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Understanding The Plight of Animals in Labs: A Q&A With “Empty Laws” Filmmaker and Producer

Understanding The Plight of Animals in Labs: A Q&A With “Empty Laws” Filmmaker and Producer

On Tuesday, April 24th, to mark World Day for Animals in Labs, NEAVS and We Animals released “Empty Laws,” a short film documenting the impact of weak regulatory standards on primates in labs.

The two creators behind the film, We Animals filmmaker Kelly Guerin (pictured left) and NEAVS President Emeritus Dr. Theodora Capaldo (pictured right), put a lot of time and passion into the production of this short, yet powerful film. We interviewed them to learn more about their experience making this film and what they hope the public will take away from it: 

Question 1:
Documenting animals in laboratories is notoriously difficult. What are some of the procedures the monkeys in the undercover footage in the film are enduring?

Capaldo: We had the good fortune to be able to use footage from years of undercover investigations by PETA. You are seeing some very standard procedures that monkeys, and other animals, have to endure in research and testing. The cat facing the corner of her cage, heaving and in complete resignation, was probably used in toxicity testing. Larger and larger doses of a toxic chemical are given to animals until 50% of those being used die. It is done to purportedly establish a lethal dose level (LD50) for humans. The dogs who are drooling are likely also being used in a tox test. The suffering in LD50 tests is the result of being slowly poisoned to death — literally. The monkey in the tube restraint is being used in some inhalation study. The ones being restrained and tied down or in what is called a stereotaxic chair, could be being used for just about anything. You can see, in some cases, previous surgeries were performed on them. It could be studies on infectious disease—where they are inoculated with a virus or even in research meant to disrupt certain organ functions. The importance of this footage is that it depicts the utter powerlessness to which animals in labs are reduced. The footage shows us the combination of suffering and pain that comes from not only being made sick, not only being handled like a thing…but also the utter fear and victimization they suffer psychologically. Just look at the eyes of these monkeys…they tell you all you need to know.

Guerin: Since "Empty Laws" is largely focused on the psychological trauma, we chose some of the least graphic footage and experiments out there. Primates in labs have been subjected to everything from their eyes sewn shut to their heads bashed in for car accident research, but the footage in this film doesn’t need to show blood to show how frightened and traumatized the monkeys are simply by virtue of being restrained, isolated, and prodded by masked researchers in a lab.

Question 2:
Right now, what’s at stake for animals used in research, given the National Institutes of Health’s attempts to lessen its regulatory burden?

Capaldo: What we are trying to show in this film, and other work NEAVS is embarking on, is the public’s belief that animals in labs are protected is without any basis in reality. There are NO laws that actually protect animals from what can be done to them in a lab. The U.S. federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), for example, has no control over what an actual research protocol entails. Approval of research is left to internal committees, comprised of the researcher’s colleagues and a hand selected member of the community. If approved by this Institutional Animal Use and Care Committee (IACUC), anything can be done — IACUC can even approve the withholding of anesthesia and analgesic if the investigator deems it necessary for research results. What we are highlighting in “Empty Laws” is the psychological trauma that all animals in labs suffer. A requirement of the AWA is to promote psychological well-being in laboratory monkeys. Yet how that is done is left up to the individual labs. How successful is this deregulated federal mandate? Again, look at the monkeys’ faces, both in the labs and in sanctuary. You’ll see proof positive that deregulation of animal welfare and leaving more in the hands of the labs with less government oversight, will spell more and more pain and suffering for animals. Paperwork and stringent inspections to enforce clear and effective laws is the only formula that can even hope to mitigate some of the horrors they endure.

Guerin: What many people don’t know is that when it comes to animal research, virtually nothing is illegal. It took centuries of campaigning by anti-vivisection groups before a small number of species — mainly dogs, cats, and primates — received even the most basic protections, and these protections are allowed to be overlooked if they are a hinderance to an experiment. Laboratory inspections are so rare that labs largely self-police, and unless an undercover investigator goes in with a camera, we have no idea what – or if – welfare standards are being imposed. To lessen the regulatory burden of an already unregulated industry makes absolutely no sense.

Question 3:
Few primates are ever rescued and released from laboratories – for the lucky few that make their way to sanctuary, how does this come about?

Capaldo: Attention can sometimes be brought to a particularly egregious piece of research and with strong public pressure and advocacy, sometimes the housing institution will stop the research. This has actually happened on rare occasions. Other times, abhorrent conditions in a lab are brought to the attention of USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) inspectors and animals can be confiscated. This too has happened on rare occasions. Other times animals are voluntarily released when their use is done. This latter category is a bit suspect, frankly. Many labs are now releasing a handful of monkeys, here and there, to sanctuary. However, they are not necessarily ending the use of monkeys. They are not, as they do the “good deed” to release a few, telling anyone about the dozens, even hundreds in an individual lab, who died or will die as a result of their continued reliance on the animal model. For me, this is increasing the burden on sanctuaries to provide for those individual’s lifetime care and yet the labs get to dodge the bullet of public pressure to actually end monkey use once and for all. Finally, there are also occasions when an entire lab is finally closed down due to violations etc. That happened at the Harvard University-affiliated National Primate Research Center. However, the good news ended at a formerly prestigious lab closed. The reality for the monkeys was: a handful of an endangered species went to sanctuary. The hundreds of others were shipped to other labs. According to the USDA annual reports for Harvard Medical School, there were 1135 primates housed at the facility in 2015, 57 primates in 2016, and 56 primates in 2017. 

Guerin: Unless there is a federal mandate to retire animal research subjects (as was the case for chimpanzees, as mentioned in the film) releasing animals to sanctuary is rare and entirely at the discretion of researchers. Laboratories who relinquish the animals and the sanctuaries who receive them usually demand to remain anonymous; if the lab could be identified and therefore specifically connected to the battered survivors who leave it, they’d likely never risk releasing another. Likewise, the few sanctuaries that are able to cooperate with laboratories to get their animals retired need to protect that relationship and can’t afford to be named in education and outreach projects such as this film.  

Question 4:
For animals used in research, what is life at a sanctuary like? Will these animals ever experience normal life?

Capaldo: All animals released from labs see vast improvements in their lives. Suddenly, they get to go outdoors anytime they want rather than never or on some scant rotation with other monkeys. They have natural trees and grass surrounding them rather than only cold concrete and echoing steel. They get to make food choices from plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, rather than the oily-dry monkey chow (dog biscuit-like food that is the mainstay of labs.) They get to be reintroduced to larger social groups, if they are capable of that transition. They essentially suddenly become the raison d’etre of an entire staff’s day. Their needs are tended to. Their comforts are primary. They have gone to heaven. However, that does not mean that those who spent years in labs enduring one procedure after another, or having their children and other family members pulled from them to go into research, or were crushed by the constant inescapable fear they endured year after year, or the psychotic like withdrawal they adopted in order to cope in a lab, all suddenly disappear from their memories or their behaviors. Some make miraculous recoveries from how they are when they arrive. Others make small but significant improvements day after day. And some never resolve their internal trauma to a point where anything other than minimal relief is had. In all cases, the important piece is that the trauma-causing events have stopped, that they are no longer in the same environment as their pain and suffering occurred. And most importantly, that now they have people around them dedicated to their well-being and willing to do whatever it takes to help them have a better day. A better life. Finally, in some cases, sanctuaries serve as a hospice for animals too old or sick to ever fully recover. In those cases, sanctuary provides them a dignified and loving dying and death.

Guerin: After years of being caged (even decades for some) in windowless laboratories, the arrival to even the most beautiful of sanctuaries does not immediately heal old wounds. In the beginning, it seems only their bodies have arrived to sanctuary while their minds remain trapped in the labs. Some monkeys continue to self-mutilate, rock, pace, and remain isolated. I was told one monkey’s only companion for many years was her reflection in a mirror and for months after she arrived, she clutched that mirror as her only friend. But these animals are among the remarkable that always seem to find a way to come back from unspeakable suffering and find healing and beauty in their new lives. They feel sunlight, feel fresh air breeze through their fur, eat treats of fresh fruit, make friends, and find families all for the first time. We can only hope they were released early enough to experience many years of this post-lab life.

Question 5:
Tell us more about the animals we see in “Empty Laws” and the sanctuaries they call home.

Capaldo: The monkeys filmed were from various research labs throughout the U.S. They were all used in a variety of research and testing protocols, including in behavioral research — which is far from benign in most cases. They are a variety of species showing how all are fodder for research. Certain protocols have preferred species. And as well, certain monkeys tend to be among the “favorites” in general… they are the right, manageable size to house and handle. All of these monkeys represent the very few who do make it out alive. The sanctuaries filmed are among the very few that are home to the very minor percent of monkeys who make it to sanctuary.

If you compare the numbers of monkeys now in U.S. sanctuaries to the number recorded as being used in U.S. labs and you will be shocked, saddened, and appreciate how much more work there is to do to move research and testing toward the humane and better science we can and should be doing. NAPSA member sanctuaries currently hold over 700 primates, including chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys, squirrel monkeys, tamarins, macaques, and orangutans. This number pales in comparison to the 71,188 primates the USDA reported to have used for research in 2016 (Source: USDA Annual Report Animal Usage by Fiscal Year 2016).

Guerin: The squirrel monkey first pictured in the film had arrived to the sanctuary not full two days before I did with my cameras. His body was covered in sores and patches of his hair and some fingers and toes were missing, but he was already so bright-eyed and curious to the happenings inside the medical clinic. I was told he was one of the better-off ones to arrive from labs. Most of the capuchins you see in the film were involved in hepatitis studies and still carry the virus inside them, though you’d never know it the way many of them carry on playing in the chutes and large outdoor enclosures of the sanctuary. Each has a name, a story, and a personality all understood by their caretakers who frequent their enclosures with visits and food and enrichment treats. It’s a truly healing environment that I wish was granted to every animal that has endured life in a laboratory.

Question 6:
Why are NEAVS and We Animals using short films to advocate for animals used in research?

Capaldo: Despite the fact that organizations like NEAVS work hard to get the word out, it is surprising how many people still do not understand that animals are used and how they are used. For example, many Americans are incredulous when they learn that dogs are used. They are then horrified when they learn more about how they are used. The majority of the public cares about animals. They care about what is happening to them. And they only reluctantly support animal use in science because they have been led to believe it is necessary. It is not. Using the art of film to deliver poignant and substantive messages, to allow the animals to speak for themselves, to be seen, is critical to continuing to inspire the public to join us in our opposition to animal use and our demand to end it. This film is part of a trilogy. Up next are films NEAVS and We Animals are working on to show the reality of alternatives to the horrors of animal use. The next series will inform people about the reality of existing and developing alternative methods of research and testing that will provide not only more humane science but better science for human well-being. In “Empty Laws,” we are showing the realities of the relentless suffering and pain. In our next films, we are showing the solutions – the solutions that are happening right now. There has never, in the history of science, been a better and more promising time to work to end the use of animals. We are at that point where our humane ethics and compassion can stand firmly on the platform of advanced science. It is a perfect rainbow of hope. And in this collaboration, NEAVS and We Animals are moving that hope for millions of animals forward.

Guerin: Much of my belief in films comes from a Nigerian proverb: “Until the lion has his own storyteller, the hunter will always be glorified.” Animals in labs, like so many other animals in this world, are deliberately kept hidden from public eye. For years, the animals’ only narrative has come from those who are dependent upon their continued use and abuse and, because of that, the public has been kept unaware and disconnected from these animals’ lives.

Question 7:
When can we hope to see a world without animal testing? What needs to happen to bring that about?

Capaldo: This question is the simplest of them all. It could happen NOW… if we had the will and if the money-making component of animal use was erased. Not only the public but the scientific community itself is tired of the shoddy, even dangerous, results that come from trying to extrapolate findings from one species to another. It doesn’t work. It hasn’t and will never. We need better science and alternative methods provide that. We are at the tipping point of this paradigm shift in science. Our films will do their part in bringing more and more people to the front of this debate… to this wave of energy and work to one day soon bring relief and protection to all animals — all species of animals. We are at the threshold of closing the doors to those steel and concrete labs once and for all.

If science is about anything, it is about possibility. Ending animal use is possible. Anyone who says otherwise has a different agenda than good science and a humane world.

Guerin: The science is there and waiting. People may doubt what you tell them about what is happening and they may shield their eyes if you try to show them all the horrible footage of animals in labs that has been taken. But if we can engage people through stories long enough to make them pause, to open their minds and hearts, to allow them to connect and really see, I truly believe we can change the world.