Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, is a columnist for Change.org.
As I've pointed out many times, our relationships with other animals are confused, challenging, and frustrating. Recently we've learned that rhesus monkeys, called "furry couch potatoes," are being used by the Oregon Heath and Science University to study ....
About 50 of the approximately 4300 monkeys imprisoned at the Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC) are being used in this study. The monkeys are fattened up by giving them lots of rich, fattening food, and kept in small cages so they can't have any exercise. Some of the monkeys will also undergo gastric surgery and be euthanized; a sanitized way of saying they're killed so that their pancreas and brain can be examined.
Monkeys don't normally eat like this and are very active, so the way in which they're treated is thoroughly abnormal and severely compromises their well-being. It's highly likely that they're stressed, which may compromise the reliability of the data that's collected. So, even if one doesn't care about how these monkeys are treated (indeed a frightening thought), we should all be concerned about whether the data are relevant to the questions at hand.
In response to inquiries about the study, Diana Gordon, ONPRC's Education Outreach Coordinator, sends out a dismissive boilerplate form letter rich in self-serving platitudes concerning their research specifically, and the use of animals in biomedical research generally.
Ignoring the horrific ways in which these monkeys are treated, Ms. Gordon makes bold claims about how this research "could change how we look at and treat such childhood diseases" and is “helping millions of people and animals who are suffering from disease.” This study, like numerous others that have been done on other non-human animals, will likely shed little or no useful information on human disease. And there is little or no likelihood that any non-human animal will benefit from this research.
Concerning the treatment of animals at the ONPRC, Ms. Gordon cites “an extensive review process” that all studies must pass. “Only the most important research questions and the most meticulously crafted research designs are undertaken. The care of all animals at the Center is regulated by a number of laws (including the Animal Welfare Act), and overseen by the USDA, which visits the Center at least twice a year (unannounced) to ensure that rules and regulations are being followed."
We really can't have much faith in the review process at the ONPRC or elsewhere. The federal Animal Welfare Act is not especially effective at protecting the vast number of animals who are used in research, including nonhuman primates. In addition, numerous violations have been detected at major research facilities, and these are only the violations that have been reported.
The ONPRC has previously been cited for the mistreatment of animals (see also). In my book, The Emotional Lives of Animals, I reported on the case of rhesus monkey number 14609 (numbered as if he were an object), who was subjected to electro-ejaculation 241 times from 1991-2000 by ONPRC. In this procedure, an awake male monkey is strapped into a restraining chair, two metal bands are wrapped around the base of his penis, and an electric charge is applied to cause ejaculation. Monkey 14609 was nicknamed "Jaws" because one of the researchers taught him to bite the bars of his cage. As a result of the investigation of the egregious way in which Jaws was treated, one veterinarian resigned and some scientists made critical comments about conditions in the laboratory.
Should we induce obesity or subject animals to diseases from which they don't normally suffer in order to learn about human disease "in the name of science?" At least one researcher doesn't think so. Barbara Hansen of the University of South Florida "prefers animals that become naturally obese with age, just as many humans do. Fat Albert, one of her monkeys who she said was at one time the world’s heaviest rhesus, at 70 pounds, ate 'nothing but an American Heart Association-recommended diet.'"
Gordon notes that obesity is a huge problem — about one-third of American adults are obese — and that obesity is a risk factor for other serious diseases. A good deal of obesity can be easily prevented, so these monkeys are being used to study a condition that many people can avoid simply by choosing healthier lifestyles. The monkeys shouldn't have to pay for our indiscretions and poor choices.
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Photo credit: 13bobby