Stolen from the Wild: The Use and Abuse of Mauritian Monkeys for Research

On the 15th of August this year, the immense iron-ore transporter Wakashio grounded on the precious coral reefs of Mauritius, an island paradise east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The deaths of marine wildlife resulting from this human-made disaster reportedly included at least 40 dolphins and have brought international attention to this remote ecosystem and led to widespread protests by proud Mauritian citizens concerned about the welfare of oiled animals and their invaluable marine environment. 

Not in the news, however, is the plight of other suffering wildlife on the island. 

Aurélie, a long-tailed macaque, and her young daughter spend their days foraging for fruits and seeds, and occasionally, when they’re lucky, eggs from an unattended bird nest. During some parts of the year, Aurélie is able to meet tourists and take offered bags of pretzels or chips. But not everything is perfect in this paradise. Aurélie knows that some of the monkeys on the island seem to just… disappear. 

Centuries ago, Aurélie’s ancestors were introduced to Mauritius by sailors who probably kept the animals onboard ships as pets. Today, they’ve been designated an invasive species by a government committed to increasing non-tourism revenue, meaning these animals aren’t entitled to the same protections as other species on the island.  

One beautiful October day, bright sun and low humidity—as if the rainy season might hold itself at bay this year—Aurélie and her daughter stumble across a most welcome sight. Fruit, nuts, and eggs are piled neatly on the ground as if a feast has been prepared just for her young family. As Aurélie approaches the food and takes a first handful, a sudden crack sounds. She concentrates on the presence of her daughter, gripped tightly to her stomach, wide and fearful eyes looking up. Aurélie wants to assure her young daughter that she will protect her. But after a few long seconds, Aurélie becomes aware they have been trapped in a wooden cage. She vocalizes her terror. The shadows, scents, and sounds of two men chattering are the last things Aurélie notices before her distress causes her mind to go blank, her arms wrapped ever more tightly around her daughter. Large, strong human hands reach into the cage, tearing her daughter from Aurélie’s grip. There’s screaming—hers or her daughter’s—Aurélie isn’t sure.

This nightmare is only the beginning of a tragic story. Although Aurélie is fictional, hers is the story of thousands of living monkeys who have been stolen from the wild in Mauritius, Vietnam, and China to be imprisoned and sold to support a multi-million dollar animal experimentation industry. Unfortunately, the tragedy of being stolen from the wild is but a microcosm of the life of torture they will face once ensnared by the animal experimentation industrial complex. 

Following her capture from the only land and home she has ever known, Aurélie and her daughter will spend time in a breeding colony run by a company called Bioculture Mauritius Ltd. or one of its competitors. Then, they will face being sold, crated for international transport, and shipped through freezing temperatures in Europe. They will be left on a noisy airport tarmac next to trolleys full of stinking luggage and reloaded as cargo onto a chartered airplane. After landing far from home, the United States, they will be subjected to a detailed inspection and quarantine, later reloaded onto trucks headed toward their final destination: a university or another private breeding colony of monkeys stolen from the wild. 

These wild-caught monkeys—“F0s” in industry parlance—will be used for breeding and producing the next generation of animals—known as “F1s”—to be used in experiments all over the United States. Aurélie and her daughter have become an infinitesimally small piece of a system that keeps more than 108,000 individual non-human primates in barren cages, where they are tortured in the name of science.  

Perhaps most tragically, these animals are not suffering for some “greater good.” More than 90 percent of drugs tested with some degree of success on animals fail to make it through human trials—a fact that is leading many researchers to question the use of animal trials in the face of the urgent need to find a successful vaccine for COVID-19. For one, Dr. Jarrod Bailey, Chief Science Officer at the Center for Contemporary Sciences, sees no efficacy in using monkeys to study the global pandemic.

“I don’t see any reason at all why any animal models, any animal tests are going to be sufficiently predictive of the human efficacy and safety of COVID vaccines,” says Dr. Bailey. “There’s just no sign that’s the case.”

Why does animal experimentation continue in the face of such a horrific failure rate and waste of animal life? The answer is simple: because it makes us feel better that we try out these drugs on non-human primates before we start giving them to humans.

Organizations are working to end the international monkey trade. A decade ago, UK non-profit Cruelty Free International investigated the breeding facilities for Mauritius and found many instances of inhumane treatment. More recently, the organization has advocated for restrictions on this trade at the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES). 

Renowned primate expert Dr. Jane Goodall has joined the chorus of people urging the Mauritian government to end the trade of monkeys, stating in 2015, “I am shocked and saddened to learn about the capture and breeding of the long-tailed macaque of Mauritius, and the export of their young for research. I have spent years learning about primates: they are highly intelligent and form close social bonds that can last for life. The trade [of] living monkeys and knowledge of the terrible suffering this is causing has led to increasing international concern and is tarnishing the image of Mauritius as an idyllic paradise island. A number of people have told me they will no longer consider visiting. I appeal to people to contact the Mauritius Tourism Ministry and urge it to take steps to end this trade—not only for the monkeys but also the many people of Mauritius who benefit from eco-tourism.”

Rise for Animals is fighting to end the dangerous and inhumane import of Mauritian monkeys like Aurélie for animal experimentation. The organization is working to expose the trade of non-human primates and track the use of these animals in research. Amy Meyer, Director of Grassroots Organizing at Rise for Animals, says, “It’s truly shocking that the United States still contributes to an unsustainable, dangerous, and inhumane trade in non-human primates because of the collective lie that animal experimentation protects people from harm. It’s time we end experimentation on primates once and for all.”  

Activists in the United States may find now the opportune time to add their voices to the loudening international chorus calling for the humane treatment of animals. Wild Mauritian monkeys like Aurélie should never be stolen from their homes and ripped from their families to fuel a costly and ineffective industry that promises to improve human health but rarely—if ever—delivers.