Serious monkey business. The animal cruelty in our midst.

by Robyn Kirby | Feb 23, 2024 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

On a quiet tree-lined road in rural Victoria is a large primate breeding and research facility. To all, apart from those who work there, it is largely a mystery. But the animal cruelty is not, Robyn Kirby reports.

The location, halfway down a quiet tree-lined Lawless Road in Churchill in the Latrobe Valley, is not readily made public. The gates are high, perhaps to keep people out or perhaps to keep the monkeys in.

Primate breeding establishments and facilities are rare in Australia. Indeed, there are only two – a baboon breeding facility in outer Sydney and the National Primate Non-human Breeding and Research Facility, managed by Monash University in Victoria.

The facility’s permit allows for housing of up to 850 marmoset and macaque monkeys. Very few people have seen inside. However, recently released (under Freedom of Information) Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) now give a glimpse into the lives and living conditions of the monkeys inside.

The document shows photos of cages and outdoor runs and describes the procedures for restraining monkeys and their daily maintenance. The document was released to Animal-Free Science Advocacy Inc (AFSA).

Primates are genetically the closest living creatures to humans. Their sentience, the ability to experience feelings and emotions, is very similar to ours. Studies demonstrate that they have mathematic, memory, and problem-solving skills and that they experience emotions like us, such as depression, anxiety, and joy.

Whilst the use of animals in research is a debated issue, the use of primates in research is particularly contentious. It presents the very clear ethical dilemma of using animals with high cognitive abilities, a long lifespan, and well-developed social structures.

Call for changes

It is now time to critically look at their current use, the viability of better models, the best way forward to rehabilitate and rehome them, and how to go about this.

It will take courage on the part of leaders in science and policy, but the public is likely already on board. A 2018 opinion poll reveals that 63% of those polled oppose the use of primates in experiments.

In 2022 a petition calling for a ban on primate experimentation with over 100,000 signatures was tabled in the Australian Senate. Indeed, the National Australia Bank’s animal welfare lending policy includes the commitment not to fund any non-human primate testing/research.

It has been argued that primate research is essential to advance human health – a common assumption due to their close genetic relationship to humans. However, major anatomical, genetic, environmental, and immune differences make translation of results unreliable.

Systematic reviews of primate research publications indicate that the perceived benefits to humans are overstated,

and that primate models have provided disappointing contributions toward human medical advancements.

Cleaning a row of primate housing units

Image supplied

Facility conditions

As evidenced in the facility’s SOPs, monkeys can be separated from their family members, and they can be housed alone in a single cage for periods of time. The researchers’ publications reveal that they are subjected to invasive and distressing procedures. In one experiment, a small marmoset, held in a Perspex box, is deliberately scared by a toy rubber snake placed before her. Others endure invasive brain experiments either on them or their offspring. Neonates are taken from their mothers and used to study vision, the brain and hand coordination.

In an image from the SOPs, one macaque can be seen peering out of the cage opening, waiting to be led to a procedure table, wary of what is going to happen. Others are moved while their cages are washed out.

The tight confinement of the cages, the smells and sounds of the facility combined with the constant procedures inflicted upon them take a psychological toll on these animals. The sounds of others gripping their cages, their pacing, and the coming and going of people in protective clothing add to their poor state of psychological and physiological well-being.

In the facility at Churchill, their natural instincts are suppressed. In the wild, monkeys can range widely for kilometres, but in their restricted environment, the laboratory allows them little space. The National Health & Medical Research Council does not specify cage sizes for primates in Australia. According to the SOPs, the flexagon (image supplied) is a 12m2 floor area connected to an outdoor enclosure of a 26m2 floor area.

It is a fact that the cage always remains a cage whether it is set outside or inside the laboratory building.

Life in a laboratory is no place for an animal, let alone these sentient creatures, and many spend their whole life being used for breeding, observing others coming and going, and in many cases, never to return. All will eventually die there. None are rehomed to sanctuaries.

Documents released by Monash University to AFSA revealed that one monkey (a macaque simply known as 21-C) was 23 years old when he died in the facility at Gippsland. He had become gaunt, slow and arthritic. Ear-marked as an “experimental” animal, we have no idea of the procedures he had been exposed to in his long sad life, nor how he survived the decades spent in his caged environment.

Rehabilitate and rehome

Those who advocate for animal-free science say it is time for the replacement of primate experiments with scientifically valid non-animal methods of research, and that the existing facility could and should be reverted to a primate sanctuary where the animals can live out their lives in peace.

With $1.25M of federal funding given to set up the facility originally in 2015 (by the National Health & Medical Research Council) and then the awarding of millions of dollars in grants for research projects since it is time the government gave back to those who have given so much for such little gain. It is time we funded their rehabilitation and refuge to let them live out their lives in sanctuary.

A primate sanctuary would be a place of pride for the people of Gippsland and Australia generally.

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Robyn is a Research Officer for the not-for-profit organisation Animal-Free Science Advocacy Inc., which advocates for scientifically valid animal-free science in research and teaching. Robyn holds a Diploma in Communication from Griffith University and has over 35 years of experience in administration in the fields of law and medicine.

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