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Why would starving monkeys want to live longer?

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By Alka Chandna, Ph.D.

Imagine the horror of eating, sleeping, relieving yourself and sitting with nothing to do in the same tiny room for decades. You can never go outside and feel the sun on your skin or smell the fragrance of blooming flowers. Your days are drained of color, scent and almost every other form of sensory stimulation. Imagine, too, that you are never fed quite enough and feel constant hunger pangs. Worse, you are deprived of the one thing that might bring you some small comfort—the companionship of another living being.

This is what life is like for the dozens of rhesus monkeys who are the subject of a much-hyped caloric-restriction experiment at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW). Caloric restriction is a fancy way of saying “starvation.” The initial results of this study are now making headlines in papers across the country. But while scientists debate the value of starving monkeys for decades on end to help stave off diabetes, heart disease and other so-called diseases of old age, perhaps they should turn their attention to a more pressing matter instead: Why is there such a deficit of compassion among animal experimenters?

Primates are extremely intelligent animals who form intricate social relationships, experience the same wide range of emotions that we do and exhibit a capacity for suffering similar to that of humans. Rhesus macaque monkeys like the ones used in the UW experiment have been shown to use tools, count and communicate complex information.

Monkeys can also express empathy, and they possess a sense of fairness—something that many experimenters seem to lack. In one particularly hideous experiment, macaques were fed only if they pulled a chain that electrically shocked an unrelated macaque, whose agony was in plain view through a one-way mirror. Eighty-seven percent of the monkeys preferred to go hungry rather than pull the chain. One refused to eat for 14 days.

Yet for the past 20 years—the span of an entire generation—UW researchers have condemned these clever, social animals to solitary confinement, keeping them constantly hungry and forcing them to live in individual cages so small that they can only take a step or two in any given direction. Most likely, they will die in these cages. The cheap plastic toys and scratched mirrors commonly given to monkeys in laboratories as “environmental enrichment” can hardly compensate for the fact that they are deprived of everything that makes their lives worth living—including, most of all, companionship.

And here’s something else that bothers me about the UW experiment: Don’t we already know that making dietary changes—along with adopting healthful habits such as exercising regularly and not smoking—can help prevent many of the ills often associated with aging? For example, research has shown that people who stop eating meat are 50 percent less likely to develop heart disease and have 40 percent of the cancer rate of meat-eaters. A study published earlier this year showed that being obese can shorten your lifespan by as much as a decade.

Even Dr. Richard Weindruch, head of the UW experiment, has admitted that the positive health effects of caloric restriction have already been confirmed in short-term human trials and through population studies of the Okinawan people in Japan. It might not make headlines, but if you’re searching for the Fountain of Youth, perhaps all you need to do is get off the couch and watch what you eat.

In an article about universities’ use of animals in experiments, Dr. Stephen P. Schiffer of Georgetown University Medical Center writes, “It is inhumane to use animals for bad science.” Starving animals and sentencing them to solitary confinement in barren laboratory cages for decades just to prove what we already know surely fits the bill.

Alka Chandna, Ph.D., is a laboratory oversight specialist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;


Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

July 30, 2009 at 1:29 pm

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