Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 224–244 | Cite as

The Moral Lives of Laboratory Monkeys: Television and the Ethics of Care

  • Lesley A. SharpEmail author
Original Paper


Why do lab monkeys watch TV? This essay examines the preponderance of televisions in primate housing units based in academic research laboratories. Within such labs, television and related visual media are glossed as part-and-parcel of welfare or species-specific enrichment practices intended for research monkeys, a logic that is simultaneously historically- and ontologically-based. In many research centers, television figures prominently in the two inseparable domains of a lab monkey’s life: as a research tool employed during experiments, and in housing units where captive monkeys are said to enjoy watching TV during “down time.” My purpose is not to determine whether monkeys do indeed enjoy, or need, television; rather, I employ visual media as a means to uncover, and decipher, the moral logic of an ethics of care directed specifically at highly sentient creatures who serve as human proxies in a range of experimental contexts. I suggest that this specialized ethics of animal care materializes Mattingly’s notion of “moral laboratories” (Mattingly in Moral laboratories: family peril and the struggle for a good life, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2014), where television mediates the troublesome boundary of species difference among the simian and human subjects who cohabit laboratory worlds.


Ethics of care Laboratory science Interspecies encounters Morality in science Bioethics 



Research and writing associated with this work were made possible during a 2015-16 research leave with generous support from Barnard College and the Mary I. Bunting Fellowship of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. I am especially thankful to Ashton Macfarlane, who worked with me as a Radcliffe Research Partner, for his insights, breadth of knowledge, and good humor; and to Radcliffe’s administrative and other staff for their help and assistance during my residency. I am indebted, in turn, to all of the researchers and animal caretakers who helped me with my project, and to my fellow Fellows for their company and lively engagement. I deeply appreciate the provocative and insightful comments offered on earlier versions of this work by Cheryl Mattingly, Michael Lambek, Mette Svendsen, Janelle Taylor, Lone Grøn, and Teresa Kuan, alongside three anonymous reviewers. This essay is dedicated to an extraordinary mentor, Elizabeth Colson (1917–2016), who, as I was writing this piece, passed away just shy of her hundredth birthday.


This project was partially supported through funds from a Tow Family Award for Innovative and Outstanding Pedagogy and those associated with an Ann Whitney Olin Endowed Chair, both of Barnard College; and the Mary I. Bunting Fellowship of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study throughout the 2015–2016 academic year.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares she has no conflict of interest. The author has received no research, speaker, or other forms of funding from any corporate entities with vested interests in this project.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were done in accordance with the ethical standards of Barnard College, the author’s employer; the author has received and is up to date in certified ethics training in institutional and federal guidelines, including the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in this study. This article does not rely on data involving the author’s direct involvement with any studies with animals.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology, Barnard CollegeColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA

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