Deaths at the Oregon Health & Science University’s primate center in Beaverton have included rhesus macaques and other animals. File photo from 2008. (Photo by Oregon Health & Science University)

A state lawmaker is calling for more transparency and accountability at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, which conducts medical research for human benefits and has thousands of primates in its care.

Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, is backing a proposal that would require the center, run by Oregon Health & Science University in Beaverton, to annually report to the Oregon Department of Agriculture and publicly release the details. His concerns follow animal deaths and complaints, including by employees. 

Gomberg read more than 1,600 pages of public records from the center after two adult monkeys – rhesus macaques – died in 2020. The Capital Chronicle also reviewed the records. The monkeys were scalded in cage-washing equipment after a technician accidentally left them in a cage. Dozens of employees raised concerns after the incident about a “lack of leadership” in a signed petition to the center’s management that said it has a record of other animals dying due to neglect. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the center, fined it thousands of dollars last year following other animal deaths and injuries. The animal rights group, PETA, which has repeatedly blasted the center and sued to obtain video recordings, has called for it to be shut down.

Gomberg said he is concerned about reported drinking on the job at the center, staffing shortages and employee fears about more primate deaths from negligence. 

“What surprised me was first of all a petition from employees there expressing their concern and alarm,” Gomberg said in an interview with the Capital Chronicle. “The second thing that got my attention is this evidence to indicate that there is actually consuming alcohol on the job by employees at the center which I think is alarming on its face and indicative of a larger problem.”

OHSU has consistently said the center, which is led by Director Nancy Haigwood, aims for the highest standards.

In a statement to the Capital Chronicle, OHSU Chief Research Officer and Executive Vice President Peter Barr-Gillespie said the center is looking for ways to improve.

“We seek to foster a culture of excellence across all missions, and in doing so, provide the information necessary to reinforce and strengthen our commitment to quality, safety and service to all Oregonians,” he said. “We also strive to provide a workplace and learning environment that is safe and welcoming for all. As Oregon’s academic health center, we are continually learning and working to identify opportunities for improvement.”

The nearly 5,000-primate facility has an annual operating budget of $60 million and 360 employees. The funding comes from federal dollars and grants, not state funding. 

Its research contributions include developing a method for protecting fertility in people who receive chemotherapy treatments; developing a better understanding of brain injury and repair; and devising a treatment for infections in premature infants that can cause chronic lung ailments and brain injuries, OHSU said in a statement.

The facility is one of seven national primate research centers in the United States that conduct medical research. The other six are in Washington state, California, Wisconsin, Texas, Louisiana and Georgia.

PETA, the animal rights group, held an undercover operation at Oregon Health & Science University’s Oregon National Primate Research Center in Beaverton in 2007, and snapped this picture of a monkey called Milo. (Photo provided by PETA)

Employee concerns

The public records show that more than 60 employees signed a petition after the 2020 monkey deaths, warning administrators that more disasters are possible due to the culture and a “lack of leadership.” 

“We are extremely troubled by the culture of the cage crew leadership at the (the center) – a culture known to cut corners, deflect responsibility and lack accountability,” the petition said. “The devastating loss of two primates … is the result of this lack of leadership. We are concerned that your ensuing response mistakenly characterizes this as a tragic accident rather than the tragic consequence of poor leadership. This fatal act of gross negligence spotlights the systemic dysfunction – fueled by a toxic culture of intimidation and harassment – that has been present for years within the cage crew. We are disappointed that this dangerous culture has continued unchanged post tragedy.”

The records and other sources found that in October, OHSU agreed to pay a nearly $38,000 fine to settle a U.S. Department of Agriculture enforcement case. Federal regulators flagged problems that included five prairie voles – one of them euthanized – who died of thirst after they didn’t receive water; and a monkey was euthanized after its head got caught between two pipes that were part of a resting platform and perch. 

From 2005 to 2020, the center had at least 17 primate deaths due to negligence, according to USDA records.

 A 2017 email, heavily redacted, says staff “did not think it was odd to drink at work because we have alcohol on First Fridays.” In 2014, a former employee filed a complaint with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries alleging she was terminated after reporting her supervisor for providing alcohol to an employee on the click, the Oregonian reported.

Gomberg’s legislative proposal, House Bill 2904, would require the center to annually report information on primate populations, births, injuries and deaths, research projects and funding to the Oregon state veterinarian – and for that information to be publicly available.

PETA said in a statement it supports the legislation. “If it takes a law to ensure that we will find out the next time the Oregon National Primate Research Center scalds a monkey to death in a high-temperature cage wash or cuts open the wrong monkey in surgery, then the Legislature should pass it in short order,” said Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of PETA.

Center responds

Barr-Gillespie, in the statement, said the center follow standards for animal care as outlined in the federal laws and regulations that include the Health Research Extension Act the Animal Welfare Act. U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors make unannounced visits to the primate center at least once a year to review the animals, food supply, medications and records. Those reports are posted on the federal agency’s website and the center’s website

 “At the Oregon National Primate Research Center, faculty and staff understand and embrace the responsibility to provide compassionate and leading-edge veterinary care that comes with the privilege of working with animals,” Barr-Gillespie said. “Dozens of highly trained veterinary professionals engage with these animals on a daily basis to ensure their ongoing safety, enrichment, health and well-being. Many staff members develop strong bonds with the animals entrusted to their care; consequently, any injuries or unexpected deaths are devastating for all involved.”

He said serious incidents are reported immediately to OHSU’s Research Integrity Office, which investigates and reports to the university’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee for follow-up actions and changes.

“While human error and the unpredictable behavior of undomesticated animals are impossible to completely eliminate, we strive to do everything in our power to employ best practices in engineering, training and supervision to protect against them,” Barr-Gillespie said.

He said that center has taken several actions to prevent harm after previous death and injuries:

• In the case of the monkeys scalded to death, the center has additional training requirements and protocols, including a two-person system that requires a second staffer to verify that a cage is empty before it’s washed.

• In the case of the monkey who died after its head was caught between two pipes, the center removed the pipes of the perch that caused the injury. The center also reviewed all perches and pipes to check them for safety. They are now checked each day for damage or instability.

• The center removed a malfunctioning cage after it failed and two separated primates fought and injured each other. The center identified other cages with a similar slide and bolt mechanism prone to failure and welded them to prevent other failures.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report.