Fed Scientists Filmed Themselves Giving Monkeys Brain Damage. A Watchdog Group Wants the Footage.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health reportedly damaged monkeys' brains with acid before showing them pictures of fruit.


The White Coat Waste Project (WCW), a nonprofit opposed to tax-funded animal testing, is suing the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) following its failure to provide the group with records related to the department's experiments on primates.

WCW had submitted two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) records requests seeking videos, photographs, and animal welfare reports related to studies performed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is housed within HHS, on monkeys.

The experiments involved damaging the monkeys' brains with ibotenic acid before showing them pictures of faces alongside everyday objects, like fruit, or attempting to scare them with rubber spiders and snakes. The goal was to explore which parts of the brain are responsible for facial recognition and defense responses.

WCW filed two records requests with the NIH in June and September 2019. In both cases, according to WCW's lawsuit, staff at the NIH first attempted to negotiate the release of the requested records before they stopped responding to WCW emails altogether.

The group filed its lawsuit in December, claiming HHS had failed to comply with FOIA.

"There is a very troubling lack of transparency and accountability about how the NIH is spending its money," says Justin Goodman of WCW. "We're confident that this lawsuit will shed some light on how tax dollars are being spent so the public can judge for itself if it wants bureaucrats to give monkeys brain damage and show them pictures of fruit."

The NIH declined a request for comment, citing the pending litigation.

Goodman says that WCW obtained information about these experiments on primates from public records requests, grant applications, and published NIH studies. He claims the government has spent some $100 million on monkey experiments since the Carter administration.

Science reports that the NIH owns 7,000 monkeys, and has increased its use of these animals in research "involving pain and distress" by 50 percent since 2014.

The 2020 spending bill passed in December included a provision requiring the NIH to inform Congress about its efforts to find alternatives to primate testing.

"Taxpayers are sick and tired of the government's multimillion-dollar monkey business, like giving primates brain damage and then scaring them with rubber snakes and spiders," Rep. Matt Gaetz (R–Fla.), who helped sponsor that legislation, told the Washington Examiner, calling the NIH's monkey experiments "expensive, unnecessary, and inhumane."

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  1. It seems like a pretty crude way of investigating where signals came from; once one section has been ruled out, that monkey is no longer useful. Seems it should be simpler and cheaper to insert probes and see which areas generate signals. Of course, I am no brain scientist, so what do I know?

    What I do know is that if all science were donation funded, I’d never donate to this one, and part of me wonders if the researchers simply took the easy expensive way because taxpayer money is easy enough to get. I don’t know how grants work either, as far as which fields are easier to fund than others. But being government, I have suspicions.

    1. Ibotenic acid is the least destructive monkey brain-lesioning agent we have. End government funded science. It’s unconstitutional for non-military applications.

      1. It’s unconstitutional for non-military applications.

        Where do you think those brain damaged monkeys are headed?

        1. Your mom’s sex swing?

          1. It’s too bad that your mind is so hung up on weird sexual fetishes that you’re incapable of seeing an untapped resource for the ongoing military operations you love.

            Not unexpected, but too bad.

        2. To Iowa?

          1. There goes my joke.

    2. Apparently, among the things you don’t know is that probes don’t work anything like you think they do. Probes work on the hypothesis that either electrical or chemical activity is a reliable indicator of “where” a particular brain function occurs. Things like PET scans and fMRIs, however, demonstrate that the electrical and chemical activity occurs in lots of parts of the brain simultaneously for any given function. Only be deactivating a very tiny part of the brain and seeing what breaks can you really know what it controlled.

      Once you’ve done enough of that kind of testing, you might then be able to find correlations which could make the non-destructive testing methods effective at identifying actual function. And that’s the whole point of these studies. We can’t do destructive testing on humans but we might be able to use it to calibrate the procedures on monkeys so that using the non-destructive techniques on humans might actually produce useful results.

      Morally, therefore, this is a variant of the Trolley Problem – balancing the intentional causing of harm to a hopefully-smallish number of (presumably) non-sentient monkeys against the prevention of harm to a probably-larger number of (again, presumably) sentient humans.

      Having said all that, I agree that this and almost all other science should be funded by someone other than the government.

      1. Thanks. Not completely convinced non-destructive testing is ultimately impossible, but at least I know more than before.

        1. Apologies if I was unclear. It’s not that non-destructive testing is ultimately impossible, it’s that it’s currently impossible. At least, not to the desired level of precision. A goal of the destructive testing on monkeys is eventually make the non-destructive testing fully feasible.

          1. Yes, got that 🙂 A lot of possible things are not cost-effective.

      2. Apparently, among the things you don’t know is that probes don’t work anything like you think they do.

        Also, the article is set up to deliberately mislead. These researchers aren’t cracking the monkey’s skulls open with nutcrackers and dumping in concentrated muriatic acid they bought off the shelf at Home Depot. The ‘acid’ is a specifically targeted neurotoxin. It’s a mimic of glutamate or glutamic (*gasp*) acid which occurs naturally in the brain.

        I also agree that the science should be funded by someone other than the government. However, I believe that to be a bit of a false choice in some of these situations as hand-wringing ninnies will insist that invisible pink unicorn tears as a medical treatment are a human right *and* insist that no unicorns, which are protected by law, be harmed in the process of generating their tears.

      3. The monkeys aren’t sentient? Is there any evidence of that?

        1. They’re anesthetized during treatment.

  2. Fed Scientists Filmed Themselves Giving Monkeys Brain Damage.

    Forcing them to watch CNN, Clockwork Orange style? That crosses an ethical line.

  3. Just abolish the NIH. All libertarians should oppose government funded-science crowding out private sector monkey brain-lesioning

  4. >>The goal was to explore which parts of the brain are responsible for facial recognition and defense responses.

    what the fuck assholes ruining a bunch of monkeys is a soul-burning way to find out i am outraged i fund this.

  5. This is one of those areas I don’t ever talk to my wife about. She is quite libertarian in politics, but she loses her mind anytime the discussion goes to animals.
    First of all, as others have said, get the government out of the science research game, and the whole “tax dollars” argument goes out the window.
    But, ultimately the question still comes down to: do animals have “rights”? Or conversely, do people have any ethical responsibility when it comes to the treatment of animals?
    Most of us instinctively recoil at the idea of these kind of experiments. They do seem unnecessarily cruel. But, then we have no problem eating a nice, juicy hamburger and ask no questions about how the cow was treated.
    We all (justifiably so) get incensed when another cop shoots a dog. But, is it because the cop harmed an animal? Or because he stole valuable property from someone?
    I do struggle with the question of “animal rights”. I love my dogs almost like members of the family. But, in some countries, they eat dog. And I don’t think I can construct a logical argument as to why it is wrong to eat dog, provided they aren’t stealing dogs from other people.
    Anyone have any thoughts on this?

    1. It’s a tricky area as far as rights, since you can’t expect moral agency from animals. So it’s hard to codify ‘animal rights’ legally speaking. OTOH, I think we all naturally recoil at the arbitrary and unnecessary cruelty being shown here.

      There are ways in which animal research is medically necessary, but a lot of it isn’t. I tend to agree with those who say that having the government do these sorts of studies is going to pervert them – there gets to be a momentum to a government-funded program where it self-perpetuates for the sake of self-perpetuation. It wouldn’t really be at all surprising to find that these researchers don’t have a very specific thesis they’re pursuing or even any good reason to be doing the study at all other than continuing their funding stream.

      OTOH, in the private sector you get cosmetic product testing that is arguably unnecessary and needlessly cruel, but at least private sector testing is going to limit how many resources are wasted for no purpose.

      FWIW, I think our outrage at cops shooting dogs has to do with our sympathy for the dogs, rather than our sense that the dogs are property.

      1. I tend to think of fundamental rights as being what you would have if living by your self. There should be areas set aside for hermits to live by themselves. You should be able to hunt and forage by yourself; if you want to join with others, fine by me. If you want the benefits of civilization, you have to join civilization and be civilized.

        Same applies to animals. Predators eat live prey, generally pretty quickly, although a bird with a broken wing may find it slow going when the predators are ants and wasps.

        Thus torturing a dog for hours on end is beyond the pale. That is not the natural course of events.

        It’s not a very clear definition, but it’s the best I got.

        1. Thus torturing a dog for hours on end is beyond the pale. That is not the natural course of events.

          Ever shot a rabid animal? Your recollection or experience of natural events is a bit selective, maybe intentionally.

          1. Well, normal. As in cruel and unusual. Your example just proves the rule, thank you.

            1. Your example just proves the rule, thank you.

              OK, several reptile and fish species engage their prey only briefly in order to poison them and then wait out the hours and even days until the toxin eventually kills their prey. Ever seen a pack of animals take down an animal? Hours on end is not uncommon. Ever seen a dog flail a rabbit or mole to death? How about a cat with a mouse?

              Despite the indoctrination that ‘man is the only creature that hunts for sport’ and ‘no other creature kills for entertainment’ there’s plenty of evidence that nature does, in fact, do torture.

      2. Well, I’d question the “arbitrary and unnecessary cruelty” although I would agree with the perverse incentives of research funding.

        I know some of the “animal rights” extremists are opposed to any and all animal testing on the grounds that “we can do this stuff on computer simulations now” without any understanding that that is not how computer simulations work. We really do have to know how something works before we can program a computer with sufficient information to guess how it might react to some other stimuli. Absent any other information, I’d have to guess researchers aren’t torturing monkeys just to study how monkeys react to being tortured, there’s some other reason for wanting to know more about the parts of the brain responsible for facial recognition and defense responses, probably Alzheimer’s related. You can’t test a potential new Alzheimer’s drug on a computer simulation if you can’t program the computer simulation with the exact parameters of how the relevant parts of the brain operate.

        I see this all the time where some outrageous-sounding waste of money like seeing if shrimp prefer Barry Manilow to Celine Dion gets brought up. A simple assumption that researchers aren’t actually investigating shrimp’s musical tastes and a simple google search shows that there is some particular aspect of the Manilow/Dion comparison that they’re looking at that relates to some larger research area.

        Note: As noted above, I’m quite certain that government research involves a great deal of wasteful unnecessary cruelty – to the taxpayers if nothing else – but I’m a little hesitant to take an animal rights group’s definition of “wasteful and unnecessary cruelty” over that of a researcher, or, more importantly, the media’s reporting on the issue. Some times cops really do need to shoot dogs.

        1. Absent any other information, I’d have to guess researchers aren’t torturing monkeys just to study how monkeys react to being tortured

          About 25 years ago there was a big stink at UCI because researchers were doing exactly that – IIRC they were somehow setting monkey’s hands on fire and then having them do problem-solving tests, but I don’t have time to dig up a link right now (a simple Google didn’t do it – it was too long ago, I think).

          They had another one (also UCI – I grew up down there) where they were tossing cats off of tall buildings to test the “cats always land on their feet” hypothesis. Turns out that’s true from about 18″ up through about 9 stories. Above 9 stories, the cat doesn’t bother.

          Sadly, the incentives in academia aren’t much better than the incentives in government.

          But I generally agree with what you say, hence my comment about it being problematic to codify ‘animal rights’ legally. As Dillinger suggests, above, it’s something we need to leave to individual moral judgment, for better or worse.

          Since, yes – while I generally think it’s fucked up when cops shoot dogs, I would never consider making it illegal for cops to shoot dogs, because, as you say, sometimes cops really do need to shoot dogs.

      3. No, I’m outraged at dogs that are owned being killed. Unowned dogs being killed doesn’t bother me, unless they’re killed painfully.

    2. instinctive recoil means there’s a reason outside of libertarian theories. dog isn’t food or target. monkeys aren’t acid-test subjects.

      1. Except its not instinctive, its instilled by culture, and different instill different values. The proof is in the very fact that not everyone recoils at the idea of eating dog

        1. >>proof is in the very fact

          depends on whether they have to choke it down? also a small percentage of people on a whole will eat a dog so maybe they’re outliers?

          1. China and other cultures are not a small percentage of the whole.

            1. if McDonalds, would dog?

            2. Neither is India and guess how Hindus react to hamburgers? If you can eat a cow, you can eat a dog.

              1. fair enough. you, square, abc …

          2. It’s just completely normal in East Asia to eat dogs. My brother had it when he lived in Korea.

            They think it’s weird we give dogs names and let them live in our houses.

      2. Except its not instinctive, its instilled by culture, and different instill different values.

        This is completely out of touch with all reality. The recoil is a reaction to a violent act and not everyone recoils. Dog is food and dog can be target very much depending on instinct and the context. One of the most cross-species instinctual moments I can recall is when my dog was stalking our son for the food he had in his hand and me wanting to ensure that the dog stopped and never did it again.

        Monkeys aren’t acid-test subjects. They aren’t testing if the acid works. Monkeys are brain test subjects.

        1. >>Monkeys aren’t acid-test subjects.

          (i called it that for the Grateful Dead tip)

          1. And in that context, monkeys make hilarious acid-test subjects.

            1. lol. Owsley would approve.

    3. Put my dog of 14 yrs. to sleep the weekend before last.

      I’ve been ready to put a bullet in the dog and put the dog in the ground for a couple of years. Mrs. Casual is *still* not. I kept pointing out to her that, metaphorically, we need to make a decision and pull the trigger while the ground is thawed. Waiting on her, the dog wound up suffering through what could only be an incredibly hard night and, of course, the ground is frozen.

      Empathy can be virtuous. That doesn’t mean empathy is a virtue.

      1. sorry mad.

      2. That sucks. It is however, one of the responsibilities (I believe) that we take on when we own (adopt?) dogs. They can’t ask to end the suffering so it is incumbent upon us to make that decision.

    4. No rights without responsibility so animals don’t have rights. And you have the right to love your dogs like family and you also have a responsibility to care for them in a humane way up to the point where you kill them as quickly and as pain free as possible for a variety of reasons including for food.

    5. Many, many people DO have problems eating the cow, and even more of us ask questions (or would like to know) about how the cow is treated. More and more evidence points to what’s always been obvious to those of us who live with and work with animals: they suffer the same as us. Vertibrates have very similar nervous systems as we do. Many invertibrates have been shown to suffer pain.

    6. First of all, nothing has rights. Rights are a human invention. Rights are invented, not discovered. The question is, which rights should be made (and kept, of course)?

      The first principle is, do no harm to that which has not earned harm. What is harm? Loss of value. What is value? Something in a thinking thing’s mind. All value is subjective. However, nothing that doesn’t think can value anything.

      Pain has negative value, so infliction of pain reduces the recipient’s values. So if the thinking thing can feel pain, don’t hurt it unnecessarily in more than a minimal way.

      Killing a thing reduces the values of someone that owns it; it reduces the values of the thing itself if the thing itself cares to go on living. Nothing can care to go on living if it has no idea of the future. So it’s OK to kill something that’s nobody else’s property if the thing being killed has no concept of future life.

      Note that things include human beings or putative human beings. The only thing relevant about human beings is that some human beings are developed and experienced enough to have anticipation of the future, and therefore to not want to die if they think continued life would be interesting. This may be true of some entities other than human beings, and is untrue of some human beings or putative human beings.

      1. Woah Nellie, you’re getting into ethics here. Libertarians don’t take a shine to that kind of talk. That’s why they like their myth of “natural rights”, that way they can claim that the stuff they like is “self-evident” and that everyone should of course recognize it (and if you don’t, you’re an idiot).

  6. I mean, if this WCW group is willing to volunteer and wave their rights, then we can stop experimenting on monkeys tomorrow.

    Which is to say, I’ll have to beg pardon, but there’s always some busy-body group upset that science doesn’t see animals as people and does experiments on animals that would be unethical to do on people.

    And sorry, but layman publications (which Reason is one of) tend to be super-shitty at accurately reporting scientific research or results. Even if I give them the benefit of the doubt that they aren’t intending to misrepresent, there is no benefit of the doubt that they haven’t misrepresented stuff. So I’ll save the outrage over giving monkeys acid when I read it from a source that actually understands the research process.

    1. So I’ll save the outrage over giving monkeys acid when I read it from a source that actually understands the research process.

      Yeah. Use of the word ‘acid’ in this regard sets off all sorts of ‘lying propaganda’ alarm bells to me.

      1. I don’t think it’s specifically the acid part that bothers people. It’s the intentional infliction of brain damage.

        1. Use of the word ‘acid’ ‘brain damage’ in this regard sets off all sorts of ‘lying propaganda’ alarm bells to me.

          1. Is that not an accurate characterization of what they are doing? If not, why not?

            1. If not, why not?

              Because of the way they used the word ‘acid’. I didn’t and don’t care what response the use of the word ‘acid’ elicits in their audience, it strikes me as disingenuous, but not incorrect, that they’re using the word the way they are. Disingenuous enough that I shouldn’t take any of their representations at anything remotely resembling face value or, more importantly, in anything resembling good faith.

              It’s very much on par with the commercials where they tell you about all the thousands of toxic chemicals that are present in cigarette smoke. Like calcium hydroxide, which is commonly used in hair-removal products (and pickling salts, and water sanitation, and dental fillings, and to mark out lines on sports fields). You wouldn’t smoke (or eat pickles or drink water or get your cavities filled or play sports) if you knew hair removal products were in your cigarettes would you? Yes, I do and would.

            2. “Ladies and gentleman of the court, this man routinely drugs innocent people and cuts them open! They are so injured after his brutal attack, that they often cannot walk for weeks afterwards, many needing assistance for the rest of their lives! Why, he even brags that he has removed some victim’s hearts! He has killed people! What possible defense can he offer for such heinous acts?!”

              “Well, I’m a heart surgeon.”


              “Ladies and gentleman, this man sells poison! Knowingly! He knows, full well, that his product causes permanent brain damage, ruins lives, and that many of his so-called customers will be worse off due to the sale! How can you defend this?”

              “Well, I’m a bartender.”

              The best kind of “lying propaganda” is still technically accurate. The fact that it is accurate, but just given a different spin, is what makes it effective.

              That does not make it honest however.

  7. …suing the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) following its failure to provide the group with records related to the department’s experiments on primates.

    Look, I know the Obamacare website was a disaster but there’s no reason to litigate.

  8. “bureaucrats to give monkeys brain damage and show them pictures of fruit.”

    This is a disingenuous argument.

    I know first hand that research monkeys are very expensive and time consuming to use. I seriously doubt they are “wasting” them.

    Likewise, I am not allergic to the idea that the federal government is conducting “basic” research. To me, this is analogous to roads or other pre-competitive infrastructure that enables interstate commerce.

    If one wishes to argue that monkey research is wrong, then do so. But let’s not pretend that bureaucrats are doing this for jollies.

    1. But let’s not pretend that bureaucrats are doing this for jollies.

      Let’s also not pretend that that’s just completely unthinkable.

      1. It wouldn’t be pretense.

        1. It wouldn’t be pretense.

          No? You’re saying it is completely unthinkable that a bureaucrat would abuse their power over another creature just because they get off on it?

          1. No? You’re saying it is completely unthinkable that a bureaucrat would abuse their power over another creature just because they get off on it?

            Not unreasonable. However, just as with the disingenuous presentation above, it seems exceedingly likely that the bureaucrats would be bemoaning the cost of the monkeys and the scientists would be the ones treating them directly. So, while ‘bureaucrats torturing monkeys for jollies’ isn’t guaranteed to be true any more than the fact that there are no black swans, the general notion that all or even most swans are black is between falsehood and lie.

    2. They are doing it to do something with grant money. Grant money (from us) funds the purchase of the monkeys and all the necessary facilities for the experiments, PLUS the paychecks of the researchers. You didn’t think they were buying those monkeys with money from their own pockets, did you?

  9. I wouldn’t be so quick to criticise. Injecting Monkey’s brains with acid may lead to revolutionary cures; kids may walk, cancer cured, so much is at stake. I mean, how many monkey’s were shocked or subjected to other tortures in order to discover that they felt pain, or had empathy? Lots! Monkeys may seem to others as our “poor relations” but monleys have lead the way and we should be proud of our cousins. I’m going to propose running monkeys over with cars polished with various popular products like Simoniz or Meguiars just to study the effects on car finishes. Could lead to shinier cars. If that happens, the knew product will be called “Monkey Shine” I mean, it’s only fitting.

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