Primate Fear Compromises Research Results

By Mary Beth Sweetland

Like so many people, public speaking tops my list of loathsome activities. I am a fearful primate. But recently, I overcame this fear because I had an opportunity to speak to the group of people who are the only voices the animals in laboratories ever have. After repeated requests, I was finally allowed a timeslot at the national conference of Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) members in San Diego. My topic: "Primate Fear in Laboratories."

These committees, required at every university and federally funded laboratory, review experiment proposals and decide whether or not they will move forward. The committee members are charged with deciding if the proposed study is scientifically valid and whether or not animals should be used and, if they are, what kind of care they will receive.

I overcame my fears because, frankly, they are nothing compared to what animals in laboratories experience. Primates are exceptionally intelligent and social animals and little else but anxiety, fear, loneliness, depression and pain define their lives in a laboratory. Confined in barren steel cages so enormously different from their natural habitats, the excruciating boredom is broken only by fear. Picture this: a door to a lab opens, a technician enters and immediately a room full of monkeys is on high alert and jump-started into stress. They look at us as predators and it is easy to understand why. In drug testing and university labs everyday, hundreds of frightened monkeys cling to the bars of their cages until they are yanked out, their arms are pinned behind their backs for restraint and stiff tubes are forced up their nostrils and down their throats to deliver tests substances that must sometimes make them wish they were dead. Or they are jammed into a plastic immobilization tube so that their leg veins can be infused with a test substance or blood can be collected, sometimes as frequently as every hour. Or they are tied by the arms to plexiglass tables so procedures can be done to them while they are fully conscious. They struggle to the extent that their arms or legs can be broken, their fight or flight hormones are in full play, but there is no esscape and no hope of relief. Relentless dread is their constant companion.

I believe that using animals in experiments is unethical. It does not take a great leap of imagination to recognize that what primates feel is not such a far cry from what we human primates would feel if we were captured, held against our will and roughed up on a daily basis until finally being put out of our misery. Even the most conscientious protocols that strive to improve the welfare of primates in laboratories are inadequate, as the stress variables of cage confinement and daily handling alone cannot be eliminated, and individual reactions to stressors vary. Studies that call for the use of primates as test subjects in laboratories, therefore, involve unacceptably poor animal welfare and compromised scientific results. Every researcher who uses primates knows that stress hormones wreak havoc with the results of experiments but this grotesque, inescapable problem is ignored despite scientific papers that have documented the corrupted data resulting from stress. It's the white elephant in the laboratory. And our tax dollars, in the billions each year, fund this damaged goods research.

As it turns out, I need not have been so fearful about my talk. I voiced my primate fears in front of only five people who were also presenters. IACUC conferees seem to have been more interested in the concurrent session called, "An Update on Extremist Attacks."

I would expect people who are so fearful of being attacked to have a bit more empathy with the animals they cage and kill. Sadly, this is not the case.

Mary Beth Sweetland is Senior Vice President, Research & Investigations, for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510.

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