The University of Washington has decided to close its 1,200-animal Medical Lake primate field station - about two years sooner than planned.
Instead of waiting for a new facility, university officials said Thursday the breeding colony and research center is closing Oct. 1 due to high operating costs.
Monkeys and baboons at the field station are used in medical and scientific research - most recently in tests of the promising new drug PMPA, which arrested development of an AIDS-like virus in macaques.
The university has operated the field station since 1968, taking over a former mental hospital.
But managers and staff at the facility have drawn federal scrutiny since 1994, when several animals died due to inadequate care. After the U.S. Department of Agriculture filed a complaint last year, the university paid $20,000 to improve animal care and diets.
In December, acting primate center Director Bill Morton announced plans to gradually move the primates to other sites over the next few years.
Ultimately, many of the monkeys and baboons will end up at a new, betterequipped center near Tacoma, he said then.
Now UW officials say the cost of running the Medical Lake facility for another two years, even with fewer animals, would be too high. The annual budget is about $2.2 million.
The 58 workers also have learned that few of them will have the choice of keeping their jobs.
“I don’t know how many (of the 58 workers) will keep their jobs,” said Morton. “It will certainly not be all.”
Workers, after hearing the news, were in disbelief and shock, said animal scientist Randy Nolte.
“We saw it coming, with all the talk about downsizing,” he said. “But they told us we’d have two years or so, not several months, to prepare ourselves,” he said.
Some of the Medical Lake workers also wondered if the field station’s negative publicity was a factor.
“All the people who called me today said they thought the bad press had an impact,” said Linda Harrison, who had been a records manager at Medical Lake until last year.
Harrison and another former worker, Terry Thompson, became whistleblowers while employed at Medical Lake, asking federal officials to investigate the field station for shabby animal-care practices.
They quit their jobs voluntarily and have since sued the university for damages.
Among the Agriculture Department findings at Medical Lake: the deaths of five baboons in 1994; frequent problems with animal diarrhea; and inadequate ventilation and cleanliness in some areas.
Morton denied those problems affected the decision.
“We’ve said all along that the building is old and it was increasingly tough to maintain it to meet all certifiable standards,” Morton said.
After examining all costs involved, closure was the clearest choice, he concluded.
In recent years, the university invested more than $1.2 million there for high-security areas to test animals infected with HIV and SIV, the primate version of the AIDS virus.
Back in December, Morton said a major concern was keeping several AIDS projects going, involving about 200 monkeys housed at Medical Lake.
Since then, the UW has arranged with the Oregon Regional Primate Center in Beaverton to handle those animals.
The other 1,000 animals, including about 125 baboons, will be taken to the Louisiana regional primate center associated with Tulane University.
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