Macaque monkey looking upwards

November 13, 2019, Clinic brings case to improve standards for primates used in research

For Immediate Release, November 13, 2019

BOSTON, Mass.– On behalf of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS), the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), and the International Primate Protection League (IPPL), Harvard Law School’s new Animal Law and Policy Clinic filed a lawsuit on November 6 against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for its failure to respond to the groups’ Petition to improve standards for the psychological well-being of nonhuman primates used in research. The suit was bought in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).

The Plaintiffs submitted their Petition to the USDA more than five years ago, in May 2014, requesting the agency to promulgate standards for the psychological well-being of primates similar to those adopted in 2013 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for chimpanzees used in federally funded research. Recognizing that non-human primates, like humans, require environmental enrichment for their psychological well-being, those standards require primates to be housed in social groups, with access to the outdoors, and opportunities to forage for food, climb, build nests, and make choices about their activities. The USDA has yet to decide whether to grant it.

The case is the first filed by Harvard Law School’s new Animal Law & Policy Clinic, which was recently launched, and operates like a public interest law firm that teaches law students how to advocate on behalf of animals. Students Boanne Wassink and Brett Richey prepared the complaint for the Plaintiffs under the supervision of the Clinic’s Director Katherine Meyer—a nationally renowned animal law expert.

The standards—like those adopted by NIH for chimpanzees—would ensure “ethologically appropriate physical and social environments,” which means “captive environments that do not simply allow, but also promote a full range of behaviors that are natural” for these primates.

“There is overwhelming evidence demonstrating the psychological capabilities and needs of primates, the ethical responsibilities of humans towards them, and the implications of psychological well-being (or lack thereof) of primates used in research to obtain scientifically valid research results that benefit humans,” said Nathan Herschler, Executive Director of NEAVS.

Christopher Berry, Senior Staff Attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, added: “It is necessary that all non-human primates used in research receive the environmental enrichment they need. The USDA’s failure to implement appropriate standards protecting primates’ psychological well-being is causing animals to suffer in isolation and without adequate enrichment.”

As the Plaintiffs’ Petition demonstrates, nonhuman primate species used in research share many cognitive abilities with humans: they have active minds and inquisitive natures; are inventive and sociable; develop caring relationships with others; make and use tools; develop rudimentary cultures; have complex emotions; analyze past results; imagine different outcomes; experience regret; appear to understand others’ perceptions, thoughts, and feelings; and have a sense of justice and fairness.

Primates living in an artificial environment where stressors are ever present and unpredictable develop a condition called “learned helplessness” because of the animals’ complete inability to deter, escape, or fight off harm or hardship. Primates maintained under such conditions also develop pathological behaviors and suffer severe stress due to confinement, little or no social or mental enrichment, and a complete lack of control over their environment. 

Primates in research facilities commonly engage in abnormal behaviors—called stereotypic behavior. These include rocking, swaying, repetitive circling, over-grooming to the point of permanent damage to their skin, biting themselves, banging themselves against the cage, and other forms of self-harm and self-mutilation. These behaviors are not natural for primates, and are the result of extreme and prolonged psychological distress. As the Petition explains, such stress can also have negative impacts on the scientific validity of the results of such research.

Most of the primates being held or used in experiments in the United States are macaques. Baboons and marmosets are also used. Last year, more than 100,000 primates were used in labs across the United States – 40,000 more than the number that were being used the year after NEAVS and the Animal Legal Defense Fund first petitioned the USDA. 

The Plaintiffs seek to have the USDA grant their petition and begin promulgating standards that will ensure the psychological well-being of all primates used in research, as Congress directed the agency to do in 1985 when it amended the Animal Welfare Act – a law that was enacted to “ensure the humane treatment” of all animals used in research, exhibitions, and the pet trade. In response to the Plaintiffs’ 2014 Petition, the USDA received over 10,000 comments from the public urging the agency to grant the Plaintiffs’ request.  However, to date, the agency has failed to provide any response. Accordingly, the groups have now sued the USDA to force it to act on the Petition. 

Boanne Wassink, a, third year student at Harvard Law School, said: “Right now, over 100,000 primates are confined in laboratories across the United States. That’s ten times the number of people in my hometown of Fairfield. Many of those primates endure truly gruesome experiments. The USDA is responsible for making sure the animals get basic care and comfort, but it’s dragging its feet. We are suing to make the USDA do its job.” 


Sarah Pickering
 +1 (424) 852-6484, [email protected]



105,991 nonhuman primates (NHP) were held for use in experiments or used in experiments in 2018 in the United States across all four main sectors (private, public, higher education, non-profits). The species are used primarily in experiments. According to a recent, NIH report, rhesus macaques comprise 65% of all planned non-human primate use, followed by cynomolgus macaques (15%), baboons (5.5%), and marmosets (3.1%).

Case studies from Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary

Jungle Friends is the only NAPSA accredited primate sanctuary that accepts new world monkeys at the moment. Here are a few stories its Founder and Executive Director Kari Bagnall shared of nonhuman primates they have taken in (including over the past five years).

The sanctuary is home to monkeys who were in cocaine studies, iron toxicity studies, vocal cord studies, nicotine addiction studies, malaria studies, ecstasy studies, and cognitive studies. Kari explains that many of these individuals are in pretty bad shape and have hardly any hair when they arrive as a result of both a lack of fresh air and sunshine and from literally pulling out their own hair in distress. Three such individuals were Nanny, Moe and Jack. Nanny and Jack went on to thrive together at the sanctuary. Moe formed a bond with Kilroy who the sanctuary took in when he was retired from cocaine studies in 2014 (the last primate to make it out alive, or last of two). They are all still at the sanctuary.

In July of this year the sanctuary accepted 26 squirrel monkeys from nicotine research. One of the monkeys, Oak, has rheumatoid arthritis, which Kari says is partly a result of not having been able to move around freely. She said species isolation and a lack of space to do “monkey things” are two of the main stressors for primates used in labs. This is a video of Oak and the ‘FDA boys’ getting out of their lab cages.

Bongo’s story is another heartwarming one – he is one of the “Iron Men” who was retired from iron toxicity research in 2005 after being taken from his rainforest home and family and sold into research where he was kept in isolation in a small cage for nearly 20 years. He became paralyzed from the waist down as a result of his days in the lab and euthanasia was advised. However, the sanctuary decided to build a habitat for a paraplegic monkey and another primate, KC, bonded with and cared for him. One day, suddenly and unexpectedly, he began to walk again:

Keyword searching “primates” in in this fantastic open-source book published last year by Kat Herrmann provides further information. It’s free, just click to download the full text, and you’ll see important examples of NHP abuse, expert statements condemning NHP research and the names/institutional affiliations of people who share that view.


Founded in 1895, the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS) is a Boston, MA-based non-profit organization that works to end the use of animals in research and testing.  As part of NEAVS’ mission to free animals from suffering in labs, we lobby legislative bodies and government agencies at the state and federal levels, we fight on the frontlines by holding grassroots demonstrations at facilities abusing animals, and we work with the scientific community to promote alternative technologies that will replace animal experiments. The power of collective action fuels our work to oppose harmful policies, shut down labs, and rescue animals.  Learn more at

About the Animal Legal Defense Fund

Forty years of fighting for animals: The Animal Legal Defense Fund was founded in 1979 to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system. To accomplish this mission, the Animal Legal Defense Fund files high-impact lawsuits to protect animals from harm; provides free legal assistance and training to prosecutors to assure that animal abusers are punished for their crimes; supports tough animal protection legislation and fights harmful legislation; and provides resources and opportunities to law students and professionals to advance the emerging field of animal law. For more information, please visit

About IPPL

The International Primate Protection League is a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the world’s remaining primates, great and small. Since 1973, we have worked to expose primate abuse and battled international traffickers. We also operate a sanctuary for gibbons (the smallest of the apes) in South Carolina and support primate rescue efforts worldwide, especially in countries where primates are native. Our goal is to keep these uniquely threatened animals safe from human cruelty, negligence, and exploitation, envisioning a world where all primates can thrive in their native habitats.