Me and My Monkey
The confessions of a reluctant vivisector.
That hasn't always been the case. Ivan Pavlov called his surgical dogs by name in published lectures. Among his most successful subjects was a collie-setter mutt named Druzhok, "Little Friend." The anti-vivisectionist movement was much stronger in the United States than it was in Russia, though, and American physiologists were soon hiding the more sentimental details of their work from the public. In 1914, the chair of the Council on the Defense of Medical Research, Walter Cannon, warned journal editors to excise from their manuscripts any "expressions which are likely to be misunderstood" or turned against them by animal activists. Historian Susan Lederer has traced the expansion of this policy over 25 years at the nation's top biomedical research journal. Starting in the 1920s, she writes, a slew of technical jargon was systematically inserted into the pages of the Journal of Experimental Medicine. The word starving was replaced by fasting, bleeding by hemorrhaging, poison by toxicant; full-body photographs of lab animals were removed, and the pronoun it was subbed in for any use of he or she to describe them. Authors who referred to their animals by given names were instructed to use a string of letters and numbers instead.
That doublespeak (by now having become a matter of habit) obscures some of the incidental cruelties of animal research. But it hides just as well the attention and care that are essential to working in the lab. An experimental macaque costs about $8,000 and may require months or years of training before it can start producing useful data. That is to say, its continued health is of extraordinary value both to the professor who paid for it and to the graduate student whose dreams of a thesis depend on its well-being. It was my job to nurture Clayton so he would perform in my experiments as best he could. Given the constraints of the lab—a cage, a chair, a metal head post—I wanted him to be as happy as a monkey could be.
Outright negligence might have affected the quality of my data, as an animal in distress is likely to deliver skewed results. That idea, so obvious in retrospect, dawned on physiologists only near the turn of the 20th century, according to historian Otniel Dror. Researchers began to notice how fear or anxiety could be expressed as physiological phenomena—changes in blood sugar, for example, or digestive function. A fearful rabbit might "blush," wrote one scientist, and yield false measurements of blood pressure. While journal editors of the 1920s worked to strip emotional phrases from the scientific literature, scientists learned how to control emotion in the lab. Walter Cannon, whose letter in 1914 inaugurated the era of science-journal jargon, remarked that he could alter the gastric motility of a cat by "reassuringly" stroking her fur.
I've also experimented on cats—kittens, really—by probing their exposed brains with an electrode to see where tiny shocks might palpitate their feet. (We were studying neuroplasticity and how behavioral training affected the development of the motor map.) I spent time with the animals every day, teaching them to grab morsels of meat from a plastic container with their little paws. Like Walter Cannon, I stroked their bellies, too, and scratched under their chins. But there's no mention of those affections in the published results of the study. (Kittens "were trained to reach through the aperture to grasp the beef from a narrow cylindrical food well (3.2 cm inside diameter; 5 cm deep) using their preferred limb only," we wrote.) Nor did we mention that the animals—some as young as 3 months old—were euthanized at the end of each "intracortical microstimulation" experiment.
It's easy to see why we used this furtive language. Any sentimentality over the cats would have suggested a lack of scientific rigor, and a frank description of the killings would only invite anger from animal rights groups—and alienate the taxpayers who paid for the study (and my graduate student stipend). But it seems to me the pressure to keep the laboratory door shut comes from both sides. The public acceptance of animal research, and the biomedical breakthroughs it engenders, has always come with the understanding that no one will divulge too many of the gory details—we put up with animal sacrifice only so long as we don't have to think about it.
On Sept. 11, 1981, police officers in Montgomery County raided the two-story Institute for Biological Research in Silver Spring, Md., and found there a gruesome, filthy holding room for experimental macaques "who were in such physical and mental stress that they appeared to have bitten off their fingers and arms, or whose cages were locked together so that they injured each other." With the help of a young animal rights activist named Alex Pacheco, the officers seized 17 of the animals, and the lab's director, Edward Taub, was charged under state law with more than a dozen counts of animal cruelty.
Taub's trial began in October 1981, and as happens in nearly every case of alleged laboratory animal abuse, the ugliness of invasive research became a defense in itself. Should the condition of Taub's monkeys have been taken as evidence of abuse on its own terms or in the context of how research monkeys were treated everywhere else? Expert witnesses debated every detail of the case along these lines, from the question of how filthy a monkey lab might reasonably become to whether it made sense to bandage the wound of a deafferented animal. Taub was found guilty on six counts, but five of them were overturned in a second trial the following year; he was acquitted of the sixth in 1983.
The plight of the monkeys had in the mean time generated enormous publicity for Pacheco and his fledgling advocacy group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The photographs he'd taken in Taub's lab became the iconic images of an invigorated anti-vivisectionist movement—in particular, a shot of a macaque with its hands and feet taped to a metal frame and its arms stretched Christ-like. (At his trial, Taub accused PETA of staging some photos.) In 1984, PETA scored another publicity coup, releasing video footage stolen from the University of Pennsylvania by the Animal Liberation Front. That tape showed researchers at a head injury clinic joking around as they performed violent whiplash experiments on helmeted baboons. The uproar over the abuse in Silver Spring and Philadelphia pushed lawmakers to strengthen federal protections for laboratory animals. Like Pepper 20 years earlier, PETA's monkeys and baboons helped break a stalemate in Washington between animal welfare groups and the research establishment.
For years, a bioethicist named Bernie Rollin had been arguing that the Animal Welfare Act needed to be rebuilt with a new philosophy. In Rollin's view, the existing regulations had done little to make scientists aware of their animals' suffering. He'd testified in Congress that physiologists had not even bothered to study animal pain in a systematic way, since its existence could not readily be tested or verified in the lab. Researchers might use paralytic agents (sometimes called "chemical restraints") to prevent an animal from thrashing around during an experiment, he said, but they often neglected the use of painkillers altogether. This ideology even extended to human infants, whose subjective experience was similarly mysterious. Doctors sometimes assumed that babies were insensitive to pain and, up through the early 1980s, deprived them of analgesia during surgery.
With PETA's help, Rollin and the animal welfare groups were finally able to win their case—and the passage of a series of amendments to the Animal Welfare Act in 1985 under the stewardship of Bob Dole. The new law required that all covered animals be given painkillers before and after surgery and that no animal be used in more than one "major operative experiment." It also mandated the creation of an institutional committee (including at least one veterinarian) wherever lab animals were used. The self-policing committees were to review experimental protocols, inspect research facilities, and evaluate whether sufficient effort had been made to reduce animal suffering.
Rollin wanted more than bureaucratic airlocks, though. He'd tried to imbue the law with a new philosophy. The amendments he helped to write introduced the idea of "performance standards" for laboratory animal care, as opposed to the "engineering standards" of old. Where the USDA's Dale Schwindaman once struggled to determine the minimum cage dimensions for dogs, cats, and hamsters—"to play God to the animals," in the words of his boss—now there was a movement to abandon recipes and regulations in favor of more ambiguous endpoints. Government inspectors would spend less time unfurling their tape measures and more time adjudicating the spirit of animal welfare: Are the laboratory dogs getting enough exercise? Are the monkeys in a state of "psychological well-being?"