By Kathleen Conlee
Our Animal Research Issues Department is headed by Kathleen Conlee who has devoted the past two decades of her life to this work. But before she became an avid animal protection advocate she worked at a breeding facility that supplied primates for research.
Recently we released a video of Katie talking about that past experience working at the breeding facility and today, in this guest blog, I’ve invited her to tell us more about what life is like for animals inside these places, where they are churned out by the thousands only to spend their entire lives in laboratories where they will be infected with diseases, used for testing drugs, dental implants and other products, restrained in chairs and deprived of water until they perform certain tasks for brain research, or deprived of food to study the effects of calorie restriction, among other cruelties.
It all started when I was in class as an undergrad and heard people talking about feeding fig bars to monkeys. Before I knew it, I was studying rhesus monkeys in a lab on campus and I was so fascinated by them. I wanted to spend my days working with primates.
I visited a facility that had monkeys living in small, barren cages and I saw how they trained the animals to sit in a restraint chair for procedures. I just couldn’t picture myself there. Seeking another avenue, I ultimately landed at a primate facility in South Carolina within weeks of graduating college.
The company I worked for had thousands of monkeys, mostly macaques, that they would breed and sell to research labs. I believed primate research was important for human health but that the animals also needed someone to look out for them. Over several years, I saw how the animals were treated, the millions of dollars in government grants coming in, and I stopped believing that this was the best we could be doing for human health. I stayed because I became fearful of what would happen to the monkeys if I left.
The goal at this facility was to make sure the animals produced as many babies as possible. I remember being proud that I reduced the infant death rate and could identify thousands of individual monkeys and their family members. I didn’t think about the fact that while I was preventing their death as infants, I was just ultimately sending those animals to a life of prolonged suffering. I was handed lists of numbers and told to pick out which animals would be sent out, filling orders as if they were a product.
We would sometimes receive monkeys from laboratories, and some suffered from severe psychological trauma. One, a rhesus macaque named Able, was terrified of anything but his “chow” biscuits and would mutilate himself, tearing his skin, when given anything new, even something as delicious as an apple or banana.
Laboratories with breeding colonies will often share images of monkeys in large social groups in big enclosures but there is a lot you don’t see, including animals stuck in small cages for quarantine or research protocols or ripped from their families. The company would do “processing” when the members of each group would be tattooed on their faces and chests, given a physical exam and either returned to their group or pulled out for a shipment to another lab. The youngsters, who the day before were bonding with their family, would be put in a small cage and prepped for shipping. Mothers would wake up looking for them, crying out and you could hear the youngsters from a building across the property returning the call. I can still hear their mournful cries—those will haunt me forever.
While I worked at the facility, I tried to improve the conditions for the monkeys in my care, such as eliminating the use of facial tattoos. The company was ultimately caught illegally importing monkeys captured from the wild—I will never forget how terrified those animals seemed in confinement. I finally decided I just couldn’t do it anymore.
I then went to worked for a great ape sanctuary, which was an amazing experience, but I had to do more for those I left behind. Thankfully, The Humane Society of the United States took a chance on me. I remember in my first year at the HSUS, I read a paper about a painful dental experiment and the macaques came from the lab where I had worked and from the very time when I worked there. That was just one group of many—what did the other animals endure because of what I had done to them? But I was happy that at last I was in the right place, doing something to fix it.
I have been working for more than 20 years to move society away from using animals in harmful research and testing and instead use non-animal methods that are more effective and relevant to humans. To this day, I still care about human health AND the animals. The good news is that choosing one doesn’t mean hurting the other and, in fact, investing in non-animal methods will ultimately benefit both.
I’m proud of the work my team here at the HSUS and I have done: ending chimpanzee research in the United States, securing a commitment by the EPA to end mammalian testing by 2035, passing state laws that prohibit cosmetics testing on animals and the sale of animal-tested cosmetics, getting 32 dogs who were being used in a pesticide test released from a lab into loving homes, and so much more.
The question is, will I ever stop having nightmares about trying to get back to the facility where I worked to take care of the animals, to make sure they are safe, but running into obstacles along the way? A flat tire, running as fast as I can but never getting closer? I am relieved when I wake up that I don’t work there anymore but I also face the reality of how much more there is to do in real life. When we have a victory and I think, “okay, maybe I’ve done enough to pay my dues,” it doesn’t last. And I don’t think it should. I will never really pay my dues and it won’t be enough until the day when no more animals suffer in labs. It will take all of us to make that happen.