Animal Rights Activist Lori Lehner Dies
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2004; Page B06
Lori Lehner, who played a central role in the infamous "Silver Spring monkeys" case when she opened her house to 17 laboratory monkeys in 1981, died of leukemia June 2 in Tampa. She was 45 and had lived in Florida since 1997.
By outfitting her basement in Rockville as a temporary refuge for the monkeys, Ms. Lehner helped set in motion the celebrated case, which led to a decade of legal and scientific wrangling and propelled the newly formed People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals into the most powerful and controversial group in the animal rights movement.
Ms. Lehner had studied to be an actress, but she found herself on an especially bright public stage when Montgomery County police raided a Silver Spring laboratory on Sept. 11, 1981, and seized 17 monkeys from the Institute for Behavioral Research.
The laboratory was directed by Edward Taub, a well-known researcher who had received a $180,000 grant that year from the National Institutes of Health for studies that he hoped would aid stroke victims. He had operated on the spinal cords of some of the monkeys, numbing some of their limbs to study their physical and neural responses.
When the police entered the facility, the first time in the United States a scientific laboratory was raided to stop animal cruelty, they were overcome by the stench. They found some animals with open, untreated wounds, and some monkeys had gnawed off their own fingers, which had no sense of feeling.
Ms. Lehner, who was 23 at the time and part of a youthful band of animal lovers that had tipped off the police, agreed to keep the monkeys at her house, even though she also had 12 dogs at the time, all of which she had rescued.
"She redid her basement, took out a wall and put in drainage systems," Ingrid Newkirk, the president of PETA, recalled in a telephone interview. "She had to keep food and cleaning supplies on hand."
Ms. Lehner and her friends groomed the monkeys with toothbrushes and gave them mirrors with which they could admire themselves. She also discovered, to her surprise, that the monkeys enjoyed watching television soap operas.
"They loved it," she said in a Washington Post Magazine article in 1991. "We used to put the soaps on for them during the day. It didn't take long for them to respond to it."
About two weeks later, a judge ordered that the monkeys be returned to the laboratory. When Taub came to Ms. Lehner's door, it was barricaded with a sofa, and the monkeys were gone.
Ms. Lehner was arrested and spent a night in jail, protesting that she did not know where the simians had been taken. Her lawyer charged that she was strip-searched at the Montgomery County jail, prompting Ms. Lehner to wonder, "Where did they think I hid the monkeys?"
After a five-day odyssey that took them as far south as Florida, the animals were returned to Ms. Lehner's Rockville home. In early October 1981, the NIH stepped in and seized the monkeys, which were later sent to animal-care facilities in Louisiana and California. All of them have since died.
Ms. Lehner then stepped out of the public eye but continued her advocacy for animals. She was a vegetarian who believed animals should not be harmed for human use in any way. She worked for the Montgomery County Humane Society through the 1980s and, until 1997, for the Washington Humane Society. She worked for a short time in the Washington office of PETA in 1993.
She was especially skilled at rescuing abused or abandoned animals. "Lori was one who never got jaded," said Rosemary Vozobule, director of programs for the Washington Humane Society. "Every time she went out on a rescue, it was like her first day here."
Ms. Lehner was born in Rome, Ga., and moved often as the child of an Army officer. She attended the Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac for three years and graduated in 1976 from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.
Aiming to be an actress, she studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York for a year before returning to the Washington area. From the mid-1970s, when she was still in high school, until the 1990s, she appeared in about 12 plays at the Montgomery Playhouse in Gaithersburg, often in comedic roles. The playhouse will dedicate a one-act festival to her memory next month.
Ms. Lehner attended American University in the late 1970s and graduated from Trinity College in the District in 1995. She moved to Florida in 1997 and taught second grade at Roland Park Elementary School in Tampa until last October, when her illness was diagnosed.
Her marriage to William Kenealy ended in divorce.
Survivors include her father, retired Army Col. Charles R. Lehner Jr.; a brother, Charles R. Lehner IV of Hopatcong, N.J.; a sister, Alicia "Lisa" Auletta of Indian Rocks, Fla.; and her companion, Gene Chris Linville of Tampa.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company