It's a Jungle in Here
A look into the world of animal research at UW and beyond. Why the debate remains so heated.
Photo by Kelly Schultz.
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It’s been some eighty years since primate research began at UW–Madison, bringing with it a hornet’s nest of ethical debate. For the most part, the public ignores the vitriol, viewing the rhetoric on both sides as extreme and out of touch with our normal, everyday concerns. Meanwhile the monkeys—in Madison, thousands of them—continue to live and die in captivity. Is it high time humankind decided what we think about it?
We're inside. It’s a windowless building the color of cold salmon, tucked in a rarely traveled pocket between Orchard and Charter on Capitol Court, only a block off one of the city’s busiest streets. The small lettering etched on the locked glass doors reads “Wisconsin National Primate Research Center.” Somewhere around fifteen hundred monkeys are in here with us or in the building across the alley. There are approximately two thousand on campus.
The WNPRC is one of only eight federally funded facilities of its kind in the United States. Between its two buildings, the adjacent Harlow Primate Lab, and a handful of spots throughout campus like the psychology department and the med school, rhesus and marmoset monkeys are the subjects of research spanning aging, reproductive health, HIV and AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, fetal alcohol syndrome, behavioral studies and much more. These labs, where stem cell studies are underway, are a key reason the University of Wisconsin–Madison is a research powerhouse. And for as long as nonhuman primate research has been going on—here since the 1930s—so has the opposition to it.
It used to be that you—anyone—could walk in off the street and see the monkeys. Today, due to a complex combination of health and safety, security, liability and PR issues, you’ll likely not get in without a very good reason. One of those reasons might be when a journalist comes knocking, and officials decide to gamble in hopes that the story will not be one-sided. That there might be a real opportunity for public outreach, because those opportunities are increasingly rare. For a long time now, researchers and animal rights activists have been bitterly embattled. Both sides have a lot to say, but neither knows whom they can trust.
Inside, it is shockingly quiet, the only sound the shuffling of our shoes over the hum of the radiator. We’ve submitted our TB test results, our driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers. We’ve perused the eleven documents and signed on all the dotted lines. We have stripped down to our underwear, donned scrubs, and layered long-sleeve Tyvek jackets over them. We’ve strapped masks over our noses and mouths, pushed our hair inside shower caps, and pulled a clear face shield over the top of all this. We have slipped the booties over our shoes, and double-gloved our hands with latex.
Our guide, Saverio “Buddy” Capuano, is the attending veterinarian and associate director of Animal Services at the WNPRC. He took this job because he loves monkeys more than anyone, because this is a way for him to get close to them all day long. He has been working with captive primates for twenty-six years, the last three of them here in Madison. His eyes, almond in shape and color, are kind through his splash shield.
“I think you’ll find it very quiet in here,” he says, his hand resting flat upon the door to the first of many rooms full of caged rhesus monkeys. “These guys are used to people.”
I catch our reflection in the window of the door as Buddy slides it open. We don’t look like people to me.
Rick Marolt is one of those “crazy” animal rights activists you’re always hearing about. More accurately, he is an “antivivisectionist,” a term embraced by opponents of animal research. By Webster’s definition, it means he is against cutting open a body while it is still alive.
There are no maps plotting destruction of the monkey labs pinned to his living room wall. He is not wild-eyed or foaming at the mouth. He is sitting quietly at his kitchen table on a bright winter morning, surrounded by neat stacks of paper that detail meticulously researched conclusions based on years and years of personal study. A sharp slant of sunlight temporarily morphs his glasses into miniature mirrors, framing identical twin cups of steaming coffee. When he opens his mouth to speak, each word is steady, carefully measured.
“The problem is, they just view us as the opposition,” he says. “It’s a forty-five-year- old issue. Society doesn’t agree with you, we don’t agree with you, so why should we even waste our time when we’re not gonna get anywhere? And it’s not a completely invalid perspective.”
Marolt is a thoughtful guy who tries hard to look at all perspectives, to keep a level head whenever he can. He doesn’t like PETA, doesn’t think effective social change occurs through extreme tactics. He’s led a pretty conventional life, with a bachelor’s degree from Carleton College and a master’s from Princeton. Three years ago he finished his MBA at UW–Madison at the top of his class. He’s a former insurance company executive and now works as a consultant and an adjunct business instructor at both Edgewood College and UW.
“I am not your typical animal rights activist wacko,” he says with a wry smile.
Marolt reads everything he can get his hands on—scientific journals detailing specific UW experiments; books by doctors like Ray Greek, who decry the use of the animal model as ineffective and fraudulent; essays and articles by proponents on all sides of the animal research issue. But he no longer reads Madison Magazine, not since that day last year when he saw Richie Davidson smiling out at him from the November 2007 cover, beneath a banner reading “Person of the Year.”
The article inside told of UW professor Davidson’s work as a pioneer in the field of affective neuroscience. It mentioned that he’d earned his Ph.D. from Harvard by the time he was twenty-four. It mentioned his presentation to the Nobel Committee, and Time magazine naming him one of its “100 Most Influential People.” It mentioned his close personal friendship with the Dalai Lama, and the high esteem he’s held in by his colleagues around the world. It did not mention his work with monkeys.
“Richard Davidson does experiments on monkeys in which he frightens them, opens their skulls, destroys up to ninety-eight percent of the emotional centers of their brains, then frightens them again,” says Marolt. “If Davidson did these experiments on people, he would be considered evil and he would be vilified. But the media ignore his experiments on monkeys even though he justifies them by invoking the similarity between humans and monkeys.”
For Marolt, Davidson is just one in a crowd of hundreds like him. From his pile of papers on the table he can pull example after example of scientists injecting the fetuses of pregnant monkeys and killing the babies; sticking syringes in the eyeballs of monkeys; drilling holes in monkey skulls—and these are just the things they mean to do. He also cites dozens of examples of mistakes, of experiments gone horribly awry due to human error.
“How can these things be ethical?” he asks. “When it’s based on the premise that monkeys are so similar to humans we’re gonna learn something that will apply to us, well, then, how come they’re not so similar that human ethics would apply to them? It’s the great paradox of animal research.”
Scientists prize the monkey model because it is so similar to the human one, but to Marolt, this is the ultimate hypocrisy. Besides, it’s not the physiological similarities that most stick in Marolt’s craw, it’s the undeniable emotional ones: the way monkeys feel. The way they hug each other. The way they empathize. The way they forge lifelong bonds with a partner, and sleep with their tails intertwined. These are the similarities that matter most to him.
In 1964, Northwestern University psychiatrist Jules Masserman conducted a study in which rhesus monkeys learned if they pulled a chain, food would appear. They also learned that when they pulled that chain, a fellow monkey, one they could see through a Plexiglas window, received a shock. The majority of the monkeys refused to pull the chain, choosing to go hungry rather than inflict pain upon another monkey. One monkey went twelve days without eating. It’s studies like this Marolt can’t forget. But what gets to him the most is how most people view animal research as a necessary evil.
“The researchers will frequently say they’re working on cures for cancer. They’re working on cures for AIDS. ‘Every medical advance we’ve ever gotten has come out of animal research.’ But these are just generalizations driven by emotion,” says Marolt. “People want to believe that. They have a need to believe it. But nobody investigates it.”
These generalizations work because we’re all affected by disease, cancer in particular. We know someone who has it, or had it, or died from it. So we walk in charity walks, drop our spare change into donor buckets—but do we ever really think about what “research” means?
“It’s always the promise, it’s the hope. And that’s what fuels people,” Marolt says. “But there’s no concern for how much money we’re putting into it, how much suffering there is, how much we’re getting out of it. It’s just a need to believe.”
What Marolt believes is that he and others like him are often blamed for standing in the way of the cure, and not just to their faces. A UW Health newsletter entitled “Parkinson’s Perspective,” readily available in the clinic waiting room, criticized activists on its front page. “Unfortunately, there is a minority that wants to take away the hopes of Parkinson’s disease patients,” it reads. “The reader may know these people as ‘animal rights activists.’ But those who seek to ban all animal research ... are actually anti-patients’ rights.”
To many antivivisectionists, it’s just one small cog in the well-oiled machination of the university’s public relations arm. It feels like a smear campaign, not to mention a terrible oversimplification and misunderstanding of the realities of animal research.
Richard Davidson was surprised the animal rights activists chose him as the latest vehicle to force the issue of monkey testing to the forefront. He is not leading any federally funded studies of monkeys. He says 99.9 percent of his own research is conducted on humans, including him.
His name does appear, however, alongside Dr. Ned Kalin’s on at least a dozen papers published in professional medical journals. Kalin is chair of the UW–Madison psychiatry department and director of the medical school’s Health-Emotions Research Institute, and the articles detail numerous experiments on monkeys. Davidson and Kalin are part of a powerful collaborative team credited with important discoveries in the roles played by the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex in fear and anxiety. The monkey research is simply an extension of the work Davidson does on humans, focused on understanding brain mechanisms, particularly mood and anxiety disorders. And though he doesn’t know exactly how often Kalin’s monkeys are tested, he says they are world pioneers in developing non-invasive methods of probing the monkey brain, because the ultimate goal is to help both nonhuman and human primates.
“The motivation for doing this work is to relieve suffering,” says Davidson. “The disorders that this work is addressing are devastating disorders which are among the world’s major causes of morbidity and mortality. We need to ask ourselves continuously and very honestly and rigorously, what the motivation is for the work that we do. It is our conviction that this work has the potential of leading to major new understanding and thus the development of new interventions that can potentially tremendously reduce the suffering and the burden of mental illness.”
He’s not surprised, though, that opponents like Rick Marolt take issue with his work, and the work of his UW colleagues. This is not news, not a shocking turn of events. The river of contention runs old and deep and when you’re swimming in it, it’s pretty hard to miss.
Davidson sees room for improvement on the part of his fellow researchers, thinks they could work harder to develop a culture of gratitude for the animals they work with, to respect them as teachers. At the same time, he thinks some animal rights activists are oblivious and insensitive to the suffering endured by people with mental illnesses. It may not be cancer, but the effects of psychological disorders can be just as devastating, even fatal, to those plagued by them.
Of the few people willing to reach out and engage the other side, Dr. Eric Sandgren is the most familiar face. He’s the one you’ll see squaring off against animal rights activists on public access television, the one you’ll hear most often quoted in the local paper. Though he does not test on monkeys, he conducts research on mice in his UW lab in the Department of Pathobiological Sciences at the vet school. The antivivisectionists seem to respect him, and vice versa, simply for his refreshing willingness to have the debate at all—though he certainly understands why his colleagues will not.
“There’s a tremendous hypocrisy when the activists accuse people who use animals in biomedical research of not being willing to speak out,” says Sandgren. “Because those who do very routinely have it thrown right back in their face, have people outside their houses. Why try to go out and speak with these groups when you’re putting yourself at risk?”
Antivivisectionists frequently accuse the university and its researchers of having something to hide, but Sandgren feels that argument is grossly simplistic. For one, this fear of harassment—even attack—is very real, and not unfounded. In Britain, activists dug up the grave of the mother of a researcher whose work involved guinea pigs. More recently, scientists in California have been the victims of home invasions.
“That has really shaken a lot of people here,” says Sandgren.
Though nothing this extreme has happened in Madison—a few years back, a bus full of protestors visited several UW researchers at their homes, amplifying insults with a megaphone—the specifics don’t matter. If your personal life was somehow infringed upon, would you soon forget it?