Human Enough to Hurt

U.S. testing laboratories are running out of monkeys

A baby macaque-type monkey gazes directly at the camera while being held by an adult monkey.
A baby macaque-type monkey gazes directly at the camera while being held by an adult monkey.
Photo: Jacob Buchhave via Unsplash

In The Atlantic, Sarah Zhang reports that the country is “facing a monkey shortage.” The piece explains that labs racing to develop Covid-19 vaccines and treatments are “competing for a limited pool of monkeys,” due to the increased demand and the shutdown of exports from China. Before the pandemic, U.S. laboratories were already increasing their use of primates compared to other animals — in 2017, the country used 74,498 nonhuman primates for research, a record number — and now they want more.

Monkeys are integral to the vaccine process as we know it because they are typically used in the final stage of testing for human safety. That’s because nonhuman primates and human primates are so closely related that our immune systems and antibody reactions are likely to be nearly identical. It stands to reason, and is clearly apparent to anyone who has observed these animals, that our primate cousins are also equally capable of both suffering and yearning, and that they would prefer to be free to do what comes naturally in a place that feels natural.

Instead, we have consigned each of these beings to an artificial life devoid of joy or pleasure. At best, they will be caged indoors, constantly tested and prodded, and eventually killed — in some cases, for decades. Those are the lucky ones, while others will suffer from more intense pain and disease. Not only do we expect animals-who-are-not-humans to suffer and die by the thousands (primates) or millions (rodents) for our own health and safety (or for lipstick or for an ingredient that makes fake meat bleed like real meat), we don’t even treat them well in exchange. Even at prestigious universities, animal in laboratories suffer not only from being constantly infected and observed under fluorescent lights, but also from a lack of basic welfare.


In December of last year, David Grimm asked for Science: “Should aging lab monkeys be retired to sanctuaries?” The story tells of a 23-year-old arthritic macaque named Bush, whose entire life was spent in an indoor cage being repeatedly tested, before he was released to Peaceable Primates sanctuary for the last bit of his life.

‘We’re not just concerned about the welfare of animals. We’re concerned about the welfare of society.’—Amanda Dettmer, Yale primate researcher

The Princeton researchers, who tested on Bush for most of his life and then partnered with a primate sanctuary for his “retirement,” come across as major softies in comparison to other scientists interviewed for the story. Those who object to Bush’s retirement say that these monkeys should really be used for human ends, such as suffering diseases that often afflict the elderly, up until their last moments of life. Others worry about the sheer logistics of finding homes for the thousands of monkeys sitting in cages in U.S. labs.

Grimm reports that critics also fear that the very idea of retirement will plant a seed that will lead to monkeys being phased out of research, like chimpanzees have been. Amanda Dettmer, a Yale primate researcher, is quoted as saying “We’re not just concerned about the welfare of animals. We’re concerned about the welfare of society.”

I checked in on how Bush is doing at Peaceable Primates — he likes celery, flirting with his next-door neighbor, and seems to be soaking up the sun.

I wrote back in March that I believe animal testing is ethically indefensible, even if it saves human lives. It seems to be radical to believe that humans don’t simply deserve to survive and thrive forever at the expense of countless others suffering, and it’s unsurprising that scientists who specifically see their role as improving “the welfare of society” would disagree.

There’s refreshing moral clarity in simply treating animals as what they are: feeling beings.

It does sometimes feel cruel to question the cost of any research that would limit or end the immense human suffering that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused. There’s little that I want more than a vaccine that allows life to return to joyful, and which spares as many of us as possible from further grief.

It is very normal and very comfortable to adhere to an ethical framework that only prioritizes human society and human suffering. But is it right?

There’s refreshing moral clarity in simply treating animals as what they are: feeling beings. They are not objects. They are not capital. They can’t and don’t consent to suffer and die in captivity because we want them to, and they don’t deserve to be hurt just because humans don’t want to be.

Written by

Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Tenderly. Former BuzzFeed exec. Moomin. Texan. Vegan for the animals. 💕

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Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Tenderly. Former BuzzFeed exec. Moomin. Texan. Vegan for the animals. 💕

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