This April the University of Washington broke ground on a new $124 million facility, but there’s a good chance you heard nothing about it at the time. There was no press release, no photo ops, no ceremonial turning of dirt. In fact, for months before construction got under way—not to mention weeks after it began—details of the facility’s progress were conspicuously absent from the university-managed website that tracks all capital projects. And that was no accident.
The UW Animal Care and Research Facility has been a source of controversy since November 2013, when the university’s Board of Regents unanimously approved its construction while animal rights activists lined the room holding signs of dissent. Nearly a year later those same protesters—led by Seattle U law student Amanda Schemkes—sued UW, claiming that the Board of Regents violated open meeting laws by coming to a consensus on the project at a dinner meeting prior to the vote. In late April a King County Superior Court judge agreed.
The suit didn’t stop construction, and Schemkes didn’t actually think it would. But since then she and members of her campaign, No New Animal Lab, have continued to torment the board at public meetings, including a second vote, in November 2014, to reaffirm the university’s dedication to the project. “We would like to see all testing—not only at the UW, but everywhere else—end,” she says.
To test on animals or not to test on animals—it’s a charged topic. There’s the emotional argument against: Awww, those monkeys are so cute and smart, why would you want to hurt them? And there’s the rational one against: As Schemkes and Rachel Bjork, board president of the Northwest Animal Rights Network, point out, researchers are beginning to rely on other forms of testing, including computer modeling, that spare animals. But according to Dave Anderson, executive director of UW’s Health Sciences Administration, those methods aren’t always effective. And recent discoveries related to repairing damaged hearts with stem cells and curing color blindness—both of which were made by UW researchers—wouldn’t have been possible without monkey test subjects. “It’s not a coincidence that every one of the last 31 Nobel prizes awarded for medicine and physiology have had animal testing in them,” Anderson says.
Whatever you may think of Schemkes’s goal, it’s a lofty one, because UW’s animal research program is big. Like King Kong big. In the 2014 fiscal year alone more than 2,500 critters, from dogs and cats to monkeys and pigs, were subjected to some form of testing on campus. A USDA report shows another 700 were bred or prepped for a similar fate. (Anderson says the actual number is much higher, although he couldn’t say for sure what it is.) And that doesn’t even account for the additional 1,400 macaque monkeys that the UW’s Washington National Primate Research Center plans to breed over the next four years, thanks to a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Schemkes understands the long odds she faces in taking on a public institution that stands to lose hundreds of millions of research dollars if she’s successful. “You’re literally fighting against government money,” she says. And that’s why she turned her attention to Skanska, the multinational construction company building the facility. In early 2015 she and other members of the campaign protested outside Skanska’s local office and at the homes of some of its top executives, like senior vice president David Harrison.
The demonstrations grew so heated—bullhorn-aided chants of “David Harrison has blood on his hands!” drew neighbors from their homes—that the execs filed for and received protection orders against Schemkes. “While we support legitimate First Amendment expression, what has occurred is harassment and intimidation of families at their homes,” says Chris Toher, Skanska’s executive vice president and general manager. And according to him, the demonstrations won’t deter the company. “We intend to meet our contractual commitments to our customer.”
Schemkes intends to keep fighting. The way she sees it, until concrete is poured—which could be months from now—there’s still time to derail the project. UW’s Anderson, though, has no intention of backing down. (That’s not to say the demonstrations haven’t had some effect, though: After I’d inquired multiple times about the facility not appearing on the university’s project-tracking site, a spokesperson admitted it had been pulled over “security concerns.” As of this writing, it’s been reinstated.) “I have a difficult time when I see people relatively young and in good health standing up, demanding that we stop the use of animals in research,” Anderson says. “And while it’s great to be young and enthusiastic and committed to causes, it’s difficult to see how somebody in that situation should be making decisions for somebody with an illness that will kill them.”