EXCLUSIVE: Ex-Employees Claim 'Horrific' Treatment of Primates at Lab

EXCLUSIVE: Humane Society says video shows abuse of primates at U.S. lab.

March 3, 2009, 1:00 PM

March 4, 2009— -- Tucked into a rural section of Louisiana, a few miles from Lafayette, an unexpected compound springs from the landscape. It is the nation's largest primate testing lab. The New Iberia Research Center, part of the University of Louisiana, houses more than 6,000 primates and one of the largest captive populations of chimpanzees in the world.

"Nightline" obtained the results of a nine-month undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States. A Humane Society investigator took a hidden camera inside the New Iberia Research Center for most of 2008. The video shows what the Society says is the way monkeys and great apes are treated behind closed doors.

The New Iberia Research Center is a public facility, and its research includes contract work for pharmaceutical companies and hepatitis studies. The lab receives millions in public funding but limited public scrutiny.

"Facilities are very secretive in general," said the investigator, who asked to remain anonymous because of the investigation. "It's hard to get a lot of good information out of what really goes on. You rarely see images other than what is kind of posted on the Web sites. Going undercover in a place is the only way you'll see what's the truth."

The Humane Society investigator told ABC News that chimpanzees, often perched several feet off the ground, are shot with sedation guns, with little regard for their safety. The video shows chimps crashing to the floor.

"The sedated chimp would be sort of rocking slowly on the perch, then, out of nowhere, they just smack to the floor," the investigator said. "It was horrific to watch and to hear."

The Humane Society investigator who gained access as an employee shot video of a lab worker striking a restrained monkey's teeth three times with a pipe. The investigator says the employee wanted the monkey to open its mouth.

"The man is sort of threatening him [the monkey] with this pole and smacking his teeth at the same time," the investigator said, describing the video.

Another piece of video shows a lab employee hitting an infant monkey in the head and swearing when the monkey bites at her finger.

In response to "Nightline's" repeated requests for an interview, the University of Louisiana, which houses the New Iberia Research Center, issued a statement to ABC News, which said in part:

"The university takes very seriously the New Iberia Research Center's responsibility to care for the animals housed at the center. The highly qualified and experienced staff veterinarians responsible for the care of these animals are extremely dedicated and respond aggressively to reports of potential animal abuse," wrote Dr. Joseph Savoie, president of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "We have a clearly stated and direct no tolerance policy when the welfare of any animal in our care is threatened, and we will continue to strictly enforce that policy."

The Federal Animal Welfare Act, the law designed to protect these primates, requires labs to ensure that procedures avoid or minimize distress or pain. The law also requires that animals be handled with proper care.

The investigator described to ABC News what she says is taking place in one of the scenes shot on video: "This is a baby who is completely alert, completely awake, completely aware of his surroundings, and he's getting a substance forced down his throat. He is screaming, and he was very terrified throughout this and you can hear the screams of the other babies and mothers in the background because the mothers were in there too."

'I've Seen Rats and Mice Treated Better'

The Humane Society of the Unites States video appears to support claims made by another former New Iberia Research Center employee.

Narriman Fakier, who was the coordinator for 100 chimpanzees at the center from the fall of 2002 until February 2004, said she was told to quit or be fired after repeatedly complaining about what she said were illegal and abusive practices at the lab. She has since filed a lawsuit against New Iberia as a whistle-blower.

"I am for the responsible use of animals in research," Fakier said.

Fakier has worked in several prestigious labs, and she said she's never seen anything like the practices at the New Iberia Research Center.

"Nothing like this," Fakier said. "I have to tell you, I've seen rats and mice treated better than this."

The New Iberia Research Center said that Fakier chose to quit, filed her lawsuit seeking "monetary gain," and that her allegations of abuse were false and not made until after she left the lab. An oversight board rejected her claims of abuse.

Fakier and the Humane Society of the United States investigator have never met one another. They worked at the facility at different times between 2002 and 2008.

"Nightline" conducted the interview with Narriman Fakier without telling her that the Humane Society investigation had taken place or that the undercover video existed. When she saw the footage for the first time, she said much of what was on the tape was what was happening at the facility when she was there five years earlier.

"They're still at it; nothing has changed," Fakier said. "It's about the money. There's big bucks in this research, especially chimp research. We're talking millions. Millions of dollars."

Dr. Martin Stephens works for the U.S. Humane Society and reviewed the undercover footage from the New Iberia Research Center.

"They [chimpanzees] have very complex emotions," he said. "Their social life is very rich. They live for years and years, they remember things from the past. Sadly, there is a downside to all that, and that kind of emotional sophistication and cognitive sophistication can lead to a vulnerability."

Animals Exhibit 'Frustration, Neurosis, Psychosis'

The video shows scenes of animals in what the Humane Society says is emotional distress and showcasing what is called "stereotypic behavior," pathologically repeated acts signifying mental breakdown.

"The spinning around in the cages, the biting of open wounds, self-mutilation, those are indicators of frustration, neurosis and even psychosis," Stephens said.

Fakier said she witnessed distress scenes similar to the video and that animals are anesthetized without proper care at the New Iberia Research Center.

Stephens said, "You saw a monkey slide off a table because he was unattended and crashed to the floor. That's outrageous."

Fakier and the Humane Society investigator also allege violations of safe and appropriate housing for the primates.

"Some of these cages had holes in them, some of them were sort of loose on the bottom allowing these monkeys to get stuck," the Humane Society investigator said, referencing video of a monkey with its arms trapped in holes in their cages.

Another alleged violation shown in the investigator's 2008 footage: Sedated chimpanzees, that are five times stronger than humans, apparently being transported without protection or restraint, a practice Fakier said dates back to her tenure at the New Iberia Research Center.

"That's exactly how we transported," Fakier said as she viewed video of two lab employees carrying a sedated chimpanzee by its arms and legs and laying it in the back of a van. "We're in the back with another anesthetized chimp, who could wake up at any moment. The direction was if he wakes up, run.

"My building was close to a day care," Fakier added.

One chimpanzee at the New Iberia Research Center is named Siafu. Fakier suspected that the chimp was trained in American Sign Language.

"I tried several times to get him help," Fakier said. "He'd get so frustrated and so aggravated because he was trying to sign and they didn't know what he was saying."

'A Tragedy Is Occurring'

The National Institutes of Health gave the New Iberia Research Center nearly $18 million in federal funds for chimpanzee research between 2000 and 2009. It also declined "Nightline's" repeated requests for an on-camera interview in favor of a statement that, in part, said, "Thanks to research involving primates, countless lives have been saved. For example, primates were critical to the development of vaccines for hepatitis A and B, now common pediatric immunizations. In addition, the chimpanzee is integral to current efforts to develop vaccines for hepatitis C, which globally affects more than 170 million people."

The New Iberia Research center also stated tha their animal care and use program was last reviewed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in September of 2008, and by the NIH's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare in 2009, and that these reviews found all programs to be in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. But the USDA told ABC News today that they did not give the lab a clean bill of health.

The Humane Society investigator said her days at the lab were difficult.

"I tried as much as I could to give the chimps some one-on-one attention," she said. "The least I could do is provide some sort of vocal or physical comfort to them. What kept me going was knowing that this video will be released."

As for Fakier, she says she will wait for her day in court.

"I have lost faith in the system. And this is a system that I had defended over the years. My fear is that's what's going on around all the primate facilities around this country. And if that's the case, then a tragedy is occurring right now. Flat out a tragedy is occurring."

World famous primatologist Jane Goodall reacted to the HSUS investigation in a statment posted on the Humane Society's Web site. "In no lab I have visited have I seen so many chimpanzees exhibit such intense fear," she wrote after seeing the undercover video taken at the New Iberia Research Center.

As a result of the ABC News investigation and the Humane Society of the United States video, the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, part of the National Institutes of Health, told ABC News it is investigating the allegations made against the New Iberia Research Center.

And today Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilack told ABC News in a statement that "In light of the video evidence presented today, I am ordering a thorough investigation of animal welfare practices at New Iberia Research Center. If the allegations prove to be true, the American public can expect the perpetrators to be held fully accountable. I take the protection of animals very seriously, and will do my utmost to fully enforce the Animal Welfare Act."

The U.S. Humane Society is working with four U.S. congressmen to introduce a bill to ban the use of chimpanzees in invasive research and retire at least half of the 1,200 in use to sanctuaries. Some have been in labs for more than 40 years.

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