Victory for Primates in Labs: Judge Rules USDA Was Unlawful

The Rise for Animals Team, March 28, 2023

A federal judge has ruled the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) acted unlawfully in denying a petition to improve the psychological well-being of nonhuman primates used in research. 

Judge Julie Rubin of Maryland’s federal district court issued the victory on Friday, March 24, 2023 for Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic, which filed the case on behalf of us at Rise for Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF). 

Judge Rubin ruled in a 28-page decision that the USDA acted unlawfully by denying a petition for rulemaking to improve the standard for the psychological well-being of nonhuman primates used in research. 

The petition, submitted in May of 2014 by Rise for Animals (then the New England Anti-Vivisection [NEAVS]) and ALDF, requested that the USDA promulgate standards for the psychological well-being of primates in laboratories, much like those adopted in 2013 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for chimpanzees used in federally-funded research. Over 10,000 public comments were submitted, with 71% in favor. Despite this, the USDA denied the petition, then failed to respond. 

The USDA’s failure to implement appropriate standards protecting primates’ psychological well-being has been causing countless animals to suffer in laboratories. 

In its ruling, the Court noted the USDA’s principal explanation for denying the petition to upgrade welfare standards was its claim that the USDA annually inspects “all of the animals” in research facilities to ensure compliance with “enrichment plan[s]” for the psychological well-being of their primates. Pointing to an “internal” document obtained in a public records request, the Court noted this hasn’t been true since 2019, when the USDA secretly instituted a new inspection policy under which the agency actually prohibits its Inspectors from conducting full inspections of any research facility accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC), a private organization dominated by the animal research industry. 

With this inspection-limiting policy divulged, Judge Rubin ruled the USDA’s decision to deny the petition unlawful because it “failed to provide a full explanation for its reasoning,” and because the agency based its decision “on facts known by it to be false.” 

Judge Rubin also ruled that the denial of the petition was unlawful because the USDA failed to respond to any of the more than 10,000 comments it received. After noting “the Agency has before it thousands of scientific community (and other) comments describing the suffering of … nonhuman primates in research facilities,” the Court condemned the USDA’s failure to respond to a single comment, stating:

Given the throngs of scientific community members’ interest in the Subject and considerable, apparently serious-minded contributions from the relevant scientific community, it strains credulity that none of the 10,137 comments warranted even the barest consideration.

The Court ruled the USDA’s denial of the petition unlawful and ordered the case back to the agency to reconsider its decision. 

Of this win, Ed Butler, our Executive Director, says, “I am so pleased to see the court rule in our favor and hold the USDA accountable. The record shows the USDA, through its Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS), failed primates used in laboratory research. This ruling is another step forward in our fight to end experiments that harm animals and provide no benefit to human health.”

Stay tuned for updates related to this case, the welfare of primates in labs, and other news, insights, and actions you can take to help end the suffering of all animals in labs. Sign up for emails from Rise for Animals below.