Of caged monkeys and scientific men
A week or so ago, in New Mexico, I met a man who spent decades interfering, on a scientifically aggressive level, with monkeys in a university laboratory.
That man is Dr John Gluck, of Albuquerque. Those monkeys taught him a great deal. About himself.
Gluck trained as a primatologist at the University of Wisconsin and ended up at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque. He mostly studied the rhesus monkey, also known as the rhesus macaque.
He started colonies and did “pretty invasive work”, using monkeys as models for research on human cognitive and social development. Some of his early work was giving the monkeys drugs – mainly cocaine or the chemical component of marijuana—to try and learn about the effects of abuse in humans.
“Initially, I was absolutely totally committed, it had the highest priority in my life,” he said. “Family came second or third. I had very little doubt about how important it was.
“In some models, the animals could self-infuse drugs. They had catheters implanted into their jugulars. But normally we would get monkeys and rodents and directly inject drugs to see the effects of the drugs on their behaviour. It was a lot of holding and handling, immobilising them for a short periods of time.”
In the 1970s, there were many questions about marijuana. On the one hand, there was a strong sub-culture argument that the drug was harmless, and liberating. On the other, the US establishment was concerned the sub-culture was growing and separating from known American society. Cocaine was also become a big problem.
It was thought necessary to study the monkeys’ reactions. But Gluck’s work went much wider than examining the aftermath of recreational drug-taking.
“I had populations of monkeys that had been raised in various environments, from highly enriched environments with mothers and peers, to animals that had been raised without mother contact or limited peer contact,” says Gluck.
“There were questions of whether children raised in orphanages had cognitive effects. When you raise moneys in the lab they have abnormal behaviours, such as self-biting, self-mutilation - bizarre behaviors. So that became a focus of trying to understand, comparing to humans.”
Asked if he developed attachments to his monkeys, Gluck pauses a long time. “Yes. I think the acknowledgement of what kind of attachment changed over the years. I knew them all. I was there when they were born for the most part.
“I thought of them as my partners in research. We worked together solving these problems of stimulation and cognitive ability and the influence of psychoactive drugs. That sounds silly, now, to say I thought of them as partners.
“We didn’t study them, kill them, and start again. We used them over and over.
“There came a time when I started to be a bit more reflective about how useful this research really was. Was the value of that work sufficient to justify what was extracted from the monkeys?
“They lived for the most part in individual caging, they developed odd behaviours. I guess the fact is that I began to see their predicament after a while.”
It didn’t hit him in a flash. But he asked himself: “Is this acceptable? Is this decent? Is it appropriate? Do I have responsibilities to these monkeys?
“It was a long-term epiphany. Some of it came from students who objected. I knew them well enough, these students, and I couldn’t just blow them off.
“One summer this graduate student came to me. I had developed a couple of groups of social monkeys. They were stump-tail monkeys, same group as rhesus. She was interested in studying mother-infant relations.
“I said, ‘Go up to my lab, I’ve got a group, there will be infants born this summer. Go up and watch them, and come and talk to me.’
“She watches them for three months. We have a conversation. I’m thinking she’s going to come up with a study about intervening in the relationship in order to perturb them.”
By “perturb”, he means he expected the student would devise ways of removing the baby from its mother and studying the reactions of both.
That is not what happened.
“She said, ‘I’m going to take a leave of absence and going to have a baby.’ She told me she became entranced by their interactions, the caretaking, the affection, their tolerance and patience. And she said it put her in touch with what was missing in her life.
“Instead of viewing them as an experiment, she related to them person—to—person. She was not interested in interfering in their social lives at all.”
Gluck began to feel the same way. “Eventually, slowly, I began to appreciate their predicament, of living in confined spaces,” he says.
I put to him that other researchers were doing much worse with their experiments, such as cutting up chimps to practice micro—surgery, or blasting them with diseases such as HIV or Hep C.
But Gluck declines to absolve himself. He has no doubt his own work went too far.
“It was pretty bad,” he says.
“What I had noticed about myself was that I had stopped going to the lab. I had everybody else do it. I had students do the experiments. I realised I didn’t want to look at these monkeys any more. It made me too uncomfortable, so I let the students do it.”
Gluck began to read philosophical books asking questions about ethical acceptability of interfering with animal lives. And it was no state secret that his lab had monkeys.
“I would get letters from the public, some expressing interest, others saying how awful they felt,” says Gluck. “I wasn’t deaf to their questions, I became less defensive about it.”
In 1993, Gluck took a sabbatical and spent a year at Georgetown University in Washington studying research ethics and bioethics more generally. “It changed my life,” he says.
“The experience I had in my academic life was that research ethics was not given much serious attention, which is consistent with the history of science – ethics is somebody else’s business.
“But in Georgetown, that was all people talked about – issues such as informed consent, risky experiments involving people with terminal illnesses.
“I’d gone from sneaking around to a place where this was all everybody was talking about. I was drenched with writings about thinking ethically about humans and animals.
“When I came back I made a decision I needed to change the focus of my profession. I didn’t want to be a monkey researcher any more.”
I met Gluck while reporting a story about a colony of chimps at the Holloman Airforce Base in New Mexico. The 176 chimpanzees in that facility have been exposed to HIV and Hep C and decisions are now being made about their future.
Gluck had first encountered this colony in the early 1970s and was deeply impressed. The chimps were much closer in genetic make—up to humans than his monkeys. When he first saw the chimps, living like death—row prisoners, exhibiting the behaviours of dangerous mental patients, all he could think of were the exciting medical possibilities they offered.
As would later be learned, you can give a chimp HIV but it won’t go on to develop the AIDS. Likewise, a chimp can be infected with Hep C but they won’t develop liver cancer.
That, in itself, has driven some researchers further onwards with their primate studies, trying to unlock why these animals remain immune while we do not. But the answer has eluded science. Close as we are to primates in DNA, we are also very different.
The tide is turning in the US, with the National Institute of Health accepting recommendations, which were made in December, that chimps should no longer be used in labs (unless there is no other alternative). The view of US health authorities is that chimps are so similar to us that they deserve special consideration.
The same view is applied to the other great apes, being gorillas, orangutans and bonobos. But monkeys such as macaques are still routinely used in labs, including in Australia.
Gluck is a supporter of a campaign that is now afoot to give the Holloman colony of chimps a break; to let them be retired from testing forever. But he is ahead of the pack in many respects: he no longer supports raising any species of ape or monkey for lab testing.
In Britain and the US, there are active discussions about the real value of primate research. Government agencies that fund biomedical and behavioural research are starting to ask questions.
While there have been benefits – such as testing chemo—therapy drugs and radiation – governments are concerned that many of the so—called advances have been exaggerated by scientists chasing research dollars.
It’s a difficult for Gluck to say what benefits his work with monkeys brought to humans.
“Did anything good come of it? Sure. How necessary it was is another question.”
A caged primate cannot change what happens to it. Only a human can.
I left the interview impressed by John Gluck.
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