2. In the Service of Science


Steve Talbott


If you have a baboon and find yourself needing to induce a brain stroke in it, the procedure is actually quite straightforward. First you remove the left eye. (Sufficient anesthetic may prove helpful, but you can get by with much less if you tie the animal down securely.) Then, after drilling through the bone at the back of the empty socket, you reach in and clamp off three arteries supplying blood to the brain. A stroke should soon follow. Unfortunately, the subsequent events are not entirely predictable. But the baboon probably won't cause you much trouble -- especially if it is unable to sit up or eat and drink. And, in any case, it may die within a few days, relieving you of any need to continue offering it all this special care.


But why be so hypothetical about it? I am now reading through the handwritten laboratory records for a stroke experiment at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. Baboon #777 had its left eye removed and a stroke induced early on the morning of Sep. 19, 2001. The post-operative care notes for the next two days (Sep. 20 - 21) read as follows:


[Sep. 20] A.M. Comments: Can't sit up, leaning over, can't eat but

tries, was given Tang, normal urine. Has slight movement, sutures

intact, BM [bowel movement].


P.M. Comments: Offered food and Tang, can't chew/swollow [sic].

Awake, slouched over.


[Sep. 21] Awake, but no movement, can't eat (chew), vomitted [sic] in

the A.M. Can only drink if water (juice) is squeezed into its mouth.

At 1:30 p.m. the animal died in the cage.


In the columns labeled "Treatments" and "Medications" there are no

painkiller entries for either of those days.


Here are some excerpts from the life adventures of other baboons:


Baboon #816. [Day after operation:] cheek pouches look full of saliva. Monkey slumped against back wall of retracted cage. Tried to straighten him up and offered tang. Drinking O.K. No movement seen in right side leg or arm .... [Next day:] Found baboon dead in cage. [No painkilling medications listed for either day.]


Baboon #754. [Day after operation:] animal can not move in its cage at

all .... [Next day:] found dead in its cage. probably died overnight.

[No painkilling medications listed.]


Baboon #819. [Day after operation:] Ambulatory on left arm + food, but

motor skill/coordination is poor. Not able to sit up / will slump down

on back .... Not able to feed himself. Will readily take food if food

is put into mouth. Not sure if able to swallow .... Offered water, but

was coming out of side of mouth. [Next day:] Monkey found dead in cage

@ 5:00 AM. Still sitting partially upright. [No painkilling

medications listed.]


There is much more, but I will spare you. The records came into my hands via PeTA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). The reason they had the records is that Dr. Catherine Dell'Orto, a postdoctoral veterinary fellow at Columbia, couldn't take it any longer and reported the abuse, first to Columbia University officials, then to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for the care and treatment of experimental animals, and finally to PeTA.


Columbia conducted an internal investigation, concluding that "inadequate or questionable veterinary care was rendered" to the baboons. The Department of Agriculture wrote a letter. No disciplinary action is known to have been taken, and the same researchers, led by Dr. E. Sander Connolly, continue experimenting with animals. According to PeTA, "insiders still working [at Columbia] have reported that there is no improvement in the care or handling of the baboons or any other animals". I cannot vouch for this personally, but one thing is certain: people capable of the original practices are not likely to have changed their own values a great deal, and there seems to be no external authority watchful or willful enough to impose standards from the outside.


I spoke with Dr. Nicholas Dodman, formerly Head of Veterinary Anesthesiology at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, and now a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences. Having reviewed the Columbia research group's experimental protocol, he was left with severe questions about the use of anesthesia during the actual operations. Why in the world, he asked, would they use such light anesthesia for this particular experiment, since protecting the animals from the unpleasantness of the operation would have had no bearing on the data the researchers were seeking?


Dodman said that the levels of anesthesia specified in the protocol would have been "borderline acceptable -- perhaps" for a human being. But baboons are not humans, and nitrous oxide (one of the analgesics used) is only one-half as potent for monkeys as for humans. In his view, it is very likely that these animals -- who had no way to "unvolunteer" from the experiment -- suffered needlessly from the operation and were to one degree or another conscious as their eyes were being removed.


Dodman also confirmed my own suspicion that fast-and-loose playing with the prevailing guidelines for animal care in experiments is widespread: "You can take liberties, and you know you're not going to be sued". Many of these researchers, he remarked, are operating in an "anthropocentric, career-centered world", taking a scientific model for which they have very little understanding and grinding out experimental "data" for no good purpose other than their own advancement. The animals and their fate and even the data are quite incidental.


This is underscored by commentary from Dr. Robert S. Hoffman, a neurologist who has dealt with stroke patients for sixteen years while practicing in the San Francisco area. He points out that various "neuroprotective" agents of the sort being tested by the Columbia researchers have been studied for twenty years. Over thirty of these agents have shown benefit in animals, but not a single one has ever proven beneficial to humans. As Hoffman sees it, The fundamental question raised by this situation is: when should you call it quits? The scientists themselves will never do so. It is the people who fund the research who need to address the issue....If we had unlimited funding for biomedical research, and if this research did not use animals, I suppose "never" [quitting] would be an acceptable answer. If researchers are willing to spend their careers on this, then why not? But this is not the case. Research funding is finite and in fact shrinking. Accordingly, every dollar devoted to this research is denied to many other areas which in my opinion are far more likely to yield clinically important information. In addition, from an ethical point of view, the use of animals for this research is indefensible, since its clinical promise is practically nil.


Hoffman adds that these baboons are kept alive (when possible) in a condition of profound disability for three to ten days after their strokes. One side of their body is totally paralyzed. This condition can be full of terror for humans, and there is no reason to think baboons are immune from all such feeling. He also notes that the animals do not have their tubes removed until the day following the operation, "meaning that they are awake, restrained, and with an endotracheal tube. I have experienced this myself and can report that it is extremely distressing and uncomfortable".


Finally, in a letter to the New York Times (not accepted for publication), NetFuture reader and Columbia University emeritus professor, Douglas Sloan, cited the baboon studies and then went on:


In another set of procedures, metal caps are screwed into macaques' heads to study the effects of stress on the menstrual cycle, without benefit of adequate painkillers. And in a third set, pregnant rhesus monkeys have been held in restrictive jackets for months while special devices pumped nicotine into their bodies to prove that it has an effect on fetuses. Such, it seems, is the state of cutting-edge medical research.


The mistreatment of these animals has been exposed by concerned whistle blowers at the university. It remains to be seen, however, what steps, if any, Columbia will take to put an end to this probably criminal meanness. On at least one earlier occasion, Columbia was forced to shut down animal "experiments" because of similar cruelty and neglect. That Columbia has permitted this to happen again suggests that this leading teaching institution itself has severe learning difficulties.


The suffering of animals in "scientific" research (along with "scientific" farming) is today on a scale and intensity unprecedented in human history. Our willful unconsciousness of what is happening to the animals constitutes one of the main moral disasters of our time -- which, given everything else, is saying a lot.


You may have noted above that baboon #777 was sacrificed on the altar of science just about a week after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Dust and smoke were still wreathing Manhattan, where the Columbia campus is located. The city was in a fearful and barricaded state. But you have to hand it to those researchers: they were nothing if not brave and dedicated to the high calling of their profession.


You'll find more information at Columbiacruelty.com