monkey breeding

There are so many “frustrations” working in a laboratory that experiments on non-human primates. Besides the obvious of seeing your friends jabbed with needles, put alone in small cages and seeing the overall suffering they experience, there are things you see that can be prevented if only the people in positions of power in labs could take the time to attempt to diminish many unnecessary practices.

At the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, as with many other primate research centers, some infant monkeys are taken from their mothers immediately after they are born. As a lab employee, there is not much you can do to eliminate this practice. While I heartbreakingly witnessed this too many times to want to remember, I did observe a pattern over the few years I was there. Typically at Yerkes, females give birth during a 4 or 5 month season. When the field station (where the “breeding” takes place) receives an order from the Main Center (where the majority of the biomedical research takes place) for baby rhesus macaques, the veterinary staff would snatch these newborn babies from the chests of their mothers. It didn’t matter who the mother was, they simply took him or her. What was happening was that year after year, some of the same mothers had their babies taken from them. Of course I did not want to see any mother’s baby stolen, but I felt it was so unfair for an adult female monkey not to have any children. It was also unfair to have to experience such a tremendous loss year after year.

Family is very important in macaque society. Females in the wild stay with their mother, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers their entire lives. When a mother reaches old age, daughters are there to take care of them. I remember an extremely old female rhesus macaque living on an island off the coast of Puerto Rico (Cayo Santiago, where approximately 900 rhesus macaques live). She was 31 years old — very old for a macaque. She was so old and decrepit that she could bearly keep up with the group as they traveled the island. But her youngest daughter, a mother herself, was always there. She spent a lot of time with her mom, a former alpha female, now at the bottom of the hierarchy. She was often found next to her mother, grooming her while mom slept. If mom got into a bit of trouble, she was the first one there to defend her.

So knowing how important family is for these beings, it saddened me to think of what was happening. If they had to live a life imprisoned in a lab, I wanted them to at least have a family to ease the pain and bring some joy to their lives.

My co-worker and I wanted to change this. We wanted the whole procedure abolished but we tried to do what was in the limits of our job. We spoke with, pleaded, and begged the vet staff to change what was happening. We would be willing to do all the background research necessary to see what females were being affected, and attempt to create a system in which this would not happen. They relented (rightfully) that they only received the orders and could not change this themselves. The people that could do this were the researchers themselves, along with the head veterinarian at the main center. After much dogged persistence from us, they agreed to see what they could do. We did the research and tried ourselves to put the system in place.

Rarely it worked. If the biomedical researchers needed a baby that day, then there is not much the veterinary staff at the field station could do. After hearing a certain female was doomed to have her baby taken that day, we alerted the vet staff to her situation. If we persisted long enough, the vet would agree to speak with her boss, the veterinarian from the main center. I could probably count on my hand the number of times the situation was remedied. For the few mothers that were spared that year, another mother had to suffer. It was sickening to have to deal in this game; to trade one mother’s pain for another’s.

But you see, the non-human primate’s well-being is not the top priority at researcher centers, which is what their public relations personnel would like you to believe. It is the research which takes top priority, for that is what brings in the money. My co-worker and I offered to create a facility wide system to stop what was happening year after year. All it would take would be for these researchers, veterinarians, and other interested parties to sit down together and implement this system where multiple baby snatching was not occurring. But the fact of the matter is, with the current system, researchers were getting infants when they need them. Why change the system?. No one was interested, so our ideas were never implemented. You need the people in positions of power to change the system. As a caregiver or research technician, you rarely have the power to change anything yourself. If you cannot get a powerful person in the lab to WANT to change things, then you sit back and watch them happen over and over, knowing full well they could be prevented.

My co-worker and I no longer work at Yerkes, out of choice. Mothers are still having this happen to them. There are many, many things that are happening at Yerkes that can be prevented with a little time and effort on the part of the people in positions of power. If an employee who cares is not there to constantly revisit the issue (if you could, depending on your position) the status quo immediately falls back into place. This leads to a whole other frustration. After witnessing the effects of biomedical research on non-human primates, we wanted it stopped. As a lab employee, we could not speak outwardly against biomedical research for fear of losing our jobs. While we hated what was happening, we wanted to be there for the chimpanzees and monkeys at Yerkes — now our friends — to at least do what we could to minimize (if possible) their suffering. It is a vicious cycle which often torments lab workers opposed to biomedical research. Staying is painful, leaving is painful. But we also know it is nothing compared to what our friends are going through, which is why we stay as long as we can.

Jessica Ganas

2003