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Ingrid Newkirk Letter on Animal Rights:

A Response to Wesley Smith's Chimp Deal

Dear Editor:
In 2002, the NIH awarded Emory University’s Leonard Howell $400,000 to study the effects of cocaine on rhesus monkeys, and granted $349,000 to Georgetown’s Kenneth Kellar to study chronic nicotine exposure in rats. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Center for Alcohol Studies received an $8.2 million NIH grant for research on the effects of binge and chronic alcohol consumption in rats and mice. Year after year, the list of the cruel, expensive and ridiculous experiments sponsored by the NIH astounds as it steals money away from prevention and treatment programs for people in need. Yet, Wesley J. Smith feels that the moral and fiscal issue we should be debating is the NIH funding of a sanctuary that would house surviving HIV-infected chimpanzees (National Review Online; January 16, 2003).

These chimpanzees have been subjected to an inexcusably miserable and frightening life in which almost all that is natural or pleasant to them as individuals, and as a species with various behavioral and other needs, has been ignored. Smith jokes that we shouldn’t anthropomorphize animals by applying words like “retired” to chimps; but he has no problem freely using the phrase, “bred for medical research,” as if this requires no snickering quotation marks, as if this were somehow a more natural “career” for the animals. Passing over our abysmal treatment of them, Smith defends their use in what he believes are important AIDS experiments, when, in fact, AIDS experimenters have repeatedly stated that the lack of appropriate animal models for HIV/AIDS research makes the application of information gained from chimpanzees, let alone other species even further removed from us physiologically, impossible to extrapolate to the human condition. Smith resents granting these feeling, intelligent and grossly exploited beings their few remaining years in the sun and suggests, incredibly, that the onus should be on animal welfare organizations to foot the bill for the chimp sanctuary. This is as absurd as asking environmental groups to pay the cleanup tab for the government’s toxic waste contamination.

Ultimately, Smith is neither concerned about the money nor the efficacy of the experiments but is threatened that human beings are beginning to realize how badly we have behaved, and are behaving, toward those who are not so far removed from us after all. Dredging up the same sort of arguments used by frightened men during the time of the Suffragettes, he writes, “…as intelligent as chimpanzees are, as sophisticated as their social interactions may be, as easy as it is to anthropomorphize their lives, we must also never forget that they are animals, not persons.” Like Phyllis Schlafly threatening us with unisex toilets, he warns that extending our consideration beyond our own species will inevitably make certain vulnerable humans readily available for these same horrible experiments when there are no animal alternatives. It is quite the opposite. Neuroscientist and vivisector Glen Pursky at the Canadian Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, who enthusiastically performs eye transplant experiments on rats, writes that, “rats are clean and social animals…they are intelligent and able to thrive in the human world… these animals are so smart–it’s amazing how much they are like humans…that makes them ideal for researchers” (The Calgary Sun, December 1, 2002). This is the paradox of experimentation on animals. It requires intellectual, emotional, behavioral and genetic similarity; and yet is justified by an abstract and undefined notion of human particularity and privilege. The subtitle to Smith’s article “money going to the wrong kingdom” speaks volumes. Not only are we in the same “kingdom” as chimps, we are also the same phylum, class, order, family and even sub-family! If we are able to be so inconsistent and to perform gruesome acts on our own family, then we are sufficiently numbed to all types of suffering removed from our immediate social and conceptual circle. This is the same provincial morality that sanctioned the Hepatitis B experiments on people in institutions for people labeled with mental retardation.

As demarcations between humans and other animals become ambiguous, and the myth of an “animal kingdom” is dispelled, “speciesists” inevitably resort to either right-wing religious doctrine or abstract notions of intrinsic value to justify human privilege. Ironically, it is humans’ allegedly unique “capacity for morality” which is most often cited to license humans to exploit all other animals, in the most hideous of fashions. Smith must witness the smashing of a healthy monkey’s skull to inflict paralysis (one of the studies touted by Smith); this is done using a specially designed vise-like device to hold the head and a mechanical sledgehammer that can be adjusted to various degrees of impact. The sound of the skull cracking is unforgettable. After experiencing this, I doubt he will have the gall to complain about a cushy “Sun City” for the HIV-infected chimpanzees. Analogies to the medical rooms at Auschwitz would be more appropriate. Clearly, this is more than an issue of financial restitution. There is a moral debt to these animals that we can never repay.

Very truly yours,

Ingrid Newkirk
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
501 Front Street
Norfolk, VA 23510
Tel: 757-622-7382
Fax: 757-622-0457