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Members of Congress request investigation into U.S. monkey lab

Four members of Congress have asked the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate psychological experiments on monkeys being carried out at an NIH lab in Poolesville, Maryland. The letter, which comes in response to an aggressive campaign by the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), claims that for more than 30 years researchers at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) have been “removing [macaques] from their mothers at birth and subjecting them to distressful and sometimes painful procedures that measure their anxiety and depression.”

From late September to late October, PETA ran more than 250 ads (such as this one) in Washington, D.C., Metro trains and stations, including the NIH station. It also ran ads in major newspapers. The ads claim that NIH is spending millions of taxpayer dollars to traumatize “baby monkeys by tearing them away from their mothers at birth, scaring them with loud noises and fake snakes, and addicting them to alcohol.” The group claims that the campaign resulted in more than 150,000 phone calls and e-mails from the public to NIH and Congress.

In their letter to NIH Director Francis Collins, U.S. representatives Lucille Roybal-Allard (D–CA), Dina Titus (D–NV), Sam Farr (D–CA), and Eliot Engel (D–NY) reference the PETA claims and public outcry. “Prominent experts … have raised questions about the scientific and ethical justification of these particular experiments,” the letter states. The group requests a bioethical review of the work by February 2015.

In response to questions about the experiments, NIH referred Science to the webpage for the NICHD lab of Stephen Suomi. The page states that the lab investigates various aspects of monkey behavior, including how this behavior changes when the animals are raised in different environments. This includes separating young monkeys from their mothers, measuring their addiction to alcohol, and monitoring their long-term stress levels.  

In an e-mail to Science, Justin Goodman, PETA’s director of laboratory investigations, says his group is “delighted” by Congress’s response to its campaign. The monkey experiments, he says, “have never improved human health and are superseded by modern nonanimal research methods that can actually identify the causes of mental illness in people and how to treat it.”

NIH says its policy is to respond directly to Congress and that Collins will be addressing the letter in detail.