Squirrel monkey chirps filled a small ranch-style building in north Gainesville, Florida – a chorus that made Kari Bagnall’s smile swell even wider.
She covered her grin with a medical mask, calmly walked to the middle of a climate-controlled room and greeted each of the 26 monkeys. There were about three to each large cage.
Poppit and Pixel jumped over each other when Kari passed by. Gizmo looked up with wide eyes. Pip let out a tiny chirp.
Then there was Oak. Despite pain from rheumatoid arthritis, his energy was about as high as the others’.
Bagnall stopped interacting with the other monkeys to look directly at him. She squinted, homed in on his hands and then shifted her shoulders back with satisfaction.
“He looks good,” she said.
Oak and the other monkeys arrived in mid-November at Jungle Friends, this primate sanctuary in Gainesville where Bagnall serves as founder and director.
The monkeys were once involved in a US Food and Drug Administration study intended to investigate the role of various levels of nicotine in the onset of addiction in teens and young adults.
In January, after the deaths of four monkeys involved in the research drew criticism from some animal rights activists, the agency ended the study. The 26 remaining monkeys were retired to Jungle Friends, and the FDA quickly established an Animal Welfare Council to oversee all animal research under the agency’s purview.
The squirrel monkeys are the latest arrivals.
The common squirrel monkey, or Saimiri sciureus, typically can be found in the tropical forests of Central and South America, roaming from Costa Rica through central Brazil and Bolivia. These monkeys typically have a life span of about 20 years. The males weigh between 1.22 and 2.53 pounds on average, and the females average between 1.43 and 2.76 pounds.
When the monkeys arrived, Bagnall said, they all looked “gorgeous” and healthy, needing no serious medical care – except for Oak, who the FDA had told the sanctuary had a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis and was receiving treatment.
Bagnall thanked the FDA for releasing the monkeys to her sanctuary’s care.
“The most special thing about these particular monkeys is that they came out of the FDA, which has not released monkeys out of research in the past – and we are so happy that now the FDA is opting to retire monkeys after the research has ended. They didn’t have to do this,” Bagnall said.
“All of these monkeys were born inside,” she said. “They’ve never been outside. So they’ve never felt the sun on their face or the grass under their feet or rain or wind. It’s all going to be such a new experience for them, and they’re all just so different and individual. They’ll all react differently.”
For now, the monkeys are being kept indoors until spring, when they will be introduced to their new outdoor environment.
A ‘scientific, ethical and economic’ debate
The monkeys used in the nicotine addiction study are just a sliver of a larger debate around medical research on animals.
In the United States, 75,825 non-human primates were used in experiments at animal research facilities last year; an additional 34,369 were held in facilities but not used for study, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
As for the FDA’s latest decision, animal rights activists celebrated the monkeys’ arrival at their new retirement home in Florida.
Some scientists questioned what the move could mean for the future of medical research.
Matthew Bailey, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, said in January that “undoubtedly, some will argue that this recent action by the FDA is a reason to end research with animal models. But given the inextricable role humane and responsible animal research plays in the health of the overall population, and the health of the animals about which we care so deeply, that is a very dangerous proposition.
“Animals played a role in the development of each of the top 25 most prescribed drugs in America,” he said, adding that pets, farm animals and wildlife benefit from medical treatments developed in part from animal research.
“Farm animals and wildlife