Today, Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic and the Wild Minds Lab at the University of St. Andrews School of Psychology and Neuroscience in the UK sent a letter to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) urging it to review and terminate its ongoing funding of cruel experiments on non-human primates at Harvard Medical School and elsewhere. More than 380 scientists, doctors, and academics from around the world joined the request to NIH—including renowned primatologists Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. Ian Redmond, and Harvard’s Dr. Richard Wrangham.
As detailed in the letter, an NIH-funded Harvard Medical School lab run by neurobiologist Dr. Margaret S. Livingstone has used infant macaque monkeys to study visual recognition by depriving them of the ability to see faces, either by sewing their eyes shut or by requiring staff to wear welders’ masks around them. In some cases, the lab implants electrode arrays into the monkeys’ brains.
By design, these experiments require maternal deprivation—a fact that drew the ire of scientists last fall, when Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published an Inaugural Article by Dr. Livingstone entitled Triggers for Mother Love. The article describes the lab’s practice of taking infant macaques from their mothers shortly after birth and attempting to appease the mothers’ distress by giving them plush toys as “surrogate infants.”
“As a primatologist with decades of experience in the field, I can say with complete confidence that we know that infant primates and their mothers suffer greatly when they are separated,” said Dr. Wrangham, Moore Research Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University.
He added: “We also know that depriving infants of the ability to see faces will have adverse impacts on their brain and eye development. Taking infant monkeys from their mothers to use in invasive brain experiments could only be justified by expectations of extraordinarily important benefits for the monkeys themselves, or for humans. Because that high ethical bar has not been met, I see no legitimate need for any such research.”
Dr. Livingstone has received over $32 million in NIH grants since the 1980s.
“These studies fail on both scientific and ethical grounds,” said Dr. Catherine Hobaiter, Principal Investigator at the Wild Minds Lab. “The doublethink argument that maternally-separated individuals represent appropriate models for conditions such as anxiety, while arguing these methods do not cause significant distress is fundamentally flawed. Our fundamental role as scientists is to update, refine, and redefine our understanding of the world around us. Doing so must include not only our theoretical positions, but our ethical responsibility to the animals we have given no choice in becoming our subjects of study.”
Last fall, the Wild Minds Lab submitted a letter on behalf of 260 animal behavior scientists calling for PNAS to retract Triggers for Mother Love because it promotes cruel practices long known to cause monkeys lasting behavioral and psychological harms. The journal declined to publish the letter. The Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic also called on Harvard Medical School’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) to review Dr. Livingstone’s research protocols with the aim of ending cruel experiments. The IACUC has not responded.
“As long as non-human primates are used in scientific experiments, we are morally obligated to provide them with sufficient social conditions that ensure their emotional wellbeing,” said Gal Badihi, a graduate research student in the Wild Minds Lab. “This is not only an ethical requirement but essential for research validity and integrity.”
Today’s request to the NIH places Dr. Livingstone’s research in a broader context and calls for the agency to “to internally review not only these particular studies at the Harvard Medical School, but also all other ongoing non-human primate experiments of a similar nature, and to permanently end funding for current or future projects that lack ecological validity and involve cruel and inhumane treatment of animals used in experimentation.” The signatories further urge the NIH to direct some of its considerable funding for research to develop alternatives to animal testing.
“An institution like Harvard Medical School should be at the forefront of developing alternatives to animal research,” said Rebecca Garverman, Clinical Fellow in Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic. “The NIH must lead the way by terminating funding of cruel experiments on monkeys and instead backing innovative, human-relevant approaches.”
For more information or interview requests, please contact:
Sarah Pickering, Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, email@example.com, + 1 617-852-6484
Gal Badihi. Wild Minds Lab, firstname.lastname@example.org
Catherine Hobaiter, Wild Minds Lab, email@example.com