Since the late 1980s, experimenters at the National Institute on Aging and the University of WisconsinMadison have isolated monkeys in tiny barren cages and kept them chronically underfed — giving them a whopping 30 per cent fewer calories than they needed — to see if this would make the animals live longer. Now, more than two decades later, the NIA experimenters report that 20-plus years of unrelieved deprivation had no effect on the monkeys’ life spans.
This hideous experiment may not have extended the animals’ lives, but it certainly made their pitifully caged lives more miserable.
While it is always unethical to confine and kill animals for experimentation, condemning smart, social animals to a lifetime of hunger and isolation, just to prove a point, is especially egregious. It’s time for these so-called "caloric-restriction" — read, "starvation" — experiments to end and for the government to stop paying for this cruelty.
Primates are extremely intelligent animals that form intricate relationships, experience the same wide range of emotions as we do and exhibit a capacity for suffering similar to that of humans. And like us, rhesus macaque monkeys — the species used in the starvation experiments — are highly social animals who need companionship in order to thrive.
In their natural homes, these gregarious animals live in multi-generational troops with up to 200 other monkeys. They spend their days traveling miles through lush forest terrain and grooming one another. In the caloric-restriction experiments, they are confined alone in metal cages so small that they can take only a step or two in any given direction. Most likely, they will die in these cages. The cheap plastic toys and scratched mirrors commonly given to monkeys in laboratories as "environmental enrichment" are poor substitutes for the companionship of another living being.
Rhesus monkeys also have impressive intellectual abilities. They can count, use tools, communicate complex information and express empathy, and they possess a sense of fairness — something that many experimenters seem to lack.
In one particularly horrible experiment, described in Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, macaques were fed only if they pulled a chain that electrically shocked another monkey, whose agony was in plain view through a one-way mirror. The majority of the monkeys preferred to go hungry rather than pulling the chain. One refused to eat for 14 days.
Sadly, these astonishing traits have not saved monkeys from being abused in laboratories.
When the University of Wisconsin Madison’s experiments were first made public in 2009, PETA filed complaints with both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the university’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Our concerns were dismissed, and the monkeys remain in their barren cages, waiting to die.
Even if the results of the starvation experiments had turned out differently, if the researchers had discovered that chronic deprivation prolongs life, so what? What difference would it make? When most of us eat too much rather than too little, is it realistic to expect that people will voluntarily go hungry — not for weeks or months but for years and decades — even if it means adding a few years to their lives?
Previous studies have shown us that being obese can shorten a person’s life span by as much as a decade and that the cholesterol, saturated fat and toxins in meat and fish increase the risk of early death. According to the American Cancer Society, one-third of all cancer deaths in the United States can be attributed to nutritional factors. And still we gorge ourselves on meat, dairy products, sugar, soda and heavily processed foods and wonder why we get sick.
We already know how to improve our health and prevent many of the ills often associated with aging. Locking up animals for decades in cruel and pointless experiments is not the answer.
Alka Chandna is a laboratory oversight specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. www.PETA.org.