It’s a joke I’ve heard many times from neuroscientists who use monkeys in their research: “There are all these regulations about the treatment of primates, but there are no regulations governing the treatment of post-docs”. (Of course, we don’t record from neurons in the post-doc brain, or at least I hope we don’t.) But the joke captures something important about the use of primates for biomedical research in most developed nations, which is that they get treated, in most cases, rather well. Obviously, they’re still research subjects, which sucks. But they’re generally kept in enriched enclosures, with toys and companions. Treating research primates as well as possible is, at least for me, an essential part of the ethical bargain: if we’re going to experiment on our biological cousins, the least we can do is minimize their pain and suffering. (These enriched enclosures also have practical benefits, since keeping primates in solitary confinement is extremely stressful and warps the brain. In other words, humane treatment of the animals is a necessary precondition of getting an accurate view of the primate brain.)
Needless to say, none of these regulations apply in developing nations. The LA Times recently ran a devastatingly sad article about primates in Georgia, the former Soviet republic:
They languish in the yard of a war-crushed research center, rattling against the rusting metal of their cages and staring down at the distant blue smudge of the Black Sea.
The inbred clans of traumatized monkeys have managed to survive long years of war, hunger and science, tucked away in the oblivion and isolation of a breakaway republic most people couldn’t find on a map.
History has rolled right past Abkhazia. This strip of lush coast has lingered in a sort of non-time for 15 years, ever since a war for independence from Georgia ended in international stalemate. Since then, Abkhazia has been ruled by a government deemed illegitimate by the rest of the world, stultified by sanctions, jobless and sleepy.
The monkeys of the 91-year-old Research Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy have been here all the while.
Photo by Sergei Loiko, for the LA Times