PETA sues UMass over monkey videos

  • In this Oct. 21, 2016 photo, students pass the Old Chapel on the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst, Mass. The university announced Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, that the building opened for the first time after a 21 million renovation. It was closed in 1999 because of structural deterioration. BOSTON GLOBE VIA AP/Suzanne Kreiter

Staff Writer
Published: 3/25/2019 11:57:39 PM

AMHERST — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is suing the University of Massachusetts for not handing over video records of experiments done on monkeys, despite being instructed to do so by the state 10 months ago.

In November 2017, PETA submitted a public records request to UMass asking for video records of experiments from a project studying laboratory monkey behavior through funding from the National Institutes of Health. The request also asked more generally for an inventory of photo and video records of monkey research.

UMass sent back some records but no videos, according to the lawsuit, citing several exemptions as reasons why. In response, PETA filed an appeal to the state supervisor of public records, and won. The university was ordered to review the records, redact sections if necessary and give them to PETA within 10 business days, supervisor Rebecca Murray told the school in a May 2018 letter.

But a lawsuit filed in Suffolk County Superior Court on Monday alleges that UMass did not send the records to PETA in the allotted time. Instead, the university emailed PETA in August, explaining why it was declining to provide the records.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said he was unfamiliar with the lawsuit and declined to comment. “As a standard practice, we don’t comment on pending litigation,” he said.

PETA is a nonprofit animal rights organization known for its provocative publicity campaigns.

In the university’s response to PETA’s records request, it invoked several exemptions to the state’s public records law as reasons why it would not provide the videos.

Citing trade secrets and other proprietary information, the university stated it would not provide videographic records for current research, nor would it share records that contain images of individuals, which could compromise their privacy and safety.

In its August message to PETA included in the lawsuit documents, the university wrote that the videos were “prepublication research data,” and therefore intellectual property “squarely within the language of the exemption.” It also said that the videos could put the people in them at risk, providing several links including FBI testimony about threats from animal rights extremists. It added there would be a cost to blurring people’s photos.

A PETA representative said the group frequently files similar public information requests and it’s not uncommon to encounter resistance.

“None of the labs want to let the public see what they’re doing … It’s pretty normal they don’t give this up without a fight,” said Jeremy Beckham, a research associate at PETA who filed the public records request.

“I think the public has a right to see what is going on and decide for themselves whether or not it’s something they want to continue supporting,” Beckham said.

The project in question looked at how abnormal behavior develops in captive rhesus monkeys, animals frequently used in lab research, according to the National Institutes of Health records. Its goal was to research and prevent self-injurious behavior in lab monkeys — a condition in which monkeys bite themselves, the project’s NIH information said — through prevention, treatment and testing a hypothesis that stress and anxiety are causes of the condition.

The research started at Harvard Medical School in 1996 and moved to UMass Amherst several years ago when Melinda Novak, the project’s leader and now a UMass professor of psychological and brain sciences, came to the school. The last year it received NIH grant funding was 2016, according to NIH records.

According to a UMass biography page for Novak, she was the head of the behavioral primatology unit at the Harvard Medical School’s New England Primate Research Center. The Harvard lab closed in 2015. It was credited with medical breakthroughs but also criticized by animal rights activists after several monkeys died, according to the Boston Globe.

Greta Jochem can be reached at

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