Five years ago, animal rights advocates called on federal regulators to improve the conditions of non-human primates used in federally funded research studies.
The government still hasn’t responded to their petition, and now a Harvard Law School program, the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, and other animal welfare groups have sued the US Department of Agriculture, alleging that the agency has failed to ensure adequate living conditions for primates, including rhesus macaques, baboons, and marmosets.
“We are bringing this case to compel the USDA to put in place clear, enforceable laws that will ease the burden of suffering on non-human primates, some of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom,” said Brett Richey, a Harvard Law School student who helped file the lawsuit on behalf of the school’s new Animal Law & Policy Clinic. “These animals deserve our protection.”
Officials at the USDA said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
There were nearly 106,000 non-human primates held in captivity last year for experiments, according to the complaint, which was filed Wednesday in US District Court in Boston.
In Massachusetts, primates were held in 15 USDA-licensed facilities, including ones at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, Boston University, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Charles River Laboratories, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
The plaintiffs submitted their petition to the USDA a year after the National Institutes of Health adopted standards in 2013 to protect the psychological well-being of chimpanzees used in federally funded research.
Animal rights groups have urged the federal government to recognize that the primates require environmental enrichment, such as being able to live in social groups, having access to the outdoors, and having opportunities to forage for food, climb, build nests, and make choices about their activities.
“There is overwhelming evidence demonstrating the psychological capabilities and needs of primates,” said Nathan Herschler, executive director of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, a Boston-based advocacy group that has called for a ban on using animals for research.
Many institutions have failed to allow such enrichment, the groups said. Between 2010 and 2012, for example, four monkeys died at Harvard’s former New England Primate Research Center in Southborough. The university was fined $24,000 by federal regulators.
After the deaths became public, the Globe reported that a dozen monkeys between 1999 and 2011 had been found dehydrated and dead in their cages or had been euthanized for poor health.
The complaint, filed in conjunction with the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the International Primate Protection League, contends that the government has a duty to improve primates’ living conditions, saying they share many cognitive abilities and needs with humans. Like humans, the primates exhibit complex emotions, develop relationships, and require mental stimulation.
“The USDA’s failure to implement appropriate standards protecting primates’ psychological well-being is causing animals to suffer in isolation and without adequate enrichment,” said Christopher Berry, a senior staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a California-based advocacy group.
Primates living in confined conditions often develop pathological behaviors and suffer severe stress. Behaviors include biting themselves, repetitive circling, grooming to the point of damaging their skin, and other forms of self-harm.
Severe stress can have a negative impact on the validity of the research, the plaintiffs said.
The complaint also accused the agency of violating rules that require it to respond to formal petitions within a reasonable period and asked the court to compel the agency to respond.
“We have waited far too long for the USDA . . . to upgrade these minimum standards,” said Katherine Meyer, director of Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic. “These primates, who have been used in research to help us, deserve to be treated as humanely as possible.”