Confronting the ethics of animal research

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Non-human primates submit an uncomfortable consideration to virtually every field of study. Their striking physical and phrenic parallels to humans at once make them ideal and morally perplexing engines of experimentation.

Our evolutionary divergence occurred some five to seven million years ago, but our simian cousins continue to color our cosmology, ethology, theology and even philosophy; the last two often nursing in unison. It’s a little harder to digest fairytales about the origin of life when living primordial journals occupy every continent of the known world.

Thus far, the relationship has been a little one-sided. Roughly 65,000 non-human primates are captured for research in the United States every year. The strong scientific case supporting the use of these hominids in the fields of toxicity testing, infectious disease, neurology, cognition, and genetics has correctly roused a growing wave of controversy. It’s a compelling and motivating quandary, one we’ve seen beaten lifeless in countless movies, TV shows, and books: The beast driven to savagery, consequenced by the absence of humanity. Our mission to darken the door of knowledge has dually blinded us to the implications of its answers.


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Decades that saw this ethical difficulty addressed via lawsuits, documentaries and violence ultimately came to a head when two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, provided the public with an impactful, tangible insight into the on-going dilemma. The two apes were seized at the age of one and forced into a basement laboratory for six years. In this time, they only interacted with handlers and researchers, they were regularly administered anesthesia and had fine-wire electrodes inserted into their muscles, in order to lengthen literature pertaining to the evolution of bipedalism. Following a court order that set them free, footage emerged of the two apes interacting with their natural environment for the first time. There’s this great moment in the video that would put any of those Julliard trained Mclaughlin pups to shame. After the chimp called Leo takes in a bit of open sky above him, he all but reenacts the diner scene from When Harry Met Sally. This vibrant appreciation for something so routine focuses the mind. No animal, least of all an animal capable of such complex emotions, should be nonplussed by innate pleasures like clouds and sunlight.

“The biomedical community has spent years defending the use of chimpanzees in research … instead of figuring out how to retire them,” remarked Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina- a man that has devoted much of his life to the study of chimpanzee behavior at sanctuaries around the world. “Now we’re scrambling to do something about it.”

A legion of campaigns has recently set its crosshair on federal agencies that fund the facilities that employ the use of animals to evaluate the human risks associated with new drugs, pollutants, infections and a myriad of diseases. Alongside various digital skirmishes, came a freshet of bills introduced by members of the US Congress. It should be noted, that very few of these are premised by the resolute exclusion of animal subjects in service of the advancement of knowledge, they merely want ethics to be a mandated step of the process. In a polemic targeted at the Institutes of Medicine (IoM) committee’s estimation of NIH’s chimpanzee research, an international group devoted to providing information about the importance of animal research in medical and veterinary science, called Speaking of Research wrote,

“First, the charge of the IoM committee to assess the “scientific necessity” of the work, while specifically avoiding ethical issues, was clearly ill-posed, and – as the committee quickly realized – nearly impossible to carry out. We acknowledge the committee held serious discussions about the science of chimpanzee research and the availability of alternative methods, but it is notable that these were guided by principles that are ethical in nature.”

Building a roadmap

In a report published just this past Friday, the organization exerted a round-up of literature on the subject to provide an exhaustive “roadmap for a public discussion of the ethics of animal research.” The meditation implores we begin by unpacking relevant questions- whether nonhuman animals should be used by humans at all and if so, for which purposes? We proceed after defining the terms academically used in defense of the practice; terms like “necessity” and “indispensable.” We make a principled effort to accurately represent the nature of science, and consider the harm of inaction.  These stipulations are hard to dismiss when as recently as last month tension burdened pioneering research toward the growth of human organs in other species, animated by a U.S. research group reporting in a preprint that it had grown chimpanzee stem cells in monkey embryos.

Extremists on both sides have a tendency to misleadingly stretch the middle. No one needs a think piece instructing them how to feel about the teenage edgelords that get a kick out of uploading footage of a squealing dog engulfed in flames to Liveleak. Those guys suck. We all hate those guys. Few people lack the moral courage to roll their eyes at the vapid airhead actor at the premiere of {fill in name of reboot we didn’t ask for here} sporting a coat made from the actual whiskers and tears of the last Amur Leopard. At the same time though, there are several leagues between cruelty, ignorance, and my goldfish knows it’s my birthday, honest. It’s more than possible to have an earnest admiration for wildlife and an understanding that there are some philosophical and moral concerns that simply do not overlap in every species.

Nearly a decade back, British nature photographer, David Slater headed to Indonesia to take a couple of candid photos of the native, and critically endangered Crested Black Macaque. Over the course of the session, Slater set up his camera in a way that allowed the capable primates to snap a few selfies of their own-funding the kind of harmless nature editorials we all love- risible headlines like “Monkey See Monkey Do!?

But then the photos started appearing in various publications which lead to a lawsuit filed by People For The Ethica Treatment of Animals (PETA), intent on identifying the true owner of the copyrights to the photographs: The publications that posted them, Slater, the human photographer that owned the equipment, or the Crested Black Macaque-the critically endangered Crested Black Macaque. Ultimately it was decided that PETA’s own interest was motivating the legal action, one that just got settled last year- seven years after the pictures were published.

This is a prime example of a toothless parsimonious stab at activism; little more than applying ethological concerns unique to our society to a species that lack the vocal anatomy to say: “This is embarrassing. You can keep the copyrights if you promise to stop eating us.”

We’ve all heard the same four foppish Englishman disgorge facts and statistics over footage of apes playing in tire swings, but few comprehend the depth of the similarities that link us. That isn’t to say only creatures that share 98% of our DNA deserve compassion, though what better vehicles to articulate the philosophical virtue than ones just a step removed biologically.

“An affectionate frame of mind”

The subtle ethological differences that demarcate us from the non-human primates likely play a role in obscuring the ethical riddles that accompany their scientific association. Comparative developmental psychologist Kim Bard, rejects this datum, positing that environmental factors account for  the greater sum of these differences, not evolution, explaining,

“Historically, many researchers have claimed humans are superior to apes in social intelligence, but the research is based on studies of captive adult apes isolated from European-style social interaction and human (usually children) from rich western cities. These experiment designs are simply not valid for the comparative study of species differences.”

There are six apes documented to have mastered a semblance of human communication throughout history, all of which rush to embolden Bard’s claim. Viki, Washoe, Chantek, KokoKanzi,  and Nim Chimpsky. These six communicative hominids are given proper index in a piece recently penned by Denyse O’ Leary.

In this very same piece, however, O’Leary goes on to effectively gut the communication angle of the debate. The linguistic prowess of every single simian previously mentioned has been publically contested by experts. Science writer and author, Brian Dunning, recently offered the following barbed estimation,  “None of these things has happened. Not one of them. Not only did signing apes never become common, but the number of research programs studying ape signing has also gone from a few to even fewer. At its peak in the 1970s, the field of teaching apes to communicate with humans never had more active research programs than you could count on your fingers and toes; today, there is not even a single program anywhere in the world making publishable claims.”

Brother ape

Of course, the ethical facer does not survive on an animal’s ability to communicate or behave exactly as we do. The key qualifier is energized by animal welfare, the potential violation of animal laws, animal cognition, wildlife conservation and the moral status of the non-human animals in question. Primates are often at the center of this wrangle because of the tactical advantage fueled by their near-human characteristics.  Chimpanzees, in particular, have long since stood as these primal backlogs of our deepest evolutionary roots. Practices that are still exercised by developed societies today like tribalism, recreational copulation and even the shameful ones like prejudice and warfare are all observable in the lesser primates-this rings true in more nuanced ways as well.

A recent study set to be published by the Royal Society and orchestrated to more clearly demonstrate the social analogs halved between human and non-human primates, motions that just like us, chimpanzees profit emotionally and socially from watching movies together. The study’s co-author, Wouter Wolf, from the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in the United States, believes the phenomena speaks to the bond funding inherent to experiencing things with one another.

A study group of 45 subjects, comprised primarily of chimpanzees with some bonobos thrown in for good measure, were instructed to watch footage of chimpanzees playing with their younglings (the apes didn’t care for videos that didn’t feature apes.) After the one-minute long videos ended the simian participants galvanized and were more prone to communicate with each other via touch, grooming, and other verbal indicators. This finding was also consistent with the addition of a human trial, as the apes approached the bipedal subject 12 seconds sooner than they would have otherwise.

Not only does the new report supply more logs to the furnace of simian psychology, it concurrently proffers arguments in favor of media consumption as a method of strengthening family bonds. “Experiences are richer watching together,” Dr. Wolf explains in summation.

This study, yet another shard joining an ever-widening biological reflection. Unfortunately the more we learn, the more we frustrate the ethics of the pursuit.