Judge to rule on chimp lawsuit

Decision will determine whether a scientist can seek damages from Ohio State University over chimp deaths

Mar 12, 2007
Kerry Grens
A judge is slated to make a decision this week regarding a lawsuit primate researcher Sally Boysen filed against her institution, Ohio State University (OSU), over the death of two of her research chimpanzees. Boysen claims the university is responsible for their demise, which took place after OSU closed its Chimp Center last year and relocated nine chimps and three monkeys.United States District Court in Southern Ohio Judge Algenon L. Marbley's judgment in the case will determine whether Boysen's claims against OSU have legal merit and will continue to trial. Boysen's attorney Sandy Spater told The Scientist that if the case goes to trial, Boysen could consider seeking damages from OSU over the deaths of the animals or try to return the others to the Chimp Center. Alternatively, Marbley could grant OSU's motion to dismiss the case. According to the university, The Chimp Center closed after Boysen, a professor of psychology, failed to maintain funding for the center. Despite her protestations -- including chaining herself to the gate outside the center -- OSU sent the animals to retire at Primarily Primates, Inc. in San Antonio, Texas. Boysen claimed the Texas sanctuary did not provide proper care for animals and she wanted the chimpanzees sent to Chimp Haven in Shreveport, Louisiana. In February 2006 Boysen filed a temporary restraining order to prevent the animals from moving to Texas, but it was denied. "I said, if those chimps leave here someone will die," Boysen told The Scientist. "And within 48 hours one chimp was dead and three weeks later another chimp was dead." Two other lawsuits have spawned from the deaths of the Chimp Center animals. In spring 2006, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) supported a suit against Primarily Primates to move the remaining OSU animals to another sanctuary. PETA attorney Leana Stormont told The Scientist her organization had heard from whistleblowers that Primarily Primates was understaffed and animals were not well cared for. "The conditions were dangerously substandard. We knew the OSU chimpanzees would not fare well there...I'm sorry to say we were right about that."The PETA case was dismissed, but shortly following, evidence of poor conditions at Primarily Primates and mismanagement of hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions prompted a probate judge in Travis County, Texas to order Primarily Primates under court supervision. Primarily Primates is currently run by a court-appointed receiver, Lee Theisen-Watt, who told The Scientist that the "horrific" conditions have improved significantly since she came to the sanctuary. But not everyone agrees -- Eric Turton, an attorney for Primarily Primates, told The Scientist the situation was not as bad as Theisen-Watt portrays, and "we think things have gotten worse." A temporary injunction hearing is set for today (March 12) in Travis County District Court to extend the temporary restraining order. Earle Holland, the assistant vice president for research communications at OSU, said he is not able to comment on the Boysen case as it was still proceeding, though he said that the university's position has not changed since the February 2006 hearing on the temporary restraining order. During the hearing, university officials testified that the animals were sent to Primarily Primates because Chimp Haven did not have room to house them.Holland told The Scientist the university contributed $600,000 to $800,000 to keep the OSU Chimp Center open for several years while Boysen applied for federal funding. "We close laboratories all the time, like at any university. We try to tide the [principal investigators] over until they get additional funding," Holland said. But in Boysen's case, Holland said, the university couldn't do it any longer. Boysen remains a full tenured professor in good standing at OSU. Holland said the university has "no intention of getting rid of her, she's a well respected member of the faculty." Boysen said she does not intend on leaving the university.The OSU animals moved to Chimp Haven once the attorney general seized Primarily Primates. Boysen spoke with The Scientist as she was driving through Tennessee on her way to visit the animals. Ultimately, she said she would like to find a way to continue doing research on them. "They are the most sophisticated animals we have to learn about cognition," she said. "I'm going to get [the animals] back." Kerry Grens mail@the-scientist.comLinks within this articleSally Boysen http://faculty.psy.ohio-state.edu/boysen/C. Shekhar, "Hundreds of OSU animals die," The Scientist, July 19, 2006. http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/23984/Attorney Sandy Spater http://www.spaterlaw.com/contactus.htmlA. McCook, "Fighting for the right to research," The Scientist, February 28, 2006. http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/23166/Primarily Primates, Inc. http://www.primarilyprimates.orgChimp Haven http://www.chimphaven.org/People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals http://www.peta.orgPETA lawsuit http://www.peta.org/pdfs/SARAHvsPPI_ORIGINAL.pdfEarle Holland http://researchnews.osu.edu/shrtbios.htmBoysen ST et al., "Quantity-based interference and symbolic representations in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)," Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 22:76-86, 1996. http://www.the-scientist.com/pubmed/8568498