More than 380 researchers signed a Feb. 8 letter asking the National Institutes of Health to stop funding nonhuman primate experiments at Harvard Medical School.
The letter opposes research with macaque monkeys conducted by HMS professor Margaret S. Livingstone. The authors — members of Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Policy Clinic and the University of St Andrews’ Wild Minds Lab — encouraged the NIH to revoke funding for nonhuman primate research that lacked “ecological validity” and involved “cruel and unnecessary treatment of laboratory animals.”
In an article published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept. 19, 2022, Livingstone reported that postpartum female monkeys form strong and persistent attachments to inanimate surrogate infants through touch.
Livingstone first observed this phenomenon when one of the monkeys in her lab, named Monkey Ve, delivered a stillborn infant. When the infant was removed, the mother became distressed. Livingstone placed a stuffed animal in her enclosure, and upon picking the toy up, the monkey became calm. The monkey continued to hold the stuffed animal for a week.
In addition, Livingstone observed the phenomenon in three of five other mothers whose infant monkeys she removed the day they were born.
Referring to Livingstone’s experiments with maternal attachment in postpartum macaque monkeys, the February letter said her work “has not and, we suggest, cannot add any meaningful contribution to our knowledge of either non-human or human primate behavior.”
“Science already has a deep understanding of the mother-infant primate bond from decades of work,” the letter stated. “We see the same patterns of behavioral and physiological impact in observations of wild primates.”
The letter comes after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals circulated a petition on Oct. 12, 2022, asking University President Lawrence S. Bacow and HMS to close Livingstone’s lab. According to PETA’s website, the petition now has more than 88,000 signatures.
In a public statement issued Oct. 14, 2022, HMS said the content on PETA’s website was “misleading.” The school referred to the statement in response to a request for comment on the February letter.
“The video, certain photos, and some of the behaviors described on the website are not from Dr. Margaret Livingstone’s lab, and descriptions related to her methods contain inaccuracies and exaggerations,” the Medical School stated.
In response to a request for comment, Livingstone referred to a public statement she issued on Oct. 24, 2022, addressing the criticisms levied against her, writing, “although we do not pursue maternal attachment as a line of research, our lab made observations on maternal bonding and attachment in the course of other research.”
Livingstone described how the observation was first made with the stillborn infant of Monkey Ve, writing that the lab then provided other macaque moms with “Beanie Babies and soft-cloth toys.” She added that this method is now used as a “comforting measure” for infant macaques abandoned by their mothers.
Livingstone wrote that these observations were helpful for humans by showing that “maternal attachment could be triggered by soft touch” and that they can help create “comforting interventions to help women cope with loss in the immediate aftermath of a miscarriage or still birth.”
The letter also condemned experiments where Livingstone sutured the eyelids of infant macaque monkeys shut for their first year and had staff hide their faces with welders’ masks to study how “abnormal visual experiences of faces” affect “visual and brain development.”
In her response, Livingstone wrote that this procedure was performed in two separate cases in 2016 and that her lab had “no plans to do so again.” She added that the cases “yielded many insights.”
Livingstone’s lab now studies early visual experiences with noninvasive techniques that have caregivers wear facial masks and the monkeys wear goggles.
“Eyelid closure was and remains routine protocol across research labs that study vision disorders,” Livingstone wrote. “This technique, in fact, paved the way for the modern non-invasive methods we use now.”
Catherine Hobaiter, a researcher at the University of St Andrews, and Gal Badihi, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of St Andrews, were two authors of the letter. Both work in the Wild Minds Lab, which previously sent a letter in November 2022 calling on Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to retract Livingstone’s publication on the maternal attachment of macaques.
The article was not retracted on the grounds that it had successfully passed a review board.
“Our objections here were two-fold — that this work fails in terms of scientific method and in terms of our basic ethical responsibilities as scientists,” Hobaiter wrote in an email, referring to the February letter.
“I spend months at a time following wild chimpanzees and seeing what their natural behavior looks like. And I think that’s why I get so upset when I see the way that nonhuman primates are treated because, to me, their emotional capacity, their pain perception, it all looks so similar to humans,” Badihi said.
On Feb. 8, the Animal Law and Policy Clinic at HLS hosted a panel discussing the experiments. Katherine V. Roe, a neuroscientist working at PETA who was the first to raise concerns about Livingstone’s research, participated in the panel.
Panelists said the stressful living conditions of a lab negatively affect the accuracy of any data obtained from primate experiments.
“Once you take an animal out of the wild and into a lab, regardless of what you’re trying to test, taking them out of their natural habitat, preventing them from doing any of their natural behaviors affects all of this, but most affected are their immune systems, which is where they’re being studied, and their brain, which is where they’re being studied,” said Roe.
In a Feb. 16 interview, Badihi said she hopes for an end to direct experimentation with the monkeys. Instead, she said voluntary experiments such as computer games offer alternative ways to study behavior, while artificial tissues show promise for being better models for drug testing.
According to Hobaiter, animal experimentation is a wider issue which scientists should address.
“Changing study methods and protocols can be a slow process, particularly where individual researchers may feel tied to previous methods because these have become an expected standard in the field,” Hobaiter wrote in an email. “But in tolerating this we continue to enact years of devastating harm on the primates involved — and, importantly, we also stifle progress and change."
“It is bad for the primates and also bad for our scientific understanding,” Hobaiter added.
Correction: February 24, 2023
A previous version of this article misattributed a quote from Katherine V. Roe.
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