Mother monkeys permanently separated from their newborns sometimes find solace in stuffed toys: this recent discovery from the Harvard experiments has sparked intense controversy among scientists and reignited the ethical debate over animal testing.
The article, “Triggers for mother love” was written by neuroscientist Margaret Livingstone and appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in September with little fanfare or media coverage.
But once news of the study started spreading on social media, it sparked a firestorm of criticism and eventually a letter to PNAS signed by more than 250 scientists calling for a retraction.
Animal rights groups have meanwhile recalled Livingstone’s earlier work, which included temporarily suturing the eyelids of baby monkeys to study the impact on their cognition.
“We cannot seek consent from monkeys, but we can stop using, publishing and, in this case, actively promoting cruel methods that knowingly cause extreme distress,” wrote Catherine Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St Andrews, who co-wrote the retraction letter.
Hobaiter told AFP she was awaiting a response from the newspaper before further comment, but expecting news soon.
Harvard and Livingstone, for their part, strongly defended the research.
Livingstone’s observations “may help scientists understand maternal bonds in humans and may inform comforting interventions to help women cope with loss immediately after suffering a miscarriage or experiencing a stillbirth,” the statement said. Harvard Medical School in a statement.
Livingstone, in a separate statement, said: “I have joined the ranks of scientists targeted and demonized by opponents of animal research, who seek to abolish life-saving research in all animals.
Such work regularly draws the ire of groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which opposes all forms of animal testing.
This controversy has sparked strong reactions in the scientific community, in particular from animal behavior researchers and primatologists, said Alan McElligot of the Center for Animal Health at the City University of Hong Kong and co-signer of the PNAS letter.
He told AFP that Livingstone appears to have replicated research done by Harry Harlow, a noted American psychologist, from the mid-20th century.
Harlow’s experiments on maternal deprivation in rhesus macaques were considered groundbreaking, but may also have helped catalyze the early animal liberation movement.
“It just ignored all the literature we already have on attachment theory,” added Holly Root-Gutteridge, an animal behavior scientist at the University of Lincoln in Britain.
McElligot and Root-Gutteridge argue that the case was emblematic of a larger problem in animal research, in which questionable studies and articles continue to pass institutional reviews and are published in high-impact journals.
McElligot pointed to a much-criticized 2020 paper touting the effectiveness of foot traps in capturing jaguars and cougars for scientific study in Brazil.
More recently, experiments on marmosets that included invasive surgeries have sparked controversy.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst team behind the work says studying the tiny apes, which have a lifespan of 10 years and experience cognitive decline in old age, is key to better understanding the disease of Alzheimer’s in humans.
Opponents argue that the results rarely translate from one species to another.
When it comes to drug testing, there is evidence that the tide is turning against animal testing.
In September, the US Senate passed the bipartisan FDA Modernization Act, which would end the requirement that experimental drugs must first be tested on animals before any human trials.
The vast majority of drugs that pass animal tests fail in human trials, while new technologies such as tissue cultures, mini-organs and AI models are also reducing the need for animals. living.
Opponents also claim that huge sums of money from government grants to universities and other institutes – $15 billion a year, according to watchdog group White Coat Waste – perpetuate a system in which animals are seen as resources of laboratory.
“Animal experimenters are the rainmakers within institutions because they bring in more money,” said primatologist Lisa Engel-Jones, who worked as a lab researcher for three decades but now opposes practice and is a science advisor for PETA. .
“There’s a financial incentive to keep doing what you’ve been doing and looking at every possible way to get more stories published, because that means more funding and more job security,” added Emily Trunnel. , a neuroscientist who has done experiments on rodents and now also works for PETA.
Most scientists don’t share PETA’s absolutist stance, but rather say they adhere to the “three Rs” framework – refine, replace and reduce animal use.
On Livingstone’s experiment, Root-Gutteridge said the underlying questions could have been studied in wild macaques that naturally lost their young, and urged neuroscientists to team up with animal behaviorists to find ways to minimize damage.
© Agence France-Presse