Monkey mothers who are permanently separated from their newborns sometimes find solace in plush toys: this recent finding from Harvard experiments has sparked intense controversy among scientists and reignited the ethical debate on animal testing.
The paper, “Triggers for mother love” was written by neuroscientist Margaret Livingstone and appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in September to little fanfare or media coverage.
But once news of the study started spreading on social media, it sparked a firestorm of criticism and eventually a letter to PNAS signed by more than 250 scientists calling for a retraction.
Animal rights groups meanwhile recalled Livingstone’s earlier work, which involved temporarily sewing the eyelids of baby monkeys together to study the impact on their cognitive ability.
”We can’t ask monkeys for consent, but we can stop using, publishing, and in this case actively promoting cruel methods that we knowingly cause extreme distress,” wrote Catherine Hobaiter, a principal at the University of St. Andrews, who authored the retraction letter.
Hobaiter told AFP she was waiting for a response from the magazine before further comment, but news was expected soon.
Harvard and Livingston, for their part, have strongly defended the research.
Livingstone’s observations “may help scientists understand the maternal bond in humans and may provide palliative interventions to help women cope with loss in the immediate aftermath of miscarriage or stillbirth,” the School of Medicine said in a statement. of Harvard.
Livingston, in a separate statement, said: “I have joined the ranks of scientists targeted and demonized by opponents of animal research who seek to abolish life-saving research on all animals.”
Such work usually draws the ire of groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which opposes all forms of animal testing.
This controversy has sparked particularly strong reactions in the scientific community, particularly from animal behavior researchers and primatologists, said Alan McElligot of the Center for Animal Health at the City University of Hong Kong and co-authors PNAS letter.
He told AFP that Livingston appeared to have replicated research conducted by Harry Harlow, a notorious American psychologist, from the mid-20th century.
Harlow’s experiments on maternal deprivation in rhesus macaques were considered groundbreaking, but may also have helped catalyze the early animal liberation movement.
”It just ignored all the literature we already have on attachment theory,” added Holly Root-Gutteridge, an animal behavior scientist at the University of Lincoln in Britain.
McElligot and Root-Gutteridge argue that the case was emblematic of a wider problem in animal research, in which questionable studies and papers continue to pass institutional review and be published in high-impact journals.
McElligot pointed to a much-criticized 2020 paper extolling the effectiveness of leg traps for capturing jaguars and cougars for scientific study in Brazil.
More recently, experiments on marmosets involving invasive surgeries have attracted controversy.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst team behind the work says studying the tiny monkeys, which have a lifespan of 10 years and show cognitive decline in old age, is essential to better understanding Alzheimer’s in humans.
Opponents argue that results rarely translate across species.
When it comes to drug testing, there are signs that the tide is turning against animal testing.
In September, the US Senate passed the bipartisan FDA Modernization Act, which would end the requirement that experimental drugs be tested on animals first before any human trials.
The vast majority of drugs that pass animal testing fail in human testing, while new technologies such as tissue cultures, mini-organs and artificial intelligence models also reduce the need for live animals.
Opponents also say the vast sums of money that flow from government grants to universities and other institutions – $15 billion a year, according to the organization White Coat Waste – perpetuate a system in which animals are treated as laboratory resources.
”Animal experimenters are the rainmaker inside the institutions, because they bring in more money,” said primatologist Lisa Engel-Jones, who worked as a lab researcher for three decades but now opposes the practice and is a science adviser for PETA. .
”There’s a financial incentive to keep doing what you’ve been doing, and just look for any way you can to get more papers published, because that means more funding and more job security,” added Emily Trunnel, a neuroscientist who experimented on rodents and also now works for PETA.
Most scientists do not share PETA’s authoritarian stance, but instead say they adhere to the “three Rs” framework – refine, replace and reduce the use of animals.
Regarding Livingstone’s experiment, Root-Gutteridge said the underlying questions might have been studied in wild macaques that naturally lost their young, and urged neuroscientists to work with animal behaviorists to find ways to minimize harm.
© Agence France-Presse