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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- I find myself giving more and more money these days to animal welfare groups.

I didn't realize I was doing this until I went through a week's worth of mail Saturday -- the regular huge pile -- and found fully half of it consisted of pitches from animal organizations that had enjoyed my previous generosity, or had purchased their mailing lists for prospective givers.

Upon self-analysis, my motivation seems to be a subliminal disgust with the human condition. The daily avalanche of news about greed, cruelty, arrogance and ignorance must be getting to me. Our trusting and loving animal friends somehow seem worthier.

I sent money to a California group called In Defense of Animals, which is calling attention to continuing gruesome monkey research at the University of California, San Francisco -- an alleged educational institution which has been cited eight times in the last five years by the Department of Agriculture for repeatedly violating federal animal welfare laws and for instituting a "fear of reprisal" system against employees who report these violations.

Despite this abysmal record, the National Institutes of Health give UCSF millions in annual funding for such research, which has been going on for 21 years.

IDA investigators, using university clinical reports that the courts ordered released and Ag Department records, claim they have documented a "research" process in which the eyes of monkeys are sliced open with scalpels so wire coils can be inserted. Screws are then drilled into their skulls, and the protruding bolts are tightened to attach the primates firmly to restraining chairs.

More holes are drilled into the immobile monkeys' skulls and stainless steel recording cylinders are inserted. Electrodes are then driven through these cylinders directly into their brains. The bone tends to erode around the various bolts, and the eye coil implants cause such irritation, infection and seeping pus that they must soon be removed and placed in the other eye, and the bolt implants must be relocated to other spots on the skull. This leads to a buildup of scar tissue, which must be peeled from the lining of the brain dozens of times for each monkey.

Throughout, the monkeys are strapped into restraining chairs -- heads bolted into place so they are unable to move -- and placed on a rotating turntable for eight hours a day. They move their eyes in a certain pattern for juice rewards, and electrodes implanted in their brains record neurological activity as they do so. If the monkey refuses to move its eyes in such a pattern for the juice reward, it is denied fluids entirely until the next day, when it must go through the procedure again. The monkeys last about three years at this.

The kicker here is this: Recording cellular brain activity -- the goal of these unneeded medieval experiments -- can be accomplished noninvasively these days in real human patients.

More enlightened scientists, using magnetic resonance imaging or MRI (the refiners of which just won a Nobel Prize), can record in a single afternoon -- without scalpels, implants, electrodes or restraining bolts -- as much cellular brain activity in humans as would take 20 years to replicate in nonhuman primates. The monkey data is rendered irrelevant.

The IDA is lauded by famed primate researcher Jane Goodall as "determined" and "inspiring." Unlike some animal charities, In Defense of Animals seems pretty efficient. The group has closed down brain cancer experiments on beagles, other University of California bone-breaking research on retired racing greyhounds, a similarly gruesome New York University lab experiment addicting monkeys to crack cocaine, and the much-criticized Coulston Foundation -- the world's largest experimental center for vivisection (surgical experimentation) on chimpanzees. (Chimps, you may recall, share 98.4 percent of their DNA with humans.)

Another group I support is the Animal Legal Defense Fund. The ALDF's approach? Sue the bastards. It seems the federal government won't enforce its own animal welfare laws unless taken to court.

It has been 18 years since Congress amended the Animal Welfare Act (to a blitz of back-patting and sanctimonious self-praise) in requiring standards be established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to "promote the psychological well-being" of apes, chimpanzees and monkeys in zoos and labs. What happened? Virtually, zip. Nada.

What skimpy standards were cobbled together -- after six years of navel-gazing and bumbling -- were found by the Department of Agriculture's own inspectors to be inadequate, unclear and unenforceable. That huge federal bureaucracy did another voluminous "scientific" review of its so-called standards, but took no corrective action.

This summer, the ALDF filed suit in federal court challenging the Ag Department's failure to ensure the humane treatment of primates in captivity -- many of which are kept totally isolated.

ALDF Executive Director Joyce Tischler says, "After all these years, hundreds if not thousands of nonhuman primates are still being housed in environments that don't take their real needs into consideration. USDA admits this, but they need to walk their talk."

"Primates need companionship," clinical veterinarian Viktor Reinhardt told the ALDF. "A primate kept in a barren cage is literally a behavioral cripple."

One of the ALDF's plaintiffs, animal care expert Jane Garrison, notes that "chimpanzees are social animals, just like we are."

In other words, you'd hurl your own feces at gaping spectators too, were you imprisoned in these conditions.

Already I can hear you, dear reader, mumbling in protest to my observations: Sure, we have to torture and slaughter animals, but what about the medical advancements triggered by these experiments? What about the progress in making humans well and in curing various diseases?

My answer to you? Screw it. Many of these experiments are not that productive, yield inaccurate results, and actually delay effective and groundbreaking research. Find another way.

And you know what? There are thousands of doctors and scientists who say I'm right.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine -- a Washington advocacy group made up of real physicians and legitimate scientists -- says the non-animal-lab technology and documentation for many of these cures and advances already exist.

"With an abundance of historical human data, as well as a wide range of newly developed methods for studying humans, there is absolutely no sane argument for using animal models," says Dr. Neal Barnard, president of PCRM.

The PCRM cites "a flood of research dollars" from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism made available to substance abuse researchers, who typically torture small mammals with brain shocks, food deprivation, tail amputations and electrode attachments.

"How can these cruel actions possibly help a clinician dealing with stress and alcoholism in a human patient?" asks Barnard. "The most likely conclusion will be that animal data does not apply to humans -- we hear that conclusion time and time again."

Barnard says, "Millions of animals die each year in animal experiments, a number so high it's mind-numbing."

The PCRM is another group resorting to federal court action and lawsuits against the government. One suit, filed recently, is against the Environmental Protection Agency, which has allowed in full swing a chemical-testing program with the innocent-sounding name High Production Volume.

This federally approved program lets chemical companies, cosmetics manufacturers and household products firms conduct toxicity experiments by such methods as injecting floor wax into the stomachs of rabbits and guinea pigs until they die, or smearing their eyes with skin creams, mascara, hair spray and shampoo -- while their heads are immobilized in tiny stocks -- until they develop corneal ulcers and go blind.

"We have had a fair amount of success in stopping proposed animal experiments by proving that toxicity data already exist," notes Barnard. "In many cases, the companies have ignored existing data on closely related chemicals. Many of these tests violate the EPA's own recommendation that chemical companies avoid animal studies when information on the toxicity of closely related compounds already exists."

The PCRM head estimates that "more than 100,000 animals have already been killed or are slated to die" in the High Production Volume program. Relying on cruel and inherently inaccurate animal tests for toxicity measurements and chemical dangers, says Barnard, "will only delay the process of dealing with substances in the environment that may cause cancer, birth defects, or other adverse health consequences."

Critics of animal welfare advocacy groups claim they manipulate public perception and use erroneous data themselves in collecting a huge amount of funding, and then spend most of it on administrative costs instead of actually caring for animals or conducting effective rescue programs.

If you are thinking of donating money to an animal welfare cause, but are unsure of its reputation or effectiveness, there is a useful Web site maintained by a rating organization called Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org). This non-profit group researches and rates both wildlife conservation charities and animal rights and welfare advocacy charities. To rate your organization of interest, just go to the category "Animals" when you pull up the Web site.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com October 21 2003