What This Mother Jones Story Got Wrong on Primate Testing

A recent Mother Jones story on the shortage of lab monkeys failed to ask questions about the ethics of animal testing.

monkey testing

Perspective Animal Testing Correction Policy

For years, U.S. scientific institutions have been warning of a “shortage” of monkeys used in animal testing, as though nonhuman primates were like the bottles of Sriracha that have gone missing from supermarket shelves. Because scientists are one of the few classes of people that reporters regard with credulity, most science journalism about primate experimentation has recapitulated this narrative.

I was struck by a particular recent case of this in a long story by Jackie Flynn Mogensen on the lab monkey shortage in Mother Jones, a magazine that usually shines a light on abuses of power and its victims, unless those victims are not human. 

Last month, another piece of primate news surfaced, which got almost no media coverage — Long-tailed (also known as cynomolgus) macaques are now endangered, and a primary reason is that they’re abducted from their habitats in Southeast Asia and trafficked for biomedical research in rich countries. This species makes up the vast majority of primates imported to the U.S. for vivisection.

If we’re “following the science,” to paraphrase a tweet by my husband, are we supposed to believe conservation science or the biomedical community? Only the latter appears content to look the other way as wild-caught primates are shipped to their labs.

The Mother Jones story acknowledges — as animal experimenters do — that using wild monkeys instead of lab-bred ones is bad. But it doesn’t put the blame where it obviously lies — on the animal testing industry, for driving up the price for a macaque to as much as $20,000 per head.

Under those circumstances, of course wild animals are going to be kidnapped and laundered as purpose-bred. Cutting off macaque imports until real oversight is in place is not an idea that’s ever considered, nor, I suspect, would it be embraced by people who believe in animal testing at any cost. 

In the story, Mogensen asks Deepak Kaushal, the head of the federally-funded Southwest National Primate Research Center in Texas, about allegations from animal rights activists on the abuse of lab animals. “As employees are working really hard to take care of the animals, sometimes mistakes are made. And these are very rare,” he replied.

Whether or not this is true is not probed any further, but finding violations of the Animal Welfare Act (which is already notoriously weak and under-enforced) at primate labs is trivially easy. In any case, Deepak Kaushal just last week admitted to faking data in applications for taxpayer-funded research grants. So much for his credibility. 

The deeper problem with the Mother Jones story, though, is one that I worry is too hard to bridge. Even journalists, the people who are supposed to question entrenched narratives and surface the stories of the powerless, are too afraid to face what it means to treat animals as lab equipment. Because Mogensen doesn’t articulate any theoretical limits to primate testing, it reads as suggesting that she’s okay with using monkeys this way if it can benefit humans in any way at all. She makes much of the harassment and fear faced by vivisectors, but not once does she consider the terror of a macaque who has the same needs for love and safety that we do, torn from her relatives, caged and not permitted to have any life at all except as an appendage to human desires.

I was reminded of a quote by Madeline Krasno, a former student employee at the University of Wisconsin’s primate lab who’s now an anti-vivisection activist: “When you work in an environment where life is viewed as disposable, you either start to believe it’s true or dissociate and emotionally shut down to survive.”

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