane endpoints, the earliest point in an experiment when the experimenter may stop an animal's physical pain or psychological anguish without compromising the experiment. After a procedure in which intravenous insulin was administered, 11 rhesus macaques experienced severely low blood sugar and prolonged anesthesia recovery times, some over five hours, and were denied medical intervention.

According to a timeline compiled by PETA, the school has faced numerous violations from the USDA since at least 2000. Nachminovitch said she can see the school from PETA's Norfolk headquarters, but the school has not engaged in dialogue. 

"If you have nothing to hide, why don't you invite people in to see how these animals are treated?" Nachminovitch asked. 

Categories / Education, Environment, Health, Science

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