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

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 


Four decades ago, renowned comparative psychologists David Premack and Guy Woodruff presented a number of experimental challenges to Sarah, an experienced research chimpanzee based at the Yerkes Primate Biology Laboratory of Emory University. Sarah was shown videotapes of a male (human) actor struggling with a variety of problems, including efforts to reach some bananas, free himself from a locked cage, and stay warm as he shivered next to a malfunctioning heater. In each instance Sarah was given sets of photographs, where only one provided the solution (a stick, a key, fire). Sarah consistently chose the correct card, outcomes her researchers interpreted as evidencing “theory of mind” (Premack and Woodruff 1978). Premack and Woodruff’s conclusions elicited responses that ranged from wonder and excitement to skepticism and heated debate (Lincoln, Andrews, Rosenblum 1995:515). At stake was whether Sarah, as a non-human primate (NHP),1 could think and reason in ways considered exclusively human: did Sarah’s actions demonstrate analogic problem solving? Was she capable of perceiving and responding to the desires, needs, and emotional states of another being? Could she experience and express empathy across the species divide?

Premeck and Woodruff’s early experiments have inspired steady, scientific interest in primate theory of mind in a range of disciplines, most notably within the fields of primate behavior, cognitive psychology, and experimental neuroscience (Andrews 2005; Baum 1998; Belmonte 2008; Butterfill and Apperly 2013; Call and Tomasello 1996, 2008; Heyes 1998; Lincoln, Andrews, Rosenblum 1995; Povinelli and Vonk 2006; Seed and Tomasello 2010). This concept has served as an especially provocative—and many would argue effective—means for bolstering efforts to expand the welfare rights of “sentient” creatures, and, most notably, great apes (Cavalieri and Singer 1993; Corbey 2005). In the U.S., where much of my ongoing research on moral thinking in laboratory science is based, chimpanzees are widely accepted as epitomizing “sentience” in non-human species, a label that is likewise applied, albeit in a haphazard, descending, evolutionary order, to monkeys, dogs and pigs, dolphins, various rodents, crows, and octopi. Whereas numerous researchers continue to wrangle with the category of “theory of mind” in animals, what intrigues me most is Premeck and Woodruff’s decision to show videos to Sarah, and, thus, employ television as a means to test her non-human primate abilities-qua-humans (Harris et al. 1999:40–41).

As I demonstrate throughout this essay, television figures prominently within a larger arc of primate welfare in mediating interspecies encounters within contemporary laboratory science. When viewed as part of a larger moral project centered on animal welfare and care, television’s use (and presence) is simultaneously historical and ontological. It is important to stress that my focus here is not on animals per se, nor do I seek to demonstrate whether appropriate welfare or enrichment practices are at work. (I leave these determinations to experts in primate behavior and care.) Rather, this essay is part of a larger ethnographic project concerned with the quotidian, moral quandaries that characterize experimental science. In this essay I am most concerned with the moral sentiments of human personnel who interact with lab-based primates and, more specifically, research macaques. A premise that drives this project is that whereas various regulatory apparati dictate the parameters of proper conduct in research, and where associated principles are encoded in established bioethical principles, still other informal, and, often, personal or private moral understandings prove elusive unless one attends to quotidian aspects of laboratory thought and action. Animals, because of their affective power, offer a potent means by which to access what others variously refer to as “everyday” or “ordinary” ethics (Brodwin 2013; Das 1999, 2012; Lambek 2010a), and what I gloss throughout this essay as morality to avoid confusion with codified bioethics. That is, whereas the codified ethics associated with regulatory apparati may mandate, for instance, cage dimensions and the need for species-specific enrichment practices, moral thought and action emerge through serendipitous or creative efforts that, in the words of one researcher, characterize attempts “to think like a monkey,” as evidenced, for instance, in television use and programming choices. These sorts of human responses to animals help uncover morality in scientific domains where associated talk is discouraged or is hindered by a deficient lexicon of care.

The data reported in this article are derived from ethnographic research that spans a six year period (2010–2016), gleaned from observations in three primate labs based in graduate-level, academic institutions, each of which houses between a dozen to two dozen macaques at any one time; and through open-ended, structured interviews with twenty-seven lab personnel who, together, have combined experience working in three times that many primate laboratories, sanctuaries, and zoos. The larger research project was designed to probe informal modes of moral thought and action within research laboratories where human–animal encounters involve a range of mammalian species. Monkeys, as non-human primates, inspire specialized responses among lab personnel (comprised of researchers, lab-based technicians, and animal technicians or “caretakers”) who together consistently underscore these creatures’ evolutionary proximity to us, alongside their being highly “sentient” beings. These understandings have a significant bearing on how personnel institute, interpret, and modify notions of welfare and care in the laboratory.

In this regard, I draw inspiration from Mattingly’s work, asking what further possibilities emerge if we reimagine the “moral laboratory” as more than metaphor, manifested instead and quite literally in the bricks-and-mortar space of experimental domains. That is, what might we glean about the nature of experimental science if we reconceive macaque research space as a moral laboratory? Macaques prove especially helpful in this endeavor because they are widely assumed in science and beyond to be highly intelligent creatures (who may well, as the opening of this essay demonstrates, possess “theory of mind”) and, as primates, as creatures that share biological, evolutionary, and behavioral characteristics with humans. These premises inspire human efforts to provide care for these monkeys in ways that expose the sometimes quirky qualities of a scientific moral imaginary at work.

The remainder of this essay unfolds in three parts. Within the first, I offer a brief history of the evolution of television in primate lab space. Next, I demonstrate that Mattingly’s work proffers a potent entryway for expanding our understandings of scientific morality, arguing that primate research labs define specialized moral domains. The third section, which defines the core of this essay, provides ethnographic evidence of quotidian moral thought in action, where television is pivotal to processes that configure monkey labs as moral domains of science. I conclude by considering the broader implications of this stance, where television figures prominently in the remaking of the monkey—and, potentially, lab personnel, too.

Bridging the Primate Divide: A Brief History of Laboratory Television

Premack and Woodroff were hardly the first to use visual media in experimental contexts with primates. As early as the 1930s, the animal behaviorist and psychologist Heinrich Klüver of the University of Chicago showed silent clips from films and cartoons to a variety of primate species to assess their perceptions of and “responsiveness” to “moving pictures” (which included, for instance, images of a python and a lion that Klüver thought might evoke fear or revulsion) (Klüver 1933:305–306). Klüver’s choices appear to have been based on various assumptions: that a non-human species might find moving pictures interesting; that perhaps at least some primate species were capable of reading these images for what they were (that is, they would know a snake or lion when they saw it); and that visual media might quite naturally evoke strong emotional responses in a viewer, be he man or monkey.

Following a hiatus of thirty years, Robert Butler, who was Klüver’s departmental colleague, revived and embellished this work, conducting various experiments with both still and moving color images that were in or out of focus, which Butler showed to a dozen restrained juvenile and adult rhesus macaques (Butler 1958, 1961). These 16 mm films presented various scenarios and scenes to Butler’s captive monkey audience: a caged, female and male pair of rhesus macaques eating, climbing, having sex, and threatening a photographer; a clip from a Woody Woodpecker “Indian Whoopee” cartoon episode; and still others—including one entitled “Snakes”—that clearly paid tribute to Klüver’s earlier research (Butler 1961:240). As with Klüver’s original work, by the 1950s Butler’s experiments were firmly rooted in a scientific logic that presumed not merely that film might evoke emotional responses in primates, but that they might also offer clues for deciphering human psychology. In other words, primates might exhibit behaviors, tastes, and characteristics that were human-like, an understanding that foreshadowed future work in theory of mind. As such, apes and monkeys could stand in as proxies for human subjects, where television and other related visual technologies, employed as potent research tools, could effectively mediate species difference as (in Darwin’s words) “one of degree and not of kind.”

This logic informs subsequent activities that persist to this day and that now include an even wider range of visual media. Indeed, it is safe to say that once a new visual technology makes its way into daily American life, it will soon crop up as an innovative research tool in primate labs. By the 1980s, for instance, lab researchers began to employ computer games as tools for studying primate cognition, inspired by the initial efforts of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Duane Rumbaugh at Georgia State University. Savage-Rumbaugh first tested the abilities of two chimpanzees, named Austin and Sherman, whom she offered a joystick and accompanying monitor, and they mastered their use with impressive dexterity and speed.2 This work soon attracted the attention of American and French scientists at NASA involved in what became known as The Rhesus Project. They hoped that computer games might work with primate species other than chimpanzees, where such games might serve not as research tools but as effective distractions to stave off boredom and destructive behavior. More specifically, NASA sought assistance with rhesus macaques whom, as surrogates for human astronauts, they intended to confine and restrain for a study on bone mass loss during prolonged space shuttle travel (Blum 1994:32–33, 38–39; see also Ballard and Souza 1991; Meunier, Duktig, Landi 1989). In an interview about a decade later with the historian Deborah Blum, Duane Rumbaugh recalled that when his team first helped test NASA’s idea by introducing a gaming apparatus to a pair of their own macaques, “it was just like falling off a log… Not only did the rhesus macaques take to the computer games, but they were good, really good…When the scientists left [the two monkeys named] Abel and Baker in front of a computer, they would return to find [them] absorbed in their work,” holding food in one hand and the joystick in the other, their attention focused intently on the games (as paraphrased by Blum 1994:37).

As this cursory overview reveals, the paired histories of visual technologies and primate research are deeply entwined. Furthermore, over the course of less than a century, within laboratory contexts television’s value as a research tool became elided with ideas about how best to distract or amuse lab-based primates in non-experimental contexts, or what is referred to colloquially in labs as “down time.” The former (television as tool) resides in formal laboratory space, where, in academic neuroscience labs, for example, a human researcher and primate work together as a pair on a series of problems (often spanning several hours each day and numerous days per week, sometimes for years at a time). In contrast, one encounters the latter (television as distraction) in altogether different rooms where animals, when they are not “working,” are housed in cages.3 During laboratory experiments, visual technologies are employed as interactive devices where, say, a monkey works alone at a monitor and solves a sequence of problems where responses are digitally recorded with care by a researcher and transformed into data. In contrast, in a housing room, visual technology is marked by relatively passive engagement, where, typically, a monitor is mounted either on the outside of a cage for close viewing or on a nearby wall so that all the monkeys in a room can see and watch TV.4 Originally imagined exclusively as a means to test psychological responses in experimental simian subjects, television is now widely regarded by a range of lab personnel—and, in some instances, presumably mandated—form of both animal “entertainment” and “enrichment” or “welfare” practice during “down time,” and, thus, a technological marker of “care.”5

My concerns here have emerged in somewhat serendipitous fashion: as part of a larger arc of research on the scientific imaginary, I emphasize that morality is distinct from codified ethical conduct (see Sharp 2013). Whereas the latter is grounded in regulatory apparati, morality is evidenced in quotidian, non-mandated, private sentiment and action. When I initiated this project I could not have imagined that I would encounter television as a welfare practice for animals, yet it has surfaced regularly as an important topic of discussion during lab personnel’s efforts to demonstrate high standards of care. I have come to understand television as a literal manifestation of the moral laboratory in daily practice when lab personnel—and especially animal caretakers—must work especially hard to establish best practices, set against the inescapable paradox that they are working with peculiar category of creature, namely, lab-based macaques who are regarded as “neither pets nor wild animals.” Research macaques, whose wild counterparts are endemic to territories as dispersed as Indonesia and India, have been raised from birth to adapt to laboratory life. In light of this, television may well be understood as evidencing the successful domestication of a specialized lab macaque whose origins may be traced back to the wild.

Primate Laboratories as Moral Worlds

In Moral Laboratories, Cheryl Mattingly argues convincingly for the injection of a “first person virtue ethics” in her analyses of the everyday struggles of disempowered human actors in contexts of unending suffering (Mattingly 2014:xvi–xvii). As Mattingly explains, even seemingly mundane decisions regarding the “care of the intimate other” (pp. 4–5) may give rise to ethical dilemmas and an associated “complex reasoning …that engenders ongoing moral deliberations, evaluations, and experiments in how to live” [(p. 5); cf. (Beidelman 1993; Livingston 2005; Livingston 2012)]. Of special note is Mattingly’s insistence that anthropologists pay attention to the mundane, quotidian, and, thus, unmarked aspects of life [see also (Brodwin 2013; Das 1999; Laidlaw 2010; Lambek 2010b; Robbins 2013)] whose “moral possibilit[ies],” she suggests, might be read as “high drama” (xvi-xvii) ripe with possibility and struggle. Here, individual efforts to create “a good life” may enable one to “flourish” and “thrive” (p.9).

Mattingly employs the concept of “moral laboratory” metaphorically for circumscribing an “imaginative space” of ethical experimentation, bearing possibilities and promises for transforming the self (pp. 14–16). I propose a slight divergence, involving the literal reading of the “moral laboratory” as a means to describe primate research labs in academic neuroscience programs. As I argue elsewhere, experimental science is a highly imaginative domain, where contradictions, quandaries, and struggles proliferate, circumscribed by boundaries that are simultaneously spatial, temporal, and ideological (Sharp 2011, 2013). Moral thinking is nevertheless elusive in experimental science in large part because many researchers argue that “morality” is the purview of religion and philosophy and not lab science. When interviewees consider the meaning of “morality,” they typically fall back on codified rules of conduct mandated by federal, state, local, and institutional regulatory apparati [again, a domain I bracket elsewhere as falling beneath the aegis of bioethics; see: (Sharp 2013)]. The far more elusive, unspoken, or private musings of research scientists and other lab staff emerge through close attention to quotidian thought and action (Brodwin 2013; Das 2012; Lambek 2010a).

Whereas the first presumes a top-down approach, where “ethical science” is demonstrated by how well one follows, conforms to, and respects what are understood as mandated “welfare” practices, the second is imaginative, serendipitous, innovative, and quirky [akin to Mol’s notion of “tinkering” (Mol, Moser, Pols 2010a)]. And, as Mattingly likewise asserts, ethnographic engagement offers especially effective tools for uncovering the moral power of the range of eclectic, personal responses that emerge in the day-to-day of laboratory life. In the research labs where I have conducted research, such engagement necessitates heeding the thoughts and actions not only of researchers, who rely on animals as sources of data, but still other staff and, most significantly, the animal technicians or caretakers who spend much of their working day looking after these same creatures.

As I have come to realize in the course of my research, the presence of lab animals proves especially effective in uncovering the logics of scientific morality, especially in instances where the care of research monkeys is paramount. As a result, captive, lab-based primates provide an especially compelling entry point for wrestling with a literally-conceived “moral laboratory.” The widespread use of primates in neuroscience springs in large part from the deeply ingrained understanding that, collectively, they are our closest evolutionary “cousins” and, thus, ideal proxies for humans. Non-human primates demonstrate sentience, widely understood as surpassing that of all other species (save for humans), a quality that evokes significant struggles—at regulatory, lab, and personal levels—over the legitimacy of their involvement in scientific experimentation.6 This is especially evident in contexts framed by animal welfare, where, today, many lab staff regard the provision of television to lab-based monkeys as clear evidence of ethical “care in practice” (Mol, Moser, Pols 2010b).

Welcome to the Monkey House: The Quotidian Nature of Care

“Sentient” species who live in captive environments (ranging from zoos and sanctuaries to laboratories) are widely understood as deserving specialized forms of protection relative to other creatures. Such protections are clearly reflected in species-specific, and often mandated, welfare practices that originate from within a large array of federal, state, local, and institutional contexts (Council 2011; Segal 1989). In research labs, welfare policies for monkeys address, for instance, enclosure size and design; the social (that is, group), paired, or solitary housing of animals; experimental protocols and duration; feeding and hydration schedules; bedding requirements; and humane approaches to euthanasia.7 Mandated welfare practices are further enhanced by species-specific “enrichment” methods designed to facilitate health and well-being in creatures for whom boredom and other stressors have serious, detrimental consequences (for primates see: Bayne and Camacho 2014; Rumbaugh, Washburn, Savage-Rumbagh 1989). Common enrichment strategies involve the use of objects, devices, and toys (collectively known as “manipulada”) that encourage sensory engagement and physical exercise and stimulate an animal’s mental capacities. A deeply-engrained dictum in well-run research laboratories is that a healthy, well-cared for animal generates robust data, and thus welfare practices that shape animals’ lives inevitably bear utilitarian consequences for science. Unlike other species, however, the housing quarters for apes and various monkeys often include a television.

Rhesus macaques—who define the focus of this article—claim a long history as a favored species of laboratory research in domains as varied as toxicology, surgery, transplantation, cognitive and behavioral studies, and neuroscience. As researchers often explain, rhesus monkeys are “robust” and “hardy” creatures who “adapt easily” to laboratories, where they often live confined to small cages or enclosures for the full span of their lives (many today were in fact born and bred in and for lab use). Again, in the words of researchers, macaques are “curious” creatures who “enjoy” experimental engagement, and the most prized animals are those who “take to” and easily “master” difficult experimental assignments. In cognitive science and neuroscience labs this often involves learning to respond to images on a computer monitor, and an especially adept macaque is described as an “enthusiastic,” “skilled,” “hard” or “good” “worker.” Equally important is the pairing of an individual monkey with a specific researcher, usually over the course of several years. This relationship is often flagged in one of several common naming practices that proliferate in labs. For example, an individual animal might be referred to as “Brian’s monkey” or “Rita’s rhesus” because these human partners (most often multi-year postdoctoral students) work exclusively with one animal nearly every day for months and years at a stretch, and these individual monkeys figure prominently in the publications produced by “their” researchers.

Naming practices evidence moral practices at work, highlighting the importance of recognizing the uniqueness of individual animals [for example, see Buckmaster (2015)]. This is relevant to my discussion below of television, and so I pause briefly to address this here. Within the scientific literature, individual animals are reduced to a “quantitative index” or data point (Lynch 1988:270), their singularity coded through entries assigned to them as, say, “Macaque #17.2014” or “FR [Female Rhesus] 27.” Lab animals interact on a daily basis with a wide range of personnel, including researchers (such as Brian and Rita, and their supervisor, known as the Principal Investigator [P.I.] who directs the lab), other junior lab research technicians (or “lab techs,” who might be recent college graduates), animal caretakers (many of whom are trained veterinary technicians), and veterinarians who specialize in lab animal medicine. All readily acknowledge the special qualities of individual animals, whose temperaments, tastes, habits, and abilities may vary slightly or substantially among members of a particular research colony. Still other non-data-related quotidian naming practices reveal a high regard for uniqueness, flagging the valued or quirky qualities of particular monkeys and undermining the “quantification” (e.g., “FR 27”) of individual creatures.

For instance, within a housing unit for approximately two dozen macaques, all monkeys might wear numbered tags, but they have personal names, too. Yoda may be so named for his patience, Princess for her picky eating habits, Skylark because she vocalizes when focused on experimental puzzles, and Lucky Jim because, when a juvenile, he miraculously survived a serious injury when he was attacked by an especially aggressive cagemate. In labs such as this, human staff and macaques interact on a daily basis and, further, they may easily spend many hours together, day after day, often for many years. As a result, humans and monkeys grow to know each other well, their relationships marked by fluctuations in successful or flawed interspecies encounters. Thus, individual animals may have several names, and personnel often switch among them, depending on the context and audience. For example, “Rita’s rhesus” may appear as “Macaque #15” in Rita’s publications, but, in the day-to-day, Rita will refer to “her monkey” as Skylark, as will the lab’s caretakers who clean Skylark’s cage, feed and water her, check her health, supply her with a variety of manipulada, and determine when and what she and other monkeys watch on TV during down time.

Television as Moral Project

Even after a decade of focusing on laboratory worlds, I never cease to be surprised by television’s ubiquity in monkey labs, alongside widespread understandings that its use exemplifies, to quote A. Mol, a normative “logic of [animal] care” (Mol 2008). As I seek to demonstrate, television’s presence figures prominently in a “first person ethics” among lab personnel, standing out as a specialized welfare practice that exemplifies attendance to what Mattingly describes as the “care of the intimate other,” in this instance, across the species divide. With these assertions in mind, I probe this moral logic of care, where television demonstrates efforts to provide “a good [laboratory] life” to captive, highly sentient creatures. In short, television, as an innovative welfare practice, assists in enabling monkeys to “flourish” and “thrive” [again, compare: Mattingly (2014:4–5, 9)].

Complex regulatory apparati detail the meaning of “humane” care in research, where breaches in protocol can have serious consequences for a lab’s future. Against this backdrop, all lab personnel I have encountered wrestle regularly with meanings ascribed to what they regularly reference as “humane” animal management and “care” when lab procedures can be invasive, harmful, and painful, often ending, too, in the scheduled “sacrifice” or euthanization of animals. A substantial literature already addresses lab animal welfare;8 my interests are set within an altogether different register. Specifically, I am intrigued by those quirky quotidian practices—and, most notably for my discussion here, the preponderance of television—that go unmarked yet signal the simultaneity of the scientific and personal values assigned to experimental research. A premise that guides my project is that animals as experimental subjects offer an effective entry point for exploring the less visible qualities of “everyday ethics” (Lambek 2010a) in lab science (Sharp 2013), evident in the unmarked yet routine actions and words of lab personnel. Here, visual media are pivotal: just as animals are “good to think” (Lévi-Strauss 1963), so, too, is television.

In primate labs today, personnel of all stripes—including supervisors, postdoctoral students, caretakers, and veterinarians—generally regard a video monitor’s presence as manifesting “best practices” in the care and welfare of captive research monkeys. Television is widely understood as an appropriate enrichment strategy for highly sentient creatures who can easily suffer from boredom and succumb, for instance, to pathological, repetitive behaviors known as stereotypy, withdrawal, forms of self harm, or, more generally, the failure to thrive. As intelligent creatures, macaques are understood as being especially “interested” in TV, and staff may invest significant attention and imagination in trying to determine what makes for effective “monkey TV.” (I provide a concrete example below.) Such efforts, typically, are not based on systematic, in-house research, but are more akin to “tinkering” (Mol, Moser, Pols 2010a), where anecdotal observations in the day-to-day of laboratory life then shape programming choices presumed to “interest,” “stimulate,” and “please” the animals in a given research unit. Revisions to animal welfare laws, especially since the 1980s, play a significant role in informing this serendipitous logic of tinkering because television-as-enrichment is all too often described in generic terms without detailed guidelines on how best to track its effectiveness (the same might be said for, say, manipulada).9 As a result, lab personnel are left to their own devices, so to speak, in determining how television might best affect the well-being of lab monkeys as the intimate others of lab domains.

Oddly, the power of visual technology in enabling animals to “flourish and thrive” may extend well beyond the confines of a housing room and encompass experimental contexts, where television-as-research tool may likewise be described as a form of healthy “engagement” for animals, in spite of the fact that such engagement is also regarded as “work.” As one lab director explained, in his opinion, “lab work [itself is] a form of enrichment” because his macaques so clearly “enjoy” computers, regardless of context. Another researcher voiced a similar sentiment during a panel discussion on primate welfare hosted by an East Coast university, an event that drew together research scientists, bioethicists, and animal activists. The panelist in question, a senior neuroscientist, in an effort to underscore how his lab exemplified state-of-the-art welfare practices, elided research and non-research exposure, explaining “the monkeys in my lab spend two to three hours [per day] playing video games” (namely, during experiments) and, in addition to providing paired (versus much disdained solitary) housing for all his animals, during “down time” “[our] monkeys watch TV.”

In my efforts to decipher the assumptions that inform this logic, Butler’s earlier research is instructive. Butler sought to determine what qualities in various images seemed to provide enough incentive for macaques to remain focused for a sustained period of time. His preliminary conclusion was that “changing scenes” helped maintain a monkey’s attention, and that “well-articulated figures” seemed to interest them most, although, interestingly, two monkeys seemed more attentive when, specifically, the snake film was out of focus. Butler concluded that rhesus macaques “are attentive to motion pictures,” and that “they add evidence to the contention that the motion picture technique is a feasible tool to use in studying the perceptual and emotional reactions of monkeys.” Butler underscored the need to be sensitive to what attention duration signified, though, because the data “suggest that brief response durations are associated with fear or anxiety on the part of the monkey” (p. 244). In short, attention may indeed signal interest or curiosity, but it may not necessarily indicate pleasure or enjoyment. Furthermore, Butler was proposing the use of film as research tool and not as entertainment.

An important shift occurs in the 1990s when several researchers—especially those interested in animal welfare—began to design experiments that could help determine how visual media might affect the psychological well-being of captive primates. Some of this work was designed specifically to counteract the proliferation of anecdotal observations of individual monkeys that seemed to be informing uncritical, species-wide assumptions about presumed patterns of interest, perception, or desire. As Lutz and Novak explain, “much too often the approach has been to try whatever is available at the time and record what happens. However…virtually any modification of the captive environment will be associated with some changes in behavior” and, further, not all monkeys—as individuals or as a species—are the same in terms of favored activities that can then promote emotional well-being (Lutz and Novak 2005:178). If we translate this back to the monkey cohort referenced above, Yoda, Skylark, Princess, and Lucky Jim would very likely exhibit different levels of interest in, and responses to, televised images (and, further, where similarly appearing responses might in fact indicate anything from intrigue to fear).

Yet in those labs where personnel regard television as “enrichment,” monitors are all too often employed with a generic monkey in mind, with the same video loop playing repeatedly throughout the day, week, month, or year. In response, I ask not what television viewing tells us about monkeys’ preferences,10 but, instead, I interrogate what widespread beliefs and assumptions about television say about lab-based humans’ understandings of simian subjectivity, set within a larger scientific ethos. Put another way, what might the presumed primate desire for television—as an uncritical sort of indication of theory of mind—say about the morality of interspecies encounters in lab domains? An example from my field research provides a window on this world.

Primetime for Primates

In a neuroscience lab that employs research macaques, the demands placed on a well-trained monkey are arduous. Soon after her arrival from the vendor who bred her, she may well have endured surgery to implant a tiny electrode array in her brain, and following extensive reinforcement training as a lab subject, she will learn to remain still for hours at a stretch in a small, darkened and soundproofed booth designed to keep distractions to a minimum. Here she will sit calmly and without fuss, staring at a computer screen that displays moving images, doing so while enclosed in a specially-designed Plexiglas box referred to colloquially as a “chair” so that she cannot move and thus jostle her head implant, which, during the experiment, is anchored to a post that facilitates the uninterrupted transmission of data to a researcher’s computer. Generally, she is hungry and thirsty, so that she will find small bits of food or droplets of juice rewarding throughout experimental work time. Her brain activity will be tracked by way of signals transmitted by her implant while video cameras record her eye movements. She will sit at the computer monitor for hours at a stretch, working in close company with a postdoctoral student who, likewise, sits immobile in a chair staring at his own computer throughout the session.11 In settings like this, the monkey’s video screen and accompanying hard- and software are regarded as essential research technologies that keep a “hard working” monkey engaged. Sustained technological engagement can also tire a restrained animal who may, from time to time, fall asleep at the monitor.

Television in another form will define part of the furnishings of this same monkey’s living quarters, and here I draw on a specific example from my field observations within a university-based neuroscience lab that generally houses between five and ten macaques. Ten years ago this lab’s monkeys would have been kept in solitary cages for the full span of their lives. Several years ago, however, the lab’s animal caretakers learned of other “innovative” and more “humane” approaches at a professional conference, and they then worked patiently and tirelessly to persuade their lab’s director (with the help of a staff veterinarian) to shift their monkeys to social (that is, group) housing. The caretakers evoked the dominant trope that healthy, happy monkeys generate better data, underscoring that social housing was the hallmark of an appropriately “enriched environment” that would help and not stymie research.

Today the group cage occupies half of a former storage room whose dimensions are approximately 15 × 20 × 9 feet. The monkeys occupy this half of the room while the humans come and go in the other, uncaged portion of the room. Although small, the cage displays a rich array of manipulada, including a matrix of climbing structures composed of artificial trees, small platforms, and ropes, alongside an assortment of small rubber toys that the caretakers rotate in and out on a regular basis. Whereas researchers may come and go throughout the day (to interact briefly with their respective monkeys, feed them treats, and retrieve them for experimental sessions), the caretakers spend a significant amount of time in the macaque room, underscoring that regular human interaction evidences quality monkey “care” or “welfare” in action. Not only is their presence understood as an important source of “stimulation” for the monkeys, the monkeys are likewise a source of constant delight for the humans.

The half dozen caretakers employed in this lab tinker regularly with enrichment strategies, where efforts extend far beyond the swapping in and out of a variety of toys and the reconfiguring of climbing structures or “trees.” A few years ago, for instance, one of the caretakers arranged to have a small window cut in the exterior wall so that the monkeys could “see nature” outside the lab; alas, an inspector, concerned that animal activists might try capture lab activities on film, insisted that they seal up the aperture.12

Taken together, these efforts strive to naturalize the lab’s monkeys in ways that extend well beyond an animal’s value as a mere experimental subject. The cage enclosure, for instance, resembles the artificial environments one encounters in zoos, signaling that these research macaques share something in common with their more “wild” counterparts, although, as I am often told, lab animals are “neither pet nor wild animal,” but a very specialized creature that lies somewhere in between. Lab monkeys are indeed set apart ontologically from other captive or wild primates, inhabiting worlds where postdocs work methodically to transform them into compliant and willing working animals. Animal caretakers explain that their efforts are designed to counteract the transformative processes of science that inevitably reduce monkeys to “data points.” In essence, they (re)naturalize the monkey through specialized welfare practices that, when taken together, assist in circumscribing the greater working environment as a moral laboratory.

Television figures prominently in the housing room as yet another important intervention designed to (re)naturalize this troop of macaques. A few years after they built the group enclosure, the lab’s caretakers decided to enrich the monkeys’ daily lives of these monkeys even further by mounting a small color video monitor and accompanying VCR player on a wall that faced the cage enclosure. Although the caretakers had no experience with this approach (nor did they read any research literature on how best to employ the television), they knew from attending national conferences that other labs made use of TV sets in their own housing rooms and so they sought to add this as yet another form of “best practice.” The small, boxy, wall-mounted video monitor was placed so it would be within easy reach of anyone working in the room, and so that it could be seen from virtually any vantage point from within the monkey enclosure.

As the caretakers explained, for the first few months they tried out an array of videos: cartoons, popular television sit-coms, public television documentaries, and at one point they even considered screening Planet of the Apes to see if it generated a reaction from the monkeys.13 They eventually settled on a soundless visual clip taken from an “Animal Planet” episode; of fifteen minutes or so the loop plays repeatedly throughout the day without variation in programming. As one young staff member explained, “we soon discovered that they loved ‘Animal Planet’…they watch this over and over…What they most enjoy is the scene where the leopard kills an antelope.”14

The actions of this lab’s animal caretakers reveal polysemic, moral understandings of the “making” of monkeys for science (Lowe 2004). The assumptions at work here are shared across laboratory domains. Throughout my research I have encountered similar efforts among staff in still other monkey labs to employ television as a potent tool of technologically-mediated welfare, where they make use of the same sort of hit-or-miss efforts at programming, and where, eventually, they settle on animal imagery—be it embodied in animated cartoons or nature films—as the most appropriate form of species-specific intervention. At work are the deeply-engrained, paired assumptions that monkeys not only like to watch TV, but that they are especially captivated by anything involving animal actors. Time and again, however, the monkeys whom I have observed fail to display behavior to support the veracity of this logic (a finding echoed in interviews with staff based elsewhere, too). As far as I could ever tell, none of the macaques whose labs I have visited paid any attention at all to their “enrichment” screens. Strangely, the very staff who employ this technology often confirm my impressions: someone generally proffers that at most one or two animals occasionally pay fleeting attention to what’s being shown. Indeed, it is well known—as demonstrated long-ago by Butler, that individual monkeys have specialized tastes, preferences, and responses to visual stimuli (Butler 1958, 1961), findings confirmed subsequently in even more sophisticated ways by still other behaviorists (again, see Bayne and Camacho 2014; Harris et al. 1999; Lutz and Novak 2005; Rumbaugh, Washburn, Savage-Rumbagh 1989). Nevertheless, even when the majority of monkeys ignores a television’s incessant loop, caretakers will persist in broadcasting the same videos, day after day, to a room of captive creatures because, as I am always told, “monkeys love TV.” Sometimes some effort is made to distinguish the personal tastes of individual monkeys, but in the end the television is most often employed as a welfare intervention with a generic monkey in mind.

In light of these patterns, an obvious interpretation is that television is provided by way of other more labor-intensive interventions. As those who specialize in lab animal behavior frequently explain to me, perhaps the television is there to distract monkeys so that staff members are free to tend to other things (not unlike a human parent placing a toddler in front of a television at home). Yet the staff I encounter always underscore television’s value as a welfare practice that enriches the lives of the animals under their care. Why this contradiction, where human caretakers invest such faith in television for animals who will not make much use of it? The answer lies in the imaginative strategies that undergird the “making” of the monkey (Lowe 2004) for lab science.

The Humanized Monkey as a Moral Project

Human viewers in the U.S., at the very least, are captivated by images of zoo, sanctuary, and lab-based primates engaged with computers and watching TV.15 Nevertheless, lab monkeys differ radically from their counterparts elsewhere because visual technologies figure in two domains at once—research and “down time”—paired realities made all too clear when one tracks a monkey’s movements between laboratory and housing settings. If a lab monkey is to thrive, she must successfully inhabit these two radically different worlds: the lab proper where she “works” and the social enclosure she shares with other monkeys. In one domain, she labors for hours beside a postdoctoral student; in the other, she climbs and plays with other monkeys in the presence of animal caretakers. In other words, she must be extremely adaptable to multiple habitats, demonstrating what Fuentes describes elsewhere (for temple macaques) as living in sympatry with humans as an “in-between” sort of creature who is neither fully “wild” (Fuentes 2007) nor domesticated.

Indeed, these two domains may well be thought of as separate yet complementary habitats. Lab space proper, intended for experimental use, displays a specialized aesthetic that lies under postdoctoral control, with low lighting, computer hardware, and tangles of wire where monkey and student share space, each lodged in their respective chairs staring at their computer screens. The enclosure room, in contrast, is the animal caretakers’ domain, and here one encounters an altogether different and, more specifically, domestic, rather than experimental, aesthetic. In contrast to the lab, the social cage’s interior is rich in manipulada. Caretakers describe this space as “home” to the monkeys, a sensibility that extends beyond the confines of the enclosure to encompass the remainder of the room. Indeed, the space as a whole is reminiscent of a playroom, where a television transmits programmed entertainment to monkeys who horse around in a cage full of species-appropriate toys. Whereas the laboratory’s aesthetic is structured around the research needs of the postdoctoral student, embellishments to the monkey enclosure are far less clear. One can not help but ask, why show a film of African wildlife to relatively disinterested monkeys of Asian origin who were bred, born, and raised for research and have no notion, experience, or memory of life beyond a laboratory’s walls, much less the African savanna?

As Svendsen and Koch demonstrate in their work within a Danish lab, researchers who employ premature piglets as surrogates for human neonates regularly engage in the making, remaking, and undoing of these piglets as baby animals, models for human babies, research objects, and as corpses for dissection (Svendsen and Koch 2014). Likewise, macaques who inhabit a neuroscience lab must be flexible creatures, able to romp with other monkeys, remain calm when handled by animal caretakers, and cooperate with research scientists as they move from within the housing enclosure, to outside the cage, and then down the hall to the lab. And although all parties remain ever cognizant of their working alongside “fiercely independent,” “strong-headed,” “smart,” “clever,” “wily,” and “stubborn” creatures, the lab is, unquestionably, a scientific domain where macaques must adapt if they are to “thrive.” The blending of human and animal so intrinsic to such projects is most starkly realized in the logic that renders animal research a reality: that animals must stand in as “proxies” for humans, thus simultaneously testing and blurring the boundary between species. Such processes are ethically problematic, however, especially where species widely regarded as “highly sentient” are involved.

If the use of macaques in science is to be a moral project, it requires the humanization of the monkey. Within this process, animal caretakers play pivotal roles. Caretakers shoulder the brunt of difficult, emotionally-charged work, or what Birke et al. call “the technicians’ burden” (Birke, Arluke, Michael 2007:99–109), in jobs that require them to face head-on the life-and-death realities of lab monkey existence. They must prep animals for experiments, care for them following surgeries, recognize and respond to sign of psychological distress, illness, and injury, and perhaps euthanize them at a study’s conclusion. Monkeys are considered extraordinarily expensive to acquire and maintain, and so typically a research macaque is employed for several years, day after day, in the near constant company of caretakers who grow fond of them and who are intimately aware of each animal’s personality, tastes, and quirks. Indeed, the politics of animal research render caretakers vulnerable to emotional breakdown or burnout (Kelly 2015) in jobs that necessitate bearing witness to research procedures, animal euthanasia, and necropsy. These inescapable realities are clearly exemplified in the collective fantasy that lab-based primates long to watch Planet of the Apes, a film where homo sapiens and simians change places, the former transformed into the research subject of the other.

Whereas a surface reading of such practices would foreground the preposterousness of this logic, deeper sentiments and associated meanings emerge when lab space is understood as evidencing the workings of a moral laboratory. Here, the lab is simultaneously an experimental and domestic domain, where human and animal lives are complexly entangled with one another. Efforts to truly “care” for animals require interventions that extend beyond practices mandated by law or institutional requirements, entailing additional creative responses that bear the potential to transform both the monkey and the human through a collective reimagining of the boundaries of humane practice.

Conclusion: The Morality of Lab Animal Care

Given the intensity of sustained human-monkey interaction, and the emotional burdens placed on animal caretakers especially, the furnishing of the monkeys’ quarters with a television emerges as a moral project in a double sense. First, by way of, admittedly, an under-theorized theory of mind, television provides a powerful medium for fostering human-monkey relatedness. Lab macaques, after all, are employed within lab research because they are so highly valued as human proxies, and television’s presence manifests this understanding in concrete form. Second, caretakers—as the instigators of technological intervention—bear witness to the emotional depth of interspecies encounters, orchestrating what one senior caretaker described as “our heart-felt responsibility to ensure them quality care throughout their short lives on this earth.” Such are the ethical dilemmas of captive lab animal care. Television draws monkeys in sympatry with humans while simultaneously confirming the morality of lab animal “care” and “welfare.” That is, television brings them closer to us. In the end, then, laboratory television itself is doubly moral: it evidences the “humanness” of monkeys alongside the “humane” qualities of caretakers, two parties who are entwined in a “double helix” (Chen 2014) of scientific research and quotidian social practices. Just as television transforms the macaque as “intimate other” into a humanized creature, animal caretakers—through a specialized “first person ethics” (Mattingly 2014)—are transformed, too, into moral beings who, as a laboratory monkey’s cohabitants, might likewise “flourish and thrive.”


  1. 1.

    Henceforth, for simplicity’s sake, I will employ “primate” to describe apes and monkeys, to the exclusion of humans. Whereas I open this article with the story of Sarah the chimpanzee, the remainder concerns monkeys and, specifically, rhesus macaques.

  2. 2.

    Following Buckmaster, an innovative leader in lab animal care, I employ such pronouns as “she,” “he,” and “they,” alongside “who/whom” and not “it” or “that” when speaking of lab-based research animals (Buckmaster 2015).

  3. 3.

    Here some variation occurs: although some monkeys may be housed individually, most labs, if they have not done so already, have shifted to paired housing and some, as I detail below, have proved successful with group enclosures.

  4. 4.

    Such set-ups bear an uncanny resemblance to muted television screens set up for human viewing in restaurants, airports, and doctors’ offices across the U.S., although, as I describe below, the content is different and designed to be species-specific.

  5. 5.

    Quotations here and elsewhere around specific terms and turns of phrase indicate comments that commonly arose during my interviews with lab staff.

  6. 6.

    Most recently, the National Institutes of Health, following recommendations made by an Institute of Medicine study, has begun to phase out its own research and funding for others’ activities involving captive chimpanzees. Similar policies (Altevogt et al. 2011; Gorman 2011; Grimm 2016; Kaiser 2015; Reardon 2015) are afoot potentially for other primate species.

  7. 7.

    In many contexts, research animals are “sacrificed” or euthanized at the end of experiments, often followed by necropsy to determine, for example, an experiment’s anatomical or cellular effects on a research subject.

  8. 8.

    The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), empowered with the oversight of lab animal care, is an important resource. See: USDA (1999).

  9. 9.

    In the U.S. this is the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, revised in 1985, 2006, and 2015. The document that specifically addresses primate care is “Improved Standards for Laboratory Animals Act.” Public Law 99-198, Food Security Act of 1985, Subtitle —Animal Welfare.; see also “Updates on Environmental Enrichment for Nonhuman Primates (1999, 2006, and 2015) (consulted 11.1.15).

  10. 10.

    Lab staff well-versed in the complexities of television bemoan its uncritical use as offering little more than a “lazy method” of “distraction” designed, falsely, “to try to keep monkeys happy.” As one enrichment specialist explained to me, “every monkey is unique, and no two watch TV in the same way, if they do at all…a smart lab provides a wide array of enrichment that varies regularly to keep animals from becoming bored, and this includes television use.” In some instances, televisions are provided by caretakers who pity animals who lack access to any other source of stimulation (I thank Lene Koch for this observation, based on research several decades ago in Denmark; personal communication 11.2015).

  11. 11.

    Although this description may be jarring to novice readers, such practices, and trappings, are normative to neuroscience and follow strict welfare protocols. A well-trained macaque will move to the chair, sit while being “posted,” and calmly engage with the computer. Her habitus will reflect that of a willing and cooperative working animal.

  12. 12.

    Such concerns were imaginative at best—the line of sight from the window looked into a tree and, beyond, to a blank wall. In other labs I have visited it is not that unusual for an experimental room to have windows, even large ones. These examples help demonstrate the flexibility with which the finer points of regulations are interpreted and imposed.

  13. 13.

    There is an apocryphal story that circulates in labs in the U.S. and abroad that this is a favorite movie among ape and monkey viewers.

  14. 14.

    The video clip is most likely derived from “Cheetahs: Against All Odds,” from “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” Season 7, Episode 4, 2002, Animal Planet (, consulted 11.10.15). As such, it depicts not a leopard, but a cheetah; interestingly, in the full version of the film, the gazelle clearly escapes capture and it is the cheetah that is seriously injured.

  15. 15.

    Among the most famous involves Koko the Gorilla, who, within her laboratory home, has received and interacted with many television and film star guests—including Mr. Rogers, Robin Williams, and Betty White—all of whom she knows from watching them on television [see, for example,, consulted 6/2016]. In another context, the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago recently featured macaques in their new snow monkey exhibit engaging with computers [see:], consulted 6/2016.



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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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

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

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