Me and My Monkey
The confessions of a reluctant vivisector.
That distinction, between engineering standards and performance standards, has become a source of contentious debate among animal protectionists and research advocates. (Performance standards seem poised to become even further established in an upcoming revision of the official NIH Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.) The institutions argue that more flexible definitions are better for the animals, since they allow for quicker improvements to laboratory practice. (Under performance standards, for example, monkeys might be housed in pairs or they might not, depending on their personalities and predilection for fighting.) Welfare advocates argue that wishy-washy requirements leave too much power in the hands of on-site experts, who draw their salaries from the institutions they oversee. Christine Stevens, the mother of the original Animal Welfare Act and the woman who first brought Pepper's story to Washington in 1965, worried that performance standards "gave it all back to the researchers and said, 'Here, do what you want.' "
"I'm not a 'law' type of guy," Rollin says now. "I'm a Harley rider. I was the last guy to want to play cops-and-robbers with scientists." Instead of handing out a new set of rules for researchers to follow, he'd hoped to make them work out the ethical issues for themselves.
I returned to the monkey room one morning in March, in a yellow lab gown with paper booties over my sneakers. I'd e-mailed my former mentor two days before, to tell him I was writing about animal research for Slate and to find out what became of the project we'd started in his lab eight years ago. Had someone finished the experiment? Were the remains of monkey C buried in some academic journal with my data on the headstone? In a few hours, I had his reply: "Clayton is still around."
The primate quarters were arranged exactly as I remembered—two rows of metal boxes along the walls, two tiers on each side. A pair of adult monkeys idled near the front of their cages on the right, just inside the door: One looked haggard, with circles of dry, red skin around his eyes and his tongue lolling from the corner of his mouth; the other was more alert, eyeing me from the front of his cage with his hands folded across his belly. If there hadn't been labels the size of index cards on the front of their cages, I might not have recognized Duper and Clayton at all.
Their enclosures looked smaller than before—cramped, even—and for a moment I considered the possibility that the recession had taken its toll on the animals. Of course, it was that the animals had grown bigger: Clayton had doubled in size—the little monkey who once felt like an infant in my arms was now a slouching beast with round shoulders and thick legs. His catarrhine muzzle was more prominent than before, and there was a new mound of pink dental cement on the front of his cranium, topped by a small, plastic screw cap. Beneath it was a patch of his brain, exposed for recording electrodes. I found myself gazing dumbstruck at his queer, time-worn face.
If Clayton remembered me, it wasn't with fondness: He rose to all fours as I approached and grunted at me with his lips parted—an aggressive, open-mouth threat. There was little evidence of the adolescent who had cowered in the back of his cage eight years ago. As an adult, Clayton lingered near the bars, scowling. (I discovered later that he'd been separated from his old cage-mate Duper for fighting.)
But the constancies of his daily life were more striking than these other developments. In all the time I'd been gone, Clayton had lived in the same room, on the same feeding schedule, and with many of the same neighbors. Since we'd last seen each other, I'd moved across the country twice, quit graduate school, and become a journalist. Scientists had published more than 10,000 research papers using macaque models, and a team at the Baylor College of Medicine sequenced the entire genome of the rhesus monkey. For Clayton, though, nothing has changed. Every day or two, he's carted off to a room painted all in black, and his head is fixed in place by the post that still protrudes from his skull. He sits there as always, staring at targets on a computer screen. When he moves his eyes the way he's supposed to, he gets a droplet of Tang as a reward.
It occurred to me that Pepper had been lucky. She'd spent her life roaming an 82-acre farm in Slatington, Pa., with a mate, Fred. (They even had a litter of puppies.) Her time at Montefiore Hospital in the summer of 1965 would last all of one day: After a single night spent locked in the rooftop kennel, she was brought downstairs, anesthetized, and killed.
Clayton was born in a breeding center; he grew up in metal boxes and spent his adolescence with a hole in his head and a coil around his eye. In 10 or 15 years of life, he suffered through multiple surgeries and infections and endless hours of restraint in a plastic chair. And for what? Pepper's death, at least, contributed to the development of the cardiac pacemaker—a revolutionary medical device that would prolong millions of lives. Every hour of Clayton's existence has been spent, and will continue to be spent, in the service of basic science.
"Yep, he's still going strong," my former mentor said when I returned from the monkey room. We stood outside a recording chamber, where another animal now sat in front of the monitor. Some people might not like the idea of a monkey working so long, he continued; they say it's better to use each lab animal for one experiment only or a series of related ones … but all the experiments in a given lab are at least somewhat related. "You could easily argue," he added, that the resources necessary to buy and train a new monkey would be a net minus for animal welfare. Why should we euthanize Clayton and start over? Isn't it better for science, and more humane, to use just one animal?
That sort of moral calculus had driven me away from animal research. (I quit in 2003 after a grisly series of experiments involving a suction tube, a scalpel, and the exposed brains of a half-dozen small birds.) Does the cumulative suffering of one animal over 10 years amount to more than the summed misery of several others, used only briefly? Are we trying to reduce the total amount of pain inflicted on animals or the total number of animals killed? Now it seems to me we've grown ever more removed from these sorts of questions.