Animal Suffering Makes for Sloppy Science

A recent retraction of a paper describing a study involving squirrel monkeys at the now-closed New England National Primate Research Center (NENPRC) shows once again that poor animal welfare leads to poor science.

The original paper appeared in the May 2014 edition of the journal Veterinary Pathology (Vol. 51: 651–658). It suggests—based on a retrospective analysis of the brains of 13 squirrel monkeys who had died at the NENPRC from 1999 through 2011—that this species is prone to developing hypernatremia—elevated sodium levels in the blood (commonly caused by dehydration)—with associated effects on the central nervous system.

The authors, however, were induced to walk back this conclusion, when it came to light that several of these monkeys apparently succumbed not because of an inherent vulnerability but rather because the monkeys were severely water deprived. The retraction notice states, “Further evaluation of clinical case materials which were not available to us at the time of submission and publication … suggests that a subset of the animals described in the paper may have had inadequate access to water.”

The possibility that at least some of the animals in this study were the victims of neglect should not have come as a surprise to the authors. The USDA cited the NENPRC for the water deprivation death (euthanization) of a squirrel monkey in December 2011 and another—of a cotton-top tamarin—in February 2012, resulting in a $24,036 fine for these and other Animal Welfare Act violations (see Winter 2014 AWI Quarterly). In April 2013, Harvard stunned the research world by announcing the closure of the NENPRC, a move that became effective May 2015. Harvard claimed it was merely a cost-cutting measure, but industry insiders say the string of egregious missteps and consequent sour publicity played a significant role in the decision.

This study’s faulty foundations might have slipped by unnoticed were it not for an April 8, 2015, Boston Globe article in which a highly respected former director of the NENPRC, Dr. Frederick Wang, revealed that 12 dehydrated squirrel monkeys had been found dead in their cages or were euthanized because of poor health from 1999 to 2011. He and outside specialists contacted by the Globe suggested that these deaths likely were the result of improper attention to basic animal welfare. The dead included a 4-year-old female who had no water spout in her cage, a 10-year-old female whose water line was malfunctioning, three monkeys with a medical history of “water deprivation,” and a 3-year-old female rendered unable to drink after her tooth became snagged in a jacket. The data provided by Wang, in fact, suggests that these types of deaths may have gone on for a decade.

 According to the Globe, Wang disclosed the information because he believed the paper could lead to “unwarranted research,” as it purports to illustrate the susceptibility of squirrel monkeys to developing hypernatremia where the real culprit may have been neglect. Instead of showing that squirrel monkeys would be a good “model” for hypernatremia research, said Wang, the retracted paper is actually a report on the “‘consequences of what appeared to be inadequate animal care.’” AWI wholeheartedly agrees.