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April 8, 2002

Meeting the neighbors

Stuart Zola is director of the Yerkes Primate Research Center.


After 30 years in the sunny but one-note climate of San Diego, I am delighting in my first Georgia spring—pollen, rain showers and all. And I’m looking forward to summer as well, but perhaps not for the reasons you might expect.

Last August, I moved from San Diego to Atlanta to take the position of director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory. As many of you know from experience, moving cross-country is stressful and difficult, but this move was spectacularly lousy. In San Diego, it was hot. In Atlanta, it was hot and humid. In San Diego, the animal-rights activists were happy to see me leave. And in Atlanta, they were poised to pounce before I even arrived.

A local animal-rights activist group managed to obtain the address of my newly purchased home in Decatur before I’d even left San Diego, and it distributed leaflets throughout my new neighborhood condemning me and my research.

“Read what your neighbor, Stuart Zola … does to animals in the laboratory,” the leaflet read.

The leaflet wasn’t pretty. It was pretty vicious. It showed photographs—not from my laboratory—of a monkey in an apparatus and selectively quoted from Deborah Blum’s excellent book The Monkey Wars, which devotes a chapter to my research. Naturally, the excerpt focused exclusively on the most graphic aspects of brain surgery on a monkey, completely ignoring Blum’s eloquent, well-balanced exploration of the nature of my research and its implications for the treatment of amnesia and other memory problems in human patients.

The leaflet also bore my home address in large, boldface type and implied to my neighbors that, as members of the taxpaying public, they had been snookered into supporting my ill-gotten living. “Do you like the home located at [my address]?” the leaflet read. “You should, your taxes paid for it—but Stuart Zola lives there.”

Well, that took care of introducing myself to the neighbors. So much for making a favorable first impression on the community. I am a fairly extroverted person, and, having performed magic tricks for groups of young children, I am accustomed to confronting intense skepticism and disdain, but even Zig Zigler would have been nervous under such circumstances.

To my surprise and enormous gratification, the whole episode ended up in my favor. My neighbors, a few of whom I’d met during a house-hunting visit, turned out to be incredibly, heartwarmingly supportive. Some kindly called me in California to share their indignation and outrage that these things were being said about me and my research. One especially courageous neighbor even contacted the group and told the activists not to come back.

The leafleting incident drew local media attention, which I found embarrassing—not because this was how I was introduced to the Emory and Atlanta communities, but because several other Emory scientists had been targeted in precisely the same manner without exciting the same level of public interest.

I have heard the argument that the leafleting in my neighborhood seemed particularly outrageous to some because I hadn’t even moved in yet. The truth is this incident probably aroused special attention because of my position at Yerkes, which long has served as the lightning rod for animal-rights issues in Atlanta.

However, the list of scientists singled out for the particular attentions of the animal rightists by no means is limited to those with Yerkes appointments. Research with animals plays such an integral and critical role in biomedical science that it is conducted throughout the Woodruff Health Sciences Center at Emory—and animal-rights groups have recognized this by broadening their attack.

What has happened to scientists like physiologist Richard Nichols and neurologist Jerrold Vitek, just to name two, is offensive and outrageous. Animal-rights activists have come into their neighborhoods late at night (often around 11 p.m.) to distribute leaflets. Some researchers also have received ominously worded e-mails and letters, some booby-trapped with razor blades. Activists have attempted to turn the researchers’ own neighbors against them by accusing them of cheating the federal government in order to fund pointless research on animals, rather than by voicing dispassionate philosophical opposition to animal-based research.

I don’t challenge the right of the activists to voice their opinions. On the contrary, I firmly believe in the right—in fact, the vital need—for healthy discussion of dissenting views on the subject of research with animals. I do not believe it necessarily would be a good thing if everyone unquestioningly supported animal-based research. Science is about seeking answers to questions, and that process of discovery contributes to the evolution of our beliefs and practices. We need to constantly question what we do and how we do it to ensure we are devoting our energies and resources appropriately.

But the methods by which animal rightists have chosen to express their views are unacceptable. While Emory has endured its share of protests, other research institutions have experienced vandalism and arson, crimes for which animal-rights activists proudly claimed credit.

Leafleting is not a crime, but the recent leafleting campaign waged against Emory scientists is disingenuous.

Fortunately, just as in my case, these scientists’ neighbors have responded with staunch support and loyalty—right down to the last mailbox on the street. Even people who acknowledged they weren’t entirely comfortable with the idea of research with animals have expressed disgust with the activists’ tactics. More importantly, they have listened readily and with open minds to the researchers’ explanations of their work, why it’s important, why animals must be used, and how they treat the animals in their care.

Every Emory scientist whose neighborhood has been leafleted, whose name, address and photograph have been posted on animal-rights websites, whose research has been attacked for no other reason than its use of animals, deserves our attention and our support.

Some of these researchers are basic scientists, whose work provides the foundation upon which subsequent studies are constructed; others are clinicians whose animal-based research translates immediately into human applications. In all cases, however, we share the aim of contributing to the improved health of humankind—of making people healthy, to use the motto of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center. We are your neighbors.

What makes a good neighbor, besides good fences and the willingness to lend you gas for the lawn mower? Someone who takes the time to get to know you and who gives you support based on that personal acquaintance. Someone who refuses to judge you based on a sheet of paper bearing ugly images and uglier words designed to invoke emotional rather than rational responses.

I’m looking forward to enjoying my first summer in my new hometown, and to spending some quality time with my neighbors. I recommend you do the same. You never know when you might need them—or when they might need you.