Saturday, 4 June 2011

Don't put Primates in Boxes

In recent months I have been thinking a lot about the evolution of human intelligence and I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that the main difference between apes and us is the use of a spoken language. In other areas, such as emotion, and social interactions with their own species - particularly relatives - there may not be any great differences. The more I think about it the more I feel horror at the ways we have treated them.

Stuffed Gorillas at Tring Museum
These two gorillas have been blindly viewing the world through glass eyes for about 100 years. They are in one of the showcases in Tring Museum, which houses the very extensive collection made by Walter Rothschild. He sent collectors world wide to gather specimens and box them back to Tring where, if appropriate, they were stuffed. The museum is now run as an excellent demonstration of what a Victorian natural history museum was like. It should be realized that at this time every museum of this type wanted to have stuffed primates to educate and amuse the public.

This have changed - as a child around 1950 I visited London Zoo and saw Guy the Gorilla. To be honest my recollection is hazy but I seem to remember the cage seemed small.  A visit two or three years ago showed that the way gorillas are housed at London Zoo has greatly improved - but anyone who has seen modern natural history films of gorillas in the wild is quickly aware of the limitations of modern zoo housing. The recent death of a baby gorilla at the zoo attracted much attention - but was the result of trying to allow the gorillas to lead as "normal" a social life as possible

While the use of primates for education and entertainment is moving in the right direction, there is the problem of apes used for research. The need for such research under tight control has recently been argues by Drugmonkey. I come from a farming family, where animals are reared for meat (and profit) and also  worked for a time for the veterinary division of a pharmaceutical company. For this reason I am well aware of the arguments for the use of animals in research - where this is done under proper controls.

However I am worried about the use of primates for a particular reason. While it is hard to imagine a chimpanzee's or gorilla's emotional state I have experience of the impact of being inhumanly caged on another primate. My own daughter, Lucy, had a severe mental breakdown in 1984 and shortly after being discharged from hospital she started to becave in a manic manner and was arrested. The "wonderful" British National Health Service refused to readmit her and as a result she spent many months in a bare cell in effective solitary confinement, before the courts were able to send her to hospital. Not only was she destroyed by being caged, but the very act of watching her mentally disintegrate effectively destroyed the family - indirectly leading me to take early retirement, abandoning the CODIL project,- and also leading to the death of her sister Belinda.

Of course the conditions in which laboratory apes are raised ares far better than the conditions applied to seriously mentally ill prisoners, and if born and raised in captivity the apesy will not be aware of what they are missing. The current controls on the use of primates are probably adequate - but I would strongly prefer that the apes are treated as our cousins, who can experience similar emotions, and are not subjected to actions which we would consider cruel if they were human.

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