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Share Information From Experimentation : Research Labs, Zoos Form an Uneasy Alliance

Times Staff Writer

In their efforts to accelerate the breeding of endangered species in captivity, the world’s zoos have embarked on a controversial alliance with biomedical researchers to share scientific techniques developed through animal experimentation.

The trend toward closer cooperation, which in some cases involves the sale or loan of surplus zoo animals to primate laboratories, has drawn strong criticism from animal rights groups. Those groups look upon any cooperation between zoos and medical labs as an outrageous perversion of conservation efforts.

Zoological directors just as strongly defend the links, arguing that they cannot turn their backs on scientific advances simply because the research comes out of labs that experiment with animals. They say that use of such research in no way lessens their distaste for most animal experimentation.

International Conference

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An international conference on primate conservation that begins today in San Diego will bring together for the first time key conservationists and animal researchers worldwide to learn the needs and concerns of the other side. And because of the meeting’s symbolism, animal rights activists will picket the conference in protest.

The conference will center on ways that zoos can establish among themselves self-sustaining populations of gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates already endangered in their native lands, according to Kurt Benirschke, the San Diego Zoo’s research director in charge of the agenda. Zoos can no longer replenish their collections from the wild, Benirschke said, and increasingly may be called upon to repopulate the wild where species such as the pygmy chimpanzee or California condor are extinct or on the verge of elimination. “For example, we should be able to reproduce gorillas in captivity even though their births at present are lower than (zoo) deaths,” Benirschke said.

The controversy surrounds not the zoos’ goals but their methods of achieving those self-sustaining animal populations.

Benirschke said that conservationists require information that lab scientists have acquired about animal health problems while using primates to study human diseases. For that reason, he has lined up speakers from major primate research labs in the United States and Europe to meet with conservationists.

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Beyond that exchange of research, many zoos now regularly offer their surplus primates for sale to research labs--though so far such sales are relatively rare. Tom Foose, a conservation spokesman for the American Assn. of Zoological Parks & Aquariums, said overbreeding of certain species can take zoo space needed for propagation of endangered species. Zoo officials say further that such sales can help protect animals in the wild by meeting the demands of laboratories that might otherwise trap wild animals.

The alternative is usually euthanasia, they say.

However, the practice is a sensitive issue even among zoo officials.

They stress that few sales have actually taken place because of strict policies among most zoos to assure that primates sold to labs not undergo traumatic research. Nevertheless, there have been instances of primates being sold for surgical experimentation, indicating that the relationship between policies and specific cases is not always clear-cut.

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Opposing View

Animal rights advocates cannot accept the premises for any communication between biomedical researchers and zoo conservationists, and they object strenuously to the sale of animals and even to the sharing of information.

“Zoos should not be a party to any animal research, where the most cruel things are done to animals in the name of science,” said Javier Burgos, director of the Pasadena-based group SUPRESS (Students United Protesting Research on Sentient Subjects). “You have researchers coming who have taken monkeys away from their mothers at birth until the offspring went mad, and who now use primates for AIDS research.

“Just by having these people at a conference is a betrayal of a zoo’s mission to protect animals. What is the motivation for these people getting into cahoots with zoos if not to get a better supply source for labs?” And Burgos charged that zoos such as those in San Diego and Los Angeles perform harmful animal research themselves.

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The director of a South Carolina-based primate rights organization called Benirschke’s agenda “a contradiction between zoo people who do wonderful things for conservation and lab people who do horrible things to animals.”

Shirley McGreal, head of the International Primate Protection League, denounced Benirschke’s failure to schedule discussion of the ethics of zoo participation with laboratories.

Indefensible Cooperation

For McGreal, the regular offerings of surplus zoo animals to labs and animal dealers are a prime example of indefensible cooperation. McGreal and Burgos say that research limitations placed on labs by zoos are simply public-relations moves that are almost never enforced.

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But zoo directors say they would be foolish to ignore the scientific advances brought about by biomedical research.

“I’ll be the first in line to extract any research that biomedical people have if it will help us,” said Warren Thomas, Los Angeles Zoo director. “To ignore it because there are still a lot of researchers who handle animals in insensitive or inhumane ways would be to turn our backs on knowledge itself.”

Benirschke said that such infamous experiments as those of former University of Wisconsin psychologist Harry Harlow, in which Harlow separated monkeys from their mothers at birth to see if he could simulate mental illness seen in socially deprived human children, are repugnant to him.

“But at least we know now that zoos should not take newborns away from their mothers,” Benirschke said. In the same way, primate labs first learned that social environments are damaged if Asian monkeys are placed together with African monkeys, he said. “And should we not use the knowledge that was gained about animal viruses in using primates for polio research?” he asked.

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Characterization of Research

Benirschke said that McGreal and other animal rights groups mis-characterize his research, which focuses on ways to boost captive reproduction such as establishment of sperm banks and computerized study of generational blood lines to understand better techniques for expanding the gene pool.

“I’m sorry if these people don’t like me,” Benirschke said. But he said his own concern for animals is such that he carries out necessary lab tests through urine rather than blood testing. “We had to make a new technology so we wouldn’t have to take blood samples,” he said.

Thomas said that the San Diego conference “can only result in positive influences” on biomedical researchers by pointing out to them the seriousness of preserving primates and limiting laboratory use to the absolute minimum.

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Thomas also reacted heatedly to charges by Burgos that the Los Angeles Zoo has carried out cancer research on animals for laboratories. “We don’t have anything to do with biomedical research,” Thomas said.

“The fact is that several years ago, the National Institutes of Health (the federal agency that funds most animal research) asked us to study whether the cottontop marmoset could be bred commonly in captivity.” The species can contract colon cancer similar to that in humans and the NIH wanted to know if it could be used in laboratory research, he said.

Too Delicate

“After three years of study, we said ‘no,’ the animal is too delicate to be reared in labs and in addition is endangered so it should never be considered for biomedical research,” Thomas said.

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Thomas also defends the offering of surplus animals to biomedical laboratories as long as zoo officials ensure that any experiments will not bring painful trauma to the animals.

“Every zoo in the U.S. does place ads in the newsletter,” Thomas said, referring to the NIH Primate Supply Information Clearinghouse, a weekly publication that lists surplus primates for sale or trade for potential laboratory use. Thomas said that such advertising is usually placed only after attempts are made to interest other zoos both through private contacts and the newsletter of a nationwide zoological association.

The conservation director for that organization admitted that such ads appear to contradict the preservation goal of zoos.

Hard to Understand

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“It’s hard for people to understand that you can have too many of an endangered species, but the fact is that animal breeding cannot so easily be turned on and off once you’re able to achieve it in captivity,” said Foose of the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.

The over-breeding of species, despite increasing efforts of zoos to better manage their animal populations, is not the only reason that surplus animals exist.

The changing nature of zoos from a collection of animals on display to a refuge for preserving endangered animals has resulted in a smaller number of species. No longer do zoos compete to have the greatest number of animals. Rather, they are specializing in the preservation of certain animals, such as the San Diego Zoo’s plans to decrease its large primate population and make room for endangered large cats, antelopes and other species.

In addition, some species exist in far greater numbers in labs than in zoos and cross-breeding between collections, either through loans or trades, is necessary to increase the number of healthy breeders, zoo scientists say.

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Surplus Animals

Although zoos strive to place surplus animals with other zoos, there are some species that no zoos need, said Foose, who works at the Minneapolis Zoo. “What are the alternatives? Euthanasia is one that all zoos practice from time to time but there is an emotional hue and cry about that as well.” Foose and others say also that if labs can be encouraged to breed more animals themselves through purchases or loans from zoos, the need to import can be lessened.

Policies of the zoological association require that labs wishing to purchase a primate agree to provide “humane and adequate care,” Foose said. Many zoos, such as those in San Diego and Los Angeles, go beyond the policy to require that labs use primates for breeding or display purposes only, and not for surgical or stressful experimentation.

Both Thomas and Douglas Myers, executive director of the San Diego Zoo, said that neither institution has ever sold a primate to a lab because no lab has accepted the conditions that they would attach to such sales.

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Breeding Loan Program

The San Diego Zoo does have a breeding loan program with the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Texas using pygmy chimpanzees. The San Diego Zoo is the only U.S. zoo with pygmies and wanted to expand the genetic pool so the zoo would not end up breeding brothers and sisters together, Benirschke said.

“Somehow the Yerkes lab obtained three or four pygmies from Zaire, by hook or by crook,” Benirschke said. “So we said, well, let’s exchange and expand the stock.” Benirschke said the agreement specifies that none of the original animals or offspring may be used for experiments other than breeding or observation. Benirschke said he was unaware until last week that the San Diego Zoo had offered primates for sale, rather than through loans, which allow zoos greater control over animals.

In one case of primates sold for surgical research, the Detroit Zoo’s Steve Graham sent the collection’s crab-eating macaque monkeys to Washington University in St. Louis in 1982. The sale was part of Graham’s plan to replace monkeys that adapted poorly to Michigan’s cold winter climate with hardier species.

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Flooded With Offers

Graham said that no zoos responded to his offer of the more than 30 macaques. “So we advertised in the NIH newsletter and were flooded with offers,” he said. Graham rejected most of them because researchers refused to tell the zoo about the precise nature of their desired experimentation and whether it would cause the animals pain.

The university was chosen, he said, because it assured him that the surgery, as part of research into arteriosclerosis, would be done without pain.

“I’m content with the decision today,” Graham said. “Whether or not it is correct to have biomedical research is not the zoo’s decision. It is legal.

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“And I believe that we chose a route benefiting conservation because the university said it would otherwise try to import the animals if not bought from us. Figures show that for every monkey imported for research, 10 die getting here.

“So we helped diminish the impact on the wild and in that way helped conservation.”

Regrets Sale of Baboons

But Graham regrets the sale of a collection of anubis baboons, also fragile in the winter environment, to a Texas laboratory for breeding purposes. The agreement failed to specify that the offspring would not be used for surgical or stressful research without the zoo knowing the specific experimentation.

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“If I had it to do again, I would not sell them but put them to sleep,” he said.

Ken Kaemmerer, of the Louisiana Purchase Gardens & Zoo in Monroe, La., said that once an animal is sold the zoo has essentially lost control of the animal’s future.

“That’s why you try and check out as much as possible the potential buyer,” Kaemmerer said. “You pretty much have to have faith that what they say to you and what you know turns out to be true. But you can’t just say that all labs are bad; it’s what use is made of the animals.”

Foose said that no matter the opinion of animal rights advocates and conservationists, animal research is going to continue because certain medical research is necessary for human health and can be done humanely. In addition, the federal government requires testing of certain vaccines on primates before allowing human use, he said.

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Labs’ Vaster Resources

“Those labs have vast funds--much greater than those of zoos--so we as conservationists should try to orient lab resources more toward conservation--limiting the use of animals as much as possible--and eliminate a drain on both the wild and on zoos,” Foose said.

“A conference such as the one in San Diego is vitally important in that regard.”

Several researchers who will speak at the conference defended their participation as well.

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“I provide biomedical researchers with high-quality, healthy animals, but I am also intensely aware of the need for conservation,” said John Anderson, a veterinarian who takes care of primates at the research center at UC Davis.

“My experience is useful in keeping primates alive in a lab or a zoo,” Anderson said. “My research in neonatal care helps save more infants in zoos, such as those of the (endangered) golden spider monkey, and therefore increase genetic diversity.

“The majority of researchers are compassionate and concerned about animals, despite what the animal rights people allege about us.”


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