ATLANTA A research center has dropped a controversial proposal to conduct medical experiments on up to 100 endangered African monkeys that are natural carriers of a form of the AIDS virus but do not get sick from it.
The Yerkes National Primate Research Center sought to use sooty mangabey monkeys in a first-of-its kind agreement that required scientists to help conserve the species in the wild.
But Yerkes withdrew the proposal last month in a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which regulates use of endangered species. Government officials confirmed the decision Monday. Yerkes officials refused to discuss it.
The decision was celebrated by animal-protection groups that feared the Yerkes proposal might be the first of many applications seeking permission to harm endangered species in exchange for financial contributions to conservation programs.
“If the application had been approved, it would have established a dangerous precedent,” said Tanya Sanerib, a Washington-based lawyer representing a coalition of animal-protection organizations.
Since the late 1960s, Yerkes scientists have nurtured a group of captive sooties, which are natural carriers of a form of the AIDS virus but do not get sick.
Federal officials listed the primates as endangered in 1988, leaving the center with the world’s largest collection of captive sooties but little hope of using them for research.
The center has argued that its 230 monkeys, a subspecies of the endangered white-collared mangabey, are not truly endangered. It has asked the Fish and Wildlife agency to consider the subspecies separately.
Yerkes, a part of Emory University, decided to withdraw its research proposal “in light of the possible reconsideration of the sooty mangabey classification status,” according to a Sept. 14 letter to the federal government from James Else, Yerkes associate director for research resources.
Last year, Yerkes began providing up to $30,000 a year to fund conservation of sooties in the Tai National Park Reserve in Ivory Coast, West Africa.
In a request for a permit renewal, Yerkes officials also asked for a variance that would allow them to do medical experiments on the captive sooties “given our contribution” to sooty mangabey conservation.
The variance would have allowed Yerkes to expose the monkeys to viruses and perform biopsies and other potentially life-ending research.
Fish and Wildlife officials said they received 400 to 500 public comments about the proposal, including opposition statements from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and at least nine other animal-protection groups. The famous primate expert Jane Goodall also opposed the plan.
A Yerkes spokeswoman last week released a prepared statement that said the center’s support of mangabey conservation efforts would continue.
“At the same time, we will continue to explore options to involve the center’s mangabey colony in research programs” aimed at preventing and treating HIV/AIDS in humans. “Such research is critical to the health of the world.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, October 27, 2006.