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To the Editor:
"Unethical," "immoral," and even "inhuman" are words that can be used to describe the exposure of a thousand green vervet monkeys, in cages, to alcoholic drinks, in a McGill research project (McGill Reporter, 7 March).
To tempt primates with alcohol is cruel enough, but to imprison them in cages makes it doubly cruel, as much as if humans were subjected to similar experiments. In addition, we are not told whether some of the vervets are then dissected. Do not these nonhuman primates have as much of a moral right to live out their lives in peace as we do?
Imagine if inmates of a prison were forced into this type of experiment, based on the notion that invaluable information might be derived on the nature of human alcoholism (or AIDS, lung cancer, etc., as the case may be). Massive protests of such an immoral experiment would surely follow, even if the researchers used "science" as a justification.
I find the Reporter's description of the vervet experiment humiliating in the way it describes members of another species in stereotypic, supposedly humorous terms, that "A cageful of drunken monkeys is like a cocktail party...." I suggest that this kind of writing be replaced by a more critical, sensitive perspective, informed by the very real issues being raised today about the use of nonhuman animals in laboratories.
It is in this context that I would also like to refer back to the Dec. 13, 2001 Reporter, where an article on genetic research is shown with a photo of lab mice. Although there is no reference to the mice in the article, the photo implicitly, although without intention, raises the question about forcing other mammals into experiments.
Only through the power of physical force are we able to cage, dominate and dissect huge numbers of individuals of other species. These are sentient beings who would like to live their natural lives but are sacrificed for the sake of a science culture which is more than in the past being rejected within the diverse world of science, and rightly so.
McGill alumnus 1966
The Reporter didn't report on the vervet monkey research per se in our March 7 issue. We offered a quote about the project which had appeared in an article published by The Sunday Telegraph.
In the Telegraph article, psychiatry professor Frank Ervin also says the following: "Alcoholism has a devastating effect on people's lives. The damage it does socially and financially is enormous. The aim of our work is to help us understand more about alcoholism so that damage can be reduced." As over 96 percent of the genetic make-up of monkeys corresponds to that of humans, the research might offer some new insights into why some people become alcoholics.
According to the Telegraph, Ervin's collaborator, psychiatry and human genetics professor Roberta Palmour, will soon be publishing the first map of the vervet monkey genome to identify the genes that play a role in monkey alcoholism.
The Reporter ran a complete article of its own about this project back in 1999. As far as we know, the monkeys usually roam freely and are never forced to drink the alcohol - they are always offered another alternative, such as water.