In a small alleyway off of Charter Street, nestled between two large brick buildings, stands a little white warehouse.

No bigger than a single-car garage, the inconspicuous building is nothing more than what it looks like: an old, not-so-glorified supply shed for a nearby bike store.

And though justifiably ignored by passers-by walking from Regent Street to University Avenue, that same little white warehouse currently lies at the center of one of the University of Wisconsin's most significant — and contentious — legal battles.

"It's absolutely critical," UW Associate Vice Chancellor Alan Fish said of acquiring the property. "It's something that we have been working on for a long time."

Insignificant as it might be in its current capacity, the warehouse has one vital feature realtors have expounded for generations: location.

Sandwiched between the Harry Harlow Primate Laboratory and the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, the warehouse is coveted by two groups standing on opposite sides of the animal research debate, one of Madison's longest-running controversies.

Internationally renowned for their contributions to the biological and psychological sciences, the Harlow Laboratory and WNPRC are among the reasons why UW is considered one of the top research institutions in the country.

But their use of animals, specifically monkeys, to provide those contributions has, for years, sparked outrage from both local and national animal-rights groups, including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which earlier this year ranked UW the "worst offender of animal abuse" among the nation's research institutions.

And now, because of the little white warehouse on Capitol Court, the perpetual controversy once again finds itself in the forefront.

Both UW and the Madison-based Alliance for Animals claim to have legally bought the property from Roger Charly, the owner Budget Bicycle Center.

The university, standing by its use of animals for medical and scientific research, hopes to use the land to expand its primate research facilities.

The Alliance, however, which has adamantly opposed any animal research since its inception more than 25 years ago, wants to build a museum on the property exhibiting its findings.

It is a situation that leaves little room for compromise, and while a court's ruling on the land dispute is expected to arrive in a matter of days, the larger controversy shows little sign of nearing a conclusion.

"I think it's a very long-term process, and it might be unending," WNPRC Director Joseph Kemnitz said of finding common ground between the animal-research advocates and opponents. "There's a large chasm separating those two points of view … and because it's a fundamental, philosophical issue, it's not amenable to a scientific resolution or evidence-based solution."

And whatever the outcome of the court case may be, both the university and the alliance expect the decision to only add to the growing chasm between the two sides.

Inside the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center
The cages lining the white room inside the WNPRC rattle and clang as tiny monkeys take turns scampering across the metal bars.

Like furry Nerf balls, the marmoset monkeys bounce around their pens, many jumping and clinging to the thin rods in front of them as two visitors walk inside the room.

With small, dark eyes, the monkeys study their guests. They tilt their heads to either side, revealing fluffs of hair died green, orange and other vibrant colors for identification.

As one of the visitors approaches the rows of cages, one bouncy marmoset cocks his head to the right and squirts a shot of urine straight through the gate and across the room.

"That's why we wear these," said Jordana Lenon, pointing to the clear plastic shield covering her face. "They do it all the time. It's completely natural for them."

Donned in attire more appropriate for a doctor heading into surgery than a public information officer, Lenon was The Badger Herald's guide on a recent tour of the research center.

Housing more than 1,500 monkeys, and more than 250 scientists studying them, the WNPRC is one of eight federally funded primate centers in the nation and the only one in the Midwest.

And since its foundation, the primate center has stood across the street from its research partner at UW, the Harry Harlow Primate Laboratory.

Named after the pioneering UW psychological researcher, the laboratory moved from its old building on University Avenue to its current location in the early 1950s.

Between the two buildings on Capitol Court, an array of behavioral and medical science research is conducted using non-human primates, ranging from observational studies to more intrusive ones, such as those investigating HIV and AIDS.

"There are investigators studying the behavior of the animals, so they don't do anything but watch them," Kemnitz said. "And at the other end of the spectrum, some studies are terminal. That is, the animal has to die at the end in order to get all of the experimental data."

As part of the experimental procedure for many of the intrusive studies, Kemnitz explained, monkeys are often infected with the virus or disease being investigated and are studied as they live out the infection to its conclusion.

The method helps researchers control all the variables of their experiments, Kemnitz said, such as knowing exactly when and with what version of the virus the monkeys were infected.

UW professor Eric Sandgren, who chairs the All-Campus Animal Care and Use Committee, which oversees animal research at UW, added that the intrusive HIV/AIDS studies are just one example of medical research that is necessary for finding a cure to a human virus but ethically could not be done on people.

"You are limited in what you can understand and what you will be able to discover if you don't use animals," Sandgren said. "As long as there are things that remain that we don't understand, there will always be some need to use animals in research — if we want to understand those things."

Throughout the process, however, Kemnitz insisted the monkeys are properly taken care of by researchers and staff veterinarians.

"It's certainly safe to say that no one on our staff would do anything that would be deleterious to the animal," Kemnitz said. "We care for these animals in many ways that are similar to how humans would be treated."

That includes, Kemnitz said, giving the animals painkillers such as Tylenol if they develop routine muscle soreness or even stronger analgesics after the animals go through surgery.

There is also an extensive oversight network, Kemnitz added, at both the university and federal level, which evaluates every facet of the primate research center, from every project to every researcher to the center itself.

And the review process begins with the All-Campus Animal Care and Use Committee, which must clear every animal-research project at the primate center.

"Before any work can be done, it has to be approved ahead of time by the committee," Sandgren said.

According to Sandgren, for each proposed animal-research project, the committee evaluates whether the research investigates "an important question," whether animals have to be used for the study, as well as the procedures that would be performed during the experiment.

"We ask for investigators to describe all of these things, and then we review the protocol," he said.

And about 90 percent of the protocols get returned to the investigators with a series of questions, Sandgren noted, which have to be answered before a research project is approved by the committee.

However, despites these efforts, there have been incidents at the primate research center where monkeys were harmed during experiments, sometimes fatally, raising questions about how well monkeys are cared for at the center — and whether animal research should be conducted at all.

"Pie-in-the-sky" research?

Monkeys have died at Wisconsin's research center — that much is fact and won't be argued by either the university or the activists protesting UW's use of animals for research.

However, how those monkeys died, and whether they should have been in any laboratory where they might, remains a contentious and highly volatile question.

Both primate center officials and animal rights activists frequently cite two instances where a monkey at the research center died unexpectedly, with the university calling them "unfortunate mistakes" and the activists claiming negligence.

The first is the case of primate center researcher Ei Terasawa, who came under criticism when it was discovered an unsupervised monkey had died of a suspected heart attack during an experiment.

Though Kemnitz maintains the monkey simply died of old age, rather than as a result of the experiment, Terasawa was still suspended for two years because she violated the experiment's approved protocol, which called for constant surveillance.

The second incident occurred several summers ago when three monkeys were accidentally left in a cage during a scheduled cleaning and died after going through a mechanism Kemnitz called the "cage-washing machine."

While university officials usually end the discussion on controversial mishaps with those two incidents, animal rights activists frequently cite numerous other cases and research studies revealing what they claim to be the primate research center's "unethical practices."

One is a situation that arose in 1997 when The Capital Times reported that the primate research center had used "dozens of monkeys" at the Henry Vilas Zoo for "prohibited research."

Kemnitz called the case "overblown," since the monkeys, as well as the buildings they lived in, were owned by the university and were always intended to be used for research.

However, according to Rick Bogle, a leading member of the Alliance for Animals, it does not matter whether the university owned the monkeys and "always intended" to use them for research — the incident was immoral, he said, and scientifically irrelevant regardless.

"A hundred years of research has proven beyond any doubt that monkeys and apes perceive the world and interact with each other that are so closely similar to how we perceive the world," Bogle said. "If we are to have any moral or ethical standards for how we treat each other, we cannot draw the line at our nose. There's no consistency."

Citing the primate research center's HIV/AIDS studies specifically, Bogle argued the physical differences between humans and monkeys would prevent any non-human primate study from being applicable to people.

"It's all pie-in-the-sky research," Bogle said. "Nothing has been learned about HIV from studying monkeys, and all they can present is hope. They say, 'Maybe we could find something to help people some day.' But they won't. If you were studying dogs, you wouldn't be studying cats."

The future of UW primate research

From behind his desk at the primate research center, Kemnitz remains optimistic about the future of primate research at UW and is particularly hopeful that an AIDS vaccine would be discovered at the university's research center.

"I do think we'll find a vaccine for AIDS. It certainly won't happen this year, but we're making progress," Kemnitz said. "I hope it happens while I'm still here at the primate center."

As for the animal research debate, no one anticipates it going away any time soon.

Bogle simply summed it up by saying it would be "impossible to compromise."

"Either they're going to shut down, or we're going to give up," Bogle said. "And we're not going anywhere."

And neither is the primate research center, which is why both sides said the little white warehouse property was so important.

If UW succeeds in obtaining the property, Associate Vice Chancellor Alan Fish said the university could continue its planned expansion of the primate research center, and primate research itself could continue to take place uninterrupted.

However, if the property is awarded to the Alliance for Animals and it builds its museum, Fish said the entire scope of the animal research debate at Madison could be amplified to an unprecedented degree — forcing UW to respond in a somewhat drastic, and costly, manner.

"We've already taken a number of steps to improve security on that site, when we knew we would be targeted by animal rights groups," Fish said. "But if we're unable to secure that center, we'd have to ratchet up our security even more."

Fish estimates that the move would cost the university $3 to $5 million more in overhead.

But no decision has been made yet, allowing for the longstanding controversy to continue simmering.