Some lab chimps left with poor health, shortened lives

ALAMOGORDO, N.M. — They've been out of the lab for years, but for many chimpanzees at a federal primate facility here, the effects of long-ago medical experimentation can linger till they die.

Mercedes, for example, suffered a major loss of blood the day she died, a situation that probably was worsened by her chronic hepatitis, her death records say; she also had an enlarged adrenal cortex, "likely due to chronic stress."

For others, their years at the Alamogordo Primate Facility ended more disturbingly. Three died from electrocution, due to faulty wiring at the facility, and two others were the focus of an animal cruelty case brought by the local prosecutor.

The deaths at Alamogordo reflect an unfortunate reality of experimentation: In pursuit of cures for humans, some chimpanzees' lives are cut short.

In all, 70 chimpanzees have died at the facility over the past 10 years, many from heart failure, liver failure or multiple organ failure. While the number is higher than the contractor that runs the facility had projected, it's within the range that the National Institutes of Health had indicated was possible.

The NIH has overseen the lab for 10 years, since the previous owner of the chimps ran into care problems; the NIH took custody of up to 288 chimps and gave Massachusetts-based Charles River Laboratories International Inc. a $42.8 million, 10-year contract to run the facility.

McClatchy reviewed the records of chimpanzees who lived and died at Alamogordo over the last 10 years. The records detail an animal's entire history, from minor dental procedures to serious illnesses. They show a chimp's final hours or days — and how the facility reacted. The records also reveal new information about the final hours of Rex, who was part of the focus of the animal-cruelty case.

The chimps have lived hard lives, with years of being anesthetized, biopsied and infected in HIV and hepatitis experiments. Of the 70 who died, 14 of them were in their teens, even though chimps can live to their 30s or 40s.

The long-term impact of the research was evident in the case of Mercedes, who died in 2007 at the young age of 17 and had been infected with hepatitis earlier in her life.

The day of her death, she'd suffered a serious cut, followed by a huge loss of blood, her records say.

It took a couple of tries to stanch the blood, but it eventually subsided, and she was held for recovery. Over the course of the next few hours, her breathing was steady but she wasn't moving; by 7 p.m., she'd stopped breathing.

In its review of the lab records, McClatchy also found these deaths:

  • Three chimps were electrocuted in January 2004. Even though Charles River had examined the facility and declared it in excellent repair, an NIH review said faulty construction years before was to blame for the electrocution deaths. According to the NIH, stray voltage in a wall became dangerous when a chimp held two things — a metal platform and a second metal object — at the same time that the overhead lights were on. Two chimps died one day. A day later, while officials were still attempting to understand those deaths, a third chimp was electrocuted. The facility then moved other chimps away from the faulty cages.
  • At least two chimps died soon after routine medical procedures. In 2006, Marla, 22, was anesthetized for a blood draw; she died during her recovery. In 2003, Wally, 32, died soon after dental surgery.
  • The deaths of two chimps and the near-death of a third prompted the local district attorney to bring a case of animal cruelty against the facility in 2004. One of those deaths involved Rex.
  • According to a report by a consultant the NIH hired to review the deaths, Rex's last day in late 2002 went like this: In the morning, the 16-year-old chimp had little appetite and a cough. He was dehydrated, with a mass in his abdomen; he hadn't eaten his monkey chow the previous two days. He was examined that day and "Accepted diagnostic and treatment procedures were performed; however, the chimpanzee died," the consultant reported. Rex's history of liver biopsies probably led to a condition called septicemia, or bacteria in his blood, the consultant said.

    But Rex's recently released medical records provide more detail, some not available at the time of the animal cruelty case. The records "reveal what both Charles River and the NIH never wanted the DA, or a jury, to see: This young chimpanzee was in severe pain when he was awake; that during a physical exam he not only vomited but also spurted clotted blood from his nose; that he was a physical wreck," said Eric Kleiman of In Defense of Animals, an advocacy group that forced open the chimps' medical records after a lengthy legal battle with the NIH.

    That afternoon, Rex had been sedated for the examination. "He appeared quite painful in recovery room when roused," the records say. "He vomited frequently."

    As he was recovering, a worker stayed by his side. At the end of the day, however, the worker and facility vet left; the "evacuation wand" that had been used to clean up the chimp's vomit was put away. The night maintenance staff was left to watch the animals, a task that one of the night workers told the local prosecutor he wasn't qualified to handle.

    The worker was told to conduct hourly watches of Rex. He called the vet once, saying Rex was unconscious but breathing and continuing to vomit.

    Rex was found dead at 11:30 p.m. with vomit in his mouth and windpipe, according to his death records.

    Scot Key, who was then the district attorney, brought the animal cruelty case based on Rex's death, as well as one other death and one near-death.

    The case came down to legal definitions, however: New Mexico had an exemption in animal-cruelty law that said veterinarians couldn't be found guilty if they were engaged in "the practice of veterinary medicine."

    As a New Mexico appeals court declared: "We agree that abandoning an animal and negligently mistreating an animal are indeed considered cruelty to animals. However, the Legislature clearly and unambiguously excepted the provisions of the animal cruelty statute from applying to the practice of veterinary medicine."

    "The facts were largely uncontested," said Key, who's now a chief deputy district attorney in Las Cruces, N.M. "Their view is that it wasn't that critical. There was always an on-call vet, and the guards, although they were untrained, were at least trained to call the vet. That fit their theory of acceptable veterinary care."

    The appeals court agreed, and the case fizzled.

    In response to questions about the management of the facility, the NIH said it was satisfied with Charles River's performance. Sally Rockey, an NIH deputy director, said the firm had done a "quite good" job. The NIH visited the facility last year, she said, and U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections haven't found any violations in the past five years. In a statement, Charles River said it had "a deep commitment to animal welfare, and we make every effort to exceed national standards for the care of the animal models under our stewardship."


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