"Read what your neighbor Stuart Zola does to animals in the laboratory," the leaflet invited.
The propaganda didn't impress the neighbors. But that was never the point. The act found its legitimacy Aug. 3, in a front-page story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution headlined "Yerkes foes get up close and personal." The story ended on a promise from Atlanta's most vocal animal rights activist, Jean Barnes: "We're going to close that place one way or another. We're going to close Yerkes."
"Sometimes," says Rachel Weiss, "I read these articles and think, 'Honey, you just need to shut the fuck up.' "
Weiss is not one given to liberal use of expletives. Nor is she a spokeswoman -- official or otherwise -- for Yerkes. Indeed, Weiss wants Yerkes closed down as much as Barnes does. Maybe even more so.
Weiss is co-founder of Laboratory Primate Advocacy Group, the newest addition to the fractured front of the animal rights movement. Unlike most organizations that seek an end to animal testing, members of Weiss' group speak from experience: They are, all of them, current or former employees of places like Yerkes. They can tell a pigtail macaque monkey from a rhesus. They know how many chimpanzees have outlived their experimental usefulness, which ones await shipment to sanctuaries that don't even exist yet. They claim to know the violations the inspectors miss, which animals don't have toys, which ones live in solitary cages, which ones never see the light of day.
For 30 years, the media have portrayed the animal rights debate as a battle between two clearly defined camps. On one side stretch the implacable walls of places like Yerkes, so concerned about public relations that it records a reporter's interview with its new director. On the other side are activists like Jean Barnes, whose life mission is to close down Yerkes and who will happily leaflet a neighborhood to garner a front-page headline.
But the Laboratory Primate Advocacy Group occupies an odd nether region. At once outside and inside, it has the paradoxical mission of closing down the very facility that provides some of its members a livelihood.
"I try to look at the civil rights movement as a model," says one member. "You have the Nation of Islam, you have the Black Panthers, you have Martin Luther King. They didn't work together. But because of the things that they did, whether or not the tactics were questionable, there was major change. Maybe Martin Luther King was listened to more closely because they didn't want to deal with the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam. They went to someone they thought was reasonable and wanted to have dialogue with."
Perhaps what is most unique about Laboratory Primate Advocacy Group is that virtually all its members say they believed in the merits of biomedical testing when they started their jobs. But working with the animals changed them.
"You see what they're about," says one member, who still works at Yerkes. "It changes you. It changes your life."
Says another: "In many ways, I am a creation of Yerkes."
When Weiss first took a job seven years ago at the Yerkes main station, she'd already seen the effects of animal testing up close. As a junior at Indiana University, she had worked weekends at the medical science department's animal quarters. She fed hundreds of birds and mice. Some of the mice had massive tumors on their legs. Birds in a larynx study had their vocal cords cut. Later, when she was working in the psychology department's animal quarters, Weiss noticed electrodes buried in the heads of some of the rats and rabbits.
"The stuff they did at Indiana I didn't always agree with. I didn't always understand it, but I didn't have a real opinion about it," Weiss says. "I especially didn't like the keeping of birds in cages. But it never occurred to me to set them free. I just kind of wanted to see what it was before I had an opinion about it."
Not interested in graduate school, but eager to continue working with animals, she learned Yerkes was hiring "animal care technicians." She was hired over the phone, moved to Atlanta, and found an apartment in Little Five Points in 1994. In an unpublished memoir she would write of her 19 months at Yerkes, Weiss recalls that she was "very proud to be going to such a prestigious institution."
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