Wednesday night, Nightline airs a story of a Humane Society undercover videographer, showing "horrific" videos of primates at the UL New Iberia Research Center. The very next morning, the Humane Society announces that three Congressman are re-introducing a bill to abolish critical medical research. Is the Humane Society fabricating a story to further its political agenda?

To view the Nightline story, click here

To read the announcement of the federal bill re-introduction the next morning, click here.

To read UL's response to the story, click here.

A few disclaimers. I am a licensed physician who practiced emergency medicine for almost 20 years.  I am also a published researcher in animal behavior.  With that, no one at UL urged me to write this story, and in fact, I couldn't get my phone calls returned from anyone there.

Now, for a few clarifications.

One: Forget the monkeys and apes you see in the media. Grown primates are not cute, they are not cuddly. They are very, very dangerous animals. They are, pound for pound, several times stronger than we are, and they have very long, very dangerous teeth. Witness the recent near-fatal mauling of a woman by a grown chimpanzee.

Adult primates are often vicious, and they are highly intelligent.  They will fake sleep and injury, in order to ambush handlers.  In the wild, primates often fight bloody fights over dominance-- for the males, sometimes to the death-- and they will approach their human handlers with the same ruthlessness.

Two: Not surprisingly, with that immense strength, primates are also much, much tougher than we are physically.  While they are sailing great distances through trees, they not only take tremendous falls by accident, they will intentionally slam their bodies onto the ground from considerable heights, just for play.

Three: Facilities like the NIRC are not theme parks, they are not animal preserves. They are designed to be as humane as possible, but their mission is to provide humanity with essential medical research to safeguard us all.

Four: Every vaccine that protects our children, every drug that saves human lives, every internal device that allows people to continue living, must first be tested on the animals closest to us:  monkeys and apes.  If primates were not available, then that dangerous testing would have to be carried out on humans.  It is unfortunate that animals must be caged and used as subjects in important clinical research, but it is vastly preferable to any alternative.

Five:  These primates are worth a lot of money. Some of them can cost over $10K apiece to acquire, and thereafter they require many thousands of dollars each year to maintain. If, as the Nightline piece claims, the NIRC is only "about the money... [the] big bucks," then researchers have a vested interest interest in keeping these animals healthy and safe.

Six: The NIRC, and all centers like it, follow strict guidelines, and are subject to constant review and inspection.  The guidelines are designed to protect the animals, to protect the handlers, and-- very important-- to protect the license of the facility.  For all of these reasons, the NIRC works assiduously to prevent any violation of those guidelines.

When considering the Nightline videos, remember those points. The videos presented by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) seem to portray a facility run amok. That makes no sense in the context of all of the preceding.

Now, let's look at what the Humane Society and Nightline actually have presented in their exposé. They had an undercover agent in NIRC for nine months, for most of 2008.  From that extended period, Nightline & the HSUS show us eight brief clips.

Consider that:  more than 6,000 non-human primates; 230 employees; an undercover camera for 9 months... and eight 15-second clips.  That's not a large number.  If animal abuse were a real problem at the NIRC, we would have expected many more clips.

And frankly we would have expected to see much worse.  Let's look at the clips, one by one.

1) A sedated primate lying on a counter with several other "unsupervised" sedated primates, slips to the ground.

UL admits that this should not happen.  They also point out that the person responsible for that animal, was the videographer herself.  But let's look at it on face value.

First, the primates aren't unsupervised, there are several people in the room. "Supervised" doesn't mean that a pair of eyeballs are on the subject at all times.  That doesn't even happen in the best ICUs.

Second, remember that these animals are extremely tough.

Third-- and I hate to admit this-- I've seen the same thing happen in emergency rooms, operating rooms, post-op recovery rooms, patient rooms-- and very frequently in nursing homes.  Patients slip off of beds, gurneys, examination tables, and surgery tables.  It doesn't very happen often, but it happens.  Likewise, veterinarians sedate our pets and work with them on flat surfaces all the time, and yes, occasionally they slip off.

It's unfortunate, but if you deal with thousands of animals-- or people-- every day, it will occasionally happen.

2) Someone walks through a hall of cages, appearing to randomly shoot primates with sedation darts. After that we see one or two animals fall to the ground.  As each hits, we hear a loud metallic "bang."

First, the images are not continuous, and are apparently spliced together from several clips.  Why aren't we shown the clips in the order in which the events unfolded?

Second, sedation darts are used in every zoo and wild animal preserve in the world.  It is a standard, well-accepted protocol for handling large, dangerous animals.  Also, review item Two above.  These animals take much greater falls all the time, just to amuse themselves.

These are trained animal handlers, following protocols designed for animal safety, and more importantly, handler safety

3) A primate is struck three times in the teeth with a pole.

The University explained that this is a standard procedure, when an animal must be tubed in one way or the other.  No great force is delivered, and the person doing it has 18 years experience.

4) A tiny primate tries to bite a handler, and the handler hits it in the head with a rubber bar.

Notice again, these clips are edited.  We don't see the animal biting the handler.  We also don't see the handler picking up the rubber bar.  But we do see the handler putting the rubber bar down and picking up a nursing bottle.

Remember, although the primate is small and cute, it isn't a "baby." It is very strong, very agile, with very sharp teeth.  Next, what do you do when your own child bites you? You probably swat him or her, on the limbs or the buttocks. Primate mothers do the same, they hit their children hard enough to instill discipline, but not so hard as to cause any damage.

Primates don't, however, hit their children's buttocks. It probably wouldn't be effective; remember, these are very tough animals. So primate parents clout their children in the head, what we used to call "boxing their ears."

Now, let us make a reasonable assumption about the omitted footage:  the hander puts down the bottle, picks up a small rubber bar that seems to have no other function, and swats the primate on the head.  If this were abuse, if the handler were striking out of anger rather than out of protocol, she would not stop to pick up that bar.  She would simply strike with her hands or with whatever was available.

From my background in animal behavior, I am willing to bet good money that this is because the handler's response-- and in fact, the small rubber bar she uses-- are both specifically designed to mimic what a good primate parent does.

5) An infant primate is being force-fed, and the infant and its mother are both screaming.

This happens to children in every hospital in the country.  I've done it to sick and injured children on many occasions. We frequently strap down children and put tubes and needles into them. It's not pleasant.  The children cry, their parents cry.

It's not abuse, however. It's medicine.

6) Primates are bouncing around in their cages as the videographer walks by.

UL explains this as a dominance display.  We don't even need that much explanation.

Go to a pet store, a zoo, or any place where animals are kept in cages. The animals there, particularly the primates and dogs, become very excited when someone comes near. They aren't abused.  They're bored.

7) A primate is shown biting its own shoulder, and Dr. Martin Stevens of the Humane Society explains that this is a "classic indicator of frustration, neuroses, and even psychoses."

Dr. Stevens is entirely correct.  Unfortunately, what he says is equally true of many animals in captivity, whether in a zoo, in a pet store, or even in our homes. We have all seen dogs and cats wearing those huge plastic collars; they are "bite collars." They are designed to keep your pets from doing exactly what the primate in this clip was doing.

However, UL points out that in some centers this behavior can be as high as 14%.  At UL, it's 1/2%.  And the NIRC explains that once these animals are identified, they are treated with appropriate medications to prevent it.

8) A primate has its leg stuck in a hole in a cage.

Again, go into any pet store. You will frequently see the same thing with the animals there.  For that matter, I've occasionally had to pull my dogs' and cats' legs out of various holes around the house and in my yard.

So, after nine months of videography with 6,000 potential victims, we have only eight short clips, and a reporting angle that cannot qualify as unbiased:  Nightline never talks with anyone who handles wild animals, except these three objectors. No big game wardens, no zookeepers, no large animal veterinarians are consulted. Nightline never looks into the realities of handling large and very dangerous wild animals. 

It is true that UL officials refused to speak with Nightline.  But then, considering the sensational nature of the final product, that appears to have been a very wise decision.

But we can begin to see that in all of these clips, the animals appear to be handled according to federal and professional guidelines. Nevertheless, all of this is presented in a negative light, meant to portray animal neglect and abuse. Are the videographer, HSUS, and Nightline interested in the complex moral issues involving the welfare of caged wild animals?  It does not appear to be so.

Now consider the very strange timing sequence here:  Nightline breaks the story on Wednesday night, Thursday morning the HSUS announces that lawmakers are re-introducing a bill to abolish this sort of research.  [Addendum 2009.03.07: On the same morning, HSUS also approached the Louisiana Governor to retire all of the chimpanzees at NIRC.] It almost looks orchestrated: a very small number of questionable clips are shown from a single facility, and within hours the Humane Society wants to shut all of this research down, everywhere.  It appears to be a rush to judgment, an effort to fulfill some political agenda without allowing time for dissenting opinions.

Besides the lack of impartiality and the timing, there are other things that are concerning.  For instance, what are we to make of the videographer?  Remember, this is not a whistle-blower; this is not someone who was already on the job, and who discovered disturbing things.  According to the Nightline story, she took this job under less-than-honest circumstances.  She did not sign on to do a job, she specifically wanted to capture videos of animal abuse. And yet, she didn't find very much.

The concerns don't stop there.  Consider: animal abuse is strictly forbidden by the NIRC and the Federal Agencies that oversee it.  So if this is indeed inappropriate behavior, the worst that NIRC has done is in not knowing about it.  So the NIRC isn't the culprit here. The individuals captured in the video clips are.

And yet, the identities of the perpetrators are hidden.  We don't hear their voices, and we don't ever get a good look at their faces. With one or two exceptions, it would be impossible to identify exactly who was "abusing" these animals.

It can't simply be a question of protecting identities for legal reasons.  If the HSUS & Nightline want to avoid identifying individuals on national TV, they could simply blur out their faces, as journalists frequently do.  Then there would be a record of the problems for NIRC and licensing officials to review, and use to take corrective action. 

But that's not what we see.

Now let's think about that for a moment. If we put ourselves in the shoes of someone wishing to expose and prevent the accepted definition of animal abuse, then most of all we will want to expose the culpable parties.  NIRC does not condone animal abuse, so the 'guilty' are these individuals.  That seems obvious.  Nevertheless, the videographer and the HSUS choose to criticize the NIRC, and protect the perpetrators.  We are tempted to conclude that the HSUS is not interested in the accepted definition of animal abuse, nor is it interested in stopping that abuse.  It appears, instead, that it is interested in foisting off its preferred definition of animal abuse, and thereby stopping the research altogether.  Given those points, it appears that this complaint of abuse is simply a canard, a means to some political agenda, while simultaneously circumventing our traditions of open discussion and self-determination.

I realize I am questioning a very highly respected organization here.  But review the evidence: this videographer, working under the direction of the HSUS, allegedly broke binding contracts and perhaps the law.  Then a slanted story appears on Nightline, and within hours, the Humane Society wants to summarily shut down all such activities everywhere, without further investigation, and without in-depth public discussion and reflection. 

So it's not a matter of whether the HSUS is willing to be unethical. The only question for us is, just how far is the Humane Society willing to go?

And what are we to make of Nightline?  If our interest is in truly pursuing justice and preventing suffering, we can go into any town of 6,000 people, and easily find worse than they have shown us here.

Much, much worse.

Nightline, however, labels these clips "horrific." None of this is horrific. Horrific is what happens to children, the elderly and the handicapped in our own neighborhoods. Horrific is the physical abuse, the sexual abuse, and the emotional abuse of the defenseless. Horrific is hunger, and abandonment, and constant danger on your own street, in your own home. 

Horrific is what happens in the ghettos a few blocks from ABC's posh Manhattan headquarters.

And more to our point here, horrific is those who would seek to protect animals through dissimulation, and by doing so, threaten human health and safety.

So, on the charges of abuse, it seems clear that someone abused something here.  But it appears that an interest in abusing the truth trumped any interest in primates.

To voice your opinion to Nightline, click here.

To contact local Congressmen and voice your opinions on primate research,

click the appropriate link: 

Congressman Charles Melançon - Congressman Charles Boustany - Senator Mary Landrieu - Senator David Vitter