IMW Part II: Help the “talkers, cage-rattlers, bar-bangers”

The Rise for Animals Team, May 9, 2024

Earlier this International Macaque Week, we discussed the global, billion-dollar trade in macaque monkeys being led by the United States. But what does this U.S.-dominated trade actually look like? 

It is the stuff of nightmares, and it starts just as – if not more – horrifyingly than it ends. (That is, it starts and ends this way for the affected macaques. For the human researchers, whose self-interested demand has maintained and expanded this trade, the process has been described as “as neat and trauma-free as ordering dishes from Crate and Barrel”.) 

Some macaques find themselves born inside the walls of either a laboratory or a commercial breeding operation, while others are violently kidnapped from their wild homes.

Recently, Action for Primates released footage of the capture of long-tailed macaques, who were “beginning their journey from the Indonesian jungle to life in a cage in a research facility”: 

The macaque panics frantically, trying to escape the net, then cowers down, trapped and frozen in fear. She’s pinned to the ground by a trapper’s foot with her front limbs forcibly pulled behind her back. Another, a baby, clinging on desperately, is dragged by her tail by her mother. Thrust into sacks or bundled into crates, the macaques huddle together for the pretence [sic] of safety. An unwanted male macaque is then beaten, throat slit, and discarded as waste. 

Once under human control, these wild beings join captive-bred macaques at commercial breeding operations or similarly incarcerative holding facilities, where they are imprisoned until transport to the U.S. is arranged – if they survive. (“The typical conservationist’s estimate is 5 to 10 ten monkeys dead for every wild survivor [who] arrives at a research laboratory.”). 

Transport involves confinement in the cargo holds of planes:

. . . locked for up to 50 hours into reeking wooden crates, each scarcely larger than a knapsack, splattered with waste and blood.

Some will not withstand the trip, as these harrowing wooden crates become their coffins, but those who do survive will, then, continue on to U.S. labs (or, first, in some cases, holding or quarantine facilities), where pain of every kind awaits them.

For macaques, mere existence in a laboratory setting is a trauma of almost unrivaled magnitude.

Primatologist and Fulbright Scholar Dr. Lisa Jones-Engle identifies cage confinement as one of the very worst things we can do to these “incredibly social and clever” beings – beings who are “built to navigate 740 American football fields’ worth of savannah grasslands and forest canopies’. It comes as no surprise, then, that cage confinement “distorts the[ir] psychology and physiology” in catastrophic ways. 

Unlike their wild brethren, monkeys in labs “self-mutilate, pluck[ing] single hairs from their backsides until they turn bright pink, or bang[ing] their heads repeatedly against their cage walls, or bit[ing] themselves deep enough to require sutures.” They “paint the walls with their feces – a substance they can manipulate.” They “express behaviors that suggest psychological trauma, including 

‘stereotypies’ – repetitive behaviors that serve no purpose, save coping. Some monkeys pace in circles. Others rock or bounce for hours, like idling engines. Some methodically somersault. Others incessantly rattle their squeeze bars. A few spend time in ‘eye salute,’ a euphemism for self-stimulation by sticking fingers into one’s own eye. 

And, some “cross the line of no return”: 

Unresponsive to the caretakers interacting with them, they can’t stop rocking, twirling, circling, or twitching. They can’t pull away from the back of the cage. Their eyes no longer make contact.

Though difficult (and excruciating) to imagine, macaques housed alone fare even worse because of their intensely social natures, which rely on conspecific companionship – indeed, say experts, social support is how they cope, and physical contact, or touch, is key. In fact, this “need to touch is so strong . . . that a study of stumptail macaques found that if they even had a small window in their cage, through which they could reach through and stroke each other’s fur, they would stop ripping themselves apart.”

When their existence in a laboratory involves interaction with humans, even if such interaction is passive, the trauma is compounded. 

It has been said that [m]onkeys, even the most experienced research animals, go fearfully into the human world.” This includes animals bred into existence in captivity because macaques “can be born and die in captivity and never seem domesticated, only stubbornly wild.” 

This means that even routine housekeeping tasks are traumatizing. Animal researchers themselves actually proved this by implanting radio transmitters into the chests of macaques. The transmitters showed that “even well-known routine practices–cleaning cages, testing for tuberculosis–pushed the macaques’ heart rates into a skidding pace”, which lasted for “several hours after the tests.”

And, when it comes to more invasive handling, nonhuman primates fight back so hard that the development of sedatives has been identified as a primary reason that large-scale nonhuman primate research came to pass. As researchers themselves explain, macaques “could not be stroked into calm . . . they rapidly earned their reputation for intractable fierceness.” 

Macaques are “talkers, cage-rattlers, bar-bangers, vocal about their fears, likes, dislikes.” Their bold resistance has led others to describe them (and other primates) as “not tractable lab animals . . . 

. . . who, when not sedated, “generally have to be ‘chaired’ – forced into a sitting position with neck and head restrained – in order to be experimented upon….” (As we’ve previously reported, research laboratories document that primates will fight so hard to get out of these restraint chairs that they risk, and even lose, their lives, prompting researchers to resort to other barbarities – such as drilling metal posts into their skulls to hold their heads in place.) 

Animal researchers who have worked with macaques “speak of their fierce independence and pride” and describe them as “intensely social, frustrated by boredom, desperate in loneliness”. Some researchers have even admitted that lab “living” breaks these amazing animals

‘ . . . this isn’t really a rhesus macaque anymore. It looks like one, but it doesn’t act like one. Why not . . . just rename it for what it really is, an experimental animal, a laboratory caricature of the real thing. Change its official name from Mucaca mulatta (the scientific name for rhesus macaque) to Macaca experimentalis….’ 

Or how about this? Instead of changing their names to reflect the harms humans have caused them, we recognize their right to freedom, and we honor it.

Please join us to fight for justice for macaques (and all other animals) this important week . . . and every week thereafter.

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