ethical treatment of non-human primates (NHPs) (outline of issues)

ethics of primate research

Given our current understanding of primate nature and behavior -- as well as the declining populations of apes. How should we humans deal with them?

How should our beliefs about NHPs -- about their cognitive abilities, their emotions, their capacity for sufferiing -- affect our treatment of them?


local human interactions

Farmers vs NHPs. Locals may see non-human primates as agricultural pests, tourist attractions and as game -- not exotic creatures they should give up their own resources for.

Many see "ecotourism" as the best compromise; recall video on gorillas.

apes as citizens, pets, or meat?

Humans have various perspectives on particular non-human primates -- "animal rights" groups in the extreme see the apes as deserving citizenship and equal protection by law with humans. Some see them as pets or colleagues. Finally, many locals see an ape as a good meal, especially barbecued. Obviously there are conflicts among each of these perspectives that are not likely to be solved easily.

Human intervention in wild ape lives?

Should humans protect apes beyond preserving their habitats? Give them polio drinks or ebola vacines?

Apes as research subjects?

Issues include relevance of animal models, cognitive and biological effects of caging, isolation, consent, and retirement.

Harlow's efforts to breed monkeys for his research led to a deeper understanding of the importance of early experience in social, sexual, and cognitive development. Animals isolated in confinement are probably not useful models for either the animals in nature or humans.

(See the abstract by Novak & Suomi (1988) below; Suomi was a student in Harlow's lab.)


Is it ethical to use intelligent animals in risky human research projects without their consent! Could we get consent?


Is even ethical to use them in non-risky projects? For example, was there ANY scientific justification in trying to teach a chimp to use an alphabet as in a recent Discovery video? Could anyone with even a minimal understanding of alphabets and previous findings regarding apes vocal abilities think this would work?

Specific suggestions (Novak & Suomi, 1988 -notes)

Print (Paper); Journal Article


Psychological well-being of primates in captivity.


Novak, Melinda A.; Suomi, Stephen J.;

American Psychologist. Vol 43(10), Oct (1988). (pp. 765-773).


Recent amendments to the Animal Welfare Act will, upon taking effect, require that researchers who maintain nonhuman primates in captivity house their animals in such a way as to "promote their psychological well-being. Unfortunately, no consensus presently exists in terms of how to define or identify psychological well-being in primate subjects. We propose a strategy for defining psychological well-being that includes assessment of physical health, comparison with species-normative behavioral repertoires, detection of distress, and evaluation of coping responses.


This set of definitions is then used to characterize prototypical primate laboratory environments (e.g., single-cage, pair, and group housing) in terms of fostering psychological well-being. The importance of factors other than housing, such as species-specific characteristics, rearing histories, and phenotypic differences, is also emphasized in developing prescriptions for psychological well-being in captive primates. It seems unlikely that simple prescriptions will be broadly applicable across the whole range of captive primates. Instead, researchers must be sensitive to the needs of their particular subjects in order to optimize their psychological well-being, however defined. Most of these have been implemented.


Much recent concern has been directed at the disposition of NHPs after their research has been finished. Investigators are now required to provide for the "retirement" of their primates . An increasing interest in human ageing has lead to additional uses for the older NHPs as models for these questions.

For more information on primate-well being:

NIH training videos

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has established rigorous guidelines in the use of non-human primates in research. Much of this research is directed toward medical and biological issues but guidelines also apply to psychological research.

You can view their training videos and get more information from

Recent articles

A recent biography of Harlow, recounts the significance of his research as well as the controversies Harlow became engaged in. I've written a short review.

A recent New York TImes article covers many of the more controversial matters.

November 10, 2002 An Animal's Place By MICHAEL POLLAN

The first time I opened Peter Singer's ''Animal Liberation,'' I was dining alone at the Palm, trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium-rare. If this sounds like a good recipe for cognitive dissonance (if not indigestion), that was sort of the idea. Preposterous as it might seem, to supporters of animal rights, what I was doing was tantamount to reading ''Uncle Tom's Cabin'' on a plantation in the Deep South in 1852. Singer and the swelling ranks of his followers ask us to imagine a future in which people will look back on my meal, and this steakhouse, as relics of an equally backward age. Eating animals, wearing animals, experimenting on animals, killing animals for sport: all these practices, so resolutely normal to us, will be seen as the barbarities they are, and we will come to view ''speciesism'' -- a neologism I had encountered before only in jokes -- as a form of discrimination as indefensible as racism or anti-Semitism. Even in 1975, when ''Animal Liberation'' was first published, Singer, an Australian philosopher now teaching at Princeton, was confident that he had the wind of history at his back. The recent civil rights past was prologue, as one liberation movement followed on the heels of another. Slowly but surely, the white man's circle of moral consideration was expanded to admit first blacks, then women, then homosexuals. In each case, a group once thought to be so different from the prevailing ''we'' as to be undeserving of civil rights was, after a struggle, admitted to the club. Now it was animals' turn. That animal liberation is the logical next step in the forward march of moral progress is no longer the fringe idea it was back in 1975. A growing and increasingly influential movement of philosophers, ethicists, law professors and activists are convinced that the great moral struggle of our time will be for the rights of animals.... (full article on line)

See the BBC Horizon presentation on the question of chimps as humans!

UK policy on non-human primate research

Should a chimp have a legal guardian (April, 2007)?

Would giving animals rights based on their ability undermine giving humans rights based on being human? Read my 1977 discussion of this and related matters.

Breeding chimps for research has been stopped in the USA (2007)

The American Psychhological Association (APA) has its own standards.

Recent newspaper article on chimps as research subjects.

NIH (2011) restricted use of chimps in research considerably.

"Based on its deliberations, the IOM committee concluded that “while the chimpanzee has been a valuable animal model in past research, most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary.” The committee also concluded, however, that the following areas may continue to require the use of chimpanzees: some ongoing research on monoclonal antibody therapies, research on comparative genomics, and non-invasive studies of social and behavioral factors that affect the development, prevention, or treatment of disease. The committee was unable to reach consensus on the necessity of the chimpanzee for the development of prophylactic hepatitis C virus vaccine. While the committee encouraged NIH to continue development of non-chimpanzee models and technologies, it acknowledged that new, emerging, or re-emerging diseases may present challenges that may require the use of chimpanzees. "