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A baby rhesus macaque in Stephen Suomi’s lab at NICHD.

A baby rhesus macaque in Stephen Suomi’s lab at NICHD.

Decision to end monkey experiments based on finances, not animal rights, NIH says

On Friday, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) revealed that it had begun to phase out controversial monkey experiments at one of its labs in Poolesville, Maryland. The action followed an aggressive yearlong campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), but an NIH director tells ScienceInsider today that financial straits—not animal rights pressures—led to the decision.

“NIH has to make decisions on how to spend its research dollars regardless of what others may think,” says Constantine Stratakis, the scientific director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), which oversees the lab in question. “Clearly the timing is awkward, but I can assure you that PETA was not a factor in this decision.”

The lab is run by Stephen Suomi, who has been at NICHD since 1983. His team studies how early environment shapes behavior—work that involves separating young rhesus macaques from their mothers, measuring their addiction to alcohol, and monitoring their long-term stress levels.

PETA has been targeting the lab since last year. It ran extensive ad campaigns, successfully pushed for a congressional inquiry, and—most recently—sent hundreds of letters to the neighbors of Suomi and NIH Director Francis Collins, accusing the lab of “cruel psychological experiments” and revealing both Suomi’s and Collins’s home addresses and telephone numbers.

“They did the right thing by shutting down this work,” says Justin Goodman, PETA’s director of laboratory investigations. “It’s a historic moment that appears to be the death knell for horrendous maternal deprivation experiments.”

But Stratakis says the decision was purely financial. For decades, the animal facility in Poolesville was shared by many of the agency’s institutes, including NICHD, the National Cancer Institute, and the National Institute of Mental Health. A number of these institutes have decided to pull out because they couldn’t afford to stay there, he says, leaving NICHD to assume the costs of running the entire facility. “For us, it wasn’t tenable in the long run.”

Stratakis says that NICHD decided this summer to begin phasing out the animal work at Suomi’s lab, the only NICHD lab at Poolesville. It currently houses about 300 monkeys, all of which will be transferred to other facilities over the course of the next 3 years. In the meantime, Suomi’s team can continue working with the animals it has, but it cannot breed new ones. “It won’t be business as usual,” Stratakis says.

Still, some are concerned that NICHD’s action will be seen as a victory for the animal rights movement. “If these types of strategies are influencing decisions about scientific research, that would be very worrying,” says Tom Holder, the director of Speaking of Research, an international organization that supports the use of animals in scientific labs. “NIH needs to stand up for the value of animal studies and allow its researchers to speak more clearly to the public about their work.”

Stratakis says the Poolesville monkeys may still be used in research after they leave Suomi’s lab. And he says the work itself has been invaluable. “There is a treasure trove of material that has been collected over the years,” he says. “The lab has made critical observations on the impact of certain behavior on genetics.” Even after the animals leave, he says, researchers will be able to analyze any remaining serum, DNA, and tissue samples. “This work is going to produce amazing data.” (Suomi did not respond to a request for comment.)

In the end, Goodman says PETA is just happy the macaques are leaving the lab. “We don’t care why NIH made its decision. We just care about the monkeys.” He says his group will continue to put pressure on the agency to end all federally funded experiments of nonhuman primates. “We’re also trying to get NIH to start counting the number of mice and rats it uses.”