The Sept. 27 Science Festival at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery Center will feature a demonstration called “Are You Smarter Than a Monkey?” Laboratory staff will invite children to interact with touch screens just as monkeys do in the labs.
When people think of primates touching screens, they probably picture chimpanzees. Thanks in large part to vocal advocates like Jane Goodall, chimpanzees have received much respect and recognition through the passing of the CHIMP Act. Society is catching on that retirement of these intelligent beings (approximately 1,000 are housed in laboratories) is the ethical thing to do since the act allows federal funding for the retirement of chimpanzees into spacious and enriching primate sanctuaries.
Today, the primates interacting with touch screens are likely rhesus monkeys, one of the most prevalent species of primates used in research.
There are approximately 125,000 monkeys housed in research facilities across the U.S. (8,600 are in Wisconsin laboratories) according to the 2010 USDA Animal Usage Report.
Not all studies using primates are terminal, and various researchers throughout the country have contacted me in search of a primate sanctuary.
Unfortunately, funding for the retirement of monkeys from research facilities is hard to come by — and reputable primate sanctuaries are full or near capacity. Sanctuary directors often have to turn down researchers hoping to retire animals. Without the retirement option, monkeys are instead sold for more research, kept for breeding or euthanized.
Even if there were space to retire monkeys, some primate researchers actually discourage monkey retirement because they want to re-use the monkeys in other studies. But more progressive researchers around the country are starting to wonder why we aren’t helping monkeys the way we are helping chimpanzees.
Primate retirement is an issue close to my heart. I applied to work at a UW primate laboratory in 1999 and I worked with nearly 100 rhesus monkeys for five years. I quickly discovered how smart these animals are and learned to appreciate and admire the vast range of their individual personalities.
I also discovered that the minimum housing guidelines were inadequate given their intelligence and the intricate social life they would otherwise be able to have in the wild. Rhesus monkeys can live to 35 years in captivity and are typically housed using USDA standards: a cage size of 4.3 square feet and a height of 2.5 feet. Many get a partner, and the cage size doubles. In some protocols — if it’s claimed the scientific technique justifies it — monkeys are not fortunate enough to even get a cagemate.
I started questioning our research results because of the prevalence of abnormal behavior, the stressful handling practices, and the unexpected deaths that occurred. I decided to resign, leaving my rhesus friends behind forever as I simultaneously began questioning the animal research industry as a whole.
It turns out animals dying from laboratory accidents and illnesses are considered “side effects” of doing research. For example, in a 2011 article describing how three monkeys died in a Louisiana research facility after being left in a chute between their outdoor enclosures, the director of the facility said: “Of the 6,500 primates at the center, they expect to lose 3-6 percent every year.”
When each monkey costs $5,000-$8,000 for a study and $6-$12 per day to care for them (depending on the institution), accidental primate deaths should be reported and evaluated annually for a proper cost-benefit analysis to occur.
I just ask that society be reminded of what monkeys actually have to endure day in and day out in the name of helping humankind. Touch screens may help reduce abnormal behavior, but they are certainly no solution to fixing the housing environment or relieving stress during research procedures.
When it comes to giving back to the monkeys or planning for their welfare, somehow their widely accepted similarity to humans seems to fade away as the research industry continues to support the minimal housing and care guidelines that have been around since the 1970s. Using thousands of primates in research without accepting they deserve more from their environment is neither ethical nor innovative. We can do better.
Amy Kerwin is a former primate researcher and founder of the Wisconsin based nonprofit organization, Primates Inc. www.primatesinc.com for more information.