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Fat Monkeys and Fat Lies: Animal Abuse in Studies of Obesity

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As I've pointed out in many essays (see also) our relationships with other animals are confused, challenging, frustrating, and range all over the place. Recently we've learned that rhesus monkeys, called "Furry couch potatoes," are being used to study human obesity and diabetes. In response to inquiries about this study conducted at the Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC), Diana Gordon, their Education Outreach Coordinator, sends out a dismissive boilerplate form letter rich in self-serving platitudes concerning their research specifically, and the use of animals in biomedical research generally. She notes that obesity is a huge problem - about 1/3rd of American adults are obese and that obesity is a risk factor for other serious diseases. Of course, many cases of obesity can easily be avoided by not eating all the horrible unhealthy foods that are advertised widely in mass media and by getting off the couch and taking some exercise. Ms. Gordon's letter also notes that the facilities at the ONPRC are better "than any zoo would have," as if this is a relevant standard of comparison. Neither research facilities nor zoos can come close to providing what these sentient beings need to have meaningful lives and to thrive and surely they are stressed.

Concerning the obesity studies, about 50 of the approximately 4300 monkeys who are imprisoned at the ONPRC are being used in this study. The monkeys are fattened up by giving them lots of rich, fattening food, and kept in small cages so they can't have any exercise, as if this sort of regime is going to tell us much about human obesity. Monkeys don't normally eat like this and are very active so the way in which they're treated is thoroughly abnormal and severely compromises their well being. It's highly likely that they're stressed and researchers are concerned about how stress compromises the reliability of the data they collect (see also). So, even if one doesn't care about how these monkeys are treated, indeed a frightening thought, we should all be concerned about whether the data are relevant to the questions at hand. Some of the monkeys will also undergo gastric surgery and be euthanized, a sanitized way of saying they're killed so that their pancreas and brain can be examined.

Ignoring the horrific ways in which these monkeys are treated, Ms. Gordon boldly claims, "This research could change how we look at and treat such childhood diseases." This is a self-serving assertion because this study, like numerous others that have been done on other non-human primates and other non-human animals, will likely shed little or no useful information on human disease. She also claims the researchers who are conducting this research are doing it for the "satisfaction of knowing that [they] are helping millions of people and animals who are suffering from disease." Once again this is misleadingly self-serving because there is little or no likelihood that any non-human animal will benefit from this research. Animals themselves rarely benefit from any research that is done in laboratories that focus on human diseases.

The ONPRC like other research facilities is not a place that a monkey would choose to inhabit. The ONPRC has previously been cited for the mistreatment of animals (see also). In my book The Emotional Lives of Animals I reported on a serious case of abuse at the ONPRC. Rhesus monkey number 14609 (numbered as if he were an object rather than a sentient, feeling being) was subjected to electro-ejaculation 241 times from 1991-2000. In this procedure, an awake male monkey is strapped into a restraining chair, two metal bands are wrapped around the base of his penis, and an electric charge is applied to cause ejaculation. Monkey 14609 was nicknamed "Jaws" by the researchers because one of the researchers taught him to bite the bars of his cage. As a result of the investigation of the egregious way in which Jaws was treated, one veterinarian resigned and some scientists made critical comments about conditions in the laboratory.

Concerning the treatment of animals at the ONPRC Ms. Gordon notes, "All research studies that are conducted at ONPRC must pass through an extensive review process by a number of oversight bodies before they are funded. Only the most important research questions and the most meticulously crafted research designs are undertaken. The care of all animals at the Center is regulated by a number of laws (including the Animal Welfare Act), and overseen by the USDA, which visits the Center at least twice a year (unannounced) to ensure that rules and regulations are being followed."

But we really can't have much faith in the review process at the ONPRC or elsewhere because numerous violations have been detected at major research facilities (see also) and these are only the violations that have been reported. The Federal Animal Welfare Act is not especially effective at protecting the vast number of animals who are used in research, including nonhuman primates. It's perfectly okay not only to fatten up monkeys and produce diseases that result in suffering and death, but also to starve, blind, and socially deprive them and millions of other animals, among other forms of use and abuse.

You can decide for yourself on the ethics of this sort of research. Should we induce obesity or subject animals to diseases from which they don't normally suffer in order to learn about human disease? At least one researcher doesn't think so. Barbara Hansen of the University of South Florida "prefers animals that become naturally obese with age, just as many humans do. Fat Albert, one of her monkeys who she said was at one time the world's heaviest rhesus, at 70 pounds, ate 'nothing but an American Heart Association-recommended diet.'"

A good deal of obesity can be easily prevented so these monkeys are being used to study a condition that many people can we can avoid simply by choosing healthier lifestyles. The monkeys shouldn't have to pay for our indiscretions and poor choices.

Please let the ONPRC that you don't support the use of these monkeys in this study by signing this petition.

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