UW fires director of primate research center after state probe into program

Jun 17, 2024, 8:08 AM | Updated: 8:08 am

uw Primate Research Center...

A research monkey at UW's WaNPRC. (Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

In response to a state probe into the University of Washington’s (UW) Primate Research Center, the university is making a leadership change within the center.

The university has removed Director Michelle Basso from the center after the Washington State Department of Health’s Veterinary Board of Governors opened an investigation into UW following the death of a primate under the school’s primate research center (WaNPRC).

“(Basso’s) scientific leadership and contributions to neuroscience are appreciated, and she will continue her work as a core scientist in the center,” UW wrote in an official statement confirming Basso’s departure from the role as director at the center. “This change in leadership was made in the best interests of the Center and in support of its long-term success.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) initiated the investigation after submitting a claim that a monkey — an eight-year-old male rhesus macaque — died due to a “botched procedure” while at the school’s primate center. In captivity, rhesus macaques live approximately 25 years, according to the National Institute of Health, with a maximum recorded lifespan of 40 years.

Previous reporting on USDA probe in UW primate center: Primate for UW studies dies in program’s care, inspection found

“PETA is celebrating! We learned today that the director of the Washington National Primate Research Center, Michele Basso, has been ousted from her position at the helm of the University of Washington’s dreadful monkey prison,” PETA wrote in response to UW’s decision. “This follows our hand-delivered letter to the university’s Board of Regents in March, urging it to remove Basso for many actionable reasons, some of which are detailed below.”

USDA’s investigation into UW’s primate center

According to PETA’s report and the USDA’s ensuing investigation, a UW staffer retrieved a donated portable anesthesia machine, but the machine was faulty and caused a traumatic pressure injury to the monkey’s lungs, “essentially blowing them up like balloons.” The monkey went into cardiac arrest and died, the report read.

PETA claimed the university downplayed both the severity of the incident and the latest raft of USDA citations in its published statement, a sentiment UW lambasted.

“Contrary to PETA’s claim, UW does not minimize or downplay an incident such as this,” UW spokesperson Victor Balta told MyNorthwest in October 2023.”Veterinary staff were performing the procedure and the machine malfunctioned despite following all procedures. UW veterinarians and staff responded immediately by doing a thorough investigation and establishing an action plan to prevent further occurrences. This action plan has already been validated and confirmed via follow-up communications with OLAW, AAALAC and during our recent USDA visit.”

USDA’s investigation revealed further transgressions within WaNPRC, including the discovery that another monkey that underwent skull surgery also sustained brain damage when a UW staffer left the room to take a phone call. An unskilled trainee was left alone in the room and botched the procedure, piercing the monkey’s brain and causing noticeable neurological damage.

More on UW’s primate center: PETA storms UW over treatment of medical research monkeys on first day of classes

Other citations included subjecting a monkey to two surgeries when only one was approved, subjecting 16 rabbits to a combination of unapproved procedures and 18 squirrels to unapproved surgeries, leading to complications for six of them. USDA’s report also found staffers failed to give the program’s monkeys a daily water ration.

USDA previously reported in 2017 that among UW’s Washington National Primate Research Center’s 667 primates used in research, nearly 300 of them were subjected to pain or distress, including the use of anesthetics and other drugs.

“UW takes the welfare of the animals in our care very seriously and is transparent in reporting any adverse events that may occur,” the university stated in response to PETA’s claim late last year.

Deborah Fuller will serve as interim director. She previously was the Associate Director of Research for the WaNPRC, holding that position since 2021.

Frank Sumrall is a content editor at MyNorthwest. You can read his stories here and you can email him here.

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