‘Nightmarish’ monkey abuse causes outrage

Behind bars: Some activists argue that primates should have the same rights as humans.

Nine US scientific research centres are being investigated over the abuse of monkeys. Activists are calling for them to be shut down. But should we still be experimenting on primates at all?

Amputation. Water deprivation. Death by strangulation. These are the fates of dozens of monkeys held in American research centres.

The news that the US government is investigating nine centres over the illegal mistreatment of monkeys has caused a stir. The grim reports of neglect and abuse have jump-started the debate over animal testing. ‘This is the stuff of nightmares,’ said one animal welfare activist.

Primates are strikingly similar to humans: chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest relatives, share 98.8% of our genes. This makes them useful to scientists investigating human behaviour and diseases. Testing on primates has enabled progress on a number of conditions, from Parkinson’s to anxiety.

But their similarity breeds controversy too. Evidence suggests that they are capable of acute suffering, both mental and physical. Confinement in a lab stresses them out. At best, clinical tests infringe their right to be free and not exploited. At worst, it results in the ‘nightmares’ described above.

The concept of rights is becoming increasingly central to the debate, as activists move from ethical to legal arguments against primate research. In 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project made headlines by asserting in court that chimpanzees, as ‘autonomous and self-determining beings’, deserved certain human rights.

Chimps are a bit like slaves, the pressure group said. The latter were once seen as sub-human, mere property; eventually, their rights were recognised in the eyes of the law. Though she ruled against the group, the judge conceded that the campaign to give chimps legal rights ‘may some day succeed’.

Opposition to primate research is gaining ground. Human-based alternatives are becoming more popular. A growing number of countries have banned the use of great apes – the family of primates that includes humans – in studies.

Yet the practice remains widespread in most countries, not least the USA. Is it time we abolished it altogether?

Monkey business

Yes, say some. Testing on primates is never justified. They feel empathy, sadness and fear; ‘they have mental lives comparable to ours,’ as David Attenborough puts it. Causing them pain and distress for our benefit is hypocritical, not to mention avoidable. Slavery was founded on racism. Primate research is based on speciesism.

The mistreatment in those nine centres is not on, agree others. We need to cut that out. Otherwise, research monkeys do not suffer that much – to some extent, activists are projecting their own emotions onto the animals. Human-based alternatives have potential, but for now they are not enough. If we want to keep fighting diseases, we have to keep testing on primates.

You Decide

  1. Would you like a pet monkey? Why (not)?
  2. Are all lives, human or otherwise, worth the same?


  1. Imagine you could speak to a chimpanzee for a day. Come up with five questions that you would ask.
  2. As a class, come up with ten features that distinguish humans from other species.

Some People Say...

“Animals don’t hate.”

Elvis Presley

What do you think?

Q & A

What has primate research actually done for us?
It has helped millions cope with health issues. Tests on monkeys were behind polio vaccines, life-support machines for premature babies, drugs to combat asthma, treatments for stroke victims and Parkinson’s sufferers and more. Currently, they are central to the fight against dementia, which recent analysis suggests will affect one in three people born in 2015.
What are the alternatives?
Depends. For neurological conditions we have sophisticated imaging technologies, but these still can’t capture details that tests on primates can. Studies on lab-grown cells can shed light on organ transplants; but again, their scope is limited. These alternatives have come about in large part thanks to campaigns against animal testing, and they are constantly improving.

Word Watch

Scientists label DNA molecules with letters indicating their nature. The letters for chimps, bonobos and humans are identical roughly 98.8% of the time. The 1.2% that differ make a huge difference – hence why you would never mistake a chimp for a human.
Experts have observed primates hugging, kissing, consoling each other after a fight and grieving over dead friends. It makes evolutionary sense, they say, that human emotions have counterparts in our relatives.
In court
The group went to court on behalf of two chimpanzees kept by New York’s Stony Brook University. It hoped to obtain a court order to relocate the animals to a sanctuary. The judge ruled that the legal mechanism it used – ‘habeas corpus’ – can only apply to humans.
In law, you are either a ‘person’ or a ‘thing’. Persons, i.e. humans, have legal rights and responsibilities, and can be represented in court. Things – objects and animals – do not. They are only legally important in that they can belong to persons.
Including the UK, the Netherlands and Germany.


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