‘It’s Almost Impossible to Ethically Justify the Use of Animals in Research’

A conversation with ecofeminist Lori Gruen

Last November, the National Institutes of Health announced it would be retiring the remainder of its lab chimpanzees to sanctuaries, two years after deciding to retire all but 50. It is a decision that has many animal welfare activists thrilled, photo of a womanbut even among them, few have more reason to celebrate than Lori Gruen. A professor of feminist, gender, and sexuality studies, environmental studies, and philosophy at Wesleyan University, Gruen has a special love for chimpanzees. She has researched and documented the history of chimpanzee experimentation in the United States, written prolifically on animal ethics as an academic and an animal welfare advocate, and interacted with our tree-climbing cousins at sanctuaries such as Chimp Haven in Louisiana, where apes are relatively free to pursue their own interests in forested enclosures.

As an ecofeminist, Gruen’s philosophical purview is not limited to Pan troglodytes but extends to all nonhumans, as well as women and other marginalized groups. Gruen’s work, as her website states, “lies at the intersection of ethical theory and practice.” She “is currently thinking about intersections of race, gender, and species, and, as always, chimpanzees.”

I spoke with Gruen over the phone one week after the NIH decision. With only rare interruptions from her rescued greyhound, we discussed what that decision means for chimpanzees and other animals–human and nonhuman.

Your work has touched on a variety of issues but it seems like you’ve had a special relationship with chimpanzees. What is it about chimpanzees that has drawn you to them?

Part of it has to do with the ways in which they’re really quite unique in their history of use, and also in the ways in which they [interact] with one another. I began thinking about and working with chimpanzees when I was working on questions about animal cognition and animal minds. I had, prior to that, been a little concerned that people paid too much attention to chimpanzees and not enough attention to other animals that were equally interesting. But it does seem that once you get to know chimpanzees they capture your attention so you can’t stop paying attention to them.

And the good news about that is that a lot of people have been captivated in that sense by chimpanzees and so there’s been a ton of work that’s been done over the last 10 years to try to bring about the end of their use in research. It’s amazing, I was telling my class the other day, I thought maybe possibly toward the end of my life I might be able to say, “well, chimpanzee research is ending,” but here I am in the middle of my life and chimpanzee research is ending. So it’s quite a momentous event.

You have a database of the “Last 1000 Chimps” (that lists the names, birthdays, and current locations of chimpanzees used in biomedical and behavioral research in the US). I was wondering if you could talk about who is left, especially with the recent NIH announcement?

My work started originally with the first 100 chimps, I put together a website documenting the first 100 chimpanzees used for research at the Yerkes colony. I began by trying to recognize and give some sort of context to why it is that chimpanzees live in United States and why they’ve been used in research and how this all started. And I’ve been meeting primatologists, chimp researchers, philosophers and others.

A group of folks encouraged me to put together the last 1,000 site as sort of the bookend to the first 100 site. The last 1,000 site tracks the chimpanzees that are still in laboratories and their movement to sanctuary. There are quite a number of chimpanzees that are still in laboratories. One of the things that’s important that hasn’t been fully captured in the most recent announcement is there have been very few chimpanzees that have been moved from the laboratories to sanctuary. They haven’t moved really any of the government-owned chimpanzees – other than the group of about 130 chimpanzees that came out of New Iberia – they haven’t moved really any of the chimpanzees that need to be retired so that is a big task that’s ahead of everybody at the moment.

Are all remaining chimpanzees used for research government-owned, or are there privately owned chimpanzees?

There are a little over 700 chimpanzees that are currently in research labs by my count. And roughly half of those are government owned. So we’re talking about 350 [government-owned] chimpanzees that currently need to be moved to sanctuaries. I was a little bit disappointed in some of the media coverage because it made it seem to the average readers like there were just 50 more chimpanzees that need to be moved. But that’s not true at all.

How did we get to a point where chimpanzee research seems to be on its way out?

A couple years back there was a group of chimpanzees in New Mexico in the Almagordo Primate Facility. And those chimpanzees had been retired or semi-retired and then they were sent from New Mexico to Texas to be potentially used again in research. And that move set off a very interesting set of protests and concerns, and there was actually even a story about it on Rock Center, which is an NBC show.

Chimp, Kibale, Ugandaphoto by Rod Waddington, on FlickrChimpanzees are not just charismatic but quite remarkable, long-lived, unique creatures with very robust emotional and cognitive lives, says Gruen

After a tremendous amount of letter writing and news media coverage the government asked the Institute of Medicine to do a study to decide whether or not chimpanzees were needed scientifically in research. Their charge was to determine whether it was scientifically necessary, not whether it was ethically necessary. They determined that it was not scientifically necessary, that there were alternatives in most cases. That report then went to the NIH, where the NIH had a committee that determined what to do about the report. That committee decided that it made very little sense to do biomedical research with chimpanzees, but they may fund behavioral research with chimpanzees. That report – I think it came out in 2012 because in 2013 and 2014 there were no requests for funds.

In the meantime, for many, many years chimpanzees were considered endangered in the wild but they were not considered endangered in research facilities – no other animal had this “split listing,” so for a very long time primatologists and animal advocates were urging an end to that split listing. Finally Fish and Wildlife Service decided that they were going to end the split listing and that if you were going to do any research with chimpanzees you had to request a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service. And they would only issue a permit if it was shown that the research that was being done with chimpanzees was directly in the service of the conservation of wild chimpanzees. So that came into effect this September.

There’s been no [new] applications for research [using chimpanzees] and so the director of the NIH decided that there was no point in holding [on to the last] 50 chimpanzees [that it had been planning on holding on to]. That’s the last 5 years or less of how we got here. That was a very, very fast process.

My understanding is that most other countries haven’t been doing this for a while?

No other countries, other than Gabon, but that’s unclear as well. There used to be a series of laboratories in Gabon but over the last several years I’ve looked to try to find where and I’ve found nothing, so I actually think that this really is the end of chimpanzee research in the world.

But research is not the only hurdle facing chimpanzees in the world today.

Oh, not at all. Chimpanzee populations in Africa are dwindling. Primarily due to logging and increasingly, sadly, palm oil plantations, which have destroyed Indonesian [forests] and orangutan populations. Palm oil plantations are now moving into Africa, into the same sort of equatorial areas where [there are] very, very important habitats for chimpanzees and gorillas and other forest animals. So it’s a worry, it’s a big worry.

Logging of course has been the main problem. With logging what ends up happening is roads being built into these forests. That opens access to bush meat hunting and capture for the pet trade and other forms of illegal trading in “exotic” animals. So chimpanzees are definitely in danger. Part of what I think is so important about this new decision to stop doing research on chimpanzees is that it will help people in the United States to fully understand them as endangered species. When chimpanzees are being used in laboratories for research or in entertainment or advertisements it conveys an impression that they’re not actually endangered. And they’re very seriously endangered.

This has been kind of a big year for what humans see as the most cognitively advanced animals: Ringling Bros. announced they’d be retiring elephants, Sea World has been taking hits, and now chimpanzees. How can we advance that to help other animals who maybe aren’t as charismatic or popular?

It does have a certain kind of double-edged nature to it. On the one hand these are not just charismatic but quite remarkable, long-lived, unique creatures. So when you have a long-lived creature like that, they’re going to have very robust emotional cognitive lives. They’re also highly social animals, so that also speaks to why their use is questionable.

On the one hand isn’t this then just saying that if you’re a long-lived creature who’s really smart and emotionally complicated then you deserve our protection, and no other animals deserve our protection? I mean that’s one of the dangers of highlighting the unique characters of chimpanzees or dolphins or whales or elephants. I think it’s really important that they are different and they are quite remarkable but that may not be the only thing that we should be considering from an ethical point of view.

This is my ethical position on this: Once we recognize that we’re in these complicated relationships with other animals and that we can make their lives better or worse by what we do or don’t do, and that their lives are the kinds of things that matter to them for their own sake, I think that that can ultimately change our thinking and ultimately our actions or inactions when it comes to other animals.

Part of what I think can be useful about highlighting some of these issues like Sea World, like the elephants, like the chimpanzee case, is that we then not just come to see these other animals as the remarkable beings that they are, but we can also see what our actions are actually doing to them. And our relationships with them then are something that we can explore and think about from an ethical point of view. I think that that is going to be a very helpful shift in perception and perspective that will potentially help all of us think about what else we can do to have better relationships with the other inhabitants of the Earth.

You recently coedited a volume on ecofeminism – what does ecofeminism mean to you?

That’s a big question. This view that I’m expressing about the importance of our relationships and trying to make the consequences of the ways we act in our relationships more visible and more present, that’s one of the things I think an ecofeminist perspective allows or encourages. This idea that we’re in these complex webs and networks of relations and we can make decisions – not necessarily momentous decisions as individuals to change structures – but we can actually recognize our place in these relationships and we can decide how we ourselves will interact within them.

I think the other thing is that ecofeminism is really concerned about relationships with power, the ways in which domination and structures of domination operate and are mutually reinforcing.

Do you see an ecofeminist perspective as something that supplements other views (such as Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation or deep ecology), or is it an alternative philosophy?

It’s an alternative, it’s an alternative. On the one hand, the philosophy of Animal Liberation as we typically understand it is a very liberal, individualistic approach. What that means is we look at individuals, we see what capacities they have, we determine whether or not we’re the same as them in morally relevant ways, and we try to make our actions and policies consistent vis-á-vis these others. So it’s an extensionist, liberal model that goes from one individual to another individual.

Now on the other hand you said deep ecology or environmentalism, that tends to be a holistic model, so the individual gets completely lost for the whole, so you end up with the species mattering more than individuals and that sort of thing. Ecofeminism sits in a different space than either of those two. It’s not liberal in the sense that it focuses fundamentally on relationships, but it’s not focused on the holism that annihilates the individuals.

That seems to me that it should have an impact on how we do advocacy, whether for nonhuman animals or for humans. From your approach what strategies are most promising, which ones should activists take up more?

I think that ultimately figuring these things out in immediate communities is probably the best way to go instead of making general sweeping prescriptions. One of the things that has me very excited is thinking much more intersectionally about power relations that are reinforced. I wrote an op-ed in Al Jazeera on the killing of Cecil the Lion and the shooting of Samuel Dubose in Cincinnati, recognizing the ways that these structures of domination and othering and unintelligibility are mutually reinforcing. And then thinking about the ways we might be able to change that.

Right now I’m teaching my course on the ethics of captivity. I do work as you know on chimpanzees but I also do work with incarcerated individuals. I’ve been teaching in a maximum-security men’s prison for about seven years and the issues are very different in some regards but there’s a lot of important insights to be gleaned about the underlying structures of marginalization, exclusion, denial of autonomy.

You know, Peter Singer in Animal Liberation 40 years ago said speciesism is like racism and sexism but that was it! There was no other analysis. And so I think what ecofeminists have been doing for a while, and I think the real nitty-gritty work that needs to get done, is to actually look at what that means. It’s a nice little slogan but what does it actually mean?

I’ve heard you mention that sanctuaries in themselves aren’t ideal but are the best alternative.

I think every sanctuary that is a true sanctuary recognizes that they’re eventually going to be out of business. For the most part I think both chimp sanctuaries and sanctuaries for farmed animals are really necessary and important. Beyond just caring for individuals who can’t live anywhere else, there’s also an educational component that sanctuaries can provide and put a different frame on what it means to be in a good relationship with a nonhuman other.

I think one of the things that’s so exciting and important about Chimp Haven and why it’s important to “retire” chimpanzees to sanctuaries as opposed to leaving them “retired” in labs is there’s just a whole different ethos in the sanctuary. The sanctuary is dedicated to providing the chimpanzees with the most meaningful life they can live in captivity – that is not at all the purpose of the laboratory. Even if they’re going to not be used in research, they’re still in the laboratory setting and the purpose of the laboratory is not to provide them with a dignified, meaningful life.

At same time my view is that sanctuaries are necessary but they’re still captivity, and I think everybody who works in sanctuaries are really keenly aware of fact that they’re keeping animals in captivity. Different degrees of captivity but still, they’re living under control of humans.

Animal research, more than animal agriculture or habitat destruction or other issues facing nonhumans, is perhaps a harder philosophical nut to crack, due to potentials of scientific benefits. How do you weigh all the competing factors?

It’s a hard question because I actually think that even somebody’s view like Singer’s view doesn’t even allow for – you’d have to know a lot more than we ever really do know in order for there to be a justification for the use of animals in research. So from an ethical point of view I think it’s really hard to justify.

From a practical point of view though, it’s so ingrained and it’s also so distant from people’s lives. Whereas eating animals is something we do all the time and we can do or not do, with research it’s not something that most of us are involved with directly and it’s not really the kind of thing we can do or not do. It doesn’t make a difference in our own relationships with the animals that are being used.

And also the vast number of animals that are being used in research – rats and mice and rabbits – are really very misunderstood. That is something that needs to change. I think doing what we’ve done with chimpanzees and elephants with rats would be really important. Rats are incredible, they’re so smart, they’re so sensitive, they’re incredibly emotionally complex and I just don’t think people know that. They’re used by the millions in research labs and they’re “pests” but, you know, I think they’re misunderstood.

A lot of animal advocacy groups do really stress when it comes to research their view that it ultimately is not that helpful scientifically anyway. But I think your book Ethics and Animals makes a compelling argument that even if it were helpful scientifically, that it’s still intellectually hard if not impossible to justify. How much, if at all, should scientific efficacy be centered in campaigns?

Ultimately, again the idea of campaigning is one that requires very, very careful thinking about where people are right now at the moment in their particular context. Recognizing the ways in which we’re implicated and our relationships are made worse when we condone these kinds of practices, I don’t know if it’s going to work or not work in terms of changing things but we just haven’t done it. It also speaks to why things like open rescue are met with so much more applause than DxE [Direct Action Everywhere] screaming in Chipotle, or that sort of thing.

I think when there are individuals who are being made vivid, when you know these are the dogs that are being used in this research lab, these are the chickens and the hens and the turkeys that are being used in these factory farms, we’re going to go in and we’re going to introduce you to them and we’re going to rescue them if we can, that’s a whole different model for how to think about how we might change up our relationships. Now I’m not saying everyone should go out and break the law, I’m just suggesting that in terms of strategies or practices it seems that there’s more that we can explore that brings out the connections that we have to other animals.

Not just we as activists and scholars, but everybody is in these relationships with other animals. So at the end of my class yesterday I didn’t tell my students don’t go eat turkey at Thanksgiving, what I said was given what we’ve talked about, given the ways in which the self can be come unhinged in conditions of domination, given the ways that we ourselves are connected to those institutions of domination, let’s be mindful of that when we’re having Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a very different way of thinking about that, I don’t know what’s going to happen when they come back, it will be very interesting.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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