BOOK REVIEW: The Monkey Wars

The Monkey Wars

Animal experimentation has long been one of the most contentious and complicated animal rights and welfare issues. The Monkey Wars won’t tell you what to think, but it will help those on either side of the debate better understand the arguments of their opponents—and may bridge some gaps and create more nuanced opinions in the meantime.

The book begins with the story of a scientist, Roger Fouts, who works with chimpanzees in intelligence and sign language studies, but refuses to subject them to harm in any way. His work with the chimps has led him to become an animal advocate who has joined with antivivisection groups in calling for an end to painful experiments.

[Fout’s] affection for his animals has lead him to alienation from his profession. It’s as if there’s no room for him, a researcher who becomes too fond of the animals he studies.

Because of his views, rather than the quality of his work, Fouts has become a pariah.

Fouts recalls that the grant officer encouraged him to apply, instead, for a grant to conduct medical experiments on the animals. “I said, ‘I study animal behavior, I’m not going to take money to harm the animals.’ And that was the end of that.” … He applies every year to the NIH and National Science Foundation. Every year, they say no.

Fouts shows the author one of his ‘pink slips’ that he’s received from the grant agencies, which the author says “reinforces the idea that the system is not blind to animal research politics”: the grant reviewer noted that Fouts membership of various anti-vivisection groups as one of the reasons the scientist was turned down.


We later read of Michael Fox, a former animal researcher turned animal welfare activist, who is in similar straits.

As Fox as learned, a scientist who becomes an animal advocate enters a curious no-man’s-land. …Any professional scientist who makes the choice to work for animal welfare risks setting his career in reverse.

On the other side are those scientists who are too happy too allow this way of doing things to continue indefinitely. Compassion for animals has no place in the field, they believe. Animal advocacy should be shuffled to the side and not find a place at the table.
Researcher Peter Gerone is one such individual:

With some impatience, he finds himself supervising scientists who get friendly with their animals. He can tolerate it, but it irritates him.

He also worries:

How can [today’s children] identify with the idea that animals—the ones they play and feed and sleep with—should be available as tools, for research? … “We’re losing the fight in education. The animal rights people are better at it than we are. I worry about tomorrow’s minds. I worry that they won’t come to us.

[Pro-vivisection] arguments were so widely accepted that, in 1926, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health declared the [animal advocacy] movement dead and its supporters “pathetic.”

Brain researcher Stuart Zola-Morgan has concerns about spreading some of the evidence he gathers because it may reflect negatively on invasive research:

“I hesitate to talk about how smart monkeys are because it tends to feed the animal rights movement,” says Zola-Morgan. “But as a scientist you have to honor what you see. I wouldn’t say monkeys have simple brains. Not simple at all.”

You get to see the man as a conflicted, multi-faceted individual, but then he whisks aside any serious ethics discussions with this incredibly arrogant quote:

“[Animal advocates are] anti-knowledge and anti-progress,” Zola-Morgan says. “And when the rest of our society really understands that, I believe we’ll be able to turn this issue of animal rights back into the minor discussion that it ought to be.”

So that’s where it stood at the moment this book was written, and to a large degree today. Two sides, pro- and anti-animal research, stand diametrically opposed, refusing to budge an inch. What of the animals, caught in the middle? How did we get here in the first place? And are there some promising cracks in the wall that separates the two sides?

One of the flagship battles between animal research and animal welfare has been that over cage size.

Scientists tend to be stingy about cage size. NIH had revised its cage standards in the early 1980s, but only after a panel found that some monkeys were packed into enclosures so small that they couldn’t turn around. Even so, the panel was bitterly criticized by researchers who were forced to buy new cages.

When the USDA ordered bigger cages,

Two powerful scientific organizations, the National Association for Biomedical Research and the Association of American Medical Colleges, had announced their own plans to fight the ruling. Researchers, [Christine] Stevens [of the Animal Welfare Institute] says, despairingly, will do almost anything to avoid increasing cage size for laboratory animals.

A great many primates are endangered, including some of the species most desired for research. This has also been a major source of contention between animal and conservation activists and the research industry.

It was in the late 1980s that people began to realize chimpanzees were in desperate trouble in the wild. … The US Fish and Wildlife Service…announced that it wanted to declare them endangered. The agency received more than 40,000 letters of support and six of opposition. Five of those six were from biomedical researchers; two came directly from NIH. The researchers were afraid that the endangered listing would interfere with use of captive chimpanzees.

(In the end, the USFWS gave captive and wild chimps a split listing, as the scientists wished.)

We read of a US based monkey importer who pleads guilty to smuggling critically endangered orangutans. We learn of a researcher who, desperate for the species of monkey he required for his leprosy research, found himself involved with illegal animal smugglers.

[The researcher’s] plight stemmed from swelling environmental pressure and the disappearance of monkeys needed for research.

He eventually got his monkeys without help from the smuggler, but the way wild monkeys get to labs, illegally or legally, isn’t pleasant or humane:

[T]rappers often have to kill parent monkeys to get the young. They shoot the mothers out of trees and grab the babies after they fall. They pry the youngsters away. The monkeys are carried away in cages, packed into shipping boxes, air-freighted to industrial countries seeking them for research use. … The typical conservationist’s estimate is 5 to 10 monkeys dead for every wild survivor that arrives at a research laboratory.

While researchers like Charles Chambers insisted that endangered species have no rights that should fall before the needs of man, others took a more holistic view:

“It’s all interwoven,” says Shirley McGreal, of the International Primate Protection league. “You can’t separate out the research demands from the logging, the pest-shooting, the pet trade. It’s a cumulative effect. … It seems to me that we’ve reached a point that scientists should be asking the Kennedy question. Not what the monkeys can do for them. But what they can do for the monkeys, to stop them from disappearing.”

What about the animals themselves, what are their experiences? Evidence suggests that most are not the least bit pleased with even minimally invasive procedures. Monkeys constantly have to be sedated:

There is no primate research facility in the country that doesn’t use Ketamine on a daily basis.

Others come down with unexpected diseases they wouldn’t encounter in the wild:

SIV in macaques is a disease born of captivity. It was carried by African monkeys who were packed into research centers with Asian macaques. Most probably, researchers think, it was transferred by the casual handling of animals, such as reusing needles.

There is a great deal of material devoted the Harry Harlow, arguably one of the most famous and most controversial animal researchers of the twentieth century. Harlow’s experiments infamously involved abusing and neglecting infant monkeys in a host of ways, all centering around the concept of maternal deprivation:

To animal activists, it’s sadism…There’s just something cold-blooded about deliberately wrenching a baby from its mother. There’s something cold-hearted about sitting for hours, taking notes as it cries. …. To most people, thankfully, radiation sickness is an unpleasant term on paper. But seeking comfort that does not come, a lost and frightened child crying for his mother – all of that is known human territory. … [I]t sometimes took two lab workers to hold the struggling mother down while a third pulled the baby away.

Suomi’s 1971 Ph.D. dissertation, done under Harlow, reflects the ethic of the day: “Experimentation…with human patients is seriously hampered by lack of experimental control and sound ethical constraints. No such problem exists for the monkey researcher.”

One researcher has this take on Harlow:

“I don’t think Harlow really liked animals,” Mason says. “I don’t think he hated them either. He just didn’t have any feeling for them. He stumbled into animal research and he did it very well.”

However, Harlow’s own words to seem to reflect a genuine malevolence toward other beings:

Here’s Harlow declaring his position on animal research [in a 1974 newspaper interview]: “The only thing I care about is whether the monkeys will turn out a property I can publish. I don’t have any love for them. Never have. I don’t really like animals. I despise cats. I hate dogs. How could you like monkeys?”

Another researcher admits of Harlow:

[T]he older he got, the more the demon was in control. He would write things about his experiments as if he did them with glee, as if he enjoyed the animal’s suffering that he couldn’t wait to take these monkeys and destroy them. That’s the sort of thing that got me out of Harlow’s later writings. They made my flesh creep.”

And while Harlow was building “pits of despair” that subjected baby primates to “the hell of loneliness” (his own words), he also wore his crude sexism on his sleeve:

In his later career, Harlow seemed to develop a gift for offending women. Rape rack was only one example. He routinely referred to female monkeys as “the bitches” in his lectures…

Harlow also publicly praised a zookeeper who subdued an orangutan with a wooden plank as someone who “understood the needs of women.”

(Read into all that what you will. I wonder what Carol J. Adams would say?)

Not all scientists are pleased with Harry Harlow and his gleeful-sadist persona. I would tend to agree with this researcher:

Gene Sackett even today believes that the modern animal rights movement was, in part, born in the hissing anger over Harlow’s laboratory. He blames Harlow for being too in love with flamboyant description to recognize that times were changing. That informing the public that you were cheerfully building “pits of despair” might be a major public relations mistake.

As for public relations, none of today’s researchers are going to be as graphic in their published work as Harlow was. Many, despite having a front-row seat to animal cognition and intelligence, are loath to admit it:

There are rumbles…that we don’t really want to know these things. Keep it simple, keep it easy. The more science reveals about the intelligence of other species, the more difficult the questions about using them.

As early as the 1930s, Journal of Experimental Medicine author Francis Rous was giving PR pointers to vivisectors:

Under his direction, scientists could not say animals were starving. Instead they were “fasting”. Experimental animals didn’t “bleed”; they “hemorrhaged.” They didn’t receive “poison”; they were given an intoxicant. Anything too graphic, by way of description, was taken out.

Martin Stephens of the HSUS states, frustrated:

“They can’t even recognize their own bad apples, yet they’re constantly insisting that they should regulate themselves. They believe that if they criticize their own, they’re giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And we’re the enemy.”

We also learn that

Organized and angry, scientists have forced changes in network television shows and popular encyclopedias.

We read of the debacle over a 1991 episode of “Quantum Leap,” starring a lab chimp, which some researchers feared would be too sympathetic to the animal. They demanded rewrites until the final episode ended up a wishy-washy endeavor with no clear point.

I was interested by some of the historical information about the animal rights movement:

PETA was not the first group of activists to gain information by masquerade. In the 1920s, a group of animal activists in New York infiltrated a laboratory. They brought out photos of dogs with their mouths taped shut, so that the animals could neither eat or drink. The researcher involved—like Taub in the 1980s—was formally charged with animal cruelty.

However, the majority of the text deals with the research industry’s efforts to counter and even silence the pro-animal side. The American Medical Association’s “white paper” on animal research can be seen as the blueprint of all animal use industry groups into the new millennium.

The AMA plan was among the first to suggest labeling animal activists as “anti-science and anti-progress.” It advocated the kind of emotional appeal that Pete Gerone likes to use: Your child or a drowning rat? It suggested that scientists meet with the media, to warn of the real threat of animal activities. It advocated heavy pro-science advertising. The plan also explored the possibility of legal challenges to the nonprofit status of animal rights groups, building a private data base on animal rights activities and intensive lobbying on animal research legislation.

(Every few years when you see a clarion call by some industry front group to take away the nonprofit status of PETA or even a more moderate animal welfare group, you can thank the AMA. )

Nowadays, the new threat to animal welfare reporting are so called “ag gag” bills, which are meant to prevent animal advocates from filming or documenting the animal abuse that occurs on factory farms. Ever wonder what planted that seed? The National Association for Biomedical Research, founded by the nation’s largest breeder of laboratory animals, is one of the heavyweights of the pro-animal research lobby. Their tactic in regards to animal advocacy is often an attempt to silence it.

In fact, if you consider the National Association for Biomedical Research to be representative, then you can only conclude that researchers did not support unfettered freedom of expression, at least not for everyone.

(However, some researchers are disgusted by NABR’s tactics and are quick to state that they support freedom of speech, even from those they disagree with. )

If you spend any time following animal rights issues, chances are, you’ve come across a quote from the president of PETA and wondered about it. This quote has been repeated innumerable times and continues to find a home in countless email forwards and message boards:

Like their opponents, scientists have learned that half-a-truth can be better than the whole one. The most famous example is a statement by Ingrid Newkirk of PETA. In 1986, she was discussing animal suffering with a Washington reporter. She put it like this: “When it comes to feelings like pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” It’s only the last 11 words of that sentence that ever get repeated by animal researchers: “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”

There’s also information about “Putting People First,” an extremist anti-animal organization that defined itself by unwavering support of all animal research as well as whaling and the fur trade, along with opposition to environmentalists. While PPF is now defunct, its spirit lives on with its new-millennium, computer-savvy offspring, the Center for Consumer Freedom.

The heart of The Monkey Wars, however, lies in the middle. It can be found with scientists like Jan Moor-Jankowski, then-director of the LEMSIP laboratory. Moor-Janowski has opened his doors to animal advocates to look around and suggest changes. He’s joined them in condemning certain sectors of his industry when he feels they’re out of line. He’s willing to take criticism and work for a better future for the welfare of his animals. At the time, LEMSIP had experienced no protests, thanks to the director’s transparency and willingness to recognize that AR folks are part of the community, not just an amorphous enemy to be vanquished.

Scientist Ron DeHaven also recognizes the importance of animal advocates:

“There’s no question that the Animal Welfare act exists because of animal activist groups, and there’s no question they serve a useful function,” he says. “We rely heavily on the public and animal protection groups to notify us of problems in facilities.”

The author sums up:

The animal advocacy movement has changed the way all of us—in science and out—think about the use of animals. That’s not to say that most Americans don’t support animal research. The most objective polls suggest that they do. People do not, however, support it without qualification, without question.

It is too simplistic for reaches to sell science, as they sometimes do, as a one-dimensional tradeoff; the life of an ugly rat or mouse or monkey for that of a beautiful child. It is too simplistic for animal rights people to define the research community as a bunch of would-be butchers on the loose, sharpening their meat cleavers in the backyard.

(This review originally appeared at

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