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More Than Just Monkey Business

September 19, 2001

Heather Heilman

John Lee Holden has a big job. Every morning, he's at work at the Tulane Regional Primate Research Center at 6 a.m. Each day he inspects every cage and pen where monkeys are kept. Thats a lot, since there are more than 5,000 animals at the primate center. He's a gregarious man with the engaging country accent native to Wilmer, La. But he does his job with utmost seriousness.

It's his responsibility to make sure that the center's standard operating procedures are followed to the letter--that cages are clean and the animals fed, that chemicals are stored correctly and that all facilities are maintained and working properly. He also trains new employees to follow the primate center's standard procedures. And when problems develop, it's his job to see that they're fixed.

"When I have a problem, I like to get on it," Holden said. "I don't want to come back next week and the problem is still existing. I want a solution with results."

In a sense, Holden's job was created to prevent small problems from turning into big ones. His work seems so necessary that it's hard to imagine the primate center functioning without him. Yet he is the first person to hold his job, and he's been at Tulane less than three years.

"When we instituted that position, we were one of the first to do so," said Jim Blanchard, the former head of veterinary medicine at the primate center.

He has recently been promoted to executive director of comparative medicine programs, a position that entails overseeing all animal research throughout the university. Skip Bohm, the current director of veterinary medicine at the primate center, was the first to point out the need for someone like Holden.
"We noticed that the building supervisors were busy with so many issues that they weren't able to do day-to-day inspections," Bohm said. "And there's always a drift from the standard procedure."

During a recent site visit, the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care cited the primate center for creating the position of quality assurance officer and recommended that other facilities institute positions similar to Holden's. In fact, Blanchard plans on creating a similar job to oversee the vivarium at the Health Sciences Center downtown. And Holden has been invited to speak about his job at area meetings of the American Association of Laboratory Animal Science.

Holden is the perfect person to make sure that standards of care are consistently met at the primate center. Before coming to Tulane, he was responsible for quality assurance at the dairy where he worked for 24 years. He's used to upholding strict standards thanks to years of dealing with inspections by the FDA and USDA. Of course, there's a difference between cows and monkeys.

"I never dealt with monkeys before, so it's been a real adventure," Holden said. "But I love a challenge." He knows many of the animals by name, from Rafiki, an outsize baboon, to some of the rhesus monkeys that look like someone you know. "We make sure the animals get the best of care," he said.

He's a stickler for making sure all animal handlers wear their personal protection equipment--the mask, gloves, sleeves and face shield that protect the wearer and the animals from disease. He also has an almost uncanny ability to see small glitches that everyone else overlooks.

"Things catch my eye," he said. "It's my job to notice stuff. There's always something that needs attention." He likes the work because there's always something new to learn, and because of the supportive community at the primate center. "As long as you enjoy what you do, you'll be there forever," he said. "And I love my job."

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