Maternal deprivation experiments on macaques in Madison recall Harry Harlow

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2013:

 MADISON, Wisconsin––Maternal deprivation research appears to be again underway at the Harry Harlow Primate Psychology Laboratory on the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin. “The research in question is a new type of maternal deprivation research designed to study anxiety by creating adverse early rearing conditions and then exposing the maternally deprived young [male] monkeys to a snake and other frightening stimuli.

The monkeys will be killed after the experiment is over and their brains will be studied,” summarized Wesleyan University professor of philosophy, feminist, gender, sexuality, and environmental studies Lori Gruen in an October 2012 critique of the experiments. “I believe this experiment is unethical and I also think it violates the spirit, if not the regulations, of the Animal Welfare Act,” Gruen concluded, “which explicitly requires that the psychological well-being of primates be promoted, not intentionally destroyed.”

Wrote lead experimenter and University of Wisconsin at Madison psychiatry department chair Ned Kalin in the research protocol he submitted in 2011 to the UW Institutional Animal Care & Use Committee, “At birth, infants will be removed from their mother and placed immediately in an incubator with a surrogate stuffed animal, towels, and/or blankets. As shown by Harlow (1958), infants will form attachment bonds to these items, which provide contact comfort as early as one day of life.” Added Kalin, apparently trying to distance his work from Harlow’s, “Unlike isolated monkeys, infants in the nursery will have full auditory and visual access to other animals, human caretakers, and/or television or radio. When mature enough, these animals will be paired with a peer.”

“It has been two decades since anyone at UW-Madison has isolated baby monkeys to cause them psychological trauma,” responded Alliance for Animals director Rick Bogle in an online response prepared for a local newspaper but then not published. “The university’s spin on their resumption of this cruelty is the assertion that the baby monkeys Kalin is isolating aren’t really isolated because someone comes by to feed them and clean up their incubators. They claim that because Kalin’s methods are not as extreme as some of Harlow’s methods, that they are not extreme at all.”

Obtaining Kalin’s research protocol in August 2012 through a Freedom of Information Act request, Bogle sought to stop the project, but it might by then have already started. “To the degree that I can say with some certainty that anything is happening at the university, the project is underway,” Bogle told ANIMAL PEOPLE

“I’m unaware of any approved protocols that have not started up once approved. It remains to be seen, however, whether all 20 of the infant monkeys [whom Kalin plans to use] have been removed from their mothers. I suspect that the number of available incubators and male births might be a limiting factor.

“One point should be clarified,” Bogle added. “Harlow’s work was primarily an investigation into the effects of varying degrees of social and environmental deprivation and ways in which the effects could be accelerated. Kalin’s project is using the well understood effects of maternal deprivation, early isolation, and peer-rearing as a tool to create highly anxious baby monkeys.” Kalin has done maternal deprivation experiments derivative of Harlow’s work before, Bogle explained in his online commentary.

However, “When Kalin began publishing the details of his [earlier] cruel experiments on monkeys in 1983,” Bogle wrote, “the profound similarity of human and nonhuman primate cognition and emotion was less well known,” Bogle acknowledged. “The idea that other primates have cultures, a sense of self, use tools, can add and learn the meaning of abstract symbols, can reason, and are like us is so many other ways was dismissed as preposterous.” This has all changed, but “Not once in Kalin’s defense of his maternal deprivation and fear-inducing terminal experiments,” Bogle continued, “does he try to explain why it would be moral to harm and kill animals he believes experience fear and anxiety much like our own.”

Noted Bogle, “Kalin’s experiments on monkeys have been continuously supported by the National Institutes of Health since 1990. His grants have cost taxpayers over $5 million since 2000, without yielding discernible benefit to human patients.” Wrote Gruen, “There are many obvious ways to minimize the human suffering that results from anxiety disorders. In tough economic times, the provision of such services generally falls on charities that are already overburdened. Imagine how much real good the funds that UW researchers have used causing monkeys anxiety for 30 years could have done, directly serving those children who suffer so greatly.”

Committee for Research Accountability directors Rita Anderson and Barbara Millman announced in November 2003 that University of Colorado Health Sciences Center researcher Mark Laudenslager had ended his maternal deprivation research after 17 years. The line of experiments that began with Harlow was then believed to have ended. Harlow from 1930 to 1970 plunged generations of baby macaques and sometimes babies of other non-human primate species into stainless steel “pits of despair,” as he called them; subjected the babies to deliberately cruel robotic “mothers”; and allowed mother monkeys who had been driven insane by his experiments to abuse and kill their babies.

When Harlow semi-retired to a part-time post at the University of Arizona, other University of Wisconsin faculty including fellow maternal deprivation researchers Stephen J. Suomi and Gene Sackett immediately dismantled his lab. Suomi, now chief of the Laboratory of Comparative Ethology at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Maryland, admitted to Deborah Blum, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Monkey Wars (1992) and Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection (2002) that the experiments gave him nightmares.

Sackett has attributed the subsequent rise of the animal rights movement in part to public revulsion at Harlow’s experiments, which by the early 1970s were already widely known and debated on university campuses. Seven years before the first action claimed by the “Animal Liberation Front,” a failed bombing at the University of Wisconsin Primate Research Center was at first believed to have been directed at stopping the maternal deprivation research, but was later found to have been a failed attempt by four anti-Vietnam War protesters to bomb the Army Mathematics Research Center across the street. The four succeeded on second try, killing post-doctorate math student Robert Fassnacht, who also opposed the war, and severely injuring three other students who had no involvement with the war. Harlow died in 1981, at age 76, a reputed drunk whose chief contribution to mainstream laboratory primatology was inventing the “rape rack,” a device for artificially inseminating primates.

But the University of Wisconsin primate lab was renamed in his honor, and has conducted many other controversial experiments. Bogle, then heading the Primate Freedom Project, moved to Madison in 2004 to renovate a building located between the National Primate Research Center at Madison and the Harry Harlow Primate Psychology Laboratory into a planned National Primate Research Center Exhibition Hall. Bogle expected it to become a rallying point for opposition to primate experiments. Retired California physician and animal advocate Richard McLellan had agreed to buy the building from bicycle shop owner Roger Charly. However, the university stalled the purchase through legal action and then reportedly paid Charly $1 million for it.

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