Below is a reworked presentation I made at the University of Cape Town in October 2007. I believe it is important for everyone to know that vivisection (animal based research and product testing) is alive and well in South Africa and that wild caught Vervet Monkeys and Chacma Baboons are amongst the innocent victims of this officially sanctioned cruelty.
Today I am going to tell you something of who these two species of animals are, and what they are not. I have deliberately not referred to any scientific papers or other formal studies about non-human primates, because I am of the unwavering belief that every individual of every species of non-human primate is a sentient being who should be respected, appreciated and protected against harm wherever possible. Unfortunately this fact is mostly ignored in scientific studies where they are seen not as individuals – each with inherent value who exists in his /her own right and for his/her own reasons, and whose value is not reducible to whatever form of commodity-related value ( such as science tool, source of food or entertainment, etc) we humans conveniently attach to these fascinating animals – but rather they are seen as commodities, things, given numbers and not names!
As Michele (Michele Pickover, at the time one of the Trustees of Animal Rights Africa and long-standing anti-vivisection activist) has stated so accurately during her presentation, and I quote what you have already heard:
Other primates share with us many morally relevant capacities that were once thought unique to humans. There is very powerful evidence that animals throughout the order of mammals, at the least, are conscious of their pain, pleasures, appetites and emotions, as well as being conscious of the outside world. Monkeys, as well as apes and humans, ‘know what they know and remember’ and also ‘know when they forget’. They communicate meaning as well as emotion in their vocalisations; understand and use abstract symbols; mentally represent numbers; undertake problem-solving; constantly make decisions; comprehend cause and effect; form concepts and have desires; observe and interpret the gaze of other individuals, and practice deception. There are strong, affectionate bonds between individuals, particularly mothers and offspring, and maternal siblings, that may persist throughout life. They show emotions clearly similar to those we label happy, sad, angry, and depressed. They have a sense of self and a sense of humour. Like us, they can be aggressive and even brutal or compassionate and altruistic.
Like us, they are able to remember past events and anticipate and fear future experiences – such as pain. These attributes are morally significant because they show that other primates are harmed not only by physical pain, but also by mental and emotional distress – such as is caused by a barren environment, frustration, restraint or social isolation and the presence, or anticipation, of something fearful or painful.”
I must admit to having a fascination with non-human primates in general, as I do with all animals, wild and domestic. However, probably because non-human-primates behave in so many ways, and do so many things, that we humans can understand and identify with merely by watching them as they deal with all aspects of life that confront them each day, I also identify with the many threats they face each day to their safety and well-being, and I am compelled to do whatever I am capable of to actively defend and protect them against all the injustices perpetrated against them by humans. This is why, after having been involved with primate-related issues since 1984 when I was Chairperson of the Durban branch of what is now known as the Wildlife and Environment Society of Southern Africa (WESSA), I was in 1995 compelled to start the Monkey Helpline in KwaZulu-Natal. Often throughout one’s life you look back and ask, “why did I take so long to do something? Why did I not do that much sooner? Well, I have asked myself these questions a zillion times as I go about Monkey Helpline activities every day, because every day I see things being done to baboons and monkeys in South Africa that make my stomach turn, and not least of these is what happens to monkeys and baboons who are unfortunate enough to end up as subjects of some or other research.
As I speak, the provincial conservation authority in KZN, Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife (EKZNW), is preparing for the final public meeting that will lead to the adoption of a new management policy for all captive primates in the province – the conclusion of a process that has taken four years (now completed). And it is a process that resulted from pressure by individuals and organisations such as Monkey Helpline, concerned about the lowly status afforded primates in the province, which lowly status gave more rights to people who wanted to kill primates or use them for research or confine them in zoos than to people who wanted to protect and care for them. In fact, the existing provincial conservation Ordinance actually states that only research institutions and zoos may be permitted to keep indigenous primates. The Ordinance sets no animal welfare standards, no duty to care, relating to the capture, confinement and care of these highly intelligent and demanding animals – something which will be a very important component of the new management policy. In drafting this policy via a process of stakeholder meetings, one of the controversial aspects that needed to be dealt with was the use of Vervets and Chacmas, in fact all primates, in biomedical and other research, collectively called vivisection. What I found both fascinating and disturbing was that whilst most of those involved with this process knew of the use of primates in vivisection, hardly any of them had considered that this also affected the indigenous primates that were the subject of this draft legislation. The existence of ethics committees was mentioned as the so-called “acceptable” means of ensuring that all experiments were approved and done humanely, but it was interesting to note that even whilst this policy formulation process was underway, the BRC at UDW had applied for permits to obtain Chacma Baboons, and that during a suitability check by the local SPCA and EKZNW inspectors of the BRC, they not only found it unsuitable for keeping baboons, but actually confiscated and euthanised the Vervet Monkeys that were being housed there. It is also interesting to note that at the time that this took place, a member of the UDW ethics committee was also the veterinarian attached to the Durban SPCA. So much for ethics committees.
Do you know that no-one has the faintest idea how many Chacma Baboons or Vervet Monkeys we have in South Africa? What we do know is that habitat destruction and modification is having a hugely negative impact on these animals and as a result there is an ever increasing level of direct contact between them and the population of humans who have annexed the territories that these baboons and monkeys have inhabited for many generations. And with this increase in contact we have an increase in concerns for the wellbeing of both the baboons and monkeys and the people affected. One positive is that this situation forces more people to show a greater interest in these animals in an attempt to understand them and so lobby for greater protection for them, as both individuals and as species.
The sad thing is that few, if any, of the people who use baboons and monkeys as research tools bother to find out more about who these animals are and how they live. If they did they would discover what amazingly intelligent and complex beings they are, how well structured their societies are and very much like us they are in terms of their needs. They would realise what a terrible thing it is to trap wild primates and rip them away from their families in order to sell them into the world of vivisection. They would realise what a terrible thing it is confine them in isolation, in cold, sterile cages, deprive them of the social interactions with others of their kind that is such an important aspect of their mental and social wellbeing, and they would know what a terrible thing it is to subject these animals to the horrors of biomedical, warfare and other research.
Whilst discussing various aspects of the proposed new primate legislation for KZN during the many meetings that have taken place over the past four years, one thing that struck me was how little time the participating stakeholders had spent actually observing primates, in both free-ranging and captive situations, and I became convinced that it was this ignorance about these animals that made it so difficult for many of the stakeholders to understand what a management policy should really look like if it was to afford these animals a reasonable measure of protection against so much of the cruelty and exploitation to which they are subjected.
I say again, how many researchers actually know anything about the lives of the animals they see as mere research tools? Few, if any, I believe. If they did I think that it would lead them to more readily question the ethics of using these animals for research. But maybe I have displaced faith in the moral fortitude of vivisectors.
During the years that I have coordinated the activities of the Monkey Helpline, I have had an amazing insight into who Vevets and Chacmas are, how they live and what we should be doing to protect them against the injustice of abuse and exploitation for, amongst other things, vivisction.