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Friday, September 24, 2021

Behind the gates of the Primate Center

Editor’s Note: California Aggie reporter Jessy Wei received an exclusive tour inside the California National Primate Research Center by Director Dallas Hyde.

The walls are gray, concrete-like and bare. In front sits a receptionist behind a wall of glass that rises to the length of the ceiling. This is the entrance to the California National Primate Research Center, located on campus at UC Davis.

The CNPRC was established in 1962 and is one of eight national primate research centers. Throughout its existence, the primate center has focused on developing research while at times has been the source of controversy and debate raised by animal rights groups.

The primate center facility

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, an agency of the U.S. government, the CNPRC currently has 23 core scientists, or “investigators,” who are working in four primary research areas: brain behavior, infectious disease, reproductive and regenerative sciences and respiratory diseases. Roughly 100 UC Davis students also work at the facility throughout the year.

Today more than 5,000 monkeys – mostly rhesus macaques -live at the facility on the outskirts of Hutchinson Drive.

The facility has between 500 and 600 live births every year.

“We’re one of the world’s largest breeding centers,” said Dallas Hyde, the CNPRC’s director. Hyde is also a researcher and the recipient of a grant to study the development of asthma and the effects of air pollutants.

These monkeys are the subjects of research that attempts to “advance science and medicine, leading to new drugs, therapies and surgical procedures that benefit human and animal health, and quality of life,” according to CNPRC literature.

The center occupies approximately 300 acres of land guarded by security and gates with “No Trespassing” signs. Key cards control access to all buildings.

The facility’s residents and research

Research conducted with the monkeys must first be approved through the UC Davis Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and follow federal guidelines, according to the CNPRC website.

Approximately 3,000 monkeys are housed in 24 half-acre outdoor corrals where they can climb on jungle gym structures. A researcher sits in front of each corral and monitors interactions, wearing a face shield to protect against the occasional monkey spit. The facility’s 2,000 other primates are caged and monitored indoors.

A staff of approximately 100 is responsible for the care and management of the primates. When asked if any of the staff become attached to their research subjects, Hyde replied “Oh, yes.”  

Researchers have developed two distinct colonies of monkeys: the “conventional colony” and the “specific pathogen free” or SPF colony. The conventional colony has persistent viruses, such as herpes B, which are inherited in wild populations.

“We’re going in the direction of eliminating these persistent viruses from [the conventional] population but it takes a long time to do that,” Hyde said.

Some experiments require that monkeys be subjected to necropsy -ending an animal’s life for an experiment – for studies in which there is no other way to acquire information, Hyde said.

“Everybody stands in line to get pieces and parts if you will, so they can do these studies, so there’s a lot of utility when an animal goes to necropsy … We try to make as much use of the tissue as we can,” Hyde said.

Research at the CNPRC has included using gene therapy in treating Alzheimer’s disease, advancing the understanding of autism and working toward the development of a vaccine for HIV.

Recent controversy

Animal rights advocacy groups such as Animals Liberation Front and Stop Animal Exploitation Now, have historically taken a firm stance against primate research through persistent action and protest.

A series of commercials funded by SAEN last spring showed images of alleged primate abuse at the center.

In an April article in The California Aggie, Hyde denied the photos in the commercial came from his facility.

“Research that we do benefits humans and animals,” Hyde said. “And we…provide the most compassionate care in a captive environment.”

Michael Budkie, the executive director of SAEN, confirmed that the pictures were not taken at UC Davis, although he said that they depicted procedures used within the facility.

“Our goal was to educate the public on the procedures used,” Budkie said.

SAEN obtained grant applications and necropsy reports through public records made available through the Freedom of Information Act.

 “We believe that funding going into primate research would be better spent on clinical research … primate research is big business in the United States,” Budkie said.

Recently, Budkie filed a letter of complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding the deaths of 14 primates of which necropsy reports “indicate a high level of violence experienced by these primates,” according to the letter.

Hyde said regulatory agencies inspect the facility on a regular basis, unannounced. The staff is given “whistle blower” status, which provides full protection to those who report any offenses at the center.

For more information on the primate center, visit cnprc.ucdavis.edu.

JESSY WEI can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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