Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the date of the transfer of OU’s baboon breeding program to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The transfer occurred in 2017.
After 20 years, the University of Oklahoma is ending its controversial baboon breeding program, but the animals aren’t being sent to an animal sanctuary as some had hoped.
Instead, OU’s baboon breeding program has transferred to the Michale E. Keeling Center near Bastrop, Texas, operated by The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
With the help of funding from the National Institutes of Health, MD Anderson will continue to breed the baboons for use in medical research.
Under fire from animal welfare groups, the OU Health Sciences Center vowed in 2015 to end its baboon breeding program within three to four years. By transferring the baboons to MD Anderson, the university is on track to meet that promise, but OU still has federal funding for at least one research project with the animals that lasts until 2020, according to NIH documents.
The Frontier learned of the breeding program move by reviewing National Institutes of Health grant awards.
The breeding program transferred to MD Anderson in 2017.
But it’s unclear whether all biomedical research using primates will end at OU.
At least one research project at OU involving the dissection of the brains of baboon fetuses isn’t scheduled to end until June 2020, according to NIH documents. The study, on the effects of maternal obesity on the brains of infants, was awarded about $32,000 in NIH funding in 2018.
According to a NIH project summary, the study calls for removing baboon fetuses from their overweight mothers at 90 percent gestation and dissecting the infants’ hypothalamuses in order to better understand how obesity affects brain development.
“With childhood obesity rising at an alarming rate, it is vital to understand the potential and mechanisms of in utero fetal preprogramming of obesity,” NIH documents state.
The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center did not answer a list of questions The Frontier provided about the baboon program — including whether OU will continue to conduct research projects using primates. However, the school did provide a few written statements in response.
“The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center conducts comprehensive, lifesaving, breakthrough research in many areas, including obesity, cancer, diabetes and infectious diseases in infants and the elderly,” said James J. Tomasek, vice president of research for the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. “In 2015, The University of Oklahoma initiated a wind down of the baboon breeding resource program and remains on schedule for completion by the end of June 2019.”
The baboons will be cared for by “highly specialized veterinarians, behavioral experts and other staff” at their new home in Texas, Tomasek said in another statement.
“The Keeling Center is responsibly committed to the safety and welfare of its animal population, and conducts research aimed at improving the health of humans and animals alike, while serving as a national research resource for other institutions,” the statement said.
Origins of OU’s baboon program
The University of Oklahoma’s baboon colony has been described in NIH documents as “absolutely unique in the entire world.”
The colony of olive baboons has been specially bred to to be free of 19 pathogens normally found in other wild and captive nonhuman primates, making them better suited for biomedical research.
Since 1998, the National Institutes of Health has awarded the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center more than $23.5 million to breed the baboons for use in federally-funded research across the country. OU sold some of the baboons to other research institutions and also used the animals in other NIH-funded projects. Some of the baboon research at OU has centered on better understanding and preventing infections diseases such as the Ebola and Zika viruses.
Between 2016 and 2018, the OU Health Sciences program sold 497 baboons for about $1.87 million — an average of about $4,278 per animal. The Frontier filed an open records request to find out how much money the school has made from selling the animals.
OU’s baboon breeding program is housed at a secluded facility in Canadian County called the Fort Reno Science Park near the Canadian River.
The facility is on a private road with no public access.
Satellite images of the property show a long, narrow building flanked by four dusty, octagon-shaped courtyards with high, white-washed walls.
Researchers had to take elaborate steps to breed the animals and keep them free of pathogens, according to a 2010 article on the development of the colony published in the Journal of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science.
Infant baboons were removed from their mothers soon after birth. The animals were bathed, dipped in disinfectant and placed in cages with faceless, melon-shaped cloth surrogates to replace their mothers.
Personnel were required to shower and change into special clothing before entering the pathogen-free baboon program.
Deprived of maternal love, most of the young animals developed “abnormal clinging behavior” where they huddled together in a kind of fearful group hug, according to the 2010 article.
In 2015, the animal research watchdog group Stop Animal Exploitation Now! called for the USDA to investigate OU’s baboon program after a series of animal deaths at the facility.
A few months later, then-OU president David Boren announced his decision to end the the baboon program after an internal review.
Boren based the decision on projected financial costs and a realignment of OU Health Sciences Center’s strategic research plans, the school said.
In the past three years, USDA inspectors have only cited the OU program for a single animal welfare infraction after rodent droppings were found near a bag of animal feed, according to inspection records.
A move to Texas
OU has never publicly disclosed where the baboons would go after the breeding program ended.
Stop Animal Exploitation Now! and other animal welfare advocates wanted the OU baboons to be re-homed at an animal sanctuary. A SAEN petition calling for the animals not to be used in further researched gathered more than 82,000 signatures.
While the National Institutes of Health views research using nonhuman primates as vital to new developments in fields ranging from infection diseases to neuroscience, Michael Budkie, co-founder of SAEN, said he believes there are now better alternatives.
“We should not be doing things to prolong these breeding programs by relocating them to another facility,” Budkie said. “We should be phasing them out. There are better ways of experimenting now.”
In 2017, MD Anderson was awarded funding from the NIH to move the colony to Texas and expand it by introducing more infant baboons separated from their mothers, according to NIH documents.
Scientists studying human diseases can utilize SPF baboons to study xenotransplantation, septic shock, infectious childhood diseases such as whooping cough and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), and many other diseases that threaten human health,” MD Anderson said in an NIH project description.
MD Anderson planned to re-purpose facilities once used for chimpanzees to re-home the colony.
“The Keeling Center is responsibly committed to the safety and welfare of its animal population, and conducts research aimed at improving the health of humans and animals alike, while serving as a national research resource for other institutions,” MD Anderson said in a statement to The Frontier.
The center is accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care and is routinely inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Budkie said that MD Anderson has had a spotty record of animal care in the past.
“They have a recent history of animal deaths,” he said. “Sending baboons to MD Anderson actually endangers their safety.”
In 2018, MD Anderson reported to the federal Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare that a young chimpanzee in its care had died after being attacked by other chimps. In 2017, it reported to the USDA that an owl monkey was found dead — and likely died after its enclosure was passed through a heat-treating cage sanitization machine.
The USDA has not cited MD Anderson for any animal care violations since 2017, according to inspection records.
“MD Anderson immediately reported these regrettable animal deaths to relevant agencies and appropriate corrective measures were put into place,” the center said in a statement. “We take these rare but unfortunate events with the utmost concern, and we will continue to assess and implement procedures to assure animal safety.”