Using Primates In Research: Scientific And Ethical Considerations
Researchers have a long history of using primates in research. Many of their research questions focus on understanding primate behavior and shedding light on human behavior, which often involves studying primate psychology.
In this paper, the authors examine the scientific advantages and disadvantages of conducting non-invasive psychological research on primates in laboratories, zoos, sanctuaries, and the wild. While each location has scientific benefits and disadvantages, the authors also discuss the welfare implications of each setting.
As many as 68,000 primates are currently living in U.S. laboratories. While most of these primates are commercially bred for research, some are taken from the wild. For researchers, the primary benefit of conducting research in laboratory settings is the high degree of experimental control. By removing outside influences and unpredictable events, researchers can more confidently draw conclusions about a primate’s mindset or behavior.
However, this comes at the cost of depriving primates of their natural social and physical environment. Artificial lab settings can cause primates to display different or abnormal behaviors compared to their wild counterparts. Additionally, primates may participate in multiple studies and frequently interact with humans. For researchers, this can limit a study’s validity, replicability, and generalizability.
The authors point out that lab settings raise various welfare and ethical concerns for primates. Boredom can harm their well-being, and killing primates who are no longer needed for research is still common practice. Finally, they argue that taking primates from the wild to study them in captivity is putting pressure on wild populations.
Research in Zoos
Primates are the most-studied animal in zoos, with apes comprising approximately two-thirds of all the primates studied. Compared to labs, zoos offer slightly more realistic conditions for conducting research, as primates often live in semi-natural social groups and environments. On the continuum of experimental control, zoos fall between labs and sanctuaries.
Regarding limitations, zoos often lack dedicated, knowledgeable research staff and sufficient funds. Because zoos can only house a limited number of animals, researchers must often rely on small sample sizes. Researchers have mitigated these challenges by forming partnerships with other zoos and using non-invasive technology to assist with data collection.
Like labs, the authors point out that zoos present several welfare concerns for the primates. While some researchers argue that participating in zoo experiments may be a form of enrichment, other studies have shown it can cause frustration. Additionally, primates’ movements are often restricted in zoos so visitors can easily view them, exposing them to crowds and noise. Researchers and zoo staff can improve the situation by providing primates with privacy barriers and opportunities to control their environment. (Editor’s note: With or without research, previous scholars have written extensively about the ethical problems associated with keeping wild animals in zoo settings.)
Studying primates in sanctuaries may reduce or eliminate some of the ethical concerns associated with labs and zoos. For example, sanctuaries commonly house only one primate species, minimizing inter-species stress. Since sanctuaries prioritize animals’ well-being, they usually have strict standards for research and limit the type of research that can be done.
Compared to zoos and labs, the main advantage of sanctuaries is their more natural social and physical environments and restricted public access. Primates can engage in various natural behaviors that, in turn, provide researchers with data more representative of wild populations. Sanctuaries also tend to house large numbers of primate species, thereby providing researchers with larger sample sizes.
Sanctuaries have their own challenges for researchers. Enclosures typically prioritize primate privacy, making it harder to collect observational data. Additionally, primates come to sanctuaries from various places (e.g., biomedical facilities) and with varying degrees of trauma. Such experiences can result in abnormal behaviors that may obscure results. Researchers have mitigated these challenges by using non-invasive technology to view animals and allowing traumatized animals time to adjust to the sanctuary.
Research In The Wild
Wild or “field” research may be the best way to understand primates’ natural psychological processes and behaviors. Wild primate populations are much larger and more diverse than those in captivity. They also live in the habitat where their species evolved, allowing researchers to study a broader range of behaviors. These conditions provide comprehensive information about primate behavior and habitat needs, which can help improve conservation projects and the lives of primates in captivity.
According to the authors, most researchers agree that they should minimize contact with primates in the wild to protect their welfare. Therefore, many studies conducted in wild settings are observational. Other challenges of field research include small sample sizes, reduced experimental control, and limited or no control over a primate’s participation in the study.
Field research, in the authors’ view, is free from many of the ethical concerns that arise when studying captive primates. However, researchers’ mere presence can pose risks to wild populations. Human-primate interactions may transmit disease, disrupt social hierarchies, and cause habituation. Technology that reduces interaction, such as cameras and remote sensors, can reduce some of these risks.
The authors urge all researchers to ask themselves if conducting research purely for curiosity is worth posing harm to primates. If researchers believe they have important questions to answer that can’t be studied in wild settings, the authors see sanctuaries as potentially being the most ethical option. However, they conclude that research in the wild may better meet primates’ needs and produce more ecologically valid data.
Animal advocates can continue bringing animal welfare issues and scientific limitations to the forefront of discussions about using primates for research, particularly for those in captivity. Advocates can also play an important role in addressing the welfare concerns of field research with primates in the wild, especially if this option becomes more popular among researchers.