MADISON, Wisconsin––People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on January 23, 2015 declared victory in a long-running campaign against cat experiments at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
That returns the focus of protest against animal research at UW-Madison to the resumption of maternal deprivation studies on baby monkeys––an issue that helped to spark the rise of the animal rights movement more than 40 years ago.
“Following an intensive PETA campaign to expose and end cruel and archaic sound-localization experiments on cats at the University of Wisconsin–Madison,” said PETA staff writer Elizabeth Brion, “the federal grant money has expired, the lead experimenter has retired, and the embattled laboratory has closed its doors for good. The remaining four cats in the laboratory, including 3-year-old tabbies Rainbow and Mango, have been adopted into private homes.”
Neuroscience professor Tom Yin retired at the end of 2014. Earning his Ph.D. in 1973 from the University of Michigan, Yin in recent decades had been “studying the physiological and anatomical mechanisms by which sound localization cues are encoded in the central auditory system,” according to his faculty autobiography.
Wrote Brion, “Like dozens of cats before them over the past two decades, Mango and Rainbow endured having holes drilled into their skulls, metal restraint posts screwed into their heads, and steel coils implanted in their eyes. The cats were restrained by the head for hours on end while they were forced to listen to sounds coming from different directions. Many suffered from recurrent infections and other painful complications.”
Summarized Jenny Peek for The Isthmus, the UW-Madison newspaper, in January 2014, “Yin’s lab has been under fire since PETA submitted an open records request to the UW-Madison in 2009. The request led to two investigations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a probe by the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare. While the case was pending, all invasive experiments in the lab were suspended.
“PETA alleged ‘egregious violations’ of the Animal Welfare Act. Each investigation concluded that ‘No noncompliant items were identified,’” Peek wrote, “and Yin got the green light to continue his research. But the allegations––and subsequent publication of photos of one of Yin’s lab cats, named Double Trouble––brought widespread condemnation from critics around the world.”
Are two hearing aids are better than one?
According to Peek, Yin and fellow UW-Madison professor Ruth Litovsky in 2008 contracted to do a pilot study on cochlear implants, a form of hearing aid.
“Their goal,” said Peek, “was to determine if two cochlear implants are better than one. To answer this question, Yin and Litovsky planned to use cats already trained to detect sounds in behavioral studies, permanently deafen them with an injection of neomycin sulfate––an antibiotic with deafening side effects––and insert cochlear implants to see if they would still be able to determine sound location.
“Neither Yin nor Litovsky had ever done this surgery on a cat. They reached out to Robert Shepherd,” an Australian researcher, who “walked Yin and Litovsky through the procedure. While Shepherd did the surgery on Double Trouble,” Peek recounted, “the surgical team took photos, mapping out each step of the procedure. They show Double Trouble outfitted with a head cap and a large stainless steel contraption called a head post that is required to keep the cat’s head still during surgery.
“After Shepherd’s visit,” Peek continued, “Yin and Litovsky performed cochlear implant surgery on one more cat.”
But the experiment failed.
“Unable to get convincing data that the cats could use the implants to locate sound, the research team reassessed the experiment in 2009 and put it on the back burner. Both cats, deaf from the experiment, were euthanized,” Peek finished.
PETA sued to get photos
Picked up Brion’s account, “When PETA learned that the UW-Madison experimenters took photographs, we demanded that the school release the photos. UW fought to keep its cruelty a secret for more than three years, but a successful PETA lawsuit compelled the university to release the images.”
Some of the photos were featured, Brion recounted, in a campaign that included “eye-catching protests and ads, more than 369,000 e-mails from PETA supporters, and the support of celebrities like Bill Maher, who left an auto-dialed voice-mail message on the phones of all UW staffers and students, and Oscar-nominated actor James Cromwell, who was arrested after interrupting a UW board meeting.”
Cats “participated willingly?”
Eric P. Sandgren, director of the UW-Madison Research Animal Resources Center, asserted that “The cats did not suffer, received appropriate veterinary care, and participated willingly in the behavioral experiments that were a part of the study.”
But alleging that laboratory animals who have been subjected to clearly invasive procedures “participated willingly” in their own mutilation appears to have been unconvincing not only to animal advocates but to much of the public and media.
Sandgren went on to defend UW-Madison research animal care in general, a position which became increasingly untenable after the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service in October 2014 cited the university for “36 primate escapes, three deaths, and an incident in which a monkey was burned,” summarized Michael Budkie, founder of Stop Animal Exploitation Now.
Two of the Animal Welfare Act violations for which UW-Madison was fined, Budkie said, were in response to complaints that SAEN filed “based on records SAEN obtained from the National Institutes of Health through the Freedom of Information Act.
“UW-Madison has to have one of the most incompetent labs in the U.S.,” Budkie alleged. “Not only can the unqualified staff of this lab not keep the monkeys in the cages––they apparently can’t even keep them alive long enough to experiment on them.”
The Yin controversy and the fines for allegedly negligent primate care came as Sandgren scrambled to defend experiments by UW-Wisconsin faculty member Ned Kalin––starting out by quoting “what the Animal Legal Defense Fund has to say about this experiment’s design and consequences.”
Summarized ALDF, “Infant monkeys are immediately removed from their mothers after birth and kept in total isolation. They will be given ‘surrogate’ materials known to provoke heightened anxieties. For 42 days, the confused monkeys will be subjected to relentless fear and panic-inducing tests while totally isolated. These tests include being intentionally terrified by human researchers, being left alone with a live king snake, and being left alone in a strange room with a strange monkey.”
Allowed Sandgren, “They did get one half of one sentence right. Infant monkeys will be removed from their mothers. After that, it’s all wrong. The monkeys are not kept in total isolation. They are reared in a human-style baby incubator by people who feed and otherwise care for these infants until they have grown enough to regulate their own body temperature. Once that happens, at 3 to 6 weeks of age, they are permanently paired with another young rhesus.
“The monkeys are not subjected to ‘relentless fear,’ Sandgren continued. “Instead, approximately once a month for up to 18 months, their reaction to a novel situation is observed. What are these novel situations? An unfamiliar human stands in front of their cage. An unfamiliar monkey is housed in an adjoining cage, or the two are housed together in a play cage. And one time, the monkey can see a snake, enclosed within a solid glass aquarium that sits outside the monkeys’ cage. That does not constitute relentless fear.
Added Sandgren, “UW-Madison colony records of peer-reared monkeys spontaneously rejected by their mothers indicate that typically they respond to novel situations by increased thumb sucking, not by increased self-injury, compared to monkeys raised by their mothers. From 2002 to present, only one peer-reared monkey injured herself within the first 18 months of life. She now no longer exhibits this behavior, and currently is raising an offspring of her own.”
Maternal deprivation experiments both came into vogue and fell into disrepute at UW-Madison, where researcher Harry Harlow from 1930 to 1970 plunged generations of baby macaques and sometimes babies of other non-human primate species into stainless steel “pits of despair,” as he called them; subjected the babies to deliberately cruel robotic “mothers”; and allowed mother monkeys who had been driven insane by his experiments to abuse and kill their babies.
When Harlow semi-retired to a part-time post at the University of Arizona, other University of Wisconsin faculty including fellow maternal deprivation researchers Stephen J. Suomi and Gene Sackett immediately dismantled his lab.
Suomi, now chief of the Laboratory of Comparative Ethology at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Maryland, admitted to Deborah Blum, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Monkey Wars (1992) and Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection (2002) that the experiments gave him nightmares.
Sackett has attributed the subsequent rise of the animal rights movement in part to public revulsion at Harlow’s experiments, which by the early 1970s were already widely known and debated on university campuses.
Seven years before the first action claimed by the “Animal Liberation Front,” a failed bombing at the University of Wisconsin Primate Research Center was at first believed to have been directed at stopping the maternal deprivation research, but was later found to have been a failed attempt by four anti-Vietnam War protesters to bomb the Army Mathematics Research Center across the street. The four succeeded on second try, killing post-doctorate math student Robert Fassnacht, who also opposed the war, and severely injuring three other students who had no involvement with the war.
Harlow died in 1981, at age 76, a reputed drunk whose chief contribution to mainstream laboratory primatology was inventing the “rape rack,” a device for artificially inseminating primates.
But in a stunning and perplexing demonstration of tone-deafness to public opinion, the University of Wisconsin primate lab was renamed in Harlow’s honor, and has conducted many other controversial experiments, some of which might never have become controversial had they not been linked to Harlow’s name.
Wrote current maternal deprivation investigator Kalin, who chairs the UW-Madison psychiatry department, in the research protocol he submitted in 2011 to the UW-Madison Institutional Animal Care & Use Committee, “At birth, infants will be removed from their mother and placed immediately in an incubator with a surrogate stuffed animal, towels, and/or blankets. As shown by Harlow (1958), infants will form attachment bonds to these items, which provide contact comfort as early as one day of life.”
Added Kalin, apparently trying to distance his work from Harlow’s even while referencing him, “Unlike isolated monkeys, infants in the nursery will have full auditory and visual access to other animals, human caretakers, and/or television or radio. When mature enough, these animals will be paired with a peer.”
“It has been two decades since anyone at UW-Madison has isolated baby monkeys to cause them psychological trauma,” responded Alliance for Animals director Rick Bogle in an online response prepared for a local newspaper but then not published.
“The university’s spin on their resumption of this cruelty is the assertion that the baby monkeys Kalin is isolating aren’t really isolated because someone comes by to feed them and clean up their incubators,” Bogle said. “They claim that because Kalin’s methods are not as extreme as some of Harlow’s methods, that they are not extreme at all.”
Obtaining Kalin’s research protocol in August 2012 through a Freedom of Information Act request, Bogle sought to stop the project, but it might by then have already started.
“One point should be clarified,” Bogle said. “Harlow’s work was primarily an investigation into the effects of varying degrees of social and environmental deprivation and ways in which the effects could be accelerated. Kalin’s project is using the well understood effects of maternal deprivation, early isolation, and peer-rearing as a tool to create highly anxious baby monkeys.”
Kalin has done maternal deprivation experiments derivative of Harlow’s work before, Bogle explained in his online commentary.
However, “When Kalin began publishing the details of his [earlier] cruel experiments on monkeys in 1983,” Bogle wrote, “the profound similarity of human and nonhuman primate cognition and emotion was less well known,” Bogle acknowledged. “The idea that other primates have cultures, a sense of self, use tools, can add and learn the meaning of abstract symbols, can reason, and are like us in so many other ways was dismissed as preposterous.”
“Why would it be moral?”
This has all changed, but “Not once in Kalin’s defense of his maternal deprivation and fear-inducing terminal experiments,” Bogle continued, “does he try to explain why it would be moral to harm and kill animals he believes experience fear and anxiety much like our own.”
Noted Bogle, “Kalin’s experiments on monkeys have been continuously supported by the National Institutes of Health since 1990. His grants have cost taxpayers over $5 million since 2000, without yielding discernible benefit to human patients.”
Wrote Wesleyan University professor of philosophy, feminist, gender, sexuality, and environmental studies Lori Gruen in an October 2012 critique of the experiments, “I believe this experiment is unethical and I also think it violates the spirit, if not the regulations, of the Animal Welfare Act, which explicitly requires that the psychological well-being of primates be promoted, not intentionally destroyed.
“How much real good could have been done?”
“There are many obvious ways to minimize the human suffering that results from anxiety disorders,” Gruen continued. “In tough economic times, the provision of such services generally falls on charities that are already overburdened. Imagine how much real good the funds that UW-Madison researchers have used causing monkeys anxiety for 30 years could have done, directly serving those children who suffer so greatly.”
Committee for Research Accountability directors Rita Anderson and Barbara Millman announced in November 2003 that University of Colorado Health Sciences Center researcher Mark Laudenslager had ended his maternal deprivation research after 17 years. The line of experiments that began with Harlow was then believed to have ended.
Bogle, then heading the Primate Freedom Project, moved to Madison in 2004 to renovate a building located between the National Primate Research Center at Madison and the Harry Harlow Primate Psychology Laboratory into a planned National Primate Research Center Exhibition Hall. Bogle expected it to become a rallying point for opposition to primate experiments. Retired California physician and animal advocate Richard McLellan had agreed to buy the building from bicycle shop owner Roger Charly. However, the university stalled the purchase through legal action and then reportedly paid Charly $1 million for it.