When State Rep. David Gomberg was in his second term in the Oregon House of Representatives, a bill came to the floor to exempt workers at Oregon Health & Science University’s (OHSU) National Primate Research Center in Hillsboro from any kind of public disclosure.
Under the terms of the legislation, Oregonians couldn’t disclose the names of the people who worked at the center or the names of businesses who worked with the center. The bill passed overwhelmingly, and Gomberg’s interest in the center was piqued.
“The company that delivers monkey chow to this research center has more protections in place than caseworkers or Oregon judges do,” Gomberg said.
Gomberg, a Democrat who represents a district that covers the Central Coast range, wanted to learn more about why the research center needed to operate in such relative secrecy. He arranged to visit, twice, and was alarmed by what he saw.
“We found animals that were being housed in small cages there for up to three years,” Gomberg said. “At the same time, we continued to read reports about mistakes that were being made—using the wrong anesthetic, inattention during childbirth, animals that died of thirst in their cages.”
The National Primate Research Center is one of seven federally-funded primate research centers across the country. It has been affiliated with OHSU since 1998, and has, in recent years, been a constant target of scorn from animal rights advocates.
That is, in part, due to a steady stream of headlines about safety mishaps at the center. In August of 2020, for instance, a primate center employee accidentally placed them inside a scalding cage-washing machine. One died, while the other had to be euthanized.
Two years before, another monkey became entangled in pipes in its cage and also had to be euthanized. In another incident, a group of five voles died of dehydration after staff failed to give them water. Another animal died in 2021 after it was improperly anesthetized.
Even when it doesn’t concern clear violations of the Animal Welfare Act, advocates have raised concerns about the day-to-day research being conducted at the center—including a reported study in which researchers gave voles an excessive amount of alcohol to see if they would cheat on their mates.
All seven of the primate research centers in the U.S. have had safety issues over their years of existence. But according to Alka Chandna, Vice President of Laboratory Investigations Cases at PETA, OHSU’s facility stands out.
“We just see violations and violations and violations,” Chandna said. “It’s probably one of the worst, if not the worst, primate center in the U.S. in terms of violations of the Animal Welfare Act. They’ve been cited and they’ve been fined by the USDA, and I don't see that abating at all.”
Chandna’s assertion is backed by plenty of data. OHSU violated the Animal Welfare Act 31 times between 2014 and 2022, according to inspection records reported by OPB. The issue, Chandna said, is that the fines levied by the federal government aren’t nearly enough to significantly impact the university or the center.
PETA has had a longstanding battle with OHSU over its animal research facility. The animal rights organization successfully sued OHSU for records last year.
In the buildup to this year’s legislative session, Gomberg decided to take a different tack. Alongside Republican Rep. Anna Scharf, he introduced a bill to require transparency from OHSU about what is happening at the center.
Gomberg said OHSU fought the bill—arguing that it would be an unnecessary burden on the center’s employees and work output. But after his own experience attempting to obtain information about the center, Gomberg felt it was a necessary tool.
In the end, however, OHSU didn’t convince many legislators: only one member of the House and two members of the Senate voted against the bill, which Gov. Tina Kotek signed into law in mid-July.
HB 2904 requires OHSU to publish annually, on a publicly accessible university website, information on the number of nonhuman primates that were used in research in the previous year, as well as those used in breeding, purchased or sold, and, importantly, were “injured, or died, in a manner that resulted in an animal welfare citation by the USDA.”
In a statement provided to the Mercury, an OHSU spokesperson said the Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC) is “consolidating on its website information responsive to Section 1 of the bill; that information is also contained in reports to the regulatory bodies that oversee ONPRC.”
The public transparency requirements are a sea change from the transparency requirements of the last several decades, and it puts Oregon on the forefront of animal testing transparency: no other state as of yet has a similar transparency law for a primate research center.
Gomberg and his allies hope the passage of the bill might be a turning point—if not for changing the conditions for animals confined to the research center, then at least for raising awareness about the center’s existence and research practices in the state.
“Does OHSU have influence at the legislature? Of course they do,” Gomberg said. “I think OHSU for the most part does remarkable work. I think this one department, this one facility under their umbrella, is a stain on their reputation.”
Chandna said her organization applauded the bill and said that the more the public is aware of the kind of research being done at the center, the less willing they will be to turn a blind eye to it.
“Any movement towards transparency is laudable,” Chandna said. “We support it and think this is something all states should emulate.”
There are signs that public opinion may be on the side of animal rights advocates. A 2018 Pew Research poll found that a narrow majority of 52 percent of Americans oppose the practice outright, with 62 percent of women opposing the practice.
OHSU, in its statement, argued that animal testing is still a necessity.
“We look forward to a time when nonanimal research methods are capable of faithfully modeling the complexity of a living system; however, we are many years away from realizing that goal,” the statement read.
But regardless of how people feel about animal testing generally, Gomberg said, people should be willing to demand better from OHSU—an organization worth nearly $4 billion that is facing broad leadership questions as it pursues a controversial takeover of Legacy Health.
“Reasonable people can disagree about whether or not using animals for this kind of research is scientifically ethical or valid, but I think we can all agree that it’s not being done very well in Oregon,” he said.
Gomberg said that, at this stage, he’s not considering introducing further legislation targeting the center. He wants to see what kind of effect the transparency law has.
“We’re dragging the issue of animal research into the public arena,” he said.