Rhesus pieces

The UC Davis research center monkey deaths makes one wonder: Is “ethical primate research” an oxymoron?

Harvard Medical School announced last week that come 2015, it will shutter its primary monkey-research laboratory, citing funding cuts as the reason for the primate center’s closing. But animal-rights groups the world over are clamoring for the credit, claiming Harvard’s bad press over four questionable monkey deaths in a two-year span as the real reason the program went under.

Now, activists have their sights on the seven remaining monkey houses backed by the National Institutes of Health, which includes the California National Primate Research Center at UC Davis.

And honestly, we shouldn’t be surprised.

In March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited the primate center for insufficiencies in veterinary care in relation to the deaths of 19 rhesus macaque monkeys, which also occurred over a two-year span.

These events have given new life to a long-dormant debate: How do we define our code of ethics in animal testing? Should we be conducting animal experiments at all?

When I was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I lived two blocks from the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. I’d heard rumors of questionable things taking place in the primate building, and just that year, the lab came under scrutiny over a monkey’s death that took place mid-experiment.

This is the sort of thing that should make all of us think long and hard about how we treat these distant cousins of ours in the lab.

But let’s not lose sight of the purpose of these places. Harvard’s primate house, now closing, is renowned for its work in combating AIDS. UC Davis’ lab works to fight Parkinson’s disease, among other human ailments. Same goes for Wisconsin’s.

We must maintain strict oversight and ethical standards for primate facilities, but let’s remember that they exist to save human lives. In fact, some may help us understand just how close we are to our fellow primates.

Primatologist Frans de Waal, head of Georgia’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University and author of The Bonobo and the Atheist, continues to wow us with findings on things such as the prevalence of morality in ape societies. These studies serve as reminders that we aren’t so different from our fellow opposable-thumbed beings.