After having to amputate some frostbitten fingers, toes, and tail tips from 159 of its baboons this past February, a San Antonio-based research institute is implementing lessons learned from Winter Storm Uri into a new primate breeding facility.

The Southwest National Primate Research Center at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute suffered several infrastructure failures during the winter freeze, which resulted in about 15% of the center’s baboons sustaining frostbite, said Dr. Diana Scorpio, Texas Biomed’s associate director of veterinary resources and research support.

In the wake of the amputations, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is demanding the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigate the institute and take “appropriate action against” Texas Biomed.

Founded in 1941, the Texas Biomedical Research Institute is a nonprofit that specializes in genetics, virology, and immunology research. It is home to the Southwest National Primate Research Center — one of only seven national primate facilities in the U.S. Currently, Texas Biomed cares for about 2,500 primates, Scorpio said.

The baboons, macaques, and marmosets, as well as other animals such as mice and guinea pigs, kept at the center are used to test vaccine and treatment efficacy and effects. Over the past 18 months, the center has played a large part in studying Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, including creating animal models that could help move the vaccine closer to full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.

Now, as the institute plans for its first new primate facility in 20 years, it is taking insight gained from the freeze into account, said Texas Biomed’s CEO and President Larry Schlesinger. The new facility, which will take about a year to build and will be called the Non-Human-Primate Alpha Building, will be able to house up to 800 primates of varying species and will cost about $13.5 million, Schlesinger said.

Following PETA’s letter to the USDA, the institute agreed to allow the San Antonio Report to tour the Southwest National Primate Research Center to view its primates.

However, Texas Biomed would not permit photography inside its facilities, said Lisa Cruz, the institute’s vice president of communications. Unknown people and gear stress the primates out, Cruz said, and getting close enough to take pictures would require a photographer to get a tuberculosis test to make sure that person wouldn’t pose a risk to the primates.

A tour of the baboon barracks

The baboons reside in a large concrete block of cages similar to those at a zoo, with an outside area enclosed by chain-link fencing and a passageway to an indoor area.

About 10 to 15 baboons of varying ages, both males and females, reside together in one cage. Toys, ropes, and colorful playthings litter the floors of the occupied cages.

During the San Antonio Report’s visit, two baby baboons sat toward the front of the cage playing with each other. A red rubber ball sat in the corner nearby as the babies climbed and jumped onto their mothers’ chests. In another corner, an adult female baboon sat with her hands under a running water tap. She held a couple of food biscuits she was softening under the water. 

“It’s a monkey biscuit, it’s nutritionally complete,” said Blake Harrington, animal care supervisor. “They sometimes take one of their play balls, and they’ll bite a hole into it and then they’ll fill that up with water, and they’ll put their biscuits inside of it like a bowl of cereal.”

As one of the babies walked directly under his mother and synchronized with her steps, Scorpio pointed to his tail. 

“Can you see his shorter tail?” veterinary technician RoseAn Thienpont said, pointing to one of the animals who suffered frostbite and had to have the tip of his tail amputated. The surgery was “not what I would consider to be anything major,” Thienpont added.

These baboons are mostly for breeding, Scorpio said. A primate shortage in the research community makes Texas Biomed’s primate center a valuable resource, she said. To encourage breeding, baboons are watched for compatibility and put into groups accordingly. 

Five Texas Biomed employees led the way past bubble-like cages where retired chimpanzees relaxed and another smaller set of concrete barracks where Rhesus macaques were misted by cool water as they played.

In a 6-acre open enclosure, about 200 baboon males are housed away from the main group. They are kept separated from the rest of the colony so that they can be readily sold to other permitted labs or used for research, Harrington said. 

The enclosure, boasts wooden and steel jungle gyms throughout, and an indoor housing area, that, on the day the San Antonio Report visited, was packed with baboons avoiding the August sun. Others rested inside large concrete culverts.

Texas Biomed has adjusted its plans for its new primate facility in response to February’s winter storm that caused several primates to lose toes and tips of tails. The new facility will be built above the current enclosed, open-air yard.
Texas Biomed has adjusted its plans for its new primate facility in response to February’s winter storm that caused several primates to lose toes and tips of tails. The new facility will be built near the current enclosed, open-air yard. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

“These are all males from various ages anywhere from maybe 2 years old all the way through full adulthood, and so they just all live together,” Harrington said. Baboons live about 20 to 30 years in the wild, and longer in captivity, Scorpio said.

During the storm, many of the male baboons in the corral enclosure ventured out to play in the snow, Harrington said. Their chain-link fences were boarded up with wood to help protect them from the air, and they had warming areas, Scorpio said.

Another 6-acre field, near the existing enclosure, is where Texas Biomed will build its new enclosure.  

The winter storm strikes

When Winter Storm Uri blew into Texas last February, the state’s largest biomedical institute wasn’t spared. Despite operating on a protected part of CPS Energy’s grid and having warming centers for primates to enjoy on a cold day, Texas Biomed experienced rolling blackouts.

“Our employees’ talent and their dedication to the animals was on full display during this winter storm disaster,” Schlesinger said. “There was no hesitancy, the employees immediately knew what they had to do. I think this is a success story.”

Many of the staff members dedicated to animal care at the primate center stayed overnight sleeping on air mattresses and eating from the vending machine to help check on primates and care for them as best as possible, Thienpont said. She and her coworkers made rounds every four hours, even through the night, to check the animals’ temperatures and aid them as best they could, she said. 

Like many of San Antonio’s buildings during the week-long freeze, the institute’s animal facilities had damaged pipes that resulted in an inability to warm the floors of some of the baboons’ indoor facilities. 

Most of the frostbite injuries were not serious, Scorpio said, because the animals huddled together near propane-fueled heaters for warmth. Heat and water were restored within a matter of hours, said Director of Public Relations Nicole Foy.

PETA demands investigation

After receiving federal reports about the injured animals earlier this month through an open records request, PETA demanded an investigation of Texas Biomed. 

“If Texas Biomed can’t provide shelter for animals in its care, we wonder what else they can’t do properly,” said Tasgola Bruner, media manager for PETA’s laboratory investigations and regulatory testing, in a press release. 

PETA claims Texas Biomed “failed to fulfill” the federal Animal Welfare Act requirement, which protects sheltered primates from exposure to extreme weather conditions.

PETA accused Texas Biomed of regularly subjecting animals “to painful procedures and invasive surgeries.”

The animal rights organization stated in its press release that the institute paid a $25,000 fine in 2012 for allowing primates to escape their cages, which Cruz confirmed.

In 2018, four baboons escaped their enclosure using a barrel that animal caregivers put in the enclosure as an “enrichment tool.” Scorpio jokingly called the baboons “naughty” but noted that they were promptly recaptured.

Lessons learned and plans made

Following PETA’s press release, Texas Biomed issued a statement of its own that it had self-reported the “non-life-threatening” injuries and provided “exceptional veterinary care to mitigate further injury.”

“The Department of Health and Human Services noted that the Institute’s efforts, which included supplemental heat, round-the-clock observations with more than 50 staff members sleeping overnight on campus to care for animals throughout the week, were ‘consistent with regulatory philosophy … and actions taken to resolve the issue were appropriate,'” Texas Biomed said in its statement.

Texas Biomed also is aiming to improve the infrastructure necessary for maintaining its primates’ health, Schlesinger said.

The $31.5 million earmarked for infrastructure projects will pay to upgrade the center’s pipes to ensure they do not burst in future freezes, and boost the campus’ electrical grid resiliency, Schlesinger said.  

While the storm exposed infrastructure weaknesses throughout the campus, the pandemic underscored why animal testing is necessary, Schlesinger said. Without animal models, he said, medicines and vaccines like the COVID-19 vaccine could not be properly developed.

“You ethically cannot put new drugs and vaccines in humans without formally testing them in animal model systems … to enable the FDA to approve clinical trial initiation,” Schlesinger said.

Animal models can predict how a certain vaccine will perform in humans and will show the efficacy of that vaccine, he said. 

Texas Biomed cares deeply for its animals and works hard to provide them with what they need, Schlesinger said. The institute looks forward to doing so in its new facilities as well, he added.

“The oversight is extraordinary on our primate center,” Schlesinger said. “We are highly regulated to ensure that we have our best practices in place in terms of the way we handle our animals.”

Disclosure: Texas Biomedical Research Institute is a San Antonio Report nonprofit member.

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett is the general assignment reporter for the San Antonio Report.