- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 9, 2006


As monkeys go, sooty mangabeys aren’t cute. Big-fanged, gray and hairy, they simply stare when threatened. Few zoos stock them. Some animal rights advocates can’t even spell the species’ name.

Nevertheless, the sooties are at the center of a precedent-setting debate over whether researchers should be allowed to experiment on an endangered species.

Scientists at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta have nurtured a group of these primates for decades. But after Yerkes started the colony, federal officials listed sooties as endangered.

The result: Yerkes has the world’s largest collection of captive sooties, but with little hope of scientific benefit.

“We don’t need them around just to look at them. We’re not a zoo,” said Thomas Gordon, Yerkes’ associate director for scientific programs.

Yerkes researchers have proposed a novel solution: The primate center will help conserve sooties in the wild in exchange for permission to conduct AIDS-related research on them here.

Such a trade-off never has been permitted, said Timothy Van Norman, chief of the international permits branch at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This is new territory,” he said.

Yerkes officials are hopeful. Animal rights activists are horrified.

“It’s a deal with the devil,” said Rachel Weiss, president of Laboratory Primate Advocacy Group, a Georgia-based animal rights organization.

Yerkes is part of Emory University and one of eight federally funded national primate research centers. Its scientific contributions include new understanding of monkey and chimp behavior and development of an experimental AIDS vaccine.

It has about 3,600 primates at a 25-acre campus in Atlanta and a 117-acre field station in nearby Lawrenceville.

Yerkes’ colony of sooty mangabeys was started in the late 1960s, when the center picked up about 30, some from the Kansas City Zoo in Missouri. The colony has grown and now numbers about 230.

It would be larger, but the Yerkes staff segregates males from females and gives females Norplant-like birth-control pellets. The center spends about $170,000 each year for sooty caretaking, and is out of space to house any more.

In 1988, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed sooties as endangered. That means Yerkes may not conduct invasive research, such as a biopsy, unless it benefits the species.

“We can’t even take a blood sample for research purposes,” said Preston Marx, a researcher at Tulane University, which also has a sooty colony.

In the 1990s, researchers learned that sooties are natural carriers of a monkey form of the AIDS virus. Other types of monkeys get sick from the virus, but sooties do not. Researchers say that if they can learn why sooties stay healthy, it may lead to new weapons against AIDS in humans.

To do that, scientists want to expose the monkeys to different viruses and conduct biopsies or other invasive research on them.

For a decade, Yerkes has been asking the government to drop sooties from the endangered list or consider other ways to allow research.

They saw an opportunity when Mr. Van Norman suggested that the agency grant the right to research in exchange for supporting conservation of the monkeys in the wild.

Last year, Yerkes began providing up to $30,000 a year to support primatologist Scott McGraw’s field-based conservation and research of sooties in the Tai National Park reserve in Ivory Coast.

In July, the center wrote to the Fish and Wildlife Service seeking the right to conduct research on the Yerkes sooties “given our contribution to sooty mangabey conservation.”

The request is under review, Fish and Wildlife Service officials said.

The proposal is not novel. It echoes the agency’s “safe harbor” policy, which allows landowners the prospect of future development of land that serves as habitat for threatened or endangered animals, as long as the animals’ original population does not fall and other standards are met.



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