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Monkey Business

Monkey time: Pickles, Suzette Blair's chimp-to-be.

When Roxanne Whittles decided to further her education, she soon had a good problem on her hands: too many grad schools to choose from.

At 21, Whittles already had a reputation as a rising star in the field of biological research. In 2002, she'd graduated summa cum laude from Stanford University's Department of Cellular Physiology; the following year, she spent six months studying the impact of the 2001 oil spill in the Galapagos Islands. While there, she discovered a native plant species that could be used for treatment of skin boils, varicose veins and split ends. When she returned to the States and began applying to graduate programs around the country, Whittles -- who'd entered kindergarten at age three and graduated from Central High School in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, at fifteen -- had more offers than she knew what to do with.

They were sweet offers, too. MIT promised a full academic scholarship and a weekly stipend. CalTech offered 24-hour lab access and a suite in an upscale dormitory populated by international students. The Colorado School of Mines guaranteed Whittles a membership in the elite student society Scope & Clones. But the University of Colorado at Boulder came up with something the others couldn't match -- something soft, furry and totally irresistible.

"They gave me my own monkey," says Whittles, stroking the head of Little Poncho, an eighteen-year-old rhesus monkey that lives with her in a CU-subsidized Boulder condo. Whittles and Poncho have been inseparable since last fall, when the former took a position as a lab technician and research fellow in CU's Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology.

"I'm not really allowed to let him outside, so we mostly just hang around here or have play dates with other students' monkeys," Whittles says. "There's a whole group of us who get together to fingerpaint, play dress-up and watch Real Genius."

In January, the University of Colorado's reputation as a party school got an unwelcome boost from the football-team sex scandal that put CU in the national news. But the school's questionable recruiting methods extend well beyond the locker room, frat parties and the Diamond Cabaret. The athletic department used sex, strippers and liquor to woo potential stars; the university's many research institutions use monkeys, orangutans and chimps.

"It's become standard operating procedure: If there's a kid you want in your program, you've got to get them a monkey," says Jerome Kallansrud, a former admissions officer within CU's Graduate School and Research Institutes. Kallansrud resigned his position last spring amid growing concern that the university was using animals as fur-covered bargaining chips in the quest for the best students; he now works the meat counter at Whole Foods.

"The CU athletic scandal painted us as a harbor for oversexed student athletes," he says. "And, yeah, it's terrible that we've had all of these alleged rapes and sexual misconduct over there with the athletes. But let's face it: We kind of expect football players to act like a bunch of cretins. But if people caught wind of how this school's science people are behaving -- using monkeys this way -- they would really go bananas."

Animal-rights groups recently criticized CU for insisting that it be paid for 34 research monkeys it plans to release to a wildlife sanctuary this summer. The school is asking between $10,000 and $15,000 for each of the animals, which have been part of a seventeen-year study at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. University spokesperson Sarah Ellis has said that the school needs the funds to finance the purchase of more monkeys.

But Kallansrud suggests that the school's reluctance to give up the creatures stems from the fact that they've already been promised elsewhere. In fact, as many as fifteen monkeys have already exchanged life in a university lab for student housing and the care of a dedicated, monkey-loving graduate student -- one like Hung Cha Park.

Park had planned to take a generous deal at Harvard when CU sent him a scholarship offer, an RTD bus pass and an amusing Quicktime video of a brown gibbons monkey named Smooches wearing a bowler hat and dancing to the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle Me With Care." That was all it took. Park plans to enter CU's Department of Aerospace Engineering this summer.

"Monkeys helped me learn English," says Park, who came to the United States after winning the 2003 Academic Olympics in his home town of Seoul, South Korea. "I didn't speak much more than a few words until my mom picked up a videotape of Every Which Way But Loose. When Clyde the orangutan rolls down the window and flips that guy off -- that made me laugh for three days. After that, I watched it over and over. So to me, having my own was a dream come true -- even better than the time I built and flew my own rocket-propelled ground-to-air missile."

Student recruiters within the Center for Limb Atmospheric Sounding used similar tactics on Suzette Blair, an Iowa high school senior with an IQ of 165. In January, Blair visited the campus after administrators found her at a "Who's Who in High School Limb Atmospherics" conference in Davenport.

"I was impressed by the school's accomplishments as a research institute," says the seventeen-year-old Blair. "I'd heard that some guys in the physics department had discovered a new form of matter, and I was like, ŒThat's cool.' But I still didn't know if I wanted to come to Boulder. I'm not really into snow or mountain stuff. And I don't like Widespread Panic. When they broke out Pickles, though, that was it. I mean, my own monkey? How cool is that?"

Not cool at all, says Fenner Kitchens, president of Primates Are Not Pets, a newly formed student group. Kitchens and other members of PANP have been hosting weekly drum circles to raise awareness about the university's monkey-gifting program; later this month, they'll release a benefit CD titled Wild and Free: Leave That Monkey Be.

"I understand that for the bureaucrats and lab-coat jockeys, monkeys are money," Kitchens says. "But these animals should not be used as currency. They should either be released to the animal sanctuary or given jobs within the administration. I understand that the usual things like sex, booze and naked women might not be the best way to entice future Einsteins to our school. But couldn't we have just given them their own space shuttle or built them a biosphere or something?"

There's no doubt that students like Whittles, Park and Blair are good for CU's bottom line. Promising students churn out promising research and help secure the university's continued distinction as one of the nation's top research institutions. And research is a cash cow.

The CU athletic department represents a multimillion-dollar source of revenue for the school, with the CU Buffs -- a first-division team -- bringing in the lion's share of the loot. But science attracts the bucks, as well: In 2002-03, CU received more than $250 million in research grants and awards. Some came from private contractors and corporations, but more than 90 percent came from federal programs like NASA, which gives the school an average of $50 million a year. That money is funneled into a head-spinning strata of research projects and institutions; CU faculty and students are currently exploring everything from dark matter to the cosmology of soul music to cars made out of water. As any bargain-basement nuclear physicist can tell you, probing the secrets of the universe ain't cheap: Earth rovers and atom-splitters are a tad more expensive than jock straps and pigskin.

CU president Betsy Hoffman and Dr. John Sladek, vice chancellor for research, did not return calls from Westword requesting information on the monkey giveaway.

For her part, Whittles can't imagine life without Little Poncho.

"He kind of reminds me of E.T.," she says. "He helps me with my homework -- grabbing pencils and water and things like that. And he's great to have around when I need a break. Sometimes there's nothing more relaxing than dressing up your monkey, turning on the radio and cuttin' the rug. You should see him do the Running Man."

Since she arrived at CU, Whittles has participated in a clinical research trial that explores the use of microscopic nano-computers to treat everything from Hodgkin's disease to hypoglycemia to narcolepsy. She volunteers at the campus health center, runs errands for an elderly woman down the block and leads a Sunday interfaith service at a church off Pearl Street.

"I love Boulder, I love CU and I love Little Poncho," she says. "Sure, sometimes he flings poo at me. But it's just amazing to me that this furry little guy changed my life and my destiny. There really is no love like monkey love."


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