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For Simians, It's Out of Limelight to Isolated Lives : 5 Monkeys in Disputed Research Now at Zoo for Sociability Study

November 15, 1987|JANNY SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Deep in a canyon in Balboa Park, amid the eucalyptus trees and the cacophony of the San Diego Zoo, sit five monkeys that for six years have been at the center of a controversial case involving animal experimentation and animal rights.

A woman watches them quietly, taking notes. She clicks a stopwatch on and off. Moving from cage to cage, she watches the monkeys squat, grimace, whoop, pick at a sweet potato. A workman passes; she watches the monkeys react.

Some day, the woman will slide back the opaque panels blocking the windows between the five adjoining cages. And in a rare study of the potential for "re-socialization" of research monkeys, the so-called Silver Spring monkeys will meet for the first time.

Unusual Chapter in Case

The project, begun in October by two behaviorists at the zoo, is another unusual chapter in an extraordinary case--a case that galvanized the animal rights movement nationwide and shaped the public debate on the use of animals in research.

The case represented the first time a warrant for search and seizure was served on a research laboratory accused of cruelty to animals, and the first time federal officials withdrew a researcher's funding because of failure to comply with animal-welfare rules.

The criminal case against the Maryland-based researcher, ultimately unsuccessful, spanned three courts and nearly a year. And a civil case filed by animal rights groups seeking custody of the 17 original experimental monkeys went as high as the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sixty-nine scientific organizations joined the civil case on the side of the embattled laboratory. And 300 members of Congress appealed last year to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to remove the monkeys from a research facility.

Currently, nine of the monkeys are being housed in Louisiana at a primate research facility at Tulane University. Five are in San Diego and three others have died over the years since 1981.

But there remains sharp disagreement over the implications of the case.

"The case frightened people in the experimentation community," said Ingrid Newkirk, national director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "It's a symbol to them of impending change and perhaps the end of a century of absolutely unfettered animal use."

Stacey Beckhardt of the American Psychological Assn. said, "I think what this case has done is to, in many respects, politicize the animal research issues that primarily . . . can be dealt with better in the scientific and animal welfare arenas."

In some ways, the arrangement with the San Diego Zoo is a political compromise: It has made it possible to remove the five from a research laboratory while at the same time using them to gain information of scientific value.

"It certainly would never have been done had there been no animal rights movement," suggested Dr. Mortimer Mishkin, chief of the laboratory of neuropsychology at the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington and president of the Society for Neuroscience.

Peculiar Challenges

"They should have been used instead for completing the original experiment that was planned," Mishkin said in a telephone interview. "(This) is the second-best thing that can be gained from studying them."

The San Diego project presents some peculiar challenges.

In the wild, the monkeys would have lived in troops of 30 to 50 and ranged over perhaps two or three square miles. Instead, they have lived alone in individual cages for at least seven years and are assumed to have lost many of their social skills.

Researchers also say the particular species, the crab-eating macaque, is naturally aggressive and fearful of strangers. Both attributes make the task of introducing the monkeys to each other especially sensitive.

Finally, the group consists of five males, which behaviorists hope to bind into a single group. The zoo has no female crab-eating macaques and furthermore, the behaviorists suspect the introduction of a female might encourage aggressive behavior.

But no such all-male group would ever occur in the wild, the zoo's behaviorists say. Instead, the adult sex ratio in a crab-eating macaque group is usually one male to three or four females.

Cautious Course

So the researchers intend to follow a cautious and carefully planned course.

First, they intend simply to watch the animals to evaluate their individual temperaments and abilities. That way, they hope to discern which monkeys are dominant or submissive, and the position they might take in a group hierarchy.

Later, they plan to introduce the monkeys to each other in stages, first by removing the opaque panels blocking the windows between the cages. The monkeys will be able to observe and even touch or groom each other through the steel mesh walls.

Finally, they hope to put the monkeys all together, enabling them to interact and establish a hierarchy. If they form attachments and prove capable of getting along, they will live together and eventually be moved as a group to another zoo.

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