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Japanese macaques, also known as snow monkeys, relaxing in a hot spring.

Andrew Sproule/robertharding/Newscom

U.S. asked to consider designating 300 primates at Oregon research center as threatened

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has been asked to consider repealing a rule that exempts captive members of 11 threatened primate species from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). If the agency agrees to the request -- and a decision might not come until 2018 at the earliest -- the captive animals would be designated as threatened, like their wild counterparts, and researchers would need to apply for permits for experiments. To be approved, studies would have to be aimed at species survival and recovery. A rule change would affect biomedical researchers who work with several hundred captive Japanese macaques housed in Oregon.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a Norfolk, Virginia–based animal rights organization, petitioned FWS this past January, asking it to extend ESA protections to captive members of the 11 species housed in research labs, zoos, and held as pets. For obscure reasons, a “special rule” exempted these captive populations from ESA protection in 1976. 

Among the 11 species, the Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata) appears to be the only one regularly used in U.S. research. A troop of roughly 300 resides at the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Hillsboro. That is where the main impact of a successful PETA petition would be felt by scientists.  


“The importance of protecting endangered animals can’t be minimized,” says Jared Goodman, the director of animal law at the PETA Foundation in Los Angeles, California. “These animals are not listed lightly [under the Endangered Species Act],” he adds. “And the agencies until now have unlawfully provided differential treatment to animals in captivity who are similarly threatened.”

Writing to PETA on 1 March, FWS promised to “consider your petition request promptly,” and assess whether each species should be listed as threatened. There is precedent indicating that the agency might agree with PETA. In 2015, it designated captive chimpanzees as endangered, like their wild counterparts. In doing so, it wrote that its reading of the law indicated that “Congress did not intend for captive specimens of wildlife to be subject to separate legal status on the basis of their captive state.”

PETA’s Goodman says a listing change would allow animal rights activists to better track—and challenge—research involving captive Japanese macaques. When a researcher applies for a permit to conduct an experiment on a species listed under ESA, the application is published in the Federal Register and open to public comment. That means, says Goodman, "We have the opportunity to stop experiments before they happen. And we have more information as to what the animals are actually being used for, how invasive the experiments are.”

The Japanese macaques, also known as snow monkeys, have been housed at the Oregon center, part of Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), since 1965. The troop has provided animal models for multiple sclerosis and for an inherited form of age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of human blindness. Ongoing work studies the effects on offspring when pregnant dams are fed a high-fat diet. Several years ago, some males were castrated and received hormone replacement to study the effect of androgens on neurons thought to motivate aggressive behavior. Females with their ovaries removed have been used to study the effects of hormone replacement therapy on stress and anxiety, with potential applications to mood and stress in menopausal women.

OHSU declined to make senior officials at the Oregon primate center available for comment.

Others who support nonhuman primate research did weigh in.

“PETA’s actions have nothing to do with conservation and everything to do with pushing forth a political agenda, which is ending the use of all animals in biomedical research,” says Thomas Rowell, former director of the New Iberia Research Center, a large primate research facility affiliated with the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, and president and chief operating officer at Primate Products, an Immokalee, Florida, company that imports and houses nonhuman primates bred for research.

Allyson Bennett, a developmental psychobiologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who works primarily with rhesus macaques (which are not covered by the PETA request), argues that if the animals are removed from research, they may end up in zoos or other settings with a lower standard of care and less public oversight and transparency. “That is not a win for the animals,” Bennett says.

Though much of PETA’s petition addresses abuses of the 11 species by roadside zoos and exhibitors, the group also points to lapses at the Oregon facility. A 2014 government inspection report notes that a Japanese macaque died of respiratory distress during an imaging procedure because a pop-off valve on an anesthetic machine was left closed. A 2016 report documents the death of an animal whose species is not described when it became entrapped in a chain securing an enrichment device. In 2013, 21 rhesus macaques were hospitalized and six died after a fight apparently prompted by loud construction noise beside the animals’ enclosure. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act, fined the Oregon center $11,679 for repeated violations of the law.

It could be years before FWS makes a final decision. In its letter to PETA, the agency noted that it is bound by law to respond to other pending work first, and doesn’t expect to focus on PETA’s petition before October 2018.

FWS designated the wild Japanese macaque as threatened in 1976, because the Japanese forests needed for its survival had been heavily logged. The other species listed in the PETA petition are:

  • lesser slow loris, Nycticebus pygmaeus;
  • Philippine tarsier, Tarsius syrichta;
  • white-footed tamarin, Saguinus leucopus;
  • black howler monkey, Alouatta pigra;
  • stump-tailed macaque, Macaca arctoides;
  • gelada baboon, Theropithecus gelada;
  • Formosan rock macaque, Macaca cyclopis;  
  • Toque macaque, Macaca sinica;
  • long-tailed langur, Presbytis potenziani; and
  • purple-faced langur, Presbytis senex.

The petition lists a 12th species, the Tonkin snub-nosed langur, Pygathrix (Rhinopithecus) avunculus, which was also exempted from ESA protection in 1976. The wild snub-nosed langur has since 1990 been categorized as endangered in the wild—the most vulnerable category under ESA. Because of this, the agency wrote, FWS will this year extend ESA protections to captive members of the species.

Correction, 10 March 2017, 4:48 p.m.: The FWS has not yet decided whether it will consider protecting the species listed in the PETA petition, as an earlier version of this article reported. Instead, the agency has simply confirmed to PETA that it has received the petition, and explained that it is not likely to review it until 2018, as a result of prior work commitments. Once it has reviewed the petition, the agency can reject it or agree that it has merit. Acceptance of the petition would trigger a fuller review of the conservation status of the species in question.