OU winds down controversial baboon program, but advocates remain worried
The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center has received about $2 million for selling more than 400 baboons for medical research over the past four years as part of a controversial breeding program funded by the National Institutes of Health.
While OU announced in 2015 that it would end its baboon program within four years after growing criticism from animal welfare groups, the project still receives federal funding and OU continues to sell baboons for research, records show.
Animal welfare advocates are concerned about what they perceive is a lack of transparency about how OU is winding down the program and what will happen to the animals.
"We are very concerned the baboons could potentially be sold off and end up in another laboratory," said Michael Budkie, co-founder of the nonprofit Stop Animal Exploitation Now! "It's not going to be an improvement if they just go to another laboratory where they are treated the same way."
No plans for sanctuary
There are no plans to retire the remaining baboons to a sanctuary, only to continue to sell them off to be used in research, the National Institutes of Health Office of Research Infrastructure Programs confirmed.
"Baboons owned by the University of Oklahoma will be transferred to other researchers so that these animals can continue to support biomedical research that seeks fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability," The National Institutes of Health said in a written statement.
The OU Health Sciences Center continues "winding down" its baboon program on schedule, James Tomasek, vice president for research at OU, said in a statement.
"Since this program is funded by the National Institutes of Health, we actively communicate with the NIH regarding plans and provisions for baboons, including relocation options and eventually closing the NIH-funded facility," Tomasek said. "At this time, the OU Health Sciences Center anticipates that the colony will be closed on schedule, according to the 3-4 year timeline previously announced."
The University of Oklahoma declined to provide any more details about where baboons in the program are being sent.
The Oklahoman obtained some data about baboon sales through an open records request. However, OU refused to release information about the buyers, citing a provision in state law that exempts sensitive proprietary information and research from the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
According to information the school would release, 16 institutions purchased baboons for research between 2012 and 2016.
"In all cases, the institutions were USDA-registered (United States Department of Agriculture) and held the necessary federal requirements for receiving and using this species," OU stated.
The OU program sold 408 baboons between 2012 and 2016 for $2,007,296, an average $4,919.84 per animal, records show.
Facility located in El Reno
The baboon operation is housed in a facility in El Reno north of Fort Reno, called Fort Reno Science Park near the Canadian River. Public access to the site is restricted, but satellite images of the property show a long white building with four, octagon-shaped courtyards surrounded by high walls. According to the most recent reports on file with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, OU had 712 baboons at the end of 2015.
Animal welfare advocates had hoped OU would hand the animals over to a nonprofit sanctuary for primates, or turn the Fort Reno facility into a permanent sanctuary for the baboon colony.
An online petition sponsored by Stop Animal Exploitation Now! to turn the Fort Reno facility into a permanent baboon sanctuary has so far gathered more than 82,000 signatures.
Primatologist and former OU graduate student Bob Ingersoll, who consults with animal sanctuaries on primates, said he and others in his field have tried unsuccessfully to start discussions with OU about the future of the baboons. He estimates it would cost between $7,000 and $8,500 per animal to permanently retire OU's baboons at a sanctuary.
"This is 700 baboons we are talking about — that's a lot of lives for them to not even open a dialogue with us," Ingersoll said. "We just want a seat at the table."
The University of Oklahoma continues to receive funding from the National Institutes of Health to breed and care for the baboons, records show.
For the 2017 fiscal year, The National Institutes of Health provided $691,247 for the program, according to federal records.
The federally funded program allows scientists to purchase baboons for their research program, or subcontract with the program at OU to conduct the study on location, or lease the baboons for conducting their studies and then return the animals to colony.
In the 2016 fiscal year, the National Institutes of Health gave researcher Gary L. White a $1.3 million grant in support of OU's program to breed pathogen-free baboons to be used in medical research.
In an abstract, White said the program's goal was to bring in enough money from the sale of baboons to become self-funded. The pathogen-free baboons are housed in a new "state of the art" $6.5 million, 18,000 square-foot building, the abstract said.
"We continue to make significant progress toward self-sufficiency as the program income provides almost 50 percent of the support of the baboon research resource program," the research abstract said.