PETA vs Neuroscience: Revisiting the Silver Spring Monkeys

Some days ago, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) delivered a recount of all of their greatest victories in the animal rights arena to my mail. For some time now I’ve been receiving such reports from PETA. It’s a reward for my donation some years ago when PETA was rescuing pets in North Carolina, after the devastation of Hurricane Florence in 2018.

I usually slip pass-through these miscellaneous reports, which look for more donations from the receiver. But, after a quick glance at the list, something caught my eye. It was a title that I had recognized some years ago, after reading Norman Doidge’s books, The Brain That Changes Itself.  The title was the famous Silver Spring monkeys case – which PETA describes as  “the case that launched PETA” –  and it was firmly posted at the beginning of the list as one of the grandest accomplishments by the organization. And yet, in 2019, such a statement is confusing if we reconsider the conclusions after the episode.

Revisiting the Case of the Silver Spring Monkeys

New Opportunities in the Brain

In the early 1970s, the scientific community – specifically the neuroscience field – believed that the brain lacked plasticity (the ability of the brain to adjust to changes). The consensus was that it was a static organ. But, for Edward Taub, a middle-aged behavioral scientist, the notion of a brain that cannot change during adulthood was preposterous. There were already some studies that gave glimpses of a brain that can change through different happenings. For Taub, the question was whether it could be tested. Already during his Ph.D. days at Columbia, Taub toppled Sir Charles Sherrington’s “reflexological theory,” which argued that “all of our movement occurs in response to some stimulus and that we move, not because the brain commands it, but because our spinal reflexes keep us moving.”

A veteran of the field, Taub began to work with the Institute of Behavioral Research (IBR),  after receiving a Ph.D. from New York University (he had a dispute in Columbia with the Ph.D. committee and was forced to move to NYU). The IBR is an independent research group, founded by the behavioral psychologist, B.F. Skinner. The National Institue of Health (NIH) granted $180,000 in research grants to Dr. Taub and the IBR; to study the growth and changes of the brains of the monkeys when their nerves were severed. The process is described aptly by Peter Carlson of The Washington Post:

The process — called deafferentation — involves operating on the spinal cord and slicing the sensory nerves leading to one arm, thus severing all sensory communication between the arm and the brain. The operation left the limb completely numb but still able to move. Scientists had first deafferented monkeys in the 1890s in order to study how the nervous system controls movement. They observed that the monkeys no longer used their deafferented limbs and concluded that voluntary movement is impossible in the absence of feeling — a conclusion that became a law of neuroscience. But in the late ’50s, Taub and other researchers began to doubt that conclusion. They tested it by deafferenting monkeys and then forcing them to use their deafferented arms by putting a straitjacket on their good arms or by putting the animals in restraining chairs and giving them electric shocks if they didn’t use the numb arms. Under duress, the monkeys did use the numb arms, thus disproving a basic tenet of neuroscience. 

Taub first began by severing the nerves of one arm and proved that, if you put the good arm on a sling, sooner or later the monkey would use the numb arm. The experiments were taken further. They later severed both deafferented both arms and found that the monkey would later use both arms, even if they didn’t feel anything. Finally, even after severing the whole spinal cord, monkeys could “still use its limbs.” This brought Taub’s attention that there could be larger repercussions in the study of patients with severe strokes that, in the process, lose nerve functions even after recovery.

Enter PETA and Alex Pacheco

Alex Pacheco and Ingrid Newkirk are known now as the pillars of PETA. The organization in 1981 was operating in the garage of the founders, with Pachecho being a student of political science at George Washington University. Pacheco went to Taub and asked if there was any room for him in his lab. The excuse, of course, being that Pacheco wanted to follow up on a career in medical research. Taub told Pachecho that he couldn’t pay him, but the latter told responded he would volunteer for the job. Peter Carlson in The Post quotes Taub telling her wife, “I have a marvelous student.” The behavioral scientist didn’t know the storm that was coming his way.

Some time after Pachecho started to work in the IBR, he asked his boss for the keys of the place to do some night shifts. Pachecho would secretly smuggle cameras, veterinaries and other experts to examine the facility and the health of the monkeys that had their nerves severed. By this time, there were 18 monkeys in total in Dr. Taub’s laboratory. One night, after Taub decided to take a three-week vacation and other helpers decided to take some time off, Pachecho broke in and with a more advanced camera took photos of the monkeys. The next morning, the Maryland police had raided the place and took the monkeys away. As Carlson would note in his article:

It was the first time in American history that police raided a scientific research laboratory because of alleged cruelty to animals, and both sides — the animals [sic] rights activists and the animal research industry — im-mediately identified it as a “landmark” case that would set legal and political precedents affecting animal research across the country.

As Doidge later in 2007 described in his book, “[Taub] was stunned by the media circus that greeted him and by its repercussions.” As head of the lab, Taub was charged with 119 counts. He lost his position in the IBR, his salary and all of his grants. He depended on his savings, which were $100,000 (at the end in 1991 he had $4,000) and the salary of his wife, who was an opera singer. Pachecho and PETA scored their first big victory, but his celebration would turn into mayhem the following years.

The Trial for the Silver Spring Monkeys

The first problem that PETA encountered was the dilemma of where to put the monkeys. A volunteer from PETA, Lori Lehner, decided to shelter the monkeys in her basement while the trial went on. “The monkeys were also given toys and mirrors and lots of tender loving care by a posse of indulgent animal lovers who fed them by hand and groomed them with toothbrushes and stayed with them 24 hours a day,” explained Carlson in his article. But, soon the IBR requested that the monkeys were returned to them, which the court granted. The story got weirder because of the following day when the monkeys couldn’t be found in the basement. Accounts agreed that Pachecho and PETA were behind it, taking the monkeys to Florida. Pachecho, in Peter Singer‘s In Defense of Animals, expresses the following:

That night the monkeys disappeared. Bench warrants were issued for the arrest of Ingrid, Jean Goldenberg, director of the Washington Humane Society/SPCA, and Lori Lehner, whose home had been the monkeys’ temporary resting place. Lori spent a night in jail before it was decided that there was insufficient evidence against any of the women.

Caroline Fraser from The New Yorker took the liberty to ask the animal rights activist about the monkeys’ possible trip to Florida, which he replied with irony: “That’s a good guess.” Indeed it was. When the monkeys were returned – after a judge ruled that the trial could not continue without the monkeys –  “Spanish moss” was detected in their cages. The monkeys had “returned as mysteriously as they had disappeared”, said Doidge.

What followed was a long battle for the restoration of the monkeys to the IBR lab and PETA fighting to keep the monkeys away from the NIH and the aforementioned laboratory. By November of 1981, “113 of the 119 charges” against Taub were dismissed. Scientists started to support their colleague, with “sixty-seven American professional societies” arguing that “there was no good evidence for the original charges.” What made the tide inclined towards Taub? The Washington Post explains:

Their trial, which began in late October 1981, proved to be a preview of the years of confusing controversy that have followed it: Nearly every fact was disputed by “experts” from both sides. The prosecutor charged that Taub’s lab was so filthy that it was unhealthy, and he produced federal inspection reports and witnesses to corroborate that claim. The defense responded that the lab was clean — certainly no dirtier than most animal labs — and produced other federal inspection reports and other witnesses who backed that up. Veterinarians called by the prosecution testified that Taub’s policy of not bandaging wounds on the monkeys’ deafferented arms constituted a threat to the animals’ health. Veterinarians called by the defense — including two University of Pennsylvania researchers who had worked with deafferented monkeys — testified that bandaging those wounds was counterproductive because it caused the animals to attack the arms again. The prosecution introduced 70 photographs showing unsanitary conditions and injured animals. The defense produced researchers who’d worked in the lab over the past decade and testified that the place never looked like that when they were there. Taub himself charged that several of the pictures appeared to have been “staged.”

The Gift to Neuroscience that the Monkeys Brought

Taub, the NIH, and PETA would ensue a bitter legal battle. PETA’s intention with the monkeys became apparent at the end of the 1980s and starting the 90s. The monkeys symbolized their first victory and their commitment to animal abuse.  But such commitment shred light into PETA’s downfall in the Silver Spring monkeys saga. The NIH took custody of the monkeys and had in their power 15 of them (one had already died after a bitter fight against one of its fellows). PETA fought hard to retain the monkeys and to not put them to sleep. Indeed, not even experimentation could be done with the Silver Spring monkeys at the time.

Because of PETA’s constant interference and delays, the monkeys suddenly became of interest by various researchers at the NIH. These were the same monkeys with deafferentation surgeries, whose bodies were numb and brains, theoretically, were different. For many scientists, opening their skulls and examining their brains was the logical conclusion. The opportunity came in 1989, with Mortimer Mishkin, an NIH scientist at the time, interested in Taub’s method and experiments. He and other colleagues were in the process to euthanize – by the courts’ order – one of the monkeys, Billy. But before doing such a procedure, they opened his skull and put “124 different spots in the sensory cortex area of the arm.” The scientists stroked the monkey’s numb arm, but nothing happened in the brain – brain waves. But then, they stroked the face of the monkey and something amazing happened. While stroking the face, the part of the brain dedicated to the arm showed electrical impulses. Doidge called this – and the following therapies based on these results with humans – “midnight resurrections.” The experiment had confirmed the theory of other neuroscientists, like Michael “Mike” Mezernich, which argued that when brain maps were not used, “the brain can reorganize itself so that another mental function takes over.”

After the Silver Spring monkeys

Taub’s career from then on was elevated. He co-author papers regarding the Silver Spring monkeys and was accepted to the University of Alabama in 1987. In that institution, he worked with stroke patients in rehabilitating them with the results that the infamous case that shaped his career. People with impaired arms got a sling in their good arm to work with the bad one (using the experience that he learned from the monkeys). He’s now 88, and although the Silver Spring monkeys case sometimes pop-up, his name has remained intact.

For Pachecho, as the postcard that I received in the mail suggested, his organization, PETA, became the leading animal rights organization in the world. Now 61, Pachecho has been involved in numerous animal rights cases, with huge victories improving the impact of PETA. Some claim that the organization had damaged their cause with their sometimes petty scuffles (their insistence on going vegan, the total opposition to animal experimentation, even potential cancer treatment, etc). Indeed, one could argue that those flaws were showcased during the Silver Spring monkeys case. Pachecho made the primates go all the way to Florida in small cages, furthering damaging their wounds, and even opposing euthanasia while the monkeys were suffering. Still, the case was a landmark in elevating the debate of scientific progress, which in this case was neuroscience and patients with strokes and the faith of innocent animals. One had to wonder what are the bright lines that could limit or further each part of the debate. The Silver Spring monkeys remain an exemplary case for such debate.

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