Search :

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Fall 92 > Article

Viewpoint:  Heroes in the Lab

Deborah Blum, science writer for The Sacramento Bee, received a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for her series, "The Monkey Wars," which explored the ethical and moral issues of using animals in research. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Georgia and the University of Wisconsin, respectively. She is on professional leave to write a book based on her monkey wars research to be published by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc.

Among the reprints, notebooks, diagrams and slides that clutter his desk, Dr. Stuart Zola-Morgan also keeps -- with amusement and pride -- a small, framed certificate. It reads "Vivisector of the Year."

"I got it three years in a row," he said with a grin, sitting in his office at the University of California in San Diego. The "award," from San Diego Animal Advocates, is supposed to be a public insult, an implication that he needlessly kills animals.

But Zola-Morgan displays it like a badge of merit. To him, it serves as a reminder that he's doing what he thinks is right, whatever the costs. Despite researchers' fears of attack by animal rights activists, he still defiantly tells the world that he experiments on monkeys and that he's proud of his work.

And after I met with him, I would have been willing to give him a certificate with just one word on it: "Hero."

It may seem extravagant praise for someone just talking about his work. But consider that I interviewed more than 100 people for a series on research with monkeys. Even when they praised my concept, most researchers I contacted couldn't duck for cover fast enough.

Frankly, I was at first a little taken aback by the difficulties. The idea of my series was to try to give my readers a better understanding of animal research, a chance for intelligent evaluation. I had expected to find more researchers like Zola-Morgan who would stand up and say: "This is good work, the country needs research like this, and I'm not going to be intimidated out of having my say."

We need more Zola-Morgans out there. In these times, when many Americans apparently still believe that man coexisted with dinosaurs and the sun is the center of the universe, the key to change lies in education. And I mean education beyond the traditional classroom; I mean all scientists trying to share their knowledge and love of research with the rest of us.

The importance of access to science was one of the themes underlying "The Monkey Wars," which ran in The Sacramento Bee in late November 1991. The series also has been described as a journey through the ethical and moral issues in primate research.

Had it not been such a difficult story to put together, perhaps it would not have received so much attention. Since it appeared, the series has won five awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. And yet my hope is that the project achieved something else as well -- that it encouraged at least some of the researchers to believe that there was real value in opening up their work to the public.

To start the series, I spent almost a year searching public records from the federal and state agencies. I wanted a solid, fact-based foundation for a series on an issue that had been often covered purely on emotion.

After I studied the documents, I called researchers. The standard reaction was something like this:

"I'd like to write about your really interesting research so that the public can better understand why we use animals," I would say.

"I've never been picketed before," they would reply while rushing to get the phone back into the cradle.

Okay, that's an exaggeration. At some places, such as the primate research centers at the University of California in Davis, Yerkes in Atlanta and Delta in Louisiana, we got nothing but attention and help.

But the cautious far outnumbered the willing:

-- One scientist who headed a small primate research firm in our area refused for three months even to meet with me. When we finally got together, it was in a highway coffee shop (she wouldn't let me on her property) for an off-the-record interview.

-- A primate breeder in South Carolina refused us all access to his business. (My photographer ended up borrowing a boat and taking pictures of the grounds from public waterways; the boat broke down and she had to be rescued by the Coast Guard.)

-- Two researchers at UCLA refused to talk to me at all, even on the telephone.

-- And when I first approached Syntex, a large pharmaceutical company and California's biggest importer of monkeys, the initial response was that they wouldn't even allow me an off-the-record interview with the public relations officer.

So, how did I end up doing 100 interviews?

In the case of Syntex, outside pressure convinced the company to reverse its policy. And I want to emphasize that the pressure came from their fellow scientists, none of whom wanted me to write a story saying that animal researchers were too paranoid and secretive to talk about their work.

That was a consistent theme. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center in Mountain View at first refused to let a photographer take photographs of its monkeys. But policy was reversed by Dr. Joseph Sharp, director of biologic research, who thought the agency could only benefit from public understanding of its work.

At Loma Linda University, pediatric surgeon Dr. Leonard Bailey -- famed for doing the Baby Fae baboon heart transplant -- overrode campus policy and allowed us to photograph baboons in captivity and in surgery.

Bailey had already been targeted by animal rights activists. Several years earlier, when he was experimenting with goats, members of the Animal Liberation Front had broken into and vandalized one of his laboratories, destroying equipment and documents. His staff members told us that they themselves would never have let us into the facilities. But Bailey was adamant that he would not be "blackmailed" into hiding experiments that might someday save the lives of desperately ill human infants.

A few scientists were almost astonishingly open. Steve Lisberger, a neuroscientist at UC-San Francisco, whose lab had been broken into by activists, promptly agreed to both an interview and a visit to his monkey facilities. Seymour Levine, a Stanford University biologist and a favorite target of the animal rights movement, was equally prompt in agreeing to talk. Levine works in the controversial area of maternal deprivation, separating infant monkeys from their mothers. He has been picketed, leafleted and hung in effigy for almost a decade. But he spent hours with me, talking about his work, taking me to see his squirrel monkeys, determined, he said, not to let anyone devalue his studies.

And Zola-Morgan, who receives annual threatening Christmas cards at his home from ALF, was equally open. Zola-Morgan works with monkeys who have been brain-damaged through surgery, studying the effects of the injury on memory. He has attracted plenty of attention from animal activists. But he's determined to keep talking about his work.

"The old model is gone," he told me. "The animal rights activists are so good at what they do, if we keep pretending they'll go away, we'll lose everything."

His viewpoint is not so different from my own as a science writer. In this time, when many researchers complain about the lack of public support for science, they should consider that they too have a responsibility in changing that.

One of the most damaging aspects of the animal rights movement is that it has made researchers more secretive, less open about their work. There are legitimate reasons for fear; vandalism has caused millions of dollars of damage to research facilities. But in the long run, I think, the greater danger is losing millions more in public support through lack of understanding.

Believe it or not, newspaper stories are not the way that animal groups find scientists. Such groups are far better -- more diligent, more focused -- than are reporters at using the public records system. Among the scientists I interviewed, Lisberger and Levine, for instance, had been targeted through public record searches of grant applications.

That's not to say that a newspaper appearance won't cause problems. Allan Merritt of UC-Davis received three nasty phone calls at home after the story appeared. Merritt is studying drugs to help premature infants breathe better and must kill baby monkeys to do so. His calls involved an anonymous male screaming "kill, kill, kill" in the phone.

Are there risks in talking to reporters? Absolutely. But they can be minimized and many reporters will work with scientists to do so. I have provided my sources references and copies of previously written stories. I've met with researchers in advance of interviews to discuss what might happen. I always spend some time explaining what I'm doing, why, the context, my own point of view. And I will call back and double check the accuracy of information I have gathered. None of these are unreasonable things to ask of journalists. It also helps to know the reporter, to have some sense of his or her knowledge of science, for instance.

But the most important point may be the public education aspect of science coverage in the general media. Our readers, viewers and listeners include the large percentage of the population that somehow was not charmed by science in the classroom. Outreach is still needed; their support of research is critical and their children may yet be tomorrow's scientists.

There's a quote from a Senegalese conservationist, Baba Dioumn, about saving the environment that I think is also applicable here:

"In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught."

Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
For comments or for information please e-mail the editor: rcomm@uga.edu
To contact the webmaster please email: ovprweb@uga.edu