Commentary: Taxpayer boondoggle: Feds spend millions to scare monkeys with snakes

Tribune Content Agency

During the coronavirus crisis, as health care workers grapple with shortages in basic medical supplies — nasal swabs, respirators, face masks, personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses, testing kits and hospital beds — the federal government has been wasting money on cruel and meaningless experiments on monkeys.

The National Institutes of Health has spent $36 million in taxpayer money over the past 13 years to put brain-damaged monkeys in boxes and scare them with rubber snakes and spiders. They actually call this “science.”

NIH Director Francis Collins can and should halt this immediately.

To any rational person, these experiments sound more like science fiction than science. But PETA has the proof that they are really going on: 43 hours of exclusive video footage. It’s difficult to watch.

This monkey fright test has been a fixture in a taxpayer-supported NIH laboratory, currently classified under the title “Neural Substrates of Reward Processing and Emotion.”

The project is the “brainchild” of experimenter Elisabeth A. Murray, who says she’s seeking to shed light on human neuropsychiatric disorders. She’s been doing these experiments for three decades.

Here’s where your tax dollars went:

Murray or a member of her staff carves out a section of a monkey’s skull, injects toxins into the brain and suctions out portions of it or burns it, causing permanent damage. The monkeys are then put alone in a small metal cage held inside a larger box painted black. A guillotine-like door at the front is suddenly raised, revealing a realistic-looking fake snake or spider. Some of the spiders can even jump. Monkeys innately fear snakes, and some also fear spiders. Sometimes the monkeys respond defensively — freezing and looking or turning away — while others shake their cages, and some show signs of submission by grimacing or smacking their lips.

The monkeys endure this same torment repeatedly. When the experimenters have finished with them, they may be killed or further tormented in additional experiments.

NIH keeps pouring taxpayer money into these experiments even though they have not led to the development of a treatment or cure for humans in 30 years. Nor will they, for one simple reason: Monkey experiments cannot provide meaningful data for humans. The myriad behavioral and physiological abnormalities induced by the stress of life in a laboratory cage render all data from these experiments unreliable.

This unproductive dabbling in science tells us only about the effects of very precise lesions on unhealthy, stressed, asocial and emotionally and cognitively stunted primates — information that can’t possibly be of value. Certainly not valuable enough to warrant this cruelty or expense.

To make matters worse for the monkeys used in these experiments, they are forced to live alone or in pairs in an impoverished environment lacking in normal social, cognitive and emotional stimulation, which has a negative effect on their social, emotional and cognitive functioning — precisely the types of functioning that the experimenters purport to be studying.

Moreover, people with most neuropsychiatric ailments — those whom the experimenters are ostensibly trying to help — don’t even suffer from the type of brain damage inflicted on the monkeys in this laboratory.

These experiments are a boondoggle wrapped up in cruelty and incompetence. For the benefit of taxpayers, science and all animals, they should be excised with the speed and precision of a surgical knife.

For decades, other researchers have safely studied the roles of specific brain regions in emotional regulation and behavioral flexibility in humans, and that produces reliable, relevant results. As the fragility of our health care system has now become all too apparent, we should not be wasting limited research dollars on barbaric experiments that have not yielded any tangible results capable of improving the quality of human life. Research money needs to be redirected into human-relevant models and cutting-edge methods that hold promise for humans, not funneled into poorly designed and obscenely cruel experiments that squander precious NIH funding — especially now.



PETA neuroscientist Katherine Roe has a B.S. in biology and a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. She has conducted neuropsychiatric research at the University of California San Diego, Johns Hopkins University and the National Institute of Mental Health. She can be reached at PETA, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;


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