After amputating some 159 frozen toes, toes and toes from its baboons last February, a San Antonio-based research institute is implementing the lessons learned from the Winter Storm Uri in a new primate breeding facility.
The National Primate Research Center of the Southwest of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute suffered several infrastructure failures during the winter freezing, which caused approximately 15% of the center’s baboons to freeze, say Dr. Diana Scorpio, associate director of veterinary resources and research support at Texas Biomed. .
Following the amputations, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demands that the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigate the institute and take “appropriate action against” Texas Biomed.
Founded in 1941, the Texas Biomedical Research Institute is a nonprofit organization specializing in research in genetics, virology, and immunology. It houses the Southwest National Primate Research Center, one of seven national primate facilities in the United States. Texas Biomed currently cares for about 2,500 primates, Scorpio said.
Baboons, macaques and marmosets, as well as other animals such as mice and guinea pigs, which remain in the center, are used to test the effectiveness and effects of the vaccine and treatment. Over the past 18 months, the center has played an important role in the study of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, including the creation of animal models that can help bring the vaccine closer to the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval. of the USA.
Now, as the institute plans its first new primate facility in 20 years, it is taking into account information obtained by the freeze, said Texas Biomed president and president Larry Schlesinger. The new facility, which will take about a year to build and will be called the Non-Human Primate Alpha Building, will be able to house up to 800 primates of various species and will cost about $ 13.5 million, Schlesinger said.
Following PETA’s letter to the USDA, the institute agreed to allow the San Antonio Report to tour the Southwest National Primate Research Center to see its primates.
However, Texas Biomed would not allow photography at its facilities, said Lisa Cruz, the institute’s vice president of communications. Unknown people and teams are stressing the primates, Cruz said, and to get close enough to take photos would require a photographer to take a tuberculosis test to make sure that person would not pose any risk to the primates.
A tour of the baboon barracks
The baboons reside in a large concrete block of cages resembling those of a zoo, with an outer area enclosed by chain fences and a corridor to an inner area.
About 10 to 15 baboons of various ages, both male and female, reside together in a cage. Colorful toys, ropes, and toys dump the floors of occupied cages.
During the San Antonio Report visit, two baby baboons sat toward the front of the cage playing with each other. A red rubber ball sat in the nearby corner as the babies climbed up and jumped on their mothers ’breasts. In another corner, an adult baboon was sitting with his hands under a running water tap. I had a couple of cookies to eat that softened underwater.
“It’s a monkey cookie, it’s nutritionally complete,” said Blake Harrington, animal care supervisor. “Sometimes they take one of their game balls, and they bite a hole, then they do it with water and they put their cookies in it like a bowl of cereal.”
When one of the babies walked directly under his mother and synchronized with his footsteps, Scorpio pointed his tail at him.
“Can you see his shorter tail?” said veterinary technician RoseAn Thienpont, pointing to one of the animals suffering from frostbite and having to amputate the tip of its tail. Thienpont added that the surgery “was not what he would consider important.”
These baboons are primarily for breeding, Scorpio said. A The scarcity of primates in the research community makes the Texas Biomed Primate Center a valuable resource, he said. To encourage breeding, the compatibility of baboons is monitored and they are grouped accordingly.
Five Texas Biomed employees passed bubble-shaped cages where retired chimpanzees relaxed and another smaller set of concrete shacks where Rhesus macaques were clouded by fresh water as they played.
On an open 6-acre enclosure, about 200 male baboons are housed away from the main group. They are kept separate from the rest of the colony so they can be easily sold to other licensed labs or used for research, Harrington said.
The venue features wooden and steel gyms throughout the jungle and an indoor housing area that, on the day the San Antonio Report was visited, was full of baboons avoiding the August sun. Others rested inside large concrete culverts.
“They’re all men of different ages, from maybe two years old to full adulthood, so they all live together,” Harrington said. Baboons live between 20 and 30 years in the wild and longer in captivity, Scorpio said.
During the storm, many of the male baboons in the corral ventured out to play in the snow, Harrington said. Their chain fences were lined with wood to protect them from the air and had heating zones, Scorpio said.
Another 6-acre field, near the existing site, is where Texas Biomed will build its new site.
The winter storm wanders
When the Uri winter storm broke out in Texas last February, the state’s largest biomedical institute didn’t spare. Despite operating in a protected part of the CPS Energy network and having heating centers to enjoy primates on a cold day, Texas Biomed experienced continued shutdowns.
“The talent of our employees and their dedication to animals were on display during this winter storm disaster,” Schlesinger said. “There was no doubt, the employees knew immediately what to do. I think this is a success story. “
Many of the animal care staff at the primate center spent the night sleeping on air mattresses and eating from the vending machine to help them check on the primates and care for them as best they could, Thienpont said. . She and her co-workers went around every four hours, even at night, to check the temperature of the animals and help them as best they could, she said.
Like many buildings in San Antonio during the week-long freeze, the institute’s animal facilities had damaged the pipes that made it impossible to heat the floors of some of the interior facilities of the San Antonio. baboons.
Most of the freezing wounds were not serious, Scorpio said, because the animals gathered near propane-powered heaters to get warm. Heat and water were restored in a matter of hours, said Public Relations Director Nicole Foy.
PETA calls for research
After receiving federal reports of injured animals earlier this month through an open registration application, PETA demanded an investigation from Texas Biomed.
“If Texas Biomed can’t provide shelter to the animals in their care, we wonder what else they can’t do properly,” Tasgola Bruner, PETA’s laboratory media and regulatory media manager, said in a press release .
PETA claims that Texas Biomed “did not meet” the federal requirement of the animal welfare law, which protects protected primates from exposure to extreme weather conditions.
PETA accused Texas Biomed of regularly subjecting animals to “painful procedures and invasive surgeries.”
The animal rights organization said in a press release that the institute paid a $ 25,000 fine in 2012 for allowing primates to escape from their cages, which Cruz confirmed.
In 2018, four baboons escaped from the enclosure with a barrel that animal caregivers placed on the enclosure as a “enrichment tool”. Scorpio jokingly called the “naughty” baboons, but noted that they were quickly captured.
Lessons learned and plans made
Following the PETA press release, Texas Biomed issued a statement of its own that had reported themselves to the “non-life-threatening” injuries and provided “exceptional veterinary care to mitigate additional injuries.”
“The Department of Health and Human Services noted that the Institute’s efforts, which included complementary heat, were observed 24 hours a day with more than 50 staff members sleeping all night on campus to care for animals during all week, they were “consistent with the regulatory philosophy … and the steps taken to resolve the issue were adequate,” Texas Biomed said in a statement.
Texas Biomed also aims to improve the infrastructure needed to maintain the health of its primates, Schlesinger said.
The $ 31.5 million earmarked for infrastructure projects will be paid to improve the center’s pipes to ensure they don’t explode in future freezes and increase the resilience of the campus power grid, Schlesinger said.
While the storm exposed the weaknesses of the infrastructure across campus, the pandemic underscored why animal testing is needed, Schlesinger said. Without animal models, he said, drugs and vaccines like the COVID-19 vaccine could not be properly developed.
“Ethically, new drugs and vaccines cannot be put into humans without formally testing them in animal model systems … to allow the FDA to approve the initiation of clinical trials,” Schlesinger said.
Animal models can predict the performance of a particular vaccine in humans and will show the effectiveness of that vaccine, he said.
Texas Biomed deeply cares for its animals and works hard to provide them with what they need, Schlesinger said. The institute hopes to do the same at its new facilities, he added.
“Supervision is extraordinary at our primate center,” Schlesinger said. “We are highly regulated to make sure we have our best practices on how to handle our animals.”
Disclosure: Texas Biomedical Research Institute is a nonprofit member of the San Antonio Report.