On February 16, 2010 UCLA Neuroscientist Dario Ringach participated in a panel discussion on the role of primate experimentation in animal-based research. Ringach stopped doing his invasive research on primates in 2006 after some activists made death threats and targeted his family as part of their campaign to oppose his work. After the recent panel a plan was made to target his children's school "in order to educate fellow students what their classmate's father does for a living."
I address you not because your organization is directly behind these latest abuses, but because your organization is emblematic of the radical approach that some animal rights activists have been inspired to take. I want you to know that I support your goals at the same time that I oppose your tactics. Vivisection, or what in polite society is merely called animal experimentation, is a barbaric practice that has led to some necessary medical breakthroughs but has mostly served to profit multinational pharmaceutical and cosmetic corporations. I agree with the researchers who published in the British Medical Journal in 2004 that:
Clinicians and the public often consider it axiomatic that animal research has contributed to the treatment of human disease, yet little evidence is available to support this view.
I am also sympathetic to your frustration that, despite mounting evidence that little is gained from this research, its use continues and even grows. This is especially troubling where it comes to primate vivisection. When Jane Goodall wrote the forward to the 2006 report "Next of Kin" (pdf here), put out by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection and the European Council to End Animal Experiments, she had no more illusions about its use than I do:
Not only are many experiments on nonhuman primates unethical, many are unnecessary, and their results may be misleading. . . The evidence in the BUAV's report reveals the true level of suffering of many primates used in animal experimentation, and the scientific pitfalls of using primates to study human diseases and drugs.
I want you to know that I also envision a future society that regards experimentation on primates to be as unthinkable as the kinds of experiments that were once routinely conducted on human beings in our recent past. Most people think the Tuskegee syphilis experiments were the worst of it without realizing that routine medical experiments were conducted on African Americans without their consent for centuries. Charles Rosenberg documented just one of many such instances, taking place in Savannah, Georgia in 1832:
Negroes were the defenseless subjects for the experiments of eager southern physicians. One such practitioner, hearing that cholera impaired "nervous sensibility," poured boiling water on the legs of a Negro man already comatose, "which he felt so acutely, that he leaped up instantly and appeared to be in great agony." (p. 60)
Given such regular abuse I readily understand John Brown's principled, if ultimately futile, use of guerilla tactics against those who would perpetuate the slave system. When he took up arms and sought to inspire a slave insurrection he was compelled by a moral authority from his long work in the abolitionist movement. What he stated before the Virginia Court that sentenced him to death in 1858 is something that those opposing injustice would be wise to heed today:
I want you to understand, gentlemen, that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful. That is the idea that has moved me, and that alone.
There are many who would object to the comparison between enslaved human beings and enslaved nonhuman primates. However, like you, and as a primatologist, I view this to be a difference of degree rather than kind. Research on primates in the wild has shown that they have rich emotional capacities including affectionate family bonds; long-term social relationships; the conscious awareness of self as separate from others; altruism; communication through gesture, body posture, facial expression and sound; learning by observation; making and using tools; using medicinal plants to treat illness; understanding and using abstract symbols for communication; and manipulating social situations for their own purposes. They are our next of kin in an evolutionary sense and I believe that rejection of our common kinship today is similar to the rejection that whites felt towards blacks just a few centuries ago.
That being said, I believe that the approach you are using to "liberate" primates in research labs is counter-productive over the long term. The use of direct action is a well-tested tactic and helps to establish a viable middle ground in a seemingly intractable debate. While some public advocacy groups may seem "extremist" to the general public at first (a view frequently perpetuated by the mainstream press), a committed minority showing what extreme really is allows these groups the space for their message to be heard. This has been shown to be as equally effective on the political right as on the political left. However, after awhile, the repeated use of the same tactics begins to erode and distract from the message you meant to convey.
As many scientists have recently pointed out (see, for example, Janet Stemwedel, Donald Kennedy, and Paul Zachary Myers), the terror tactics used against the family of UCLA neuroscientist Dario Ringach have completely undermined the moral authority that your movement hoped to achieve. Using death threats, intentionally frightening his children, and leaving a bomb on his neighbor's porch (mistaking it for his own) is, I would argue, worse than the perceived crime you were opposed to. In these vile abuses you have created more animosity than support, even among many of your would-be supporters. Just as John Brown respected the rights of those he was fighting for as well as those he was fighting against, so the animal rights movement must adopt a moral standard that is as unassailable as it is unwavering.
Peter Singer, author of the international bestseller Animal Liberation, made much the same point in his op-ed in The Guardian newspaper when he wrote:
I cannot support the use of violence in the cause of animal liberation. It sets a dangerous precedent - or, one might say, it follows dangerous precedents.
In the United States, "pro-life" extremists have fire-bombed abortion clinics and murdered doctors who terminate pregnancies. I consider these defenders of the sanctity of human life from conception to be misguided; but no doubt they are just as sincere in their convictions as defenders of animals.
It is difficult to find democratic principles that would allow one group to use intimidation and violence, and deny the same methods to the other.
I would urge you to think about your ultimate goal in this struggle and consider whether your tactics are helping to bring this goal to fruition or whether they are emboldening your adversaries and further entrenching the divide. If you have a moral grounding in what you hope to achieve you should know that the end does not justify the means. Such a strategy may actually undermine the end you seek.
UPDATE: For a continuation and an expansion on this letter please see my post Animal Rights and Human Rights at The Primate Diaries.