Some Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority buses stopping in front of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda carry a message from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, designed to pack an emotional punch: A baby monkey clings to his cage next to the words, “NIH: Millions spent scaring baby monkeys and making them depressed, lonely and drunk since 1983. Stop it now.”
While the monkey’s photo is from a study long since ended, PETA’s message is still that animals should never be used for testing.
Justin Goodman, director of PETA’s investigation department, said his organization is “laser-focused” on stopping a current study on foster care that includes the use of monkeys.
The study being conducted by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development involves the separation of mother and infants within 24 hours of birth, which is “long before any kind of attachment bond can be formed in this species,” said Dr. Constantine Stratakis, NICHD scientific director. His department is studying the long-term effects of being in foster care and whether any of the effects carry on to future generations.
Rather than being housed in small cages, monkey subjects in this study live at NIH’s 500-acre Poolesville facility that sets aside 475 acres for field stations, pastures, open space and unmaintained woodland, Stratakis said. When the primates are caged, they are in room-size indoor-outdoor pens that always contain other monkeys, he said. If the animals were placed in tiny cages, behaviorally, they would be stressed and then the results of the NIH study would not be accurate, he said. “They have to think they are in nature,” he said.
With animals, it is easier for a researcher to control certain variables, Stratakis said. “How could you ever take a population of human kids” and remove them from their mothers? he asked. Also, he pointed out, “If you want to see the brain of a child who has spent time in foster care, what are you going to do, wait ‘til the child dies?”
This study “is impossible to do in a human population,” Stratakis said, adding, “This is for the betterment of humans.”
But PETA’s Goodman disagreed, stating that studies involving monkeys “have never led to any treatment for mental illness” and that any drug treatments for diseases that were devised using animals have a high failure rate “or don’t work” at all.
A Jan. 26 statement by NIH noted that “Research with non-human primates and other animal species is key to helping us understand and improve human health in a multitude of ways, including the development of treatments and interventions. For instance, research in nonhuman primates contributed to the development of the yellow fever vaccine and the polio vaccine in the 1950s, and is now critical in the development of a vaccine for the Ebola crisis.”
Goodman also criticized how the baby monkeys are treated, calling it “nothing like any human being has experienced.” Saying the experiment replicates real life “is outrageous,” he said.
Stratakis said that PETA is referring to information it obtained following a Freedom of Information request that contained roughly 700 hours of video. PETA “actually selected only four minutes in the version released to the public” for its advertising campaign, he said.
Jonathan Crane, a professor of bioethics and Jewish thought at the Emory University Center for Ethics, said the use of animals for science is an interesting and much-debated topic. “There really is no easy answer.”
Judaism calls on people to prevent “unnecessary suffering” and if the NIH study is just for supplemental information, Crane would be against it. Also, if the obtained results aren’t truly relevant to humans, it shouldn’t be allowed, he said.
“If, however, what they are studying is novel, and it cannot be found in human studies” then it may be permissible, he said.
Other factors to consider is to whom the study benefits and whether the ends justify the means, Crane said. Whether a study helps one specific person, generations are also things to be considered, he said.
In Judaism, “all creatures are sacred, because they are created by God and must have some moral standing,” Crane said. Therefore, an animal’s welfare must be taken into consideration, he said. Unnecessary suffering is prohibited, he added.
However, Crane pointed out, Judaism also calls on people to “do what one can to save a human life.” The idea of saving a human life and not causing unnecessary suffering to an animal “can go at loggerheads,” he said.
Stratakis said his department is definitely researching new areas in its foster care study. Four or five years ago, there wasn’t the technology or the understanding to investigate epigenetics –the study of changes in organisms caused by modification in gene expression rather than alterations of the genetic code itself.
It’s not only monkeys that are used at the NIH. Rats, mice, frogs, worms, fruit flies and fish are also studied. A current study, pioneered at the NIH, uses zebra fish to understand the development of organisms, Stratakis said. A researcher “can see in fish, within days” their development and vascular system as the fish is “totally transparent” in the beginning.
“The fish embryo, [you can] watch it develop its own heart, see its blood vessels,” he said. “You can’t replicate any of that” in humans.