Is Monkey Experimentation Ethical?
An Animal Rights Article from


Todd Finkelmeyer on
September 2009

Rick Marolt has spent parts of the past three years trying to get someone associated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison to answer one question: Is experimenting on monkeys ethical?

It's a hot potato few are interested in handling directly.

So Marolt was a bit surprised this past spring when UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin sent him a letter that directed the 48-year-old business consultant and part-time business lecturer at Edgewood College and UW-Madison to take his inquiry to the All Campus Animal Care and Use Committee, a federally mandated body that helps manage the ethical and humane use of animals in university research. "It is this group of dedicated faculty and staff who constantly examine and evaluate our program of animal care, and are committed to improving areas that need to be strengthened," Martin wrote to Marolt on May 11.

At its monthly meeting on Aug. 7, Marolt was given about 15 minutes to state his case to the committee.

Most notably, Marolt spoke of his desire for an independent group to be formed with recognized experts in ethics, law, animal welfare and primatology. He proposed that this body listen to testimony from a range of groups, conduct a cost-benefit analysis of experiments on monkeys and undertake an anonymous survey to gauge the thoughts of UW-Madison faculty and staff on this topic. Finally, he proposed that this panel produce a report to present to the UW System's Board of Regents.

The enormity of the proposed task did not escape committee members. "One of the things that strikes me about this question is it seems to be an almost impossible one to sort through, like, 'Do you believe in God or not,'" says Bill Barker, an associate dean in the College of Letters and Science and a member of the All Campus Animal Care and Use Committee. "There's a staggering amount of information out there already on this topic, so the likelihood that we would have a scholarly discussion and turn over an epiphany seems small."

To the surprise of some on the Animal Care and Use Committee, Marolt spent a good chunk of his allotted time outlining why he didn't think this particular UW-Madison body was the right one to take on the ethical question he was posing. Marolt argued that too many of the panel's members would be unable to answer his question in an unbiased and credible way because they had grown up professionally in a culture that supports experiments on monkeys.

On Sept. 4, Norlin Benevenga, a professor emeritus and chair of the committee, e-mailed Marolt. "The committee discussed your request and feels it is not one that we can honor," Benevenga wrote. The committee, he added, "feels this is a bigger issue than this committee was designed to address."

In that e-mail, Benevenga contends the committee discussed Marolt's proposal in open session before coming to this conclusion. But a Capital Times reporter at the Aug. 7 meeting heard no such discussion.

Benevenga later admitted that there wasn't a discussion or formal vote on Marolt's request, but the decision would stand nonetheless.

"It was just a general consensus that this question was just a bigger thing than this group could take on," says Benevenga. "It was like, you know, your pals deciding whether you are going to do this thing or that thing. And we decided we were just not in a position to answer this question."

Although Marolt agrees that the Animal Care and Use Committee isn't the proper body to address his question, he nonetheless is baffled that the committee would come to its conclusion without a vote in a move he says "clearly violates the state's open meetings law."

Marolt, who has demonstrated a desire "to help creatures easily hurt or controlled by others" since childhood, isn't sure what to do next.

"We have a bunch of people now at the university disagreeing about where I should take this question," says Marolt, a Minneapolis native who has a master's degree from Princeton in German literature and a master's degree in business from UW-Madison. "The only place they've come up with, this Animal Care and Use Committee, says 'No, we're not the right place.' And so the hot potato is just lying there. Obviously, I'm going to draw some attention to the hot potato and try to get somebody to pick it up. And if they don't pick it up, I'm going to draw attention to that."

It was back in 2000 when Marolt first learned that monkeys were experimented on at UW-Madison. Calling it a "heinous" process, he points out that researchers have found that monkeys make rational decisions, use vocabularies to communicate about their environment and each other, and have the ability to count, add and plan.

Marolt says UW-Madison's own scientists have studied the complex relationships monkeys have and base their research on monkeys' abilities to experience fear, anxiety and depression. Therefore, Marolt asks, "How is it ethical to do something to a creature that is similar enough to people to be research substitutes - not just in physiology but cognition, emotions and social relationships - but dissimilar enough not to deserve more ethical consideration?"

Marolt is not pointing the finger at any experiments in particular but at the UW-Madison research policy that allows experiments on monkeys in the first place. He says there may be no better place in the world to ask such a question as Wisconsin appears to house more research monkeys than any other state in the country. According to figures in a 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, 8,859 non-human primates were experimented on in Wisconsin that year. Maryland (6,304) and Maine (5,211) were the only other states with more than 5,000 such monkeys.

A closer look at the 2007 figures compiled by the USDA, which oversees animal research, shows that the vast majority of monkeys used in Madison-based experiments - 7,313 - were used by Covance Laboratory on Madison's northeast side. Covance is a drug development and testing company. A little more than 1,500 monkeys were at UW-Madison. More recent numbers provided by Eric Sandgren, director of UW-Madison's Research Animal Resources Center, show about 1,900 monkeys currently are housed on campus - 1,434 at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and about 500 at the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology.

The animals at the primate research center helped bring in more than $46 million in funding for 2008-09, allowing about 250 doctoral-level scientists to study everything from AIDS to stem cell research.

Although Covance experiments on significantly more monkeys than do researchers at UW-Madison, Marolt has focused his energy on engaging the university in a debate because federal law requires companies like Covance to use animals to test certain products. "It's just too tough to change national guidelines," he says.

Marolt's quest to have UW-Madison take a serious look at the ethical issue of experimenting on non-human primates took on a little added importance earlier this month when it was reported the university plans to expand its national primate center - one of eight such facilities in the U.S. - after finally securing land for $1 million in July from Budget Bicycle Center owner Roger Charly. The lot, which originally had been promised to animal rights activists for $675,000 so they could build a museum to protest experiments on monkeys, was ultimately purchased by University Research Park, a partner of UW-Madison.

UW-Madison has applied for $15 million in federal economic stimulus funds to build a 23,500-square-foot addition to the national center at 1220 Capitol Court. The idea is to move monkeys from the aging Harlow Center into the new space, combining most campus non-human primate research into one facility.

Marolt, who says he is not a member of any animal rights groups and doesn't like "many of the tactics used by these groups," found this recent development to be ironic.

"UW researchers like to talk about their push to reduce the number of animals being used in research," he says. "They talk about practicing the 'Three Rs': Reducing the number of animals used, replacing the animal model with another one, and refining experimental techniques to ensure the well-being of animals. Well if they're so committed to the 'Three Rs,' then why in the hell is UW expanding its animal labs?"

Benevenga, who retired from the departments of animal sciences and nutritional sciences in 2002 after 36 years on the faculty at UW-Madison, spent a good portion of his career working with a sulfur amino acid called methionine, which was known to be toxic in excess. He worked on the metabolism of this component and discovered an alternative pathway to its breakdown. By the early 1980s, he helped show that homocystinuria - a rare, inherited disorder where people are unable to break down the amino acid methionine - could often be cured by using betaine, a methyl source found in sugar beets.

"So by using 10 to 15 years of research on rats as a model system to understand metabolism and then working with some very smart people in a clinical scene with a human inherited disorder, I was in a position to test that betaine would be helpful," says Benevenga. "And it is. It's now part of standard treatment for all three forms of homocystinuria. So this is an example of the application of basic research to address human medical concerns."

Adds Benevenga: "Is what I did to kill a hell of a bunch of rats and make them sick worthwhile? If you ask the parents of those kids we helped, they'll say, 'Hell yes!' And if you knew someone with the disease, you'd say, 'You betcha.' Even if it was a monkey being tested."

Sandgren respects the views of those who think it's wrong to use animals in research. But, he says, the consequences of not using animals must be acknowledged. "Don't pretend you can still make the same discoveries if we don't use them. Both sides need to face the reality of the ethical costs and benefits."

Despite the sometimes contentious rhetoric this topic can bring about, many on campus are surprisingly willing to talk openly about it, even with Marolt.

"I think it's good to have an active, informed discussion about these things and I think Rick Marolt has helped to stimulate that debate," says Rob Streiffer, a UW-Madison associate professor of bioethics and philosophy. "But I think it's also important to note that this conversation was ongoing and that all of the researchers here that I've had contact with take their responsibilities very seriously."

Federal law mandates that institutions that do research on animals have an Animal Care and Use Committee. Since UW-Madison is so large, it has independent committees for each unit that conducts animal research; this includes the School of Veterinary Medicine, Graduate School, Medical School, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and College of Letters and Science. These individual panels -- which each have representatives on the All Campus committee -- approve experiments on animals within the university.

Committee members at UW-Madison are nominated by the deans of their respective colleges, and appointed by the chancellor. By law, membership must include at least one non-scientist, a veterinarian, a scientist and an individual unaffiliated with the university.

These committees are charged with, among other things, approving research requests, suspending researchers with cause, inspecting animal labs at least once every six months, and reviewing and investigating concerns involving the care and use of animals at the university. Concerns may be raised from those within or outside the university.

"So this contention that we just blindly go about our work and don't consider some big issues is false," says Sandgren, who uses mice to study how genetic changes lead to liver and pancreatic cancer. "We specifically ask individual researchers to justify why this research is important. Ultimately, the ethical foundation of research is utilitarian - it's a balancing test. So we very explicitly ask, 'Why is this experiment important?' And if we don't get a convincing answer, we're not going to let the research go ahead. This is an explicit consideration of ethics we perform."

Marolt, however, argues these committees don't dig deep enough when trying to decide whether the pros outweigh the cons. "Where are the numbers, the data, to show more good than harm is being done?" says Marolt.

Sandgren counters that it's "just plain wrong" to claim UW-Madison doesn't take into account ethical considerations before experimenting on animals.

"Look, it's not like every investigator spends every evening thinking for three hours about ethics," says Sandgren. "Some might not think about it at all. But as an institution, it's embedded in our culture, this consideration of ethics. And maybe it's embedded too far, so that people don't see it. But look at our protocol. We're not just going through the motions and this isn't some old-boys' network."

Now that he's been told UW-Madison's All Campus Animal Use and Care Committee won't further pursue his open-ended question on this ethics of monkey experimentation, Marolt isn't sure what he's going to do next.

Though it's been suggested, he doesn't think he'll pursue it beyond Wisconsin.

"It's too hard to make changes at a national level, so that's why it's so important to do so locally," he says. "What would happen if we really encouraged UW-Madison to address this issue seriously? If they refuse to do it, that's going to tell us something important. If they do it, but not in a serious, transparent and multilateral way, that's going to tell us something. And if they do it in a serious, transparent, multilateral way, there's going to be a lot more information about monkey research coming out and a lot more people are going to learn about it and maybe other people will exert pressure on the university."

Conversely, Streiffer, the UW-Madison bioethicist and philosopher, argues that it's not necessarily a good thing for a university to bow to public pressure when it comes to what its professors and researchers study.

"Is animal research ethical?" Streiffer asks. "It depends. We have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. But the thought that we should restrict anybody's research just because the public is upset strikes me as not a good idea. Part of the reason universities exist is to have a place where a wide range of research can be conducted."

Even Marolt admits it's highly unlikely UW-Madison will come to the conclusion that it should stop its research on monkeys. But, he says, imagine if it did.

"There would be people empowered all over," he said. "It would empower people near other primate centers to question what is going on. It would empower legislators to act. And if we can stop experiments on monkeys, guess what's next - cats and dogs. Dogs, animals many people consider part of their family, go through some pretty brutal experiments right here."

For now, however, Marolt's hot potato is sitting on the ground. Where it ends up is anybody's guess.

"No matter how big the benefits of invasive and fatal experiments on humans, done against their will, we don't do it - usually - because it's unethical," says Marolt. "So what makes experiments on monkeys ethical? The benefits alone can't justify the experiments any more than they would experiments on people. We have to work harder and dig deeper on this issue."

See Our Readers' Comments
Return to Animal Rights Articles