Of Humane Bondage

updated 09/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

VETERINARIAN TOM BUTLER KNOWS better than to bond with any of the 2,800 baboons, 222 chimps, and dozens of assorted rabbits, mice and turkeys that inhabit his menagerie at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio. Some of the creatures are not long in his care. In fact a few of them are not long for the world.

The baby baboons may be win-some, but Butler has trained himself in detachment. "A baboon is a wild animal, not a pet," he says. "We do not allow ourselves to become emotionally involved. We believe the animals are happier in an environment that has minimum human contact."

As chairman of the foundation's 30-year-old laboratory-medicine department, Butler, 54, oversees animal-research projects. The center's baboon-breeding facility—with 550 births annually, the world's largest—provides 200 a year to other research institutes. Southwest's baboons have been pressed into service in testing the effects of various herpes vaccines, the usefulness of medicated tampons in preventing toxic-shock syndrome, and the effectiveness of drugs in reducing tumors.

It was Southwest that supplied the animal used in the first baboon-to-human liver transplant performed last June on an unidentified 35-year-old man at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The patient lived 70 days before succumbing to a massive stroke last week. The foundation also raised the baby baboon whose heart was used in the highly publicized Baby Fie transplant eight years ago in Loma Linda, Calif. Baby Fae's body rejected the alien organ, and the infant, who had been born prematurely, died 20 days later.

Until the liver transplant in Pittsburgh, Southwest was best known for Paul, the chimpanzee that in 1983 became the first ape injected with the human HIV virus in an effort to infect him with AIDS. (Paul has developed HIV antibodies but has yet to contract the disease.) Since then the center has experimented with some 20 different AIDS vaccines, including one that is now being tested on humans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Not surprisingly, Butler and Southwest have drawn the attention of animal-rights activists. The foundation has been picketed once and periodically receives bomb threats—none of which have been carried out. "In a perfect world of no disease, scientists would not use animals in research," says Butler. "But there has been no major medical advancement without the use of animals, so we have no choice. Having no choice, we do everything with great humanity so that we don't use any more animals than necessary."

Though Southwest is the next-to-last stop for some of its nonhuman guests, Butler and his colleagues try to make it as animal-friendly as possible. Many of the baboons roam free in a six-acre corral. For the chimps there is a large playground as well as a retirement community for those no longer used in research. "Tom has a real love for animals and makes sure they have the finest care available," says Dr. Leo Whitehair, a medical director at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., which partially funds the foundation.

Butler's love of animals dates back to his childhood in Alabama, where his family lived on a small farm. "When the vet came around, I'd stand by and ask questions," says Butler. "It was his gentleness and helpfulness that impressed me."

In 1902, Butler graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in veterinary medicine. That same year he joined the Air Force and spent the next 22 years caring for the research animals—mostly chimps—used in aerospace experiments. He joined Southwest after retiring in 1984. Today, Butler lives with his wife, Patricia, 54, a real estate; agent, north of San Antonio. The couple have two grown children and share their home with Abby and Tom Dooley, the family mutts. "My wife found both dogs and brought them home," says Butler. "She's very compassionate."

At the time of the first recipient's death, Butler was testing additional baboons as prospective liver donors. If the baboon-to-man transplants eventually become more common, he will see more simians used to save human lives. "How can you say using animals in research is wrong?" he asks. "When it comes to a decision of life between an animal and a person, there is no decision."

BOB STEWART in San Antonio

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