Monkey Business: The Ethics of Primate Testing
As a little girl, one of my favorite after-school activities was going to the zoo. The animals fascinated me: I would giggle at the playful penguins as they spun and twirled through the murky water; admire the exquisite giraffes as they gracefully bowed their necks over a tuft of grass; and recoil at the sight of the poisonous snakes as they languidly slid across the cage floor, their bodies slimy and menacing.
But my favorite animals, by far, were the chimpanzees. I remember pressing my face up to the glass, watching the mother chimp lovingly caress her baby. In the mother’s eyes, I recognized something profoundly familiar. There was an ancient wisdom in those eyes that was entirely and unnervingly human.
Within the science community, there is a great deal of debate surrounding the ethics of animal testing on non-human primates. Primates make ideal candidates for research because their brains share structural and functional similarities with human brains. However, these genetic similarities also pose ethical concerns—there is a strong possibility that the animals will experience pain and suffering in a manner that is similar to humans. Strong cases can be made on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, primate research enables scientists to gather valuable knowledge about behavior, cognition, diseases, and neurology; but on the other hand, is it morally sound to subject intelligent, sensitive creatures to a lifetime of pain and suffering?
So where do I stand on the issue? To be honest, I’m not sure. Knowing little about the debate on primate testing, I decided to do some background research. A quick Google search of “primate testing” yielded some horrifying graphic images—monkeys isolated in cages, staring miserably out from behind the cage bars; or sitting in labs, bloodied and maimed, receiving injections in their eyes, faces, and bodies. Seeing these startling photographs, the animal lover inside of me was appalled.
At the same time, however, primate testing generates crucial knowledge about some of the most challenging disorders our society faces—HIV, hepatitis, Alzheimer’s etc. My uncle is the director of the Wisconsin National Primate Research center, and he researches energy metabolism and aging in non-human primates. In a nation where obesity is rampant, my uncle’s studies produce knowledge about how we can better fight this medical condition. For every person who applauds his contributions to scientific knowledge, however, there is another person sending an angry note to his house, objecting to his use of primates in his experiments.
Taking this class has made me reflect on science and its controversial reception throughout history. Since its very beginnings, science has been met with a great deal of resistance, partly because it often seems to challenge or contradict things that the human mind wants to hold on to—religion, morality, and so on. The marvel of science is that it finds answers to difficult questions, but in doing so there are often costs involved—and sometimes, these costs take the form of our furry primate cousins. What are your thoughts on primate testing?