From the outside, they look like non-descript buildings on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.
Inside, however, Will Lowrey describes rhesus monkeys in acrylic restraint chairs becoming addicted to cocaine, heroin, oxycodone and fentanyl.
“You cannot read those articles and documents and think that those animals are not suffering in that lab,” Lowrey said. “People don’t know and don’t understand what’s happening.”
Lowrey is a 1994 VCU graduate, long-time animal advocate and soon-to-be animal rights attorney.
He recently learned how VCU was using grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“We have primates being injected, self-injecting themselves that have been trained to self-inject themselves with cocaine or having catheters inserted in them,” Lowrey explains.
“We have primates being injected, self-injecting themselves that have been trained to self-inject themselves with cocaine” — Will Lowrey
In research documents reviewed by 8News, 41 primates are involved in tests.
In one involving fentanyl, their partially shaven tails have been dipped for 20 seconds into water heated up to 130 degrees. According to burn experts, that is hot enough to cause third-degree burns at 30 seconds.
During the test, pain response is monitored 10, 30 and 100 minutes after fentanyl administration unless the animals show signs of distress.
“Tremors, convulsions, it’s listed in their own research documents,” says Lowrey. “I think it would be huge for VCU to speak out and say exactly what is happening there and put forth a plan for how are they going to end that.”
“I think they’ll phase it out as soon as it’s not needed,” Dr. Bill Dewey responds.
Dewey, the chairman of the VCU Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, says VCU has been a leader in opioid studies for 45 years. He explains a test in labs on campus even contributed to the development of naloxone, which is a widely-used overdose medication.
“Monkeys are used in a very small percent of the experiments that are done,” says Dewey. “They are only used when it’s absolutely necessary. We all have pets. Researchers are not people out there trying to hurt animals. We’re just the opposite.”
“They are only used when it’s absolutely necessary. We all have pets. Researchers are not people out there trying to hurt animals. We’re just the opposite.” — Dr. Bill Dewey
Lowrey contends the experiments are unnecessarily cruel.
“No matter how humane you might be, that’s not what they want,” Lowrey says about the monkeys. “They’re not a part of the process, they didn’t cause this issue.”
The issue is the opioid epidemic, which President Donald Trump declared a public health emergency in October 2017. An estimated 115 people die from the painkillers each day across the country.
Dewey says testing done at VCU aims to find pain relief without addiction, and there are reviews by veternarians, a university committee and federal agencies before research can begin.
“There are a number of tests going on with the primates that relate to treatments for opioids, but during the course of that are subjecting the primates to painful experiments,” Lowrey reaffirms the stance of animal advocates.
Dewey disagrees with that mindset.
“That’s almost an insult,” he says. “Think about it. To say that I’m going to do an experiment to hurt an animal is like saying that anybody else is gong to do their job to hurt people or to hurt an animal. People have a right to those opinions. Doesn’t make them right.”
Dewey stands by the testing. He says following their time in the lab, the monkeys live out their lives in a sanctuary.
It is not enough for advocates like Lowrey, who say there has to be another way.
“People don’t know and don’t understand what’s happening,” Lowrey says about the testing at VCU. “It’s a lack of transparency about what goes on behind the walls of the building.”
“People don’t know and don’t understand what’s happening. It’s a lack of transparency about what goes on behind the walls of the building.” — Will Lowrey
“Have you ever let camera or photographs or anything come out of the labs to show them that the animals are okay?” 8News Anchor Amy Lacey asks Dewey.
“I’d probably have to check before I would do it, to be honest with you,” answers Dewey.
A couple days after the official request to go inside the primate labs, VCU declined, saying it was an issue of safety to the animals and researchers.