INSIDE THE MONKEY FARM
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter stood to address the U.S. Senate on Feb. 7, 2000, to express his concern about the wisdom of a proposed measure to increase the $13 billion budget of the National Institutes of Health to $25 billion over five years. This is some of what he had to say:Members of Congress who voted for this unprecedented increase in public spending are able to report to their constituents that they support health care. But nearly half of the NIH budget is spent directly on research using animals. A growing number of medical physicians and informed lay persons are questioning the value to humans of veterinary-based research. They suggest that, just as research using cats is unlikely to yield much insight into hip dysplasia in dogs, so too is research on diseases in other species of animals a waste of effort if the desire is to learn about human health. They argue that to learn about dogs, one must study dogs, and to learn about humans one must study people.
The National Institutes of Health must believe that this idea is incorrect. The flagship of NIH-funded animal research is the Regional Primate Research Center System, made up of eight facilities scattered around the country. These institutions are based on the notion that research on monkeys will lead to breakthroughs in combatting human health problems. In 1963, when the centers were being built, researchers believed that monkeys and humans were so much alike that access to large numbers of them would result in major biomedical accomplishments such as monkey to human organ transplants. In point of fact, the venture has been, and continues to be, a huge and dismal failure.
This does not mean that nothing has been learned. No, to the contrary, literally mountains of data have been produced demonstrating that humans and monkeys are not biochemically, biomechanically or physiologically the same. They do possess some similarities, but in every case that progress has been promised—cancer, organ transplant, genetic disease, diseases of aging, Parkinson's disease, drug addiction, AIDS, eye disease—it has been the subtle differences between species that have foiled any applicability to human conditions.
Further, the research has underscored the profound importance of these subtle metabolic and physiologic differences by showing repeatedly that what can be demonstrated for one species of monkey is not true of another species. Even closely related species have differences which make a discovery about the biology of one of little value in another. Pigtail macaques are not susceptible to some of the same viruses as are rhesus macaques, two species commonly used in research funded by NIH.
Underlying the stark failure of the Regional Primate Research Center System is the horrendous cruelty of the system. Over 35 years of research has produced essentially no human benefit, and at the same time has caused suffering on a scale that defies comprehension. At the centers, they do not simply kill monkeys, they torture them to death or torture them for years on end. Unlike most other animals subjected to experimentation, monkeys and other primates can live to be 30 or more years old. This is their curse.
The NIH's answer to the problem of poor results, and their defense of the unquestionably horrific cruelty, is to enlarge. If torturing 60,000 monkeys a year has had no discernible result, they argue (albeit, in deed alone) that torturing 120,000 a year might be of benefit and—being the good scientists—that until they try, who knows?
When the centers were started 35 years ago, no one knew that monkeys were so different from humans metabolically, and no one was foolish enough to suggest that they were much like us cognitively or emotionally. But 35 years ago, no one had taken the time to visit these animals in their homes or spend much time watching captive groups.
Today, after literally thousands of hours of observation, and unbelievably callous experimentation, it is clear that nonhuman primate species are deeply emotional and most observers believe they engage in thought-out activities.
This new knowledge has come from hours of dedicated observation of wild and captive groups, but it has also been supported by the Mengelian experiments of NIH researchers in federally supported labs as well.
While we can all agree that we need to be searching for answers to the many health problems that continue to be present, we should also all be concerned with making sure the research we are funding and conducting is the most accurate and worthy methodology available. A growing number of health care professionals are seeing that non-human primate research is not only no longer considered accurate but is shockingly misleading and wasteful.
Everyone who cares one way or the other about the issue of using non-human primates in biomedical and scientific research needs to care enough to do their own research on the subject. It is simply not enough to believe everything the animal rights groups say nor what the large special interest groups in the biomedical and scientific industry claim.
Look at the arguments both sides are creating, use that as a starting point for your own research, and after consulting first-hand medical and scientific sources, develop your own opinions on the validity of primate research and the strategy of spending half of our national health care budget on veterinary-based research.