The risks of harm to nonhuman primates, and the absence of benefits for them, are critically important to decisions about nonhuman primate research. Current guidelines for review and practice tend to be permissive for nonhuman primate research as long as minimal welfare requirements are fulfilled and human medical advances are anticipated. This situation is substantially different from human research, in which risks of harms to the individual subject are typically reduced to the extent feasible. A risk threshold is needed for the justification of research on nonhuman primates, comparable to the way risk thresholds are set for vulnerable human subjects who cannot provide informed consent. Much of the laboratory research conducted today has inadequate standards, leading to common physical, psychological, and social harms.
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Increasingly, research suggests that highly social mammals, including primates, have psychological and behavioral systems that detect and respond to inequity and even perceived social injustice [5, 6]. This suggests more substantive overlap than is generally assumed between human and nonhuman primate perceptions of ethical landscapes, and thus, calls for more homology in the impositions of ethical standards and moral justifications for their use. If some core perceptions of fairness and inequity overlap between human and other primates (even to a general extent), then those other primates should be granted minimally an awareness of social justice and recognition of their endangerment and potential harm by being the focus of human experimentation and manipulation.
For example, nonhuman primates have no political power; they cannot advocate for themselves. Legally, they are property; they can be bought and sold. Nonhuman primates are easily trapped, restrained, and transported by physical force. In captive and some field settings, nonhuman primates are in totally dependent relationships with humans. For more on this topic, see [24, 25].
Although primate well-being might be a concern for some zoo caretakers and officials, the primary purpose of zoological parks is exhibition rather than promotion of animal well-being. Nonhuman animals used in zoo displays are often captured from the wild, confined, and exposed to harms associated with captivity and transport. Although there have been claims that zoos are agents of public education and species preservation, these claims have been challenged by Marino and colleagues; see .
There may be some instances in which interventions such as general anesthesia and sedation are beneficial to nonhuman primates. In these cases, benefits could exceed risks and provide justification for these types of interventions.
In the United States, euthanasia of chimpanzees is allowed only to alleviate suffering .
A 2003 survey encompassing almost 36,000 macaques in 22 U.S. primate laboratories found that 54% of animals used in research were singly caged . A nonexhaustive survey by USDA Animal Care field inspectors between October 2000 and August 2001 determined that 35% of surveyed animals kept in research facilities were single-housed . Between 2004 and 2006, at the National Primate Research Center in Seattle, Washington, 63% of monkeys were singly caged . Individual monkeys spend an average of more than 3 years alone . Other surveys indicate that macaques and baboons spend more than half of their lives caged alone .
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1058186. Any opinion, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The authors thank Tom Beauchamp, John Gluck, and David Wendler for helpful comments on previous versions of this article.
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Ferdowsian, H., Fuentes, A. Harms and deprivation of benefits for nonhuman primates in research. Theor Med Bioeth 35, 143–156 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11017-014-9288-2