Approximately 250 University of Wisconsin students, faculty, researchers, Madison citizens and animal rights activists did anything but monkey around when they gathered to debate the rights of non-human primate research subjects Monday.
Department of Ophthalmology Chair Paul Kaufman — who regularly uses monkeys in his research — debated Co-Director of Alliance for Animals Rick Bogle — who said he ate his last animal in 1972 and has been campaigning for animal rights ever since — on the ethics of non-human primate research.
Before the debate began, Chair of the Department of Medical History and Bioethics Susan Lederer gave a presentation on the history of animal use in scientific research.
She said animal research dates back to the 2nd century, when Roman physician and philosopher Galen documented his experiments on many animals. She said one well-known experiment involved severing the spinal cord of an ape to observe the ape’s lack of mobility below the cut.
She said the ethics of non-human primate research are a relatively new discussion. She gave the example of Claude Bernard, a French scientist who experimented on one monkey and then decided he would no longer work on them due to their resemblance to humans in the 1800s.
Kaufman began the debate, saying his work on glaucoma would probably not be possible without the option of non-human primate research, adding a number of drugs currently in human clinical trials were made possible by monkey research. He said these drugs are not trivial things, but rather drugs that save lives.
“I would ask you how many are prepared to die earlier, sustain physical disability or disease earlier in our lives, or watch your child, or your spouse, or your sibling sustain one of those things,” Kaufman said.
He said the key question for him in deciding the ethics of the issue is: “Are monkeys us?” If monkeys are included in our group, doing research on them would be unethical. If they are not, we should be allowed to use them in research.
Bogle agreed the question “Are monkeys us?” is of central importance. He cautioned against making a quick decision on that point, however. He recalled many people over time — including women, African Americans and Jewish people — who are now accepted as part of the group, but were historically considered outcasts.
He said he thinks monkeys display many characteristics of humans, such as the ability to grieve, count, order things by quantity and deal with complex environments, yet their lives are being valued less.
During the question and answer portion of the debate, every public comment made was anti-animal research. However, overall the crowd was calm.
UW sophomore and debate attendant Jimmy Gowin said he thought researchers were taking emotion out of the question, but he feels it should be central to the debate.
“I don’t think it’s right to just discount emotion because it doesn’t fit,” Gowin said. “I think what makes us human is that emotion and our ability to feel.”