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Still Now, Should Lab Monkeys Be Deprived Of Their Mothers?

On Monday, the animal advocacy organization PETA released material in support of its campaign to shut down a series of experiments on infant rhesus monkeys carried out at the Laboratory of Comparative Ethology, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The material includes excerpts from more than 500 hours of videotape obtained by PETA through the Freedom of Information Act, analysis of scientific papers published by the NIH researchers, and letters from scientists not affiliated with PETA who explained why the experiments are cruel and examples of poor science.

The NIH experiments past and future, according to NIH documents obtained by PETA, are attempting to show how environmental influences, like abuse and neglect, act together with genetics to produce individual developmental trajectories.

I was one of the scientists to write a letter, and I appear in the short video excerpt prepared by PETA, which you can watch below. (A word of warning: This footage is tough to see, because baby monkeys are intentionally scared and stressed in intense ways.)

The rhesus monkeys in this lab are intentionally bred for increased likelihood of psychopathology (via alleles of the 5H-TTT and MAO-1 genes, for those who know genetics), some are separated from their mothers 24 hours after birth, and made to undergo trauma ranging from being frightened by masked humans or strange noises, to being made to observe their mother fade into drugged unresponsiveness.

In monkeys such as these rhesus, and the baboons I observed in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, years ago, the mother-infant relationship is the primary one — and it's extremely strong. Under normal circumstances, the babies are clasped to the mother's body continuously for weeks, at which point the little one embarks on a path of greater independence. This means venturing off the mom's body and scampering a few feet, at first, to explore food or other monkeys, then rushing back to mom's safety. I remember so vividly from the Kenyan savanna watching the babies' first brave-then-not-so-brave-after-all steps away from the individual closest to them in the world, and the rushing back to her for a dose of comfort.

At NIH, the infants in these experiments, year after year, aren't so lucky. They suffer doubly because they are first taken from their mothers, then left to cope with trauma on their own. It's clear to me, and to the other scientists including famed chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall who also protested in letter form what NIH is doing, that the baby monkeys suffer emotionally.

That suffering is the overwhelming factor for me in assessing these experiments. But there's another point to be made as well. Many people know about Harry Harlow's maternal-deprivation experiments with monkeys from the 1950s. Harlow showed us that baby monkeys collapse into depression and otherwise alter their behavior significantly when taken from their mothers. Yet the NIH lab has sustained the same type of research for the past 30 years, producing results that — in understanding human psychopathology such as anxiety and depression — are of little or no value. Modern techniques of neuroscience, including imaging scans of human brains, make effective alternatives.

Even participants in a workshop at the National Institutes of Mental Health who were entirely open to designing future opportunities for animal models for human health, including human mental health, reached this conclusion back in 2001:

"The probability of developing comprehensive animal models that accurately reflect the relative influences of factors contributing to anxiety disorder syndromes [in humans] is quite low."

PETA's director for laboratory investigations, Justin Goodman, summed up PETA's own perspective for me in an email sent yesterday:

"These experiments are unjustifiable from every perspective. They cause baby monkeys crippling emotional trauma, they have never lead to or improved treatments for human mental illness, and they are superseded by modern non-animal research methods that are actually relevant to humans. It's shocking that NIH has allowed these studies to continue for 30 years, but they can't go on any longer."

When CBS news covered the PETA campaign on Monday morning, NIH scientists responded to PETA's charges. Lead researcher Stephen Suomi told CBS, in part:

"The same behavioral, neurological and health changes seen in nursery-reared monkeys are seen in children who were orphaned from their mothers, or raised by depressed, abusive, or neglectful mothers."

We have known that fact for over 50 years now. What was considered novel, relevant and ethical in Harlow's day is none of those things now.

Contrary to what NIH told CBS, the Freedom of Information Act files (which I have seen myself) report that the human-intruder experiments, and the selective breeding and maternal-deprivation practices that underlie them, are funded to continue at NIH through 2017.

Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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