Congrats. You just paid $40M to run monkeys to death on treadmills in Texas

Let’s kick the weekend off with a story which touches on two subjects which tend to get the blood boiling: potential animal abuse and massive, wasteful spending of tax dollars by the federal government. The two subjects may not sound like probable candidates to intersect in American politics very often, but a story out of Texas could prove to be the exception to the rule. The Texas Biomedical Research Center proudly announced this month that they’d bagged another impressive haul of federal grant money to the tune of $40M. The cash is ostensibly to be used for “nonhuman primate” research into various human medical maladies. Nothing too unusual so far I suppose.

The Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC) at Texas Biomedical Research Institute (Texas Biomed) was awarded more than $40 million for a National Institutes of Health P51 grant through 2021 to continue research programs using nonhuman primates (NHP) as part of the National Primate Research Center (NPRC) consortia. This five-year grant from the NIH’s Office of Research Infrastructure Programs is the fourth renewal of the Center grant that provides funds to SNPRC to continue operation of its facility with nearly 3,000 nonhuman primates and continue its research in aging, regenerative medicine, experimental physiology and genomics and infectious diseases.

Beneath all the clinical discussion taking place in the announcement are some troubling details. First of all, dropping $40M in taxpayer money on any one facility in a single year is a major investment and it had best be paying off in solid benefits. It also needs to be closely tracked to ensure that the taxpayer is getting their money’s worth.

Then there’s the question of what’s being done with all of these “nonhuman primates” at the facility. Any testing on primates is worrisome to begin with. I realize that there are a few cases in medicine where it simply can’t be avoided, but our history of using chimps, monkeys and the rest of the primates in research is a spotty one at best. These animals are all extremely intelligent with demonstrated emotional capacity and the cruelty they’ve been subjected to at times is horrifying.

Senator Jeff Flake has been tracking stories of abuse in both forms in his Wastebook and the Texas facility was already on his radar. As Flake noted in his book, this is a combination of some very ethically dubious animal testing combined with massive infusions of taxpayer dollars. (Emphasis added)

Each of the twelve little monkeys was put into a “transparent rodent exercise ball.” The balls of monkeys were then placed onto a standard human NordicTrak treadmill. The treadmill was started at a low speed and gradually increased to 1 mile per hour. The monkeys did acclimate to running in the exercise ball on the treadmill, but not without some spills and mishaps along the way. One vomited in his exercise ball and three others “defecated in their exercise ball.” Another monkey “in the treadmill running group died during week 11 of the study, for reasons not related to the study,” according to the researchers…

“The Southwest National Primate Research Center, located in Texas, received $8 million from NIH in 2015 for the grant that financed the 12 little monkeys running on a treadmill study. Over the past decade, the facility has collected nearly $70 million in grants and contracts from various federal agencies. During this same period, the center has also been slapped with fines totaling more than $30,000 by the federal government for a number of violations, including performing a necropsy on a baboon that was still alive. USDA identified 14 violations of the Animal Welfare Act at the center over a two year period.

There’s something going on at this center which clearly merits further investigation. The fact that they’ve been hit with tens of thousands of dollars in fines already and are still getting paydays in the tens of millions should be setting off some alarm bells. And since the work is being done with such a massive infusion of your tax dollars, we have every right to know the details. If we can’t get a private animal welfare or good government group into the facility to check things out there should be some congressional intervention. If not, this sounds like one situation where the taxpayers could be saved a lot of money by shutting off the spigot from Uncle Sam.