UMass settles lawsuit with PETA over research monkeys 

  • A screenshot from a 13-minute video released by PETA showing caged monkeys that were studied by a UMass researcher.  PETA

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus Courtesy photo

Staff Writer
Published: 6/25/2020 6:41:32 PM

AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts has settled a lawsuit with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), following a two-plus-year public records dispute over video footage showing caged monkeys that were studied by a UMass researcher.

As ordered by the state, UMass released the footage Wednesday; portions of it are now posted on PETA’s YouTube channel in a 13-minute video, which shows monkeys, some of which apparently have bare patches in their fur, pacing in small cages and grabbing at the top and sides of these cages.

The monkeys in the videos were housed at four different national primate research centers, and footage and primate hair samples from these centers were sent to Melinda Novak, then a professor in the UMass department of psychological and brain sciences working on a project titled “Self-Injurious Behavior and Primate Well-Being.”

The full 40 hours of video footage, which the university agreed to turn over with images of researchers redacted, show “deeply distressed monkeys housed in small metal cages, pacing endlessly, tearing out their hair, and even poking their thumbs into their own eye sockets,” PETA spokesperson Tasgola Bruner said in a statement.

On Thursday, Novak said the goal of the project was to improve animal welfare by studying conditions of monkeys already in research centers and identifying risk factors for self-harming behavior patterns among these animals. There behaviors were already present before the study began, Novak said.

“There was no experiment here,” Novak said, “and I have never, ever, ever in my entire life ever run a project to make animals have these behavior problems, then somehow study it.”

Novak retired from the university last year; PETA alleges it was to avoid being deposed. Novak denied this claim, stating that she retired last year because her husband has a serious illness.

PETA obtained the footage after a public records dispute beginning in November 2017, which UMass initially did not answer in full, claiming exemptions, the Gazette reported. PETA appealed the response, and in May 2018 the state ordered the university to send PETA the requested video and photo records within 10 business days.

In March 2019, PETA filed a lawsuit in Suffolk County Superior Court alleging that the university had not sent the organization its requested records.

University spokesman Ed Blaguzewski said that the university at first “did seek to deny the request in order to protect security and any progress in intellectual or scholarly work, but UMass eventually decided to settle the complaint and provided the redacted video.”

Blaguszewski said that Novak’s work “was aimed at understanding and mitigating trauma for research animals in order to improve their situations,” which he described as being in line with research the university supports.

“UMass Amherst is a major research university conducting important research as part of its mission to advance scientific knowledge, education and understanding, and the university supports its researchers in doing so,” Blaguszewski said.

But PETA Vice President Alka Chandna said that research such as Novak’s has not led to any improvements for how monkeys are treated in labs, and it enables animal abuse.

“Three decades of studying the psychological, emotional, and physical trauma of monkeys caged for experiments — yet not one thing has been done to help these animals,” Chandna said in a statement, referring to Novak’s history of researching monkeys in labs.

“Experimenters at federally funded national primate research centers must stop creating trauma simply to study it, and the use of monkeys must end now,” Chandna added.

Novak said her research does make a positive difference for animal welfare, noting that at the New England Primate Research Center, researchers took her suggestion to not use younger animals in certain types of research, and that over the years she has encouraged social housing of lab animals, rather than single-cage isolation.

“I do respect the view of the people who don’t want primate research conducted,” Novak said, “but this is what I say to them: Given that research is currently conducted on primates, shouldn’t we do the very best in caring for them? And that’s always been my objective.”

Novak was once the head of the Behavioral Primatology Unit at the New England Primate Research Center at Harvard Medical School, according to the UMass website. The center, which closed in 2015, was credited with medical advances, but was federally investigated after several monkeys died, the Boston Globe reported.

Novak “received more than $2.1 million in taxpayer funds” for her research, Bruner said.

According to Blaguszewski, Novak was awarded $2.1 million in grants by the National Institutes for Health between 2014 and 2018 to conduct this research, but due to federal caps on the amount of indirect cost recovery, “generally there is acknowledgment that institutions also support the cost of research performed under federal grants,” he said.

As for how much funding Novak’s project received from the university, “There is no historical tracking of such indirect support by the university for Professor Novak’s research that would allow us to answer this question accurately,” Blaguzsewski said.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at
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