SAN ANTONIO – The Texas Biomedical Research Institute has withdrawn its $11 million request for bond funding in the face of public outcry over animal welfare concerns.
Texas Biomed had requested money through the $1.2 billion 2022-2027 bond program to improve infrastructure at its aging campus. Though the request had the support of city staff, a citizens committee charged with considering projects for funding received numerous public comments in opposition, based on the institute’s use of primates for animal testing.
Speakers at the Facilities Committee meetings and comments submitted through the city’s website criticized the practice of animal testing and the institute’s history with primates, referencing animal escapes and welfare concerns, such as frostbitten primates during the February freeze.
Ahead of the Facilities Committee’s final meeting on Thursday, Texas Biomed President and CEO Dr. Larry Schlesinger notified Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Manager Erik Walsh through a memo that the institute was withdrawing its request. He also defended its animal testing practices.
“We regret that there has been a vocal minority that has misinformed and misrepresented the work we do and disparaged our ethical, caring and nationally-recognized animal research program,” Schlesinger wrote. “As has been stated before, the international scientific community recognizes that animal research is absolutely necessary to understand and further human health, and is required by the FDA for preclinical testing of new therapies and vaccines. Texas Biomed performs this research in a safe, compassionate and regulated environment.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo, on the other hand, cheered the development.
“This is a huge victory for San Antonio taxpayers, including the more than 22,000 who are PETA supporters, and for the monkeys who likely won’t be brought into the world just to be tormented at Texas Biomed’s Southwest National Primate Research Center,” Guillermo said in a news release.
Texas Biomed had requested bond money as part of a more than $30 million project to update its campus infrastructure, which is, in turn, part of a $270 million, 10-year strategic plan to grow its research program and double the number of its employees.
Schlesinger wrote in his memo that the plan would result in a $3.2 billion economic impact.
Texas Biomed officials say the institute’s infrastructure needs were highlighted by the February freeze when the campus experienced “catastrophic” water, sewer, and power failures.
In response to an interview request, Texas Biomed provided KSAT with this statement:
“Texas Biomed’s bond project request was recommended by city staff and approved by the city council to move forward in the bond process, and we are extremely grateful for their support of the very important work we do that has led to improvements in human health. This proposed bond project would have supported the growth of bioscience in San Antonio, adding jobs, educational opportunities and ultimately scientific advancements. However, we recognize the committee has to consider many competing priorities, so we determined it best to work with the city on alternative funding options for the Institute’s infrastructure project and withdrew our bond request. We do not have any more details at this time. We are confident in the city’s support of Texas Biomed and the critical role the Institute plays in the future health and prosperity of our community.”
Texas Biomed has 2,500 primates at its campus, between baboons, macaques, marmosets, retired chimpanzees, and various other species that are meant for specific projects. And, as part of its 10-year strategic plan, the institute just broke ground on a new Animal Care Complex.
PETA slammed Texas Biomed in August after it claimed to have obtained federal documents showing the fingers, toes, or tails of 159 baboons had to be amputated because of frostbite during the February freeze.
In a statement about the event, Texas Biomed confirmed there had been “non-life-threatening injuries to some baboons” in its colony, and it had “provided immediate and 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,’” according to Texas Biomed’s August statement.
The baboons’ injuries were referenced by opponents, including by attorney and animal rights advocate Joel Hailey at the Facilities Committee’s Nov. 18 meeting.
“I feel that they do not prioritize their funding for acceptable animal welfare standards, and I don’t believe that they should be receiving our San Antonio taxpayer dollars,” Hailey told the committee.
Committee members also had questions about a $25,000 fine levied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services in 2012, which had been brought up during public comments.
The fine, the institute said in a written response, was due to two incidents in 2009 and 2010 in which animal enclosure malfunctions led to an animal getting outside of its primary enclosure. The animal in the 2009 incident experienced weather-related stress and had to be euthanized, Texas Biomed said.
Texas Biomed said it had not been fined since 2012, though speakers during public comment pointed to other violations listed in USDA inspection reports.
The public push back was enough to raise concern among committee members about how scrutiny over Texas Biomed’s project could affect the overall success of the bond.
While the bond committees can debate the merits of individual projects, voters won’t have that choice.
Once the city council votes and approves a final project list, voters can only say “yes” or “no” on the six bond propositions, which are broken down only to their general area of funding, such as drainage, or streets and sidewalks.
The Texas Biomed project would have been included in the “Public Safety & Health Facilities” proposition, alongside projects like fire and police stations, which would be approved or denied alongside it.
“Not giving my personal opinion. All I’m saying is it’s worth thinking about would we want to take this to the voters,” said committee member Lisa Taylor, during a Dec. 9 meeting. “It is polarizing. It’s a distraction. And we really need to consider what that can do between now and May.”
Ultimately, Schlessinger’s memo took the decision out of the committee’s hands before it needed to make its final recommendations.
It also freed up $11 million in the total $134 million budget for facilities. The committee recommended putting $1 million toward a Meals on Wheels facility and $10 million toward replacing a West Side fire station, instead.