It started out as a monkey farm. Then it became a source of hope in the battle against AIDS.
What bothers the final group of workers at the Medical Lake Primate Field Station, though, is knowing it will close its doors in a few months without a salute or glowing epitaph.
For 30 years, the University of Washington ran the station as part of its federally funded regional primate center. It housed thousands of monkeys or baboons used for dozens of projects - from AIDS vaccine tests to studies of alcohol’s effect on the brain.
Come Oct. 1, the gates will shut and the last 30 workers will leave with feelings of pride and frustration.
“What I don’t understand,” said Medical Lake laboratory clinician Patty Ralston, “is that nobody in this area has said anything about the loss of this place.”
The UW announced in January that running the field station had become too costly. Officials said they’ll build a primate center closer to the Seattle campus later this decade.
Most of Medical Lake’s 1,400 monkeys and baboons will be transferred to centers in Louisiana and Oregon.
Its 60 lost jobs represent more than $2 million in wages and area purchases.
The university announcement didn’t mention a series of troubles at the field station since mid-1994 - accusations of sloppy research methods, inadequate animal care and increased scrutiny by regulatory agencies.
Ralston and other Medical Lake workers say the closure is more the result of UW officials trying to fix a bad public image than a response to economic concerns.
“I felt it was a political decision to close this place that fast,” said Richard Grant, the Medical Lake research manager. Like others, he had been told the UW would run the station another two or three years.
The UW’s top primate-research official, Dr. William Morton, agreed the decision was hurried, but said it wasn’t a response to negative publicity.
Late in 1995, the federal agency in charge of primate research began urging universities to move as many animals as they could to warmer Southern states, said Morton, acting director of the UW Primate Center in Seattle.
“It happened fairly fast, and we realized we could get nearly all our Medical Lake primates to Tulane (University near New Orleans). It costs us about $5.40 a day to care for each animal in Eastern Washington. It’ll cost about $1.37 per day at Tulane,” Morton said.
To Grant, the closure fits a pattern he’s seen since coming to Medical Lake in 1990: the good things done at Medical Lake are credited to the entire university, but the troubles are an Eastern Washington problem.
He saw an example of that last November, when a Medical Lake researcher reported impressive results using a new AIDS drug.
About 40 of the field station’s 1,400 primates were given injections with PMPA a drug that stopped the onset of the primate version of AIDS.
Reporters flocked to interview the researcher, Dr. Chechung Tsai. But the manner in which Seattle officials presented the news irritated Grant and others, who felt Medical Lake’s staff deserved more credit at a time of slumping morale.
“When announcing (Tsai’s findings), they hardly mentioned that this happened at Medical Lake,” he said.
“When we got the negative publicity, people in Seattle pointed their fingers and said, ‘It’s Medical Lake’s problem, not ours,”’ said Grant.
“I’m bothered that the negative publicity in the recent period will outweigh all the good things people did there,” said Randy Nolte, a Medical Lake animal scientist.
Nolte, 42, came to the field station in 1968, two years after the UW began operating it as breeding colony. He’s one of a few workers there who saw the three-story brick building evolve into a well-equipped laboratory complex.
The UW acquired it in 1966, taking over a building first used by the state in the 1950s as a prison for “the criminally insane.”
Its presence in Spokane went mostly unnoticed until the 1990s, when federal AIDS dollars started arriving.
The UW, lacking enough research labs on its crowded Seattle campus, started moving projects to Medical Lake. By 1994, Medical Lake had received more than $5 million - nearly all from federal money - for construction and upgrades.
Its staff grew to 70, and the university was on a roll, gaining national recognition for AIDS research.
But while the money was pouring into the newly built Medical Lake AIDS labs, other sections of the building needed maintenance.
“I remember asking for newer equipment, such as incubators or IV-infusion pumps, and never getting them,” said Nolte, whose job involves blood-testing and monitoring of the animals.
He was told by administrators money wasn’t available. Yet the UW’s Seattle primate center with far fewer animals - never went lacking, Nolte said.
Then problems began taking their toll. In 1994, workers learned that five baboons froze to death in the field station’s outside yard.
In 1994 and 1995, two monkeys died when they were left in their cages without water after plumbing repairs.
Those events led to more frequent inspections by federal inspectors. At the same time, two disgruntled former workers at Medical Lake accused Tsai of shoddy research, claiming some of his AIDS projects misused animals and that he altered results.
The university created a panel to review Tsai’s work. Late last year it cleared him of serious wrongdoing.
But the federal probes of animal abuse and degraded physical facilities continued.
Last fall, the UW reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pay a penalty of $20,000. Half was to be spent on repairs and worker training.
“We ended up under the microscope,” said Robert Letscher, head of the Medical Lake Field Station since March 1995. “Every organization this size makes mistakes, and we regret the ones that happened here,” he said.
“But it became a self-perpetuating thing. If we made any small mistake, people learned about it and it made them look even harder at us.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A LOOK BACK Key events in the 30-year history of the University of Washington’s Regional Primate Center Field Station at Medical Lake: 1966: Legislature allows UW to take over former Eastern State Hospital maximum-security prison building and use it to breed primates for research. 1990: UW starts using the field station for federal AIDS projects. 1994: More than a dozen AIDS research projects under way at the field station’s labs. November 1994: Five baboons die when left outside. Event leads to heightened federal inspection. June 1995: U.S. Department of Agriculture files complaint against UW, saying Medical Lake primate-care practices are inadequate and dangerous. October 1995: UW pays $20,000 to USDA and agrees to hire extra veterinary staff. November 1995: Results from experiments led by Chechung Tsai published. National interest develops in UW’s AIDS research. Jan. 26, 1996: University officials announce field station will close Oct. 1.