A Monkey Wrench

For the past year, a local animal-rights group has been badgering scientists at Denver's University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in hopes of getting them to publicly debate the merits of their monkey research. Despite the group's verbal challenges, letters and even the release of the CU animal-lab director's phone number to a national tabloid, the researchers have chickened out.

"We're not looking for a fight," says Renada Cerniglia, director of the Littleton-based Citizens for Responsible Research. "We want a dignified exchange. We're confident of our position, and we've got a guy who'll go up against anyone in a debate. He'll take on two or three of them at a time."

If Cerniglia sounds more like a WWF wrestler than someone extending an invitation to a scientific debate, it's because she is frustrated with the researchers' refusal to talk to her about their federally funded work.

The CU primate study, titled "Behavioral and Physiological Consequences of Loss," revolves around experiments on the physiological effects of children who are separated from their mothers ("Going Ape," September 26, 1996). The project's lead researcher, Dr. Mark Laudenslager, believes that monkeys who experience such maternal deprivation at a young age are more prone to disease and infection. He says his monkey experiments have led him to believe that a human childhood trauma (such as the loss of a parent) can increase a child's chances of later contracting immune-system diseases such as AIDS. More than $3 million of the funding for Laudenslager's study has come from AIDS research money allotted by the National Institutes of Health.

For her challenge to Laudenslager's experiments, Cerniglia has enlisted doctors who say the CU study is cruel and, more important, pointless, because there's no correlation between the immune systems of monkeys and humans. For instance, Dr. Neal Barnhard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C., says that using animal experiments in an attempt to solve human health issues is "like if I lost my car keys on Second Avenue, but Second is dark, so I look for my keys on Third because it has street lights. If I find some keys on Third, I'll pick them up and hope that they start my car."

Cerniglia hopes that Kansas physician Dr. Ray Greek will present her group's side in the public debate. Greek says he has personal knowledge that medicine for humans doesn't work on animals. "My wife is a veterinarian," Greek says, "and she used to ask me how to cure diseases in some of her animals, thinking that human remedies might work. Invariably, she'd come back home mad as a hornet because my suggestions never worked."

Greek spends much of his time traveling to universities across the country to challenge researchers like Laudenslager. He says it's typical for the doctors not to take him up on his offers. So far the only researchers to step in the ring with him were two doctors at New York University, and he says they probably showed up only because the university was sponsoring the event.

"They have no reason to debate," Greek says. "Their position isn't defensible, so their best move is to hide out in their labs--no matter how much trouble my challenges stir up outside--and continue to collect their money. We're spending billions of dollars looking for a cure for cancer in lab rats, and it's not going to happen. The best way to stop this spending is to get the researchers into a public forum so that the average Joe on the street can understand that this type of research isn't going to cure AIDS or cancer. Then maybe the politicians will change the system. To me, the strongest argument backing this up is the simple fact that nobody ever shows up to debate me. They simply refuse to put their facts up against mine, and I think that speaks volumes."

Greek and Cerniglia were quoted in a September Star article titled "Uncle Sam Wastes $$$ on Cruel Monkey Experiments." In the article, Cerniglia called Laudenslager's underground lab "a torture chamber where 102 macaque monkeys have been bred to live their whole lives in small, barren cages and never see the light of day." The article also listed a phone number for Ron Banks, director of Laboratory Animal Resources at the medical center.

Cerniglia says she was hoping that the grim description of the lab, along with an avalanche of calls to Banks, might goad one of the researchers into a debate. What she got was a letter in which Banks wrote: "If you are aware of the source of the most recent Star article, please pass along my thanks to the individual who wrote the piece referencing you and Dr. Greek. The number of phone calls we received were most helpful in sharing across the country the accurate news of quality animal care and appropriate animal use in a biomedical research setting at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. We have received a number of congratulatory statements on our care program as a result of that article."

Laudenslager's response to Cerniglia's public challenges was more succinct: "I have neither the time nor the inclination to participate in the type of forum you have proposed."

Banks says there's no point in going up against Cerniglia's champion. "I've been in this business for fifteen years," he says, "and my experience is that folks like Ms. Cerniglia have a mindset and an agenda that you can't change. We'll never get through to her. End of discussion. And as far as her proposed debate is concerned, in my experience, I've found debates to be non-productive. They turn into a 'he said, she said' type of thing. Frankly, I don't see any sense in arguing facts. Ms. Cerniglia can say that the sun doesn't come up in the east all she wants, but the fact is that it does. In this case, the facts are that animal research is a valuable scientific tool which helps people. The bottom line is that I don't have the time to debate this."

Regardless of Banks's unwillingness to debate, Cerniglia says she'll continue to try to expose what she feels is unnecessary experimentation. Adding to her sense of urgency is a proposed bill in the Colorado House of Representatives that would make it difficult to get information regarding Laudenslager's experiments. HB-1228 aims to limit access to an animal's veterinary records--specifically the records of animals owned by state institutions--unless authorized by the animal's owner.

According to one of the bill's sponsors, Representative Bob Bacon (D-Fort Collins), the legislation was prompted by requests from the Colorado State University veterinarian's hospital and is meant to protect the medical records of clients who are dealing with bloodlines and breeding--specifically horse breeders. Bacon says it's a confidentiality agreement "not between a doctor and a patient but, in this case, between the doctor and the horse." When asked whether the legislation would restrict animal-rights activists from getting information about, for example, the monkey lab at CU, Bacon said that hadn't crossed his mind. The House gave preliminary approval to the bill last week, despite the arguments of animal-rights activists and efforts by other legislators to narrow its scope.

Banks says CU had no part in lobbying for the bill and that he'd never heard of the proposed legislation prior to last week. But Cerniglia insists it will help protect CU's animal experiments, because groups like hers won't be able to keep track of what researchers are doing. "It's a crafty little bill," she says. "It looks innocent enough, but there's another agenda going on here."

Cerniglia's agenda remains empty when it comes to scheduling a public debate. Greek doesn't expect that to change anytime soon. "I've got a standing challenge to Laudenslager and Banks, and I can be on the next plane out to Denver if they want to debate. Needless to say, I'm not packing my bags. I'm sitting here in Kansas in my socks."

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