The rejection by a city commission last week of a proposal to use the Los Angeles Zoo to house monkeys used in medical experiments ended several months of controversy. Even animal-rights groups were divided over whether they should cooperate with researchers.
USC had planned to construct and operate a habitat on zoo property for long-term observation of up to 100 monkeys used in a study of histoplasmosis, a disease that can cause blindness in humans. The plan had gained the support of 10 local and national animal-rights groups that historically have opposed all medical experiments using live animals.
But other groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front and Pasadena-based Students United Protesting Research on Sentient Subjects, opposed the plan.
Gretchen Wyler, vice chairwoman of the Fund for Animals Inc., said the relocation of the rhesus and stump-tail monkeys from cages on the USC campus to a more natural zoo habitat would have been the first successful compromise between researchers and animal-rights groups in the country.
Wyler said that, during her 18 years of lobbying for state and national legislation to protect animals from laboratory research, she has never heard of a research group negotiating directly with animal-rights activists for better treatment of research animals.
"I would like to see it as the beginning of a trend," Wyler said. "It's unfortunate that animal-rights groups were divided on this first negotiation. . . .
"The animals lost out. They can't talk, but if they could talk, I believe they would say, 'Move us to the zoo.' "
Robert C. Benedict, USC's assistant vice president for health affairs, said, "Our sole motive is to provide a more comfortable and natural habitat." Benedict had negotiated an agreement with animal-rights groups in support of the plan in October.
But the Los Angeles Recreation and Park Commission last week unanimously voted to kill the idea, saying it would create unnecessary controversy and conflict with the zoo's purpose of exhibiting exotic and endangered animals.
"The L.A. Zoo could become a research farm as much as it is a zoological institute," said Commissioner J. Stanley Sande. "It's asking us to fundamentally change the character of the zoo."
Opponents of the plan said that, if the USC facility were allowed, other research groups would seek to involve the zoo in experiments using animals. In the past, animal-rights groups have strongly protested cooperation between zoos and medical researchers, especially the sale of surplus zoo animals for vivisection.
"We all want these little creatures out of those tiny cages," television emcee and animal-rights activist Bob Barker said at the commission hearing. "But we don't want to involve the L.A. Zoo with biomedical research."
Elliot Katz, veterinarian and president of a group called In Defense of Animals, which opposed the proposal, told commissioners: "The next step would probably be to house AIDS monkeys."
In the experiments, USC researchers expose one of the monkey's eyes to an organism that causes histoplasmosis, then the monkey is treated with an experimental drug, said Dr. William M. Blackmore, USC's chief veterinarian. The monkeys are observed for one to two years to determine whether they contract the illness, he said.
The research, funded for the last eight years by the National Institutes of Health, is the only study of histoplasmosis in the country, Blackmore said. He estimated that the project will continue for at least five years.
'We Think We're Leaders'
"We believe only in humane research," said Blackmore, who proposed the zoo plan. "We think we're leaders in that area."
Part of the compromise reached with animal-rights groups supporting the plan included the creation of a three-member review committee, including two representatives of animal-protection groups, to oversee the facility. USC also had agreed not to conduct any further experiments on the monkeys once they are placed in the primate compound.
Blackmore said that the researchers are not required to move the monkeys and that the primates will continue to be housed on the USC campus in cages that conform to NIH standards.