The Rhesus macaque monkeys at the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) Primate Center hoot and howl in delight as Megan O’Brien approaches their enclosure. O’Brien is in charge of the well-being of each monkey. There are twelve inside the enclosure, some swinging among the ropes that hang from the ceiling, while others scramble to join O’Brien at the feeding slot. O’Brien enters the enclosure, talking to the monkeys. She hands a banana to one of the macaques, whom she has nicknamed “Sarge.”
This is no typical banana, however.
Inside the banana is a pill, and at 8 am and 8 pm, O’Brien doles out these banana medications to each monkey as needed. O’Brien visits the enclosures daily as the Clinical Medicine Unit Manager. Her role on the Center’s campus is to manage the monkey’s medical records, prepare their daily medicine, give out enrichment treats, and ensure that all the animals used in behavioral, medical, and psychological experiments are treated with the utmost care and respect.
Seeing herself as the voice to the voiceless, O’Brien works diligently to provide the best care for the 4,700 macaques that reside in the Primate Center, of which 1,200 are involved in research studies. She also manages a team of veterinary technicians, otherwise known as the “Monkey Nurses.” Her heavy involvement in the monkey’s everyday lives and well-being has earned O’Brien the nickname “The Monkey Whisperer” around campus.
“I really just want there to always be a voice for the monkeys,” O’Brien says. “Their welfare is most important to me and I hope there will always be someone who feels this way.”
O’Brien entered veterinary medicine in a novel way. When she was 11, she walked up the street to the local veterinary clinic and asked if she could volunteer. The head vet, thinking she was too cute to turn away, allowed her to volunteer and then hired her when she turned 14. She stayed at the same local veterinary clinic for ten years before deciding to go into emergency veterinary medicine. After five more years of working with dogs and cats, O’Brien branched out, looking for something new and exciting to do in her field. It was this sense of adventure that led her to the OHSU Primate Center and her beloved monkeys.
“I just got a little burned out with the human aspect of the veterinary world,” O’Brien says. The social politics that surrounded being a local vet made her job feel thankless.
“Once I found the monkeys, I couldn’t go back. Monkeys always have something new and amazing to show you and, for these monkeys, it matters that I come here every day.”
Despite O’Brien’s dedication to her monkeys, she must occasionally defend what she does to people protesting the use of primates in laboratory research. She supports experimenting on animals for medical research – and believes many people don’t understand all of the good that it does for the world.
Kerry Taylor, the Primate Center’s head of the Division of Animal Resources, works closely with O’Brien and agrees that animal testing is a humane and crucial aspect of medical research. Before the Center can begin testing on animals, researchers must do extensive laboratory work beforehand and the proposed study must undergo scientific, ethical, and welfare reviews. The researchers must also conduct the necessary, extensive laboratory work in order to ensure that animals are needed for the experiment.
“By the time we see [the monkeys] being used in experiments it’s no longer controversial,” Taylor says.
“We believe in a higher purpose and a lot of people have thought long and hard about what we do, and we have a high confidence that we are doing the best we can for a good purpose under the best conditions possible.”
O’Brien explains that many of the animal welfare and animal rights group’s claims are based on misinformation. She, along with the Center’s education department, aims to clear up misunderstandings through explaining to people what they do. In her work O’Brien makes sure to emphasize that veterinarians are authoritative figures who have the final say on whether an experiment will be conducted.
“I feel strongly that these monkeys are giving us an incredible gift by being part of medical research,” O’Brien says.
“It is something that is necessary to allow us to have medications and treatments for illnesses. I would like to be here making sure they too are getting the best possible care during that time.”
As O’Brien goes about her daily life, her monkeys are always on her mind, and giving back to the monkeys is a top priority. Every year, O’Brien participates in the annual AIDS walk in support of the monkeys she works with. Proudly wearing a sign displaying the words “’I walk in honor of primates involved in AIDS research, Thank you,’” on her chest, O’Brien explains that this is her way of justifying her work with AIDS-infected monkeys.
“People always ask me why I wear that and don’t always know what contribution they make to the fight against AIDs,” O’Brien says. “Once they are aware they are very thankful to them also as well as happy that I spread the message of what the monkeys give to the world of medicine and human beings.”