Decades ago Harry Harlow became infamous for the cruel maternal deprivation experiments he conducted on rhesus monkeys at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and while the work has been condemned and discredited, the university is reviving his methods once again in an attempt to study depression and anxiety in humans.
In his quest to understand love, Harlow was creative in the methods he used to inflict incomprehensible suffering on hundreds of monkeys who were unlucky enough to find themselves at the Wisconsin Primate Research Center.
He devised fake mothers made of wire, mothers covered in cloth and the Iron Maiden, an “evil” mother who could violently shake her babies, blast them with freezing air and stab them with hidden spikes.
That wasn’t enough, he kept going with the “rape rack” and “pit of despair,” an isolation chamber where monkeys were left for up to two years in darkness without any contact. That was invented with the help of his student Stephen Suomi, who later went on to become the director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Comparative Ethology Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
In case no one was sure, for all his trouble and the damage he caused, he concluded that an infant’s need for what he referred to as “contact comfort” was greater than the need for food. They wouldn’t let go of their surrogate mothers, regardless of how lifeless and awful they were.
Harlow’s supporters claim his work torturing and psychologically damaging baby monkeys changed the face of parenting today. Yet they ignore the work of others who came to the same conclusion without causing harm: the lack of maternal love and affection can have disastrous emotional consequences that can last into adulthood.
At about the same time, the consequences of maternal deprivation were being explored and brought to light by others, namely John Bowlby, who pioneered attachment theory as a result of clinical observations of adults and later children. Bowlby prepared Maternal Care and Mental Health for the World Health Organization in 1951, which highlighted the need for babies to have a “warm, intimate and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother-substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.”
It would be nice to think we can look back on what happened in Harlow’s lab and say we don’t do terrible things like that anymore. That his work has been relegated to the archives at the university, but we can’t.
New and questionable researchers are taking a giant ethical step backwards to revive Harlow’s controversial methods in an attempt to study depression and anxiety in humans. They have gotten approval to do it, but only from two people.
The research proposal, which was submitted by UW-Madison Psychiatry Department chairman Dr. Ned Kalin, has raised ethical questions about how we can justify the suffering this will cause and outrage from animal advocates who believe his research is cruel and pointless.
According to an article published by WisconsinWatch.org, this project received an unprecedented amount of internal scrutiny. Maybe it’s because it’s disturbing and ethically indefensible, or because it’s going to add to the outrage that the university has already sparked with cruel brain experiments on cats, or what happened that time they decided to give sheep the bends.
In any case, opponents outside the walls of the primate lab also believe we shouldn’t have to pay for it. The National Primate Research Center at the University of Washington is having the same problem when it comes to experiments on non-human primates. We fund the NIH and the NIH turns around and funds worthless experiments that have no real benefit to us. In this case, Kalin’s getting part of a $2 million grant.
According to Wisconsin Watch, most of the grant will be used for research involving humans, “including a subproject to non-invasively scan the brains of 180 human infants between the ages of one and 24 months. Their families will be monitored to provide behavioral data on adversity.”
Still, researchers want their monkeys. This time around, 40 baby monkeys will be used, 20 of them will stay with their mothers, while the other 20 will be taken from them, isolated and exposed to different stressors, including a live king snake, in an effort to create and measure anxiety. At the end of the experiment, they will all be killed.
The justification is that when Harlow was running these types of experiments, we didn’t have the technology to study changes in the brain completely. Now researchers can use MRIs to see when psychological torture starts to change brain function and neural pathways. Still, considering what we’ve already learned and the opportunities we have now to study psychological disorders in humans, we shouldn’t need to turn to non-human primates for answers.
Unfortunately, it’s the circular reasoning that plagues vivisection. Supporters say the similarities between us and primates is enough to make them good models, yet they’re different enough that we can justify kidnapping, breeding, confining, depriving, maiming, infecting, killing and dissecting them.
We can’t have it both ways.
You can also contact University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-262-2321 to ask that the university stop subjecting baby monkeys to indefensible suffering in the name of “science.”
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