When I was appointed Executive Dean for Administration at Harvard Medical School in 1998, I learned for the first time of the existence of the New England Primate Center. One of eight such centers in the US, this is a home to several types of monkeys that are used for medical research. The value of such research is uncontroverted, but the facilities like to stay in the background because they have been the targets, literally and figuratively, of animal rights advocates who believe they should be shut down.
So, it was bad news recently for the New England center when it was disclosed that a number of their cotton top tamarin monkeys had died from improper treatment. I remember these monkeys well. They had been collected from the forests of Colombia. In 1973 the species was declared endangered and importation was banned. As reported on this website:
Current population numbers are unknown, but more than 3/4 of its original habitat has been deforested, much of it for cattle pasture. Remnant populations are small and are restricted to a few isolated forest fragments. Currently, deforestation for agriculture, fuel, and housing is the greatest threat to the survival of the cotton-top tamarin.
The "endangered" designation meant that the researchers in the primate centers could no longer kill the monkeys for purposes of medical research. As I recall, the only research that was permitted was about colitis, which is a naturally occurring medical problem for these monkeys. Because of the monkeys' statutory protection, primate centers became breeding centers for the tamarins. In captivity, females can give birth to twins every 28 weeks. So, the primate centers often looked for other places, like zoos, to send them.
I think the zoos like them because they are cute and adorable, and perhaps because they look somewhat like Ewoks from Star Wars. It is all too easy to anthropomorphize them, as you see in this report from the NEW Zoo in Wisconsin:
“Bonnie was sent here to join Clyde in 2007 and the two hit it off instantly!”, remarked Murach. “They have been a closely bonded couple ever since. In 2010 the SSP (Species Survival Plans) asked that they start a family and they were happy to comply. The young tamarins were born the day after Christmas and after a few weeks of privacy are ready to meet the world!”
(Meanwhile, check out this overweight specimen in New York City.)
It goes without question that the primate centers owe a duty of care to the animals in their possession, and it appears from the news reports that such was lacking in Southborough. The result, though, was striking. Here's the story, as reported by Carolyn Johnson in the Boston Globe:
The interim director of Harvard’s New England Primate Research Center, appointed in September to address problems at the animal research facility, resigned from the position yesterday after the death Sunday of a monkey that was found in poor condition in a cage without a water bottle.
It was the third death in Dr. Fred Wang’s short tenure as head of the facility in Southborough and the fourth there since June 2010.
In a statement, Wang said that he decided to resign “for personal and professional reasons, despite the strong requests from Harvard Medical School to continue.’’
Why is this striking? Because of the contrast with the situation in human medical facilities. There, senior administrators feel no guilt and have been granted virtual impunity in the face of preventable fatalities. Boards of trustees routinely fail to hold leadership accountable for making quality and safety improvements a priority in their hospitals. Most boards do not even try to govern this aspect of hospital operations. How, in the face of 100,000 preventable deaths per year -- equivalent to a full Boeing 727 crashing every day -- can the lay and professional leadership of so many hospitals turn their backs on this issue?
Oh, it must be because those patients don't look like Ewoks.