Emma North Contributing Writer
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals posted an article Sept. 25 accusing VCU of mistreating lab monkeys and lying about where monkeys are sent after research.
The article, titled “Drugs, Lies, and Documents: Pulling Back the Curtain on a Monkey Laboratory,” was posted on PETA’s website and said VCU originally stated monkeys used for opioid addiction research were being sent to a sanctuary. PETA said Will Lowrey, an animal advocate lawyer, discovered this to be untrue after requesting documents from VCU under the Freedom of Information Act. VCU declined to provide a statement confirming or denying the allegations.
Lowrey made the discovery that VCU was giving chronic doses of cocaine, heroin, oxycodone and fentanyl to monkeys and observing them as they experienced periods of withdrawal from the drugs, according to PETA.
With the exception of cocaine, the drugs used on the monkeys fall under the opioid category — drugs that bind with pain-relief receptors in cells. When used incorrectly, opioids can become addictive.
Virginia’s 2016 rate of opioid deaths was slightly higher than the national average, at 13.5 per 100,000 persons, compared to 13.3, for a total of 1,130 opioid-related overdose deaths, according to National Institute for Drug Abuse.
Lowrey, a 1994 VCU graduate, became interested in the medical testing conducted on monkeys at VCU after reading about it in a February Richmond Times-Dispatch article. VCU told RTD it would cost the university thousands of dollars to pull addiction research records on the monkeys, which Lowrey said he saw as a challenge.
Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies in VCU’s School of Pharmacy Aron Lichtman said the university has a long history of conducting opioid research for medication development in order to deal with human pain. He said the research aims to find a method with reduced cases of dependence and addiction.
“This research on opioids is being done on every level, to the extent that you can simulate this — that’s great,” Lichtman said. “We just don’t know enough about addiction to only use a computer simulation model.”
Animal testing requires proper funding and approval from organizations such as the National Institute of Health and U.S. Public Health Service.
Animal testing “has to address important scientific questions and it has to at some level have something to do with public health or medicine or treating diseases,” Lichtman said. “Maybe about 10 percent of the grants will get funded so it really has to have high significance.”
While Lowrey and other animal activists may not see the “utopia” in which animal testing comes to a halt, Laura Rossacher, VCU Health assistant director for public affairs, said animal testing is slowing.
“The use of large animals in research is significantly decreasing nationally and at VCU as more non-animal models are available to researchers,” Rossacher said.
“I think a short-term thing that VCU could do is come out and officially commit that they will retire the primates to a sanctuary,” Lowrey said. “If not now, then once they’re finished with experiments.”
By filling out a form at the bottom of PETA’s article on its website, concerned citizens can contact VCU directly and request the monkeys be sent to an accredited sanctuary.
“We want VCU to know that people care about this issue,” Lowrey said. “We want that care manifested by calls, emails and Facebook posts.”