Animal rights activists are lobbying for Moorpark College as the permanent shelter for nine monkeys surgically crippled in government experiments, but college officials want a guarantee of funds to house and care for the animals.
"This certainly is a matter of controversy," said Stanley Bowers, acting president of the college. "We don't want to become a political football between animal rights groups and the scientific community."
For eight years, the monkeys' plight has pitted animal rights activists, who accuse government scientists of cruelty, against the National Institutes of Health, which has acknowledged that a subcontractor mistreated the animals but has been unwilling to let them go.
The agency in December was barred by a Louisiana court from killing three of the animals that it said had deteriorated.
A U.S. District Court in New Orleans is to decide Feb. 1 whether the National Institutes of Health can put the animals to death or must allow them to be moved from a holding facility in Louisiana to a permanent home in a zoo or animal care facility.
Nationally Known Program
Moorpark College has a nationally known instructional program, the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program, which trains students to work with animals.
The program got involved with the monkeys after a group of Hollywood celebrities petitioned the White House to release the monkeys to the Moorpark animal compound.
"Dear President Bush," the group's latest petition reads. "Animals too need a kinder, gentler world."
Gary Wilson, director of the exotic animal program, said the college would be willing to take them, "but we want a good, clear agreement with NIH that the funding would be done through a trust fund with Congress."
Wilson said the concern is that animal rights groups that say they would finance care for the animals "go through personnel changes. We want to ensure that the money will be there for a long time to come."
He estimated that the animals could live as long as 14 or 15 years. Wilson said he cannot estimate the cost would be for a caretaker for the monkeys, new cages to house them, veterinary care and food.
Alex Pacheco, president of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, a Washington-based animal rights group that began the investigation into treatment of the monkeys in 1981, estimated that care for the animals over a 10-year period would cost about $500,000.
Pay the Bills
He said his organization has offered to pay all the bills for the monkeys if they were allowed to live in a more humane home.
"There are many organizations that are willing to pay to see that the animals are cared for," he said. "The NIH has said if animal groups fell through on their commitment, the NIH would work as a safety net."
In an experiment aimed at learning more about recovery from strokes and spinal-cord injuries, National Institutes of Health scientists in Maryland severed key nerves, which left each of the monkeys with a limp arm.
When an undercover animal rights activist found the animals allegedly neglected and crammed into excessively small cages, the researcher in charge of the experiment was charged with misdemeanor animal abuse.
However, a Maryland court ruled that the researcher was exempt from animal cruelty laws because his project had been federally financed. The animals have been kept in Tulane University's Delta Regional Primate Center in Covington, La., since 1986.
"If the animals are suffering now," Pacheco said, "it would be inhumane to keep them alive, and we would be one of the first to say to have them put out of their misery, but these animals are not in need of killing. . . . They can successfully be resocialized."
If the ruling goes against the animal rights group, the animals will have one last experiment performed upon them, involving electrodes placed near the brain surface, before being killed, said Anne Thomas, National Institutes of Health spokeswoman.
She said an independent group of veterinarians has examined the monkeys and concluded that "three of the monkeys' health had deteriorated and that they should be euthanized."