Pilot Jim Gardner spies some pretty amazing things as he flies around Oklahoma in Bob Mills SkyNews 9. But recently he flew over quite a sight out near El Reno, where hundreds of baboons live. Do you know why they are there? We didn't, so we did some digging to find out.
On the ground, all you can see is a "No Trespassing" sign. But from the air, you can see them -- hundreds of baboons bred by the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. Beautiful animals -- but lots of unanswered questions.
"We were wondering why it was here," said a resident who lives nearby but didn't want to be identified.
She and some other people who live in the area know the facility is there, but nobody knows exactly what goes on inside.
"If it's for medical research, I'm fine with that," she said.
Jim Tomasek, Vice President for Research at OU Health Sciences Center wouldn't talk to us on camera, instead responded to our questions by email.
"The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center Baboon Resource Program at the Fort Reno Science Park serves as a national research resource. The Science Park has operated since mid- 2001 and has been continuously supported by grants and collaboration from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)," he wrote.
But some people believe more transparency is needed.
"If you're shrouded in secrecy that only breeds suspicion," said Jessica Ganas, who never worked for OU, but she did work inside animal testing labs around the country.
"They suffer, no matter how much enrichment you give them," she said. "I could only stay for so long because no matter how hard you tried to make the lives better for the animals, my experiences and what I saw no matter what you did, the conditions in the lab never make it okay to what's happening."
So, she got out of the labs and now works at Mindy's Memory in Newscastle, a sanctuary where test monkeys can retire after research. She detailed some of the studies she saw first-hand at labs outside of Oklahoma, reasons she feels so much compassion for the animals.
"There are studies that are depriving monkeys of food to look at dieting in women, there are studies that are taking babies away from their mothers now to see what maternal deprivation does," she said. "I'm not saying certain research doesn't have to take place but there is a lot of excess where we don't need animals being replicated in studies over and over again for things we already know."
Tomasek says the animals at the Park are being treated humanely, writing "The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center Animal Care and Use Program has five full-time licensed veterinarians specializing in laboratory animal medicine who directly oversee animal health and welfare on a daily basis. The University dedicates significant resources and expertise in complying with all federal, state and local rules, guidelines and laws, especially the Animal Welfare Act, and is committed to the humane and ethical treatment of animals."
He also stated in an email that "Baboons share a unique similarity to the human immune system, and have enabled medical advances to alleviate human disease and suffering, such as vaccine development for infectious diseases, organ transplantation, and treatments for septic shock, cancer, anemia, vision, and aging."
But until breeding and animal research ends, Ganas says she'll continue to work with labs around the country to save the ones they can.
"We can't return them to the wild, we can't give them what they deserve but we'll try very hard to make sure that we provide quality lifetime care for the rest their lives."
Mindy's Memory doesn't take in baboons, but there are facilities in the US that do. According to Tomasek, the baboons that were previously at the Park may relocate back to the Park.
More on the Baboon Resource Program - http://compmed.ouhsc.edu/brr.html