After decades of campaigning, those advocating for animals in labs finally saw a milestone reached in the battle to end invasive research on chimpanzees when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) formally announced at the end of June that it would be retiring all but 50 of the chimpanzees it owns or funds.
At the heart of the matter is whether or not it is ethically or morally acceptable to use these non-human primates in experiments for the possible betterment of human health. In 2011, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that using chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral research is not only unnecessary, but also unethical.
The IOM’s announcement got things moving towards ending research on chimps and now those chimps who have spent decades in labs being bred and experimented on will finally be moved to sanctuaries where they’ll be free to lay in the grass, bond with one another and enjoy the simple comfort of touch.
The decision to retire these chimpanzees also raises another important question for animals in labs: What about the rest of the monkeys?
In a recent article in Wired, Brandon Keim notes that chimpanzees’ human-like characteristics make it easy for us to empathize with them and show them compassion, but even though thousands of monkeys are used in research in the U.S. their plight hasn’t raised nearly as much attention, despite their close similarities.
“That absence of attention says less about the ability of monkeys to think, feel, and suffer, than our willingness to think about it,” he writes.
These monkeys are used to study a number of diseases and disorders from cancer and depression to diabetes, in addition to being used in drug and toxicity testing, among other things.
Researchers may be able to justify to themselves some of what they do, but for those advocating on behalf of these monkeys this research is redundant, pointless, unethical and unjustifiable.
For instance as recently as this year the University of Wisconsin was using infant monkeys in maternal deprivation experiments to study anxiety disorders before killing and dissecting them. Yes – despite the inherent cruelty involved in isolating and tormenting baby monkeys to see what happens, even though we already know — we’re still rubber stamping that.
Part of the problem is that they’re different enough from humans to justify exploiting, but close enough to consider them to be good models. However, some researchers are uncomfortable with the idea of using certain monkeys in tests precisely because they recognize these qualities.
Studies of rhesus monkeys have found them capable of empathy, long considered an essential human trait. They think about their own thoughts, which is essential for complex self-awareness. They can recognize themselves in mirrors, experience regret, have a sense of justice and fairness, and possess what cognitive scientists call theory of mind: an understanding of what other individuals think and feel.
Their brains possess anatomical features that, in humans, are central to emotion, and it makes intuitive sense that monkeys would feel deeply. After all, cognition and emotion are intertwined, and emotion is a deeply rooted evolutionary feature intertwined with living in large, social groups ― which monkeys certainly do.
Monkeys share with chimpanzees nearly all of the features that a landmark Institute of Medicine report cited in concluding that chimpanzees are worthy of special consideration when assessing their use in research. Yet there’s one crucial difference: Unlike chimps, which are presently useful for studying just one or two diseases, monkeys are useful for many.
Wired also notes that an estimated 70,000 of these non-human primates are used in research annually in the U.S. with more than 20,000 being imported annually — most of whom are rhesus macaques.
Every year thousands of these primates are transported around the globe to meet the demand for research subjects. They’re kidnapped from the wild, separated from their family groups and caged and bred on the equivalent of factory farms before undergoing the trauma of international transport in the cargo hold of a plane. The ones who survive the journey continue on to research facilities where they’ll be used in unnecessary, unreliable and cruel experiments.
Below is a video posted by the BUAV that exposes the plight of the monkeys on an island called Mauritius which exports the monkeys for use by the international research industry. You may find some of the following images distressing.
While these monkeys may not have garnered as much public attention, they’re not without their advocates.
Thanks to public pressure and the work of animal advocacy groups, many airlines have changed their policies and no longer participate in the international trade of primates for research, and in some cases refuse to ship any species of animal destined for a lab. Yet even with airlines helping, the fight for monkeys is far from over.
Hopefully the decision to retire chimps will be a turning point because if we can end invasive research on chimps for ethical reasons, the line can’t be drawn there.
That same compassion should be extended to monkeys, and logically, to all other species used in research who are capable of feeling and suffering; who have their own emotional lives and interest in living free from harm. As it stands, birds, rats and mice aren’t even accounted for or afforded the most basic protection under the Animal Welfare Act.
The battle for chimps may be nearing an end, but the war it won’t be over until we can get past our failure to protect the smallest and most vulnerable creatures from harm.
As for the rest of the privately owned chimpanzees in the U.S., the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed listing all chimpanzees as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, which would effectively end experiments that don’t directly benefit chimpanzees themselves. The FWS will be accepting public comments here until August 12.
Photo credit: Thinkstock