By Katherine Long
Animal-welfare activists have launched a national campaign to try to halt construction of a new animal lab on the University of Washington campus.
A dogged group of animal-welfare activists is leading a national campaign to try to stop the construction of a $124 million underground animal-research lab at the University of Washington.
They’ve scaled sequoia trees on campus, protested in front of officials’ homes in the morning and evening, disrupted meetings and sued the Board of Regents, saying they violated the state’s open-meetings law. On Saturday, they’re planning a march on the Seattle campus.
So far, their activities haven’t put a dent in the lab’s construction schedule — or the university’s resolve.
“From our perspective and experience, it’s solely an intimidation tactic,” said Dave Anderson, executive director of UW’s Health Sciences Administration and one of a half-dozen UW officials who have been the target of evening protests in front of his home.
“There’s just no way an intimidation tactic like that is going to move us off our current commitments to get this building built.”
Excavation work started this spring on the animal lab, which is being built next to Foege Hall off Northeast Pacific Street and will allow the school to expand its animal research. It’s being built underground, UW officials say, because of a long-standing agreement with the city of Seattle to preserve the view of Portage Bay from Northeast Pacific Street.
The building will consolidate animal labs around the university into a state-of-the-art facility. The UW is one of the nation’s top recipients of federal research dollars, including money for research involving animals.
Activists say they hope to scare off the building’s contractor, Skanska Construction, because they do not want to see animal research expanded. Ultimately, they do not want animals used in research at all.
Most people involved are not students, and No New Animal Lab is a campaign, rather than a specific group, said Amanda Schemkes, one of the organizers. The campaign has been picked up and promoted by a number of other animal-welfare groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
She said animal-welfare activists have held protests at Skanska offices around the country, and at the company’s shareholder meeting in Sweden.
Activists believe there are ways to do medical research without using animals, Schemkes said.
But Anderson said medical research has not advanced to the point that computer models or lab work are sufficient.
The only way to understand what might happen when a new drug is used in a human patient, for example, is to use the drug first on “another complex biologic system” — an animal or primate — he said.
Last year, for example, UW researchers successfully restored damaged heart muscle in monkeys by using heart cells created from human embryonic stem cells. That research would not have been possible without monkeys, Anderson said.
“If we don’t do these studies then the humans are in fact going to become the experimental subject.”
The UW has about 1,000 monkeys, primarily macaques, that it uses in its research. About 650 of the primates are kept at the UW’s animal labs in Seattle. Several hundred more are kept at three breeding colonies in Louisiana, Arizona and Texas. The UW also uses pigs, dogs, sheep, rats, mice and tens of thousands of fish in research experiments.
Like many other research facilities, the UW occasionally has been fined for animal-welfare violations. Currently, it is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Anderson said the UW only recently learned that the USDA has started a new investigation. “What the scope is, what the incident is — we really don’t know,” he said.
In an email, Lyndsay Cole, an assistant director of public affairs for USDA’s animal- and plant-health-inspection service, said an investigation may be started if a facility fails to fix matters that are out of compliance, or if a severe violation occurs. She did not give any details.
One of the frequent critics of animal-lab practices is an Ohio-based nonprofit called Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! (SAEN), which filed a complaint against the UW this week asking the USDA to investigate what SAEN says are four violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, which governs how research on animals is conducted.
Those complaints are based on four cases that the UW had reported months ago to the National Institutes of Health and are closed, although they can be reopened.
The UW has had a variety of issues with its monkeys.
In May and June 2013, for example, in three separate instances, young macaque monkeys at the Arizona breeding colony were fatally attacked by adult males. In an inspection report, USDA officials wrote that the facility should have known that male primates often attack and kill young offspring, and that the animals should have been separated — especially after the first incident.
“They came in, went through all the records, interviewed people, came to the conclusion that there were a few things they wanted us to modify in our husbandry,” Anderson said. “We’ve done that. It’s closed.”
In July 2013, a 10-year-old female macaque at the Arizona colony died just a few days after her infant died. Anderson said a good record of the animal’s health was not maintained, and everyone at the facility went through retraining.
More recently, in 2013, a UW technician failed to give adequate pain medicine to 120 guinea pigs after they were used in surgical procedures. Anderson said the technician misinterpreted the protocol and did not give the animals a third dose of pain medicine.
“This was a big deal for the university,” Anderson said. Many people were retrained after the incident, he said, and some also received letters of reprimand.
UW officials have said they will be better able to take care of their research animals after they consolidate their laboratories, which are scattered around campus in outdated facilities. The new building will also have training and conference rooms, for ongoing staff training.
But Michael Budkie, the president of SAEN, said the most common violations at the UW are not associated with lab conditions. “It’s more that they don’t follow the law, or there is negligence by staff,” he said. “That’s going to be the same, no matter what building they’re in.”
Budkie said his group is working closely with the No New Animal Lab campaign and with another animal-welfare group, the Bunny Alliance, in the Northwest.
The animal-welfare activists plan to march on campus this Saturday at 2 p.m., starting on Red Square.