It’s no surprise that so many people say monkeys are their favorite animal. After all, the primates seem to lead a carefree lifestyle. When they’re not hopping from tree to tree, they’re dangling upside-down from branches. And, when that’s all done, they’re re-fueling with fresh fruit and seeds.
But that image of free, fun-loving animals wasn’t what greeted the journalists who sneaked into multiple macaque breeding facilities in Laos. The primates in front of them had none of those typical qualities, because they were being bred for a harrowing reason.
It was 2011 when photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur made her way to South East Asia with director Karol Orzechowski. But the pair weren’t traveling across the world for pleasure. They were there to conduct an investigation into the breeding and exploitation of lab animals.
“The investigators and I went with barely a lead, but a lot of determination to find out how and where lab animals, primates specifically, were kept before being shipped to labs around the world,” McArthur later wrote on her website, We Animals.
Of course, it wouldn’t be possible for McArthur and Orzechowski to walk right into these breeding facilities wearing their hearts on their sleeves. So, they came up with a backstory. “We said that Karol was buying them for labs, and he was also buying them for people who wanted to buy them for entertainment,” McArthur said in an interview with The Dodo.
“We also said that the reason we wanted to shoot on their property was to see if they were being housed in good conditions, and to take [this information] back to our clients in the U.S.,” she added. And with that, they talked their way into three separate lab-animal breeding facilities in Laos.
Inside, they found macaques – long-tailed primates most commonly found in Asia – being bred for scientific testing. These creatures are “the most heavily traded monkey for research worldwide,” McArthur subsequently wrote on We Animals. And, as one might imagine, the facilities churning out lab animals were heartbreaking to see.
“These animals are basically just being kept alive,” McArthur told The Dodo. “They’re not getting much food, and there’s a hierarchy in each cage. So the older monkeys get all the food, and the younger ones are left to scramble and fend for themselves. So there’s a lot of starvation in these cages.”
The cages themselves were in a horrible state, full of urine, feces “and the bodies of some of their cage mates,” McArthur said. Life spent in captivity had stripped the primates of their happy-go-lucky nature, too. “They bare their teeth,” McArthur added. “They might charge you and then go back into the cage.”
Moreover, McArthur’s observations were just a snapshot of a wider problem in Laos and beyond. Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mauritius and China all have macaque breeding facilities, too. In some places, even wild primates were caught in order to serve the same purpose.
Whether farm-bred or wild, macaques were then shipped off to China, where they allegedly received forged papers necessary for them to be sent to science labs around the world. In 2015 alone, more than 11,000 macaques made their way to the U.S. for research purposes.
Unsurprisingly, life as a research subject led to discomfort and near-certain death for the animals involved. In many labs, primates underwent transplantation experiments, infection with deadly disease or exposure to toxic materials – all for the sake of science.
“Primates will be used in toxicity testing, where animals are given high doses of a new chemical or a new product until 50 percent of them die,” Dr. Theresa Capaldo, executive director of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, told The Dodo. “Or an airplane mask will be secured to their heads, and they’ll be forced to inhale toxic substances. Then they would be killed, and their lungs would be examined.”
In many cases, scientists defend their use of primates in labs because they’re so much like humans. But Capaldo claimed that their logic is flawed. “We know that what happens in a human male is not necessarily applicable to what happens in a human female,” she said. “So if a male and female human can’t always predictor for each other what would happen, then how can we reliably consider a different species to be predictive of what’s going to happen in a human?”
Cruelty Free International’s chief executive, Michelle Thew, said that modern medical imaging, brain modeling and the study of human cell cultures meant that primates were no longer needed in research labs. “You can do a lot of the same kinds of research in humans that actually suffer from the conditions,” she told the BBC. “If you want to look at a condition that affects human beings, use human-relevant medicine.”
Despite these arguments, though, researchers continue to use macaques as subjects. Nonetheless, there have been some positive developments since McArthur and Orzechowski infiltrated the Laos breeding farms. For instance, in 2016 the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) stripped Laos of its right to ship out macaques for research purposes.
And McArthur and Orzechowski’s undercover work also led to the closure of two of the macaque farms that they visited. But while that can be counted as a victory of sorts, the photojournalist pointed out that there were countless other breeders who continued their efforts.
She urged those people involved to take a closer look at the creatures they were breeding, testing – and harming. “We often think of lab animals within the lab, but what was their life like before that time?” she asked. “They knew freedom. They knew trees and family and choice, and then they were put into these hellholes.”
Capaldo went one step further, telling The Dodo that animal testing is “a poor model.” She added, “It’s always a flawed model, and it’s often a dangerous model, and no researcher would deny that. Their argument would be, ‘Well, we have no choice. This is how we need to do it.’ But there are better approaches.” Still, her plea has gone unanswered: according to the Humane Society, 80 percent of countries continue to allow animal testing.
That very practice, of course, was what inspired McArthur’s work in the first place. “The lives of these animals are so completely unassociated with the products we use, and that’s why I take these images to make the connection with A and B,” the photojournalist told The Dodo. “[The animals’] lives are worth considering.”