Our Primate Testing Expert to WIRED: Ethics Matter

Did you catch “Monkeys With Superpower Eyes Could Help Cure Color Blindness” recently published in Wired? “Preposterously cute” — that’s how writer Adam Rogers describes a small gray monkey named Dolton subjected to experiments.

As a NEAVS supporter, you know there’s nothing cute about this story. And so does Professor John Gluck, author of the groundbreaking 2016 book Voracious Science and Vulnerable Animals, and chair of our all-star team of expert advisors in primate experiments. What follows is a response to the editor of Wired from this former primate scientist who is helping us end primate experiments once and for all.

Dear Chief Editor,

As a former primate researcher at the University of Wisconsin Primate Center and the  University of New Mexico, I’m writing to express my concern regarding your, article “Monkeys With Superpower Eyes Could Help Cure Color Blindness,” written by Adam Rogers.

I do not object to Mr. Rogers describing to your readers the way in which nonhuman primates are used by researchers to hopefully reverse a human visual disability – color blindness. The use of animals as an early or basic step in biomedical research has been a highly favored approach throughout the history of experimental science. However, in our modern world of developing biotech alternatives, it might even be called an overly automatic and stereotypical approach. But that issue deserves a longer analysis at another time.

What I do see as a disservice to your sophisticated readers is the presence of a descriptive narrative that was, intentionally or not, constructed in such a manner that diverted attention away from the ethical costs animals pay for our medical benefit.  

The article describes a new world monkey named Dalton as “kissing” the test screen and then getting a favored drink of grape juice deposited for him in a “doll house kitchen sink” if his color discriminations were correct. Rogers describes the “frustration” Dalton exhibits when he fails to get his sweet drink. How adorable; Dalton is actually captivated by winning the game!

What we are not told is whether Dalton is deprived of water for some extended period of time prior to testing to enhance his motivation to participate. We are also not informed about Dalton’s living arrangements. Does he perhaps live alone instead of socially in order to protect his altered eyes from damage during play bouts? Were analgesics required to control post-surgical pain?  If so, can we be certain that it was effective?

The procedure being evaluated is even referred to as “gene therapy” to further promote a favorable sense of context. A procedure only becomes a therapy when it is shown to benefit the recipient. Wouldn’t it have been more accurate to refer to the experimental procedure as simply a gene transfer as we are provided no information about whether the vision change actually positively benefited Dalton’s monkey life or anyone else for that matter.    

During my own professional life, I began to notice that when I described some of my invasive experiments to students and nonscientists, I started to use a vocabulary that made listening to the animal treatment details easier and less startling to those not yet desensitized. A little of this is surely acceptable. But when the vocabulary is extensively sanitized, the importance of the ethical component of scientific research is lost as if it were totally irrelevant.  

John P. Gluck Ph.D.
Chair, Primate Testing Advisory Committee
New England Anti-Vivisection Society