Worldwide attention fell upon the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute earlier this month when a fraudulent experiment funded by Volkswagen highlighted the laboratory's history of animal cruelty violations.
In 2015, the Albuquerque-based lab conducted an experiment on behalf of a lobby group funded by German carmakers Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW to test the effects of diesel fumes on primate respiratory systems. The car company wanted to prove that their modern diesel-burning vehicles were cleaner than older models, and commissioned LRRI to conduct the study. However, the car used in the experiments—a Volkswagen Beetle—had reportedly been altered by Volkswagen employees without the knowledge of the researchers to produce cleaner emissions in the lab than on the road.
The experiment became part of a larger scandal surrounding accusations of fraud and conspiracy when Volkswagen admitted later to having installed software in their vehicles which allowed them to trick US emissions tests. The resulting legal battle cost the German car industry giant billions in fines and sentenced one of the company's executives to a seven-year term in prison. Recent court documents related to the scandal publicized details of the LRRI experiment for the first time, stirring outrage on social media and causing Volkswagen to suspend Thomas Steg, its head of external relations and sustainability.
According to reports, the experiments lasted four hours and involved exposing 10 Java monkeys isolated in small chambers to carcinogenic diesel exhaust fumes produced by the altered Beetle as the vehicle ran on a treadmill installed by Volkswagen engineers. The monkeys were shown cartoons to keep them docile during their exposure. A statement from the company claimed that Steg was the only senior manager aware that animal testing was being used in the experiments, and that the practice goes against the company's “ethical standards.” It has been noted, however, that the experiments were well-documented and had been presented to Volkswagen managers in the past.
The public revelation of the study's methodology have also raised questions from animal rights advocates concerning the numerous federal violations committed by LRRI in recent years, including failing to treat a pair of sick beagles and allowing a monkey to die from starvation due to negligence. Last month, a complaint was filed with the US Department of Agriculture by animal rights group Stop Animal Exploitation Now requesting that the authority take action against LRRI, including charging them with the maximum fine of $10,000 per infraction, per animal. According to a 2016 federal report quoted in the SAEN complaint, 25 percent of animals used in the lab's research were not given “the appropriate anesthetic, analgesic or tranquilizing drug” to maintain lab results, compared to 8.7 percent nationwide. LRRI is not associated with Lovelace Health Systems.