March 13, 2003

By Michael Strickland

Free, For Now

Two dozen rhesus macaque monkeys escaped from a federal laboratory in Louisiana on Tuesday, liberated (if only temporarily) from their bondage. It was not immediately known how they got loose, nor how they escaped through an exterior fenced area and out into a local forest. For most of the monkeys, it was only a temporary reprieve; as of this writing, only eight of the two dozen were still at large. Let's hope they successfully evade capture and live out the rest of their lives as free monkeys in the Bayou country. They can serve as heroes to their other 5,000 captive brethren, on whom the staff of the Tulane Regional Primate Research Center conducts infectious disease experiments (the escapees were allegedly disease-free).

Sadly, it seems the destiny of this species of monkey has become one of servitude to mankind, like the cow and the chicken. The first 34 hits of a Google search for "rhesus macaques" generated a myriad of results for AIDS, Alzheimer's and other laboratory research sites. The first hit with zoological information about the species itself didn't come up until #35. Statistics for the number of monkeys used in medical experimentation are hard to come by, but some estimates put the number in the high tens of thousands per year.

As a child, I wanted to be a primatologist when I grew up. Admittedly, I didn't know that big word at the time, but monkeys and apes fascinated me. I couldn't get enough of them. Life's twists and turns took me away from math and science, but a soft spot for these complex creatures—our nearest non-human kin—has always remained in my heart.

The specter of animal experimentation on primates has thus always disturbed me. I understand the medical breakthroughs that have been achieved through such research (macaques, for instance, were used in the development of the polio vaccine), and I have heard the ethical arguments in support of it. But it's hard to consider ethics when you see a monkey with its head in a vice, electrodes plugged directly into its brain. It's virtually impossible to gaze into a primate's eyes and not see intelligence looking back at you.

I've tried not to think about this moral dilemma too much. As I avoid thoughts of cattle and slaughterhouses whenever I sink my teeth into a juicy steak, I submerge the ugly reality of animal experimentation whenever I encounter it in the news or elsewhere. If I were to ever visit a slaughterhouse and see cattle being butchered, I doubt I'd ever be able eat another hamburger. Similarly, if I were to witness medical experimentation on primates firsthand, I don't think I'd ever be able to wash away the shame of being human.

I freely admit the moral cowardice of my avoidance of reality, but I have been unable to come to terms with the ethical dilemma that animal experimentation presents. For now, all I can do is celebrate the ephemeral liberation of a symbolic segment of the captive macaque population.


Development note: I've noticed that this site doesn't look like it should in Netscape Navigator. Rather than waste time jury-rigging it to look right in a soon-to-be-obsolete browser, I'll just add the cliché "This site best viewed with Internet Explorer."
Michael Strickland ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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I have long called myself a writer, but too often I don't do what a writer must do daily: write. So you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of my resolution to make a positive change in at least one area of my life. Every single day of this new year, I will write something, anything, and post it here. It is my intention to use this daily exercise to jump-start my too-long-dormant creative energies, and perhaps generate some worthwhile material this year. Hopefully you will find at least an occasional amusement or insight in my daily musings.

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3/12: Chicken Little Gets Respect
3/11: Axis of Evil
3/10: Writing Kept Me From Writing
3/9: King Arthur
3/8: The Women are Smarter
3/7: Salt on Old Wounds
3/6: 3/3/03, 3:33 p.m.
3/5: Beer Day
3/4: Pulling the Trigger
3/3: Make 'Em Laugh
3/2: Whither Iraq?
3/1: Strickland Cellars
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