Deep in a canyon in Balboa Park, amid the eucalyptus trees and the cacophony of the San Diego Zoo, sit five monkeys that for six years have been at the center of the country’s most controversial case of animal experimentation and animal rights.
A woman watches them quietly, taking notes. She clicks a stopwatch on and off. Moving from cage to cage, she watches the monkeys squat, grimace, whoop, pick at a sweet potato. A workman passes; she watches the monkeys react.
Some day, the woman will slide back the opaque panels blocking the windows between the five adjoining cages. And in a rare study of the potential for “re-socialization” of research monkeys, the so-called Silver Spring monkeys will meet for the first time.
The project, begun last month by two behaviorists at the zoo, is an unusual epigraph to an extraordinary case--a case that galvanized the animal rights movement nationwide and shaped the public debate on the use of animals in research.
The case represented the first time a warrant for search and seizure was served on a research laboratory accused of cruelty to animals, and the first time federal officials withdrew a researcher’s funding because of failure to comply with animal-welfare rules.
The criminal case against the Maryland-based researcher, ultimately unsuccessful, spanned three courts and nearly a year. And a civil case filed by animal rights groups seeking custody of the 17 original experimental monkeys went as high as the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sixty-nine scientific organizations joined the civil case on the side of the embattled laboratory. And about 300 members of Congress appealed last year to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to remove the monkeys once and for all from a research facility.
Currently, nine of the monkeys are being housed in Louisiana at a primate research facility affiliated with Tulane University. Five are in San Diego and three others have died over the years since 1981.
Implications of Case
But there remains sharp disagreement over the implications of the case.
“The case frightened people in the experimentation community,” said Ingrid Newkirk, national director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “It’s a symbol to them of impending change and perhaps the end of a century of absolutely unfettered animal use.”
Stacey Beckhardt of the American Psychological Assn. said, “I think what this case has done is to, in many respects, politicize the animal research issues that primarily . . . can be dealt with better in the scientific and animal welfare arenas.”
In some ways, the arrangement with the San Diego Zoo is a political compromise: It has made it possible to remove the five from a research laboratory while at the same time using them to gain information of scientific value.
“It certainly would never have been done had there been no animal rights movement,” suggested Dr. Mortimer Mishkin, chief of the laboratory of neuropsychology at the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington and president of the Society for Neuroscience.
“They should have been used instead for completing the original experiment that was planned,” Mishkin said in a telephone interview last week. "(This) is the second-best thing that can be gained from studying them.”
The San Diego project presents some peculiar challenges.
In the wild, the monkeys would have lived in troops of 30 to 50 and ranged over perhaps two or three square miles. Instead, they have lived alone in individual cages for at least seven years and are assumed to have lost many of their social skills.
Researchers also say the particular species, the crab-eating macaque, is naturally aggressive and fearful of strangers. Both attributes make the task of introducing the monkeys to each other especially sensitive.
Finally, the group consists of five males, which behaviorists hope to bind into a single group. The zoo has no female crab-eating macaques and furthermore, the behaviorists suspect the introduction of a female might encourage aggressive behavior.
But no such all-male group would ever occur in the wild, the zoo’s behaviorists say. Instead, the adult sex ratio in a crab-eating macaque group is usually one male to three or four females.
So the researchers intend to follow a cautious and carefully planned course.
First, they intend simply to watch the animals to evaluate their individual temperaments and abilities. That way, they hope to discern which monkeys are dominant or submissive, and the position they might take in a group hierarchy.
Later, they plan to introduce the monkeys to each other in stages, first by removing the opaque panels blocking the windows between the cages. The monkeys will be able to observe and even touch or groom each other through the steel mesh walls.
Finally, they hope to put the all the monkeys together, enabling them to interact and establish a hierarchy. If they form attachments and prove capable of getting along, they will live together and eventually be moved as a group to another zoo.
“You know, it’s a lot like trying to get people to share common space,” said Donald Lindburg, the zoo’s research behaviorist and a well-known expert on macaques. “Out of a situation like this, you might get two or three who get along, and one who just won’t.”
The experiment is not intended, however, to have applications to humans.
Findings Might Help Zoos
Instead, it may provide useful information about managing macaques in captivity and about the role of zoos in managing endangered species, Lindburg said. It will explore the possibility of managing male aggression and overcoming it for group living.
The findings may also be useful to zoos at a time when many are seeking to maximize breeding and develop “self-sustaining” populations. It may point to possibilities for resocializing and breeding primates that have lived alone in zoos for years.
The five monkeys belonged originally to a group of 17 owned by a private medical research center in Silver Spring, Md. A federally funded neuroscience researcher, Edward Taub, was using them in experiments related to spinal cord injury and stroke.
Some of the 17 underwent a surgical procedure called deafferentation, in which selected sensory nerves in the neck region were cut, eliminating feeling from the corresponding forelimb and shoulder but leaving intact nerves and muscles for movement.
Taub’s aim was to create a condition similar to that of human victims of spinal cord injury or stroke. He is said to have shown that movement could be revived in the arm--a finding said to have encouraged rehabilitation efforts with humans.
The experiments involved strapping down the monkey’s good limb in order to force the animal to use the limb that was without feeling. Taub was quoted at the time as acknowledging that the monkeys sometimes could not avoid harming themselves because of the absence of sensation.
In September, 1981, Montgomery County police raided the center and seized the 17 monkeys, after receiving information from a 23-year-old political science student and animal rights activist, Alex Pacheco, who had served as a volunteer at the lab for four months.
Pacheco had kept a log and taken hundreds of photographs, some of which were used in the prosecution of the case. The photographs, which Taub contends were set up, showed animals strapped in restraining frames, unsanitary conditions and conditions in which monkeys had mutilated themselves.
“It was really the landmark case,” said Newkirk, of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). That group, which which Pacheco chairs, has grown since 1981 into the largest animal rights group in the United States.
“It launched the active animal rights movement in the United States,” Newkirk said. “Before that, there had been very, very small groups, mostly individuals who didn’t know where other people who shared their convictions were. There was no movement as such.”
Taub was initially found guilty by a judge on six counts of animal cruelty. On appeal, a jury found him guilty on one count. Then an appeals court overturned the conviction, ruling that Maryland law did not apply to animals used in federally funded research.
In the meantime, NIH, which had funded Taub’s research, terminated its support after a finding of inadequate veterinary care. When Taub appealed, federal administrative boards upheld the termination without endorsing the contention that the monkeys had been harmed.
PETA also sued Taub’s lab and the NIH to gain custody of the monkeys, which had been moved first to an activist’s basement, then back to the lab, then to NIH. The suit aimed to ensure the macaques would never again be used in experimentation.
But two federal courts ruled in succession that the group had no standing in the case to gain custody of the monkeys. And earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the matter, effectively ending the litigation.
Taub, who says he spent five years defending himself against civil, criminal and administrative charges, finally returned to work last year on the faculty of a university in another part of the country, where, he said last week, he now works “with human beings.”
Taub contended that he was “exonerated” in every forum that considered his case. And in 1983, he said, he won a Guggenheim fellowship, based in part on his work in Silver Spring, which he said has contributed to improvements in health care for many people.
He called the resocialization of the monkeys “a political game.”
“If no research is to be done with them, it’s fine for them to go to the San Diego Zoo,” Taub said in a telephone interview. ". . . As to whether the reason they are going there is political, that is clear on the face of it.”
Battle Over the Monkeys
The route to San Diego proved a tortuous one.
Animal activists camped outside the NIH facility in Bethesda, Md., in 1986, demanding that the monkeys be moved to a private primate refuge in Texas. Several hundred members of Congress signed a request to NIH that it go along with the Texas plan.
In June, 1986, the monkeys were transferred to the Delta Regional Primate Research Center in Covington, La., a facility run by Tulane University. Over the following year, experts studied their condition and made recommendations on their future treatment.
One group of monkeys consisted of eight males who had undergone surgery. The experts concluded in a report that the simianspresented “formidable problems in veterinary care and are questionable candidates for any type of resocialization attempt.”
Without sensation, the monkeys are prone to injure themselves accidentally, the specialists said. They would also be more likely to suffer serious injuries in aggressive encounters with other monkeys, they said.
In addition, their severed nerves had left them with unusually brittle bones and progressive bone deterioration. Vertebrae in the neck and farther down the spinal column had also fused, reducing flexibility and creating a risk of neck-breaking in physical activity.
The specialists recommended that the group remain housed individually, receiving individual care until death by natural causes or until the facility’s veterinary staff recommends they be euthanized to put an end to pain or distress.
The second group consisted of the five males and one female that served as a control group in Taub’s experiment. They had never been operated on but were to have been killed at the end in order to study their nerves and tissue for comparison purposes.
The specialists concluded that those monkeys had no physical or behavioral problems that would preclude re-socialization. On the contrary, their psychological well-being would be enhanced if they were to become part of a group, the report stated.
So in September, the five males in the control group were flown to San Diego under an agreement encouraged by U.S. Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove). The zoo was chosen for its knowledge of primates and veterinary medicine and its interest in re-socialization.
(The sixth control group monkey, a female rhesus macaque, remained behind in Louisiana. Peter Gerone, director of the center, said last week that the center is attempting, unsuccessfully so far, to house her with a male.)
The San Diego group was placed in the charge of Lindburg, formerly a professor of anthropology at UCLA with a lifelong specialty in macaques, and Susan Clarke, who has a Ph.D. in animal psychology and experience with primates.
So far, they have found the macaques relatively normal.
They appear not to have been deprived in their early development because they were captured after several years in the wild, Lindburg said. They do none of the self-clasping, rocking and head-banging typical of animals deprived of companionship from birth.
They also make typical noises, like food calls, and facial expressions like grimacing, lip smacking and staring. Nevertheless, he said it may be a year or perhaps two before the re-socialization effort is complete.
“We want to do more than get them just living together peacefully,” Lindburg said. “We want them to develop attachments.”
Scientists as well as animal rights activists expressed overall approval, and yet a few mixed feelings, last week about the decision by NIH to send the five monkeys to San Diego.
“I’m pleased,” said Newkirk of PETA, who said her group has kept a low profile since the monkeys were moved. “I have great hope for them. . . . We were very pleased when the transfer was announced.”
But she said her organization is still negotiating with NIH over the disposition of the other nine monkeys still alive at the Delta center. She said she still believes they could be rehabilitated and would like to see them moved out of a lab environment.
Mishkin, the neuroscientist, said it would have been best if the monkeys had been used to complete the original experiment as designed. He said there are few cases in which animals as expensive to purchase and care for as primates are not used for their entire life.
Nevertheless, he said the work in San Diego could have important scientific applications in efforts to understand social interaction and the effects of isolation.
“This is simply an important behavioral and theoretical issue and therefore could indeed develop useful information,” he said. " . . . That’s why the scientific community is not completely unhappy with this outcome.”
Mishkin went on to state that the animal rights movement--and the Silver Spring case, because of its critical role in the movement--has deterred young people from entering science and has increased the cost of lab security, and therefore the cost of research.
But a primate veterinarian said the case has had a positive impact.
Dr. Janice Ott Joslin of Seattle, who on two occasions has been asked to examine the Silver Spring monkeys, said NIH has since improved efforts to evaluate animal research and has “become more sensitized to the needs of research animals.”